My children are a source of many small frustrations, but the one thing that’s guaranteed to wind me up is their propensity to shed possessions like dead skin cells. Their impetuous nature makes them incapable of pausing to pack their games kit neatly into its drawstring bag, or remembering what they did with their school jumpers. Instead, personal items are discarded and trampled underfoot as they charge off in pursuit of the next big adventure. In the last week alone, they’ve lost a pair of PE shorts, a single astro trainer, two water bottles and a library book between them.
I should know by now that most of it eventually turns up, but still I find it intensely frustrating – and I envy those laid-back parents who don’t fret when things are misplaced. I recently turned down a friend’s offer to drive my children to a football tournament, just so that I could accompany them myself and ensure that they returned with all their clobber. My partner doesn’t understand: ‘One day, you’ll drop dead and lose everything,’ he helpfully points out. This is a man who bellows ‘Have you seen my wallet?’ on a daily basis, and who regularly leaves his iPad on the train. To him, my reaction seems disproportionate and reveals worrying control-freak tendencies. And on a rational level, I agree with him. It’s only stuff:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Nevertheless, it’s my irrational side that dictates my reaction when the boys spray their possessions around. Why am I so bothered by loss? It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. Aged four, I went into a period of mourning after leaving my rag doll on the bus. As a teenager on holiday, I’d bring along a list of the items I’d packed and check it every night before bed to make sure nothing had been mislaid. This batty behaviour appears to run in the family: I remember my father stomping through a Bavarian forest, re-tracing his steps in a futile attempt to find his clip-on sunglasses. When they failed to materialise, he descended into a black mood that cast a shadow over the rest of the day.
You’d imagine that the demise of loved ones, actual or anticipated, would make the loss of mere possessions seem insignificant. After my father died, I sat alone beside his coffin and spoke into the empty air about my hopes for my young half-siblings and my infant sons – my dad’s living legacy – and how they would continue in his place. ‘This isn’t the end,’ I insisted, but who was I trying to kid? For him, it was all over – he’d never drive an open-top sports car, buy a flat in Berlin or write a novel. (To be fair, he was far too risk-averse to have done any of those things even if he’d lived, but there was no harm in dreaming.)
It’s hard enough when a parent dies, but to produce children is to be haunted by the fear of loss. What if that rash turns out to be meningitis; that stomach-ache a malignant tumour? How easy it would be for them to step into the road without looking, straight into the path of that idiot speeding in his 4×4. The many sporting activities enjoyed by my sons only seem to increase the chances of disaster: the bone-shattering tackle on the rugby pitch; the sharp crack of a cricket ball to the base of the skull. The knowledge that one small error of judgement could destroy a young life in a millisecond is almost too much to bear. Perhaps that’s why I keep displacing my dread on to trivial everyday losses: after all, the missing goalie gloves, the Star Wars watch and the Lego mini-figure can easily be replaced.