Chapter 1 | The Wise Man Takes Cover
“You’re shorter than I remember”
“Yeah, well, funny story” he replied, comically trying not to make eye contact with the Bar Man. Like the awkward nerd stuck in the lift with the Prom Queen.
“Wanna’ tell me about it? Those clouds are rolling in fast, Jack. We could be here a while.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the brooding canopy, out through the pub’s old misty window.
“Clouds” he muttered, squinting against the paper-cut memory. “I wouldn’t know where to start, mate” he eventually replied.
“Well” gasped the Bar Man, reaching up for a dust covered bottle of Laphroaig; “how about I pour you a glass of this, and you can tell me what it’s all about. When you’re ready.”
He watched the whiskey settle in the tumbler. Its unmistakable bouquet of ancient smoke rising up like a cape dawn, unleashing a billion moments of the mind.
“…so much…” he sighed, watching the words dissolve into the scotch “so so much.”
The truth is, I don’t know when it started. It could have been many lifetimes ago. It wasn’t a punch in the face, a shot through the heart, or even a midnight jack-knife on the way back down from paradise. Having such a definitive occasion like that to commiserate might have made the whole thing a bit easier to swallow. No, this one crept up on me. Bid its sorry time until I dropped my guard just enough to let it through. A remorseless opportunist.
We’ll pick it up in late June, 2013. I remember the moment well. Too well. But isn’t that so often the case with our life-dramas? Stubborn, indelible stains that linger in all their impeccable detail. Snarling at us between the reels of our more cherished memories.
We were up there in Sweden, enjoying our annual escape from the Dubai summer. For those who don’t know, for eight months of the year Dubai’s desert climate is about as near to perfect as weather can get. Hot days, warm nights and tepid seas. Easy living. Especially with young children. The other 4 summer months on the other hand, are deeply savage and any attempt to ride them out, borderline insanity. Especially with young children. So for those that can, June is evacuation month. Hoards of expats slip off, fresh cream dripping off their paws, to kick back in the nearest European or Asian outpost, to wait out the heat.
For some, the escape is short lived. Two weeks max, before they’re back Instagraming +40 readings on their dashboard thermos, pretending it doesn’t matter. For others, it’s a season-long change of address until the on-shore mercury drops enough to welcome them back safely. Players, wives and off-spring mostly. The smart play in every sense of the word. Thankfully, we fell into the latter of those two, which meant the girls (my wife Emma, and our daughter Ava) could pack big and settle in for an entire Scandinavian summer. Whilst I on the other hand, would head back East to keep the wheels moving.
A few days into this year’s trip, Sweden’s famously mercurial weather treated us to a particularly beautiful morning. The sky was an impossible shade of light-speed blue. The type of colour you can only usually see out of the corner of your eye. The sun, which would barely dip behind the horizon at all for the next few weeks, was already high over-head putting in just enough effort to cut through the morning chill, making t-shirts and shorts unseasonably comfortable. Given what was about to start, it was cruelly perfect.
The clan was finally hustling out the door en route for a day at the family’s Arcadian summer-house. The weather hadn’t been too kind over the past few weeks so we were officially on Code Blue. Flinging ourselves about with an understandable sense of urgency to make the most of the day. Ava and I were the last to get into the car, and as I bent down to lift her up into her car seat, the trajectory of my life changed dramatically. Forever.
It all began as a sharp, digging pain just above my tailbone. Like something had bit from me from the inside, and clung on tight. Not enough to warrant a colourful declaration of pain, but more than enough to stop me in my tracks and quietly curse against the discomfort. My mind darted immediately into action to try and provide an explanation as to what it was. I’d never had back pain before, so in the absence of any prior experience I quickly came to the obvious conclusion that I had pulled something when bending down to lift Ava. I’d just turned 40 after all. The cliché privately amused me.
The pain lingered and increased slightly in intensity as I finished strapping her in, lending a degree of countenance to the self-diagnosis. Although the internal dialogue bouncing around my head as I finally got settled into the car myself, was counselling me towards taking a more suspicious stance. I’d always been steadfast in my ability to shrug pain and discomfort off, but for some reason whatever bit me that morning earned more than its fair share of my attention. Enough to trade the serenity of the present, for the anxiety of the potential. Emma saw the change in my face;
“Everything ok, honey?” she asked
“Yeahitsfine”, the speed of the one-word-three-word answer, and its tone, revealing quite the opposite.
