‘I think, like me, you have had quite a few lifetimes,’ remarked an old friend after we met up recently for the first time in more than 20 years.
I have reflected on that message in the run up to today, the first anniversary of the day I learned my mother had died. My friend was not wrong. But what she had unwittingly disturbed was the story of the lifetime I had not lived.
I had not seen my mother since the year before the previous encounter with my old friend. And though I have a photo of her cradling me in her arms when I was just a few weeks old, I knew my mother for less than four of my sixty-two years. Given up for adoption at three months, a life with my mother was the lifetime I never had.
I have long imagined that lifetime, a childhood in the bosom of my birth family in Dundee, the city I came from. Of course, it is precisely because there was no family in the traditional sense — my mother was a single Catholic woman — that I had to be born far away from that place.
Reunited when I was thirty-six, there were too many fault lines tugging away at our relationship. The bond between us, such as it was, had long been broken. And the principal fault line was shame. Then and now. What’s left unsaid? I have my version of that bond and the breaking of it. She has taken hers with her.
In the two decades that had elapsed since I last saw my mother, I had moved to Scotland. Though that move had not been to Dundee, it had been a coming home of sorts. To the place I came from rather than the one where I had grown up.
In those intervening years, my new life had taken me to Dundee many times. Every time a homecoming.
Every time, as the train wended its way across the Silvery Tay, I would peer out of the window to catch a glimpse of the Law, what remains of a volcanic sill 400 million years ago. My mother had grown up in Hilltown, in the shadow of the Law. I had not.
Every time I alighted the train at Dundee’s less than prepossessing railway station, I would wonder where she was in the city that day, and whether we might serendipitously happen upon each other. We never did.
Even in the last few years as my professional life took me to an office building across the road from that station, a stone’s throw from the now demolished Dundee Hilton where we had been reunited on a dreich Saturday in May 1997.
Even in the last year since I learned of her death, I would have that same thought, only to remind myself that she was no longer there.
I learned of her death from a phone call that I missed. And a voicemail to which I had not listened. I didn’t need to. When you know, you know.
I went to her funeral with two of her cousins, one of whom has left the message. I wasn’t sure whether I should. But as he kindly reminded me, she was my mum. Did I need permission? Either way he gave it.
The funeral was held in another unprepossessing building, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Broughty Ferry. There’s a name for an illegitimate child to conjure. It was an unremarkable affair. Not especially well attended, but enough of a crowd to be respectable. Mostly older, of course. And then there was me.
Diligently and lovingly curated in its own small way, it was a Catholic funeral by rote. Amazing Grace, a rendition of Ave Maria, the Eucharist, rounded off with How Great Thou Art. If you know, you know.
At its slender core was a brief eulogy in which my reason for being there at all was the one thing that wasn’t mentioned. Made more notable still by the fact that I was my mother’s only child. My mother apparently died childless.
The public record, albeit opaque, tells another story. But in the end, that is a story she chose not to own beyond the narrowest of private realms. And yet, and yet, as I was reminded by a sequence of unsolicited conversations that day, some more hushed than others, the truth eeks its way out. Secrets and lies.
But how do you make sense of a story in which you are a principal character, but in which you don’t officially feature? The moment that happens is like a long-anticipated death. No amount of prior warning prepares you for just how shocking it is.
I recalled the moments I had sat through a mass in which my identity as a gay man was at best obscured. The still, small voice that craved to be heard. Let the record show. But the preservation of dignity — mine and others — sealed the silence.
Fast forward almost a year from that missed call to a late spring evening, I find myself driving across the Tay from Fife, the Law bathed in sunshine ahead. I’m off to a benefit concert in the Caird Hall, a venue I’ve never been to before, and yet one I surely would have, had I lived that other lifetime.
As the concert ends with a performance of the late, great Michael Marra’s All Will Be Well, I am overcome with a sense of euphoria. Another moment in a lifetime of homecomings. No matter the journey to here — I am a Dundonian.
The next day sat looking out at the Firth of Forth from my East Neuk home to stillest of seas, a chance WhatsApp exchange with a newfound friend from Dundee helps me turn a corner. Another corner.
‘Dundee is full of what ifs for me,’ I say. ‘Aw pal. Try not to think of ‘what ifs’, think more of ‘what haves’,’ he counsels.
The old friend I meet up with on the same shoreline a month later is right. I have had quite a few lifetimes. You could call it a rich tapestry. My late friend, Tim, would have called it life’s tatty carpet. He was adopted too. And gay.
Tim succumbed to AIDS in 1993, the plague that took my late partner, Lawrence, two years later. Though I dodged it, survival came at a price. And in the wake of the mess it wrought, I left one life and built another.
All those lifetimes — mine and the ones which became a part of mine. The lifetimes I set out trying to make sense of by writing a memoir six years ago.
Have I had those lifetimes because of events and circumstances that happened by chance alone? Or because a part of me was always in search of the lifetime I never had?
There are seventy thousand words in a box by my desk as I write now. In part, I know those words are an attempt to answer those questions. Perhaps one day my tatty carpet will be revealed; a melding of stories from a life I have already told along the way, and some yet to be told.
My late mother’s discretion was one of the excuses I had used to myself for keeping that box closed. Yet ultimately it was the lifetime I haven’t lived that spurred me to tell stories from the lifetimes I have lived in the first place.
Perhaps it is time to prize it open. To put life’s ‘what ifs’ behind me and grab the ‘what haves’ — after all, this is no dress rehearsal.