My dear Mum always worried about me. Not just when I was a kid and teenager, nor just as a young adult still living under her roof, but for as long as she lived and breathed. I can't tell you how many times I had to frantically go in search of a phone box when I was younger (pre-mobile phone days) so I could call her to tell her I would be ten minutes late home. God forbid I forgot to call, or didn't call in time. I'd return to find Mum frantically pacing the floor and looking out the window, awaiting my arrival. Sometimes I'd find her standing on the front porch, and no sooner had I pulled in the driveway, or walked up the garden path, she'd be approaching me, concern written all over her face. 'Where were you? Why didn't you call?'
I didn't make the mistake of not calling very often.
Later in '95, when I left Perth as a young, in love twenty-five year old to move to Sydney with Mr A, I sort of thought it would be easier for Mum (and for me) because she wouldn't need to keep tabs on me all the time. Instead, however, I would begin receiving phone calls that came regularly over the years from Mum after she'd see something on the news that had happened in Sydney like, say, a large hail storm. 'Are you okay?' she'd ask, genuine concern in her voice. I knew she'd have been sitting at home in front of the television imagining all sorts of possible scenarios that would compromise my safety. I got in to the habit of calling her whenever there was something big reported, to put her mind at ease (if she didn't call me first).
When I went in to labour with Eldest Son, I made the mistake of calling Mum to tell her it was happening and we were making our way to the hospital. After he was born (many hours later), Mr A and I were so intrigued by this new little person in our lives, we sort of forgot to call everyone to tell them the happy news until at least three hours following his arrival. Mum was the first person I called. 'Oh, thank GOD!' she exclaimed when I greeted her. 'I was so worried about you! Are you okay? Is the baby okay? I thought something bad must have happened!' Even though I told her I would, I didn't call her to let her know when I went in to labour with Middle Son or Youngest Son. Best she not know.
When I became a stay-at-home-mum, I was probably more contactable for the most part, but some days I would be out for a good part of the day. I'd get home then race around feeding the kids and putting them to bed, forgetting to check the answering machine. Next thing the home phone would ring and it would be Mum asking if I was okay. Why hadn't I called her back? (She'd have left a few messages on my answering machine throughout the day, and she never thought to call my mobile.)
To be honest, I really didn't like worrying my Mum - I always assumed Mum's anxiety over my safety, and the safety of our family, was due to my sister, Valda's death. I felt it was justified. I really didn't want to put her through any more worry. In fact, I felt a responsibility not to.
But I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me to have to 'check-in' all the time. Mum was quite insistent, for example, I let her know when I arrived safely overseas on holiday, or if I drove anywhere a fair distance away. I always remember stressing about doing it. What if I forget to? Pre-mobile phone days, I wondered what I would do if I couldn't find a phone? Eventually, with the overseas trips at least, I was able to convince her that she'd hear about it if my plane went down!
I just accepted it as part and parcel of being the daughter of a woman who feared losing a child because she'd already lost one.
So imagine my surprise when I found out just after my dear Mum's death while talking to my sister, C, one morning that, in actual fact, Mum had always been an anxious person. Way before Valda's death. C told me a story about her being late home one night when she was a teenager herself - well before our sister died - and how Mum had been beside herself with worry. 'She was always like that,' my sister explained. 'She was always a very anxious person.'
No doubt Valda's death heightened my Mum's anxiety, but it appears the situation was going to always be the same: she was always going to be a worrier and hold on to the fear of losing someone, no matter what.
In truth, I think my Mum's anxiety influenced a lot of my own fears, and how I've chosen to live my life. I've always been cautious - I'm not what you would call a risk taker at all - and to some extent, I think that's a good thing. I'm thoughtful about what I should and shouldn't do. However, it probably also means I've stopped myself doing things in the past when Mum was alive, because I worried that something might happen to me, even if the chances were low. I mean, Mum was worried I'd walk out the door and never come home even when I wasn't planning on doing anything other than meeting a friend to see a movie! It was hardly risky stuff.
I'd be lying if I said that with Mum's death, apart from all the emotions I've experienced - loss, sadness, regret, you name it - I haven't felt a certain amount of relief not having the extra responsibility I always felt to 'stay alive' and let Mum know everything was okay all the time. That doesn't mean I'm glad my mother is dead. Not at all. Of course I wish she was still with us (if she was happy and healthy), but even though I believe Mum didn't mean to - she just loved us and wanted us to be happy and healthy and live a long life - she did put extra pressure on us to be careful. And, in turn, I think it has stopped me from doing certain things over the years because I was holding on to my Mum's fear in my heart.
Like all parents, I still feel an extra responsibility to ensure I'm around for a long time for my kids, but it is a little different in that the normal progression of life is supposed to be that a parent goes before their child. Obviously, that wasn't the case for my parents. Losing a parent is difficult and sad and awful, but losing a child is a whole new level of grief. I know this, because I watched my Mum go through it. The last thing I wanted to do as her daughter - the one whose place in the family was that of saviour almost - was to put my Mum in a position where she had to go through the grief process all over again.
I think I am a little braver today. I'm still not going to jump out of a plane or attempt to climb Everest, but I am doing things now that I may not have done before because I'd have had too much fear to do it 'in case something happened'. Like my paddle boarding for example.
I've written before about my fear of sharks when paddling, and I still maintain there's probably places I wouldn't paddle in Perth if I was there. To me, the risk is higher (take the two recent shark attacks there, for example), but I also know there are sharks in Sydney's waterways too. The ocean is a given, but they also end up in the harbour, lagoons and rivers too. I've paddled in all. Admittedly, when I'm paddling over deep, dark water, the thought crosses my mind: what's swimming underneath me? My heart pounds a little faster and I start to allow images to fill my head of a shark suddenly coming up out of the water, but then I make myself breathe slowly - deep breath in, deep breath out - and remind myself that the chances of getting attacked by a shark during a paddling session is incredibly low. I don't want to allow the fear to take over and stop me from enjoying the feel of the water underneath me, the sun on my face and the spectacular sights surrounding me. I really want to live. I'm not risking my life. I'm living it. (It's all about perspective.)
Mum was a happy person - absolutely - but did she sometimes allow fear to stop her from fully enjoying all life had to offer? Probably. Did her fear, in turn, maybe stop others from doing so? I think so. I have spent a lot of my life worrying about what might happen and I've worried far too much over the years about the possibility of death. It pains me that my Mum felt like that so much. If she'd lived in a different time, more help may have been made available to her.
It's not the way I want to live my life going forward, nor teach my children how to live theirs. I worry, and will always worry, about my boys and their safety, and I'll continue to be careful because I want to be around for them for as long as they need me, and, as boys, they will need some guidance about avoiding riskier behaviour! I'll also continue to worry when Mr A takes his motorbike out to the racetrack and gets up to speeds of 250km per hour(!), and I'll sometimes worry about whether there are sharks in the water I choose to paddle on. But a little risk is okay. You can't control everything.
Letting go of the fear - facing it - means you can truly live.