She squinted at me knowingly as we continued our conversation in husband and wife body language. Eventually I found the right combination of head nods and half-smiles to convince her that there was nothing to worry about. But for the rest of that glorious day, a piece of me remained shackled to the anxiety of what might have happened, and the gentle ticking of the time bomb that had just been triggered.
For the remainder of my brief sojourn in Sweden, the pain came and went according to the amount of impact pressure I placed upon my lower back. Morning runs around the lakes were no longer comfortable. Neither was lifting anything too heavy. But aside from that I didn’t feel that it was enough to warrant seeking medical attention. Just annoying and unwelcome, whilst persistently tugging on the darker side of my curiosity (tick tick tick)
As with all holidays, this one came to an end with quantum like abruptness. Way before I was ready, I’d kissed my girls hej da, and found myself back in Dubai to trudge through another desert summer. Truth be-told, I’d come to welcome the opportunity these periods of alone time presented to catch up with myself. Men like their caves after all, and with the asphalt melting outside I needed little excuse to make myself cool and comfortable, and settle in for some highly self-indulgent me-time.
I wasn’t alone, either. Dubai is a strange and crazy place during the summer months. A chrome-plated Never Never Land, littered with lone wolves. Awkwardly suspended between pining for their families, and thoroughly, albeit perhaps slightly guiltily, enjoying the temporary emancipation from the routine of responsible adulthood.
But I felt different this year. Free-falling in a +40 Never Never Land was the last thing I either wanted or needed. It had been a particularly tough year, professionally speaking, and all was not gleaming in my City Of Gold. An ill-advised attempt at re-joining the Regional Advertising Industry had gone hopelessly wrong, forcing me sideways into a Sales role for a Mobile Tech company that I owned a part of. It was a position I found extremely stressful. As a text-book introvert, I’m simply not programmed for sales of any type. Even for my own company. There are those who thrive on the eat-what-you-kill way of life, but with mounting debt and a family to provide for, it became an increasingly damaging source of anxiety and stress. Two antagonists I’d end up holding responsible for the blitzkrieg to come.
So after several years of pin-balling around different career and business opportunities, this latest double flip had left me exhausted, and I simply didn’t have the emotional energy to enjoy an extended period of solitude. Especially under the appalling conditions of a Dubai summer. Plus at the age of 40, I was finally emerging from delayed adolescent-hood, and life no longer made sense without my young family. I needed them.
True to form it was a miserably hot summer. Made all the more onerous with the arrival of the Holy Month of Ramadan slap bang in the middle. The perfect Depression for the out-crowd. The days were torched shut, and the nights too wet and hostile to venture out too far. Forcing the wolves into aimlessly prowling Dubai’s plethora of gleaming malls, wallowing nose deep in expensively chilled pools, or simply drunk and disorderly in the air conditioned safety of their caves or the eerily quiet bars that dared to serve liquor under the light of the Holy Moon. Yeah, howl at your own risk, fellas.
And I couldn’t shake that pain. It was ever-present, like the mid-range hum of our (god-damn) 1970’s air conditioning compressor. To make matters more dubious, I’d also become conscious of a growing sense of listlessness. The heat and longing for family aside, my clutch was slowly but surely failing on me, and I started to sense the imperceptible pangs of health anxiety.
To pass the time I embarked on a carefully planned, daily regime that was typical in its eclecticism, but untypical in its intensity. The goal, under the rules of time, was simply to get back to Sweden to collect my Girls as fast as possible. The busier the mind, the faster ones perception of time becomes. So it made sense to get on with as much as I could. This ritual included morning meditations and pre-coffee navel contemplation, regular sessions in the gym, as much ‘work’ as I could fit in (despite the selling terrain at that time of year being as baron as the desert on the doorstep) catching up with whichever friends were in town, and finally, drowning myself in Single-Malt fuelled nights, chasing one HBO high after the next. “Just. One. More…”
In retrospect, hitting the gym as hard as I did carrying an unknown and increasingly debilitating back issue, probably wasn’t a great idea. The sessions were as awkward as they were un-enjoyable. But I had to balance out the lone wolf diet and whiskey crush somehow, and there were several exercises I could still do that didn’t aggravate the pain. But it was always an inch or ounce of misjudgement away, which added an unnecessary layer of intensity to something I struggled to find motivation for in the first place. But it passed the time, and if I shredded a few inches of shadow along the way, damn straight.
