connection speeds

For the past three years, approaching Christmas Day I’ve done a job at a children’s hospice. They arrange for an excellent Father Christmas to visit the place in an exciting way through some local emergency services and I take pictures of it.

This year the whole thing was marked by the absence of a huge character. In previous years this kid, aged 9 or 10, had been the biggest character by far. He was the boss kid, organised everyone into place, set the agenda, demanded people sing Christmas carols louder – although he was always the loudest. He was the first to run over and leap into Santa’s arms, improbably confident for any kid, endlessly energetic, he just did not stop.

A few weeks ago this kid died. Before Santa arrived I was chatting with a couple of staff and one of them mentioned it. Oh, HIM?!? Really? No…

My brain struggled to process the information. There are all sorts of children at the hospice. They span across boundaries of social class, race, nationality. These horrific life-limiting conditions can happen to anyone. We are all at their mercy. A number of the kids look sick, wheelchair-bound, disfigured in some kind of way, as if they are suffering. This kid did not. This kid did not look sick in any way. Part of you wondered if he was an imposter, a fraud. He was clearly fine! Look at the chopsy git!

Light Googling revealed local news articles saying the kid had an extremely obscure medical condition of the type only a handful of people suffer in the world. His parents had a number of his organs donated when he died. How must that itself affect you? Knowing your dearly beloved kid is being sliced up for his organs?  Perhaps the knowledge that parts of him are living on, helping other people live on, perhaps that outweighs it. It must.

Here was a kid infused with a life-force and energy so vivid and animated and in-your-face loud. In certain moods it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to find him an annoying little gobshite. Then you found out he died. It affected me more than I might have expected, because I dumbly hadn’t expected it. But if you keep going back to a children’s hospice for a few years running you are likely to encounter sad stuff.

But still… not him. Not THAT kid.

It hit hard because of where I am at personally right now, how we are thinking about babies a lot, attempting to conceive. You don’t know where this path might lead you. Awful stuff like this can happen to anyone. Much is down to dumb luck.

It can fundamentally change your life more than having healthy kids. The practicalities of the day-to-day might be wildly complex and cumbersome. You can be caring for them for much longer, until they are adults and you are nearly dead. It might feel like they have stolen your life and you resent them for it – as explored in Graham Swift’s 1996 novel and its film adaptation Last Orders. As with stupid random death, there’s no reason or rational explanation for any of it, which can be the most difficult thing to fathom. That lingering unanswerable question: why us?

Over the following hours and days my brain kept circling back to this kid. I shared some not especially good pictures of the kid to a memorial page I found on Facebook. It felt like an obvious thing to do.

***
Last night, Christmas Eve Eve, we went to a drinks and nibbles evening at the house of some friends on the other side of town. It was an unusual thing for us to socialise like this. We don’t have many friends as a couple or go out that much generally. I can’t remember the last party or social gathering I or we went to at somebody’s home.
The evening was pleasant and the people were nice. It was fun chatting to the really young kids and the not so young kids. On leaving in the middle of the evening to get back to the dog, an elderly lady called out to us from next door. She was leaving after posting Christmas cards, feeling a little wobbly. I held her hand and walked her back to her front door, a few houses away, listening to her talk. In such situations you are always unsure how weird or strange it might get. Had this been orchestrated a little more than it seemed? Had this lonely old lady been waiting on the doorstep for someone to leave the party next door? Might she invite us in? (The week’s new mini-series of The League of Gentlemen was fresh in my mind). But it didn’t get weird at all. It was fine.

Such stuff gives me a gratifying sense of connectedness, which I suffer a marked deficit in. I work largely alone, don’t have many hobbies or socialise with anyone. I chat with dog walkers and plenty of them are quite odd. Now and then I feel this is something I should get up off my arse, be brave and address somehow. Yet I shy from it because people often irritate me, or so I tell myself. And because I don’t know quite what to do. A book club?  Football? Evening classes? Nothing really appeals.

People my age tend to have their social circle expanded through children, other parents. As of now, we have none. You see documentaries and news stories about old people who say the secret of their longevity is as much social interaction and keeping the neurons sparking, as it is exercise or diet. Basic human connectedness is important, but today it is worryingly easy to relegate, ignore, forget.

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