‘I’ll always be that bear,’ said Mum, the corners of her mouth ever so slightly upturned as we hurtled down country lanes towards Banbury, leaving my parent’s house and the closest thing I can call ‘home’ behind. I won’t be back for at least a year.
At the train station we hug before I lug drybags onto shoulders and stroll off to the ticket machine. She waits longer than usual before driving off with a wave and I catch her craning out of the window on the exit-lane, hoping for one final glance of her eldest son. She doesn’t get one, but I see her.
‘Bye again,’ Dad had said back at the house. A small chuckle followed, tinged with sadness. We’re used to these goodbyes but this one feels different. More unknowns await me on this next trip down a big river than ever before, but in contrast to normal my brother is also far away on tour in Afghanistan. If ever my folks have had to deal with extreme worry this is the time. Both of their boys off doing their thing.
Every time I return to my parent’s house a small newspaper clipping and something chocolatey waits on my pillow, usually wrapped in thin red ribbon and accompanied by a small post-it note reading ‘welcome home darling xx’ The clipping this time was a photograph of a polar bear swimming across an Arctic sea, with its cub sat high up on its shoulders out of the water.
‘When you’re swimming just remember that I’m the Mother Bear,’ said Ma, ‘carrying you up there.’ And she, and my Dad, have always done that. Their support, their homeliness, their willingness to be the entity of constancy that my unconventional life denies me elsewhere – no matter where I am or what I’m doing I know I can get on with their quiet support and not one word of discouragement. It would be so easy for them to overprotect, to weigh down my shoulders with doubt and stress rather than hoist me onto theirs.
Sure, they’re put through the mill but I don’t tell them the worst stuff I face until afterwards, if at all. I have little else with which I can return the protection. So we all prepare for another voyage, them on Googlemaps and me in a wetsuit on the Missouri, full of the knowledge that beyond this form of living which comes bound with all sorts of perceived danger is another hello, another piece of chocolate, another enormous cooked breakfast and another goodbye. And smiles, there are always smiles.
After all, Mum’s email to me last week summed it all up: ‘What with your brother going off to war and you swimming down a river with a billion bacteria and plenty of bitey things, I think I’m going to turn to alcohol.’
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