On the way up I noticed that all the large green motorway signs had a new rectangle of brighter green where the word Wanganui had been overlaid with a new sheet of metal and the word Whanganui. It pleased me to think of how much that detail would annoy Michael Laws every time he saw it.
On the last evening we were in Whanganui one of the cats of the people we were staying with got hit by a car and had to be taken to the vet. It was the vet that diagnosed cat hit by car. The cat was less than a year old. Black. Lean and slippery and sleek. The cost of putting the insides of the cat back together started at $1500 and there were no guarantees that the cat would survive the surgery, or get movement of its tail back, or avoid urinary and bowel problems.
Perhaps the cat would survive the surgery, and keep its tail, and have no problems and go out on the road again anyway? There was a decision to make.
In the morning the nurse called to say that the cat had survived the surgery and the night and had taken some food.
We drove back to Wellington through the heat on Monday. In Levin a sign said it was 29 degrees. The news said it was 45 degrees in Sydney. Then, later, we drove back to Upper Hutt for dinner with C’s father. After dinner C’s father talked about one of his sisters who had died a few years ago at the age of 94. He remembered when her son had died. The boy was nine and hit by a truck on the road.
She was never the same, really, after that.
Later, her daughter contracted one of the last cases of polio in England before it was completely eradicated. It paralysed her legs at the age of 12. She was about 78 now.
They were Irish-Catholic. Born and raised in Ireland. On the matter of nine year olds hit by trucks or polio the church refers to the “mystery” of God’s plan. On the matter of cats and cars I think there is little said.
After we arrived back in Wellington but before we drove to Upper Hutt we went to buy Eleanor’s uniform for intermediate at a uniform shop on