The Children of Men

I started reading The Children of Men by P.D. James.

Here is an excerpt:

My parents tried to spare me the worst of knowledge. “We try to keep things from the boy” was another frequently overheard phrase. But keeping things from the boy meant telling me nothing except that my father was ill, would have to see a specialist, would go into the hospital for an operation, would soon be home again, would have to go back into hospital. Sometimes I wasn’t even told that; I would return from school to find him no longer there and my mother feverishly cleaning the house, with a face set like stone. Keeping things from the boy meant that I lived… in an atmosphere of uncomprehended menace… moving inexorably forward to some unimagined disaster which, when it came, would be my fault. Children are always ready to believe that adult catastrophes are their fault. My mother never spoke the word “cancer” to me, never referred to his illness except incidentally…

I wish that my remembrance of my father was happier, that I had a clear view, or at least some view, of the essential man which I could take hold of, make part of me; I wish that I could name even three qualities which characterized him. Thinking about him now for the first time in years, there are no adjectives which I can honestly conjure up, not even that he was gentle, kind, intelligent, loving. He may have been all of these things, I just don’t know. All I know about him is that he was dying. His cancer wasn’t quick or merciful — when is it merciful? — and he took nearly three years to die. It seems that most of my childhood was subsumed in those years by the look and the sound and the smell of his death. He was his cancer. I could see nothing else then and I can see nothing else now.

My father became terminally ill with cancer when I was 12 years old. He died a few weeks after my 16th birthday. I read the above passage on the train back home yesterday and I am still reflecting on those haunting words.

A difficult childhood endures for a long, long time.

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