I’m visiting Norwich soon, the fine city where I was born and grew up. I have mixed feelings when I go back, excitement together with a sort of disquiet. I want it to feel like I am coming home, but it doesn’t really. It’s taken some time for me to look forward to these visits, for many years I preferred to stay away.
There’s a sense of going back in time when I go, of being 14 again. I was a good teenager, never any trouble, but my mum would probably tell a different story. She only knew a different me, an irritated, terse, cross version. If I’m honest that’s the only me she’d ever known until recently. Because the backdrop of our relationship was the darkened sitting room of our family home.
My mum got M.E. when I was around 14. Back then no one believed it was an illness, not even the doctors. But I saw it, how her body just shut down. How she lay on the sofa for 20 years. Too tired to move, her body sensitive to light and noise. I retreated to my bedroom, the only place I could go without feeling that the energy was being sucked out of me.
I had to escape. To university. To Norway. To Australia. Far away.
We talked, but there were words in the place of real shared experiences. Like reading a book where you imagine the scene and create an image in your mind. I’m not sure how close her version was compared to my reality. She was too weak to leave the sofa so she missed the part of my life where I was at university, and in Norway, and in Australia.
But then something amazing happened. She got better. A new treatment worked. She grew stronger. I’m not sure what changed, what made her say “yes” to a new option instead of the usual defeated “no”. Maybe she was ready. Maybe she saw the sadness in my brother and me, that our mum was there, but wasn’t really. Perhaps she could see for herself. The passage of time becomes more evident when a baby is born, and the birthdays that follow celebrate the passing years.
Whatever the reason, she came back to us. She came to visit me for the first time, when I was 38, in Zurich. She saw the home I had created with my family. She was part of my real life. For the first time she got to see the real me. The nice me.
“Don’t look back,” they told her when she was well again. We don’t talk about when she was ill, it’s too painful for her. She knows she has missed out on too many years of her life. So she looks ahead.
She is excited about us visiting soon. She has lots to show us, new places she has discovered since leaving the house. But she has an altered perception of time, almost like she wants to continue where her life was paused before. She can see that I’m not a child, I never really was, but I’m not sure that she believes it.
One of the strange things about moving abroad is that you become a visitor in your own country, torn between the past and the present. You stay somewhere that isn’t yours, and your time needs to be managed, there simply isn’t enough of it to fit everything in. But it’s important for me to take the time to wander, to look around, because it’s in these quiet moments, when I’m alone, that I see things that take me back and make me smile. When I experience a feeling deep inside that reassures me I am in a place that I can always call home.