“What is life, but a series of inter-spread moments intended to take your breath away?” My mother used to say that to me when I was a child. We would be walking hand in hand through the park; something ‘special’ would catch her eye and before I knew it we’d be having wild adventures, chasing dragons or fairies through the trees. She would tell me to remember every detail. She said the details were what made us who we are.
My mother was an amazing lady but, as people have said many times, she was never really meant for this world. She used to dream too wildly, too far and, quite often, too much. The official term was manic depression, but to me she was a wonder. On the days when she was up we would fly so high even the birds in the sky couldn’t catch us. You would find us dancing and whirling and singing and shouting, till our bodies ached and our voices were hoarse. I loved her deeply and never doubted that the feeling was mutual, even on her dark days when all she wanted to do was curl up in a ball and pretend the world didn’t exist.
By the time I was 9, she was gone. My logical adult brain knows that she was unstable and that those times we shared weren’t real. Over the years I’ve glorified them in my head and made them into some shining example of what my childhood was. The reality, I’m sure, was very different, but to me those memories shine out brighter than any of the dark days. Her telling me that the bubbles she blew, from the fairy liquid and water mix, were dreams, and that every time I caught one it would come true. Running through the trees on our latest quest was always the highlight of a terrible week, having to go to school or plastering a fake smile on for the latest in a long line of social workers.
My mother was ‘unfit’ to look after me. She forgot to buy bread or fruit or milk or, well, anything at all some days. On others, she’d stock our fridge to the brim with cakes and chocolate and fizzy drinks, giving me free rein to buy and eat what I wanted, when I wanted it. A recipe for an obese child if ever there was one. We would have teddy bear's picnics on the lawn and invite all the local kids to join in. There would be at least half a dozen children sat around on blankets, cuddling teddies to their chests, eating thick cream cakes and drinking lemonade. We would string fairy lights in the trees and hang streamers from all the branches that hung into our garden from next door.
Ben was the only constant. He lived next door but one and would turn up at our house every time we had a gathering, a small smile playing on his lips as he taunted me about my teddy bear's ear hanging off, or the fact that I was wearing a dress. Even at the age of 5 we were constantly one-upping each other. He’d sit on the blanket and shovel carrot cake down his throat at the speed of lightening. His parents never once complained that he came home feeling as sick as a dog because he didn’t know when to stop eating. To this day they still talk about my mother with fondness, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Once all the food had been eaten and all the games my mother made up on the spot were played, everyone would disappear back into the surrounding houses and be absorbed back into their average mundane lives. I never once wished to be a part of them. I liked my chaotic, drama queen of a mother, who ran around barefoot in the grass and told me stories about brave princesses rescuing princes from towers.
We were well known on our street as the crazy lady and her daughter, yet we didn’t care. The adults would carefully avoid our gaze whenever we walked by, while having whispered conversations about how damaged I was becoming and how something should be done about it. I’m sure that if my mother had lived past my 9th birthday, everything would have been different. As my innocence fell by the wayside, so would my ability to see through my mothers flaws and forget the days when she refused to get out of bed. The darkness would no doubt have consumed me to the point where that was all I could see, but it never got to that stage. She was always a princess to me, and so my impression of her remained untainted.
Twenty years later, I can still hear the sound of her voice as she said that phrase. “What is life but a series of inter-spread moments intended to take your breath away?” It still echoes in my mind. She said it so often and begged me to always remember those moments. From the all consuming times you feel so alive and so free that it takes your breath away, to the small intimate moments, where you see or hear something that makes you stop in your tracks just to breath it in. Even now I stop and stare at the flowers growing through the cracks in the pavement. By rights they shouldn’t exist, but they do, fighting for life in the hustle and bustle of a busy street.
I still make lists of the things that have happened each day that I’d like to tell her about, from watching sunlight fall through gaps in the leaves, to dancing in the rain. From the intensity of first kisses to the simplicity of going to sleep smiling, I’m reminded of my mother, and every time it’s like losing her again, the bitter sweet joy of sorrow.
So as I sit here in the car beside Ben, with the music up loud, the roof down and the wind running through my veins, I want to say thank you to her. Thank her for making me stop and take in the little things. These moments of pure joy and abandonment, when I forget that the rest of the world exists and it’s just me and the people I love, trapped in the moment. The sorrow sweeps through me with it and I’m thankful for that too. It means I’m alive. It means I can feel. It means my mother wasn’t just a dream. I turn to Ben and smile. He grins back as he hitches the music up a few more notches and we wail along to the music blaring from his iPod. I know in this moment we are both thinking the same thing. Damn it’s good to be alive.