It was a futile, brooding time. Living between family Skypes and checking off the calendar days before I could head back North. But eventually it came to an end, as all things do, and Mid-August saw me hustle quickly and very enthusiastically, back to Sweden.
Being reunited with my girls was always very magical. Ava was on the cusp of turning two and had been bursting to life all summer. Emma kept me updated with photos and videos, but I find there’s an ironic cruelty embedded in the real-time documenting capability of our smart phones. Scant substitute for the real experience, especially in times of longing.
Our period of separation had been longer than the previous year, and during the flight from Dubai to Copenhagen I became aware of a strange sense of anxiety about the reconciliation. It wasn’t until I settled into the second leg of the journey — a high-speed train from Copenhagen to Nassjo (a sleepy town about sixty k’s from Emma’s home town of Jonkoping) that I realized the anxiety was rooted in the possibility of my Daughter not recognising me. She’d developed so much during the 2 months we’d been apart, that I couldn’t help fretting over whether all those new senses and experiences had left any room for memories of her Puppa. I didn’t want be ‘that’ Dad. Ava was (is) inestimably precious to me and the thought of her becoming in anyway disenfranchised from our Daddy-Daughter club, was heart breaking.
Few places are more conducive for contemplating life than a moving train. I find them profoundly therapeutic. And with the mind so deeply occupied, they always seem to deliver me to where I’m going a lot faster than their official schedule suggests. Needless to say, Nassjo train station caught me off guard, and I had to move quickly to avoid an embarrassing wave-hello-goodbye moment. Emma saw me coming first, and smiled a wife’s smile. Ava was in her arms, but looking the other way. Seeing them both again was arguably one of the most anticipated moments of my life. The solitude of the summer, the pain, the tumult of the whole year and that deep, foreboding possibility that my heath was seriously deteriorating had had an empowering effect on an already powerful bond. My heart felt as heavy as an avocado, and ready to burst.
As I made my way down the platform I motioned to Emma not to tell Ava I was there. I wanted to creep up and surprise her, but she turned around just in time to catch me. We stared at each other for a while and as she trained her eyes on me, for a spilt second I thought my fears of her not recognising me were coming true. But just as the avocado was about to fall from the tree, she leapt out of Emma’s arms, flung her arms around me and buried her face into the side of my neck. Her little hand gently patting the back of shoulder, as if to communicate; “it’s ok Puppa, it’s ok.”
The Light of that moment defies commentary. It’s been with me as a source of love and courage in some very, very dark places since.
We stayed in that embrace for what seemed like hours; father and cub reunited. Nothing moved and nothing was said. An indescribably beautiful energy. Yet such a bittersweet memory. For that would be the last time, to this day, that I would be able to hold my daughter as painlessly and effortlessly as a Father should. I’m just very glad and very grateful that the depth of the moment befitted the occasion.
Despite feeling the pain grow steadily more ambitious over the next few days, my anxiety about what it could mean had all but evaporated in the energy of the family reunion. Such was the courage I drew from my family. That being said, the side-effects of my increasing attentiveness to what triggered discomfort and what didn’t, was beginning to affect us all.
Becoming fearfully conscious of performing previously unconscious things is a strange transformation of the Self. Stairs, lifting, walking, turning etc. It was mentally exhausting, while demanding way too much of my attention. Inevitably, the pain became a ‘thing’. A frequent topic of family conversation or a reason not to do ‘something’. Whilst always (always) tapping gently at the door of my darkest imagination, sense of responsibility and patience.
The Scandinavian autumn winds were already starting to blow, as we made our way back, early in September. But there was another autumn on its way to, and its clouds were darkening quickly with an uneasy sense of menace. And when storm clouds like those start to gather, the wise man takes cover under the safety of a Doctors care. Clearly, a wise man I was not. Serially deciding instead, to dig in and ride it all out.
On such decisions are destinies shaped. You read it here first.