The Starling

My son is six and learning how to mend a puncture. He’s learning what to glue and tape and how to put the chain back on his bike but also that there are some things in life that can’t be fixed.

It was six months ago that Tom came up to me with one of those smiles that was so wide and so brim-full of joy that he couldn’t quite form his words. He’d found a doctor in a faraway land who could fix my leg. Better doctors, he said. Better than here.

But now that it’s my arms and voice as well, now that I’m so much weaker, I think he’s not so sure. A couple of months ago we gave him the name for my condition: motor neurone disease. I heard him trying the words out loud: “motor neurone disease.” They sounded so serious. And much more frightening when said by someone little who I love this much.

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I remember the day about two years ago when a starling flew into our loft and broke its fragile leg. I remember how excited we were to rescue the bird; how I held it softly to my chest. This little frightened bird we crowded round. The little lie I told, that all would be okay, and how I disappeared alone into the garden pretending it would fly. Thirty minutes went by in our house and nothing was said. And then I found Tom crying in his room.

And then last night Tom asked me if he is going to die one day. He had been crying in his bed and then came down to be with me. And maybe I had learnt something. Learnt to respect what children really know. How I’d learnt that my son needs me to be big enough to face the truth together with him.

“What do you think,” I said.

“I think I will,” was his reply.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “All of us die. It’s part of life.”

And then I held him in my arms and he quietly sobbed. And I thought of all the children in the world who cannot be protected from this truth. And how the idea of death is part of his life now. This boy I could feel in my arms. Knowing inside that his father will die. The microscopic idea of it, expanding its cellular life, slowly becoming something that will be visible in his mind at just the time it needs to be.

It was dark. It was raining outside. A few moments went by and it was quiet. Something had been said and felt. And then it changed and we giggled off to bed.

by Joe Hammond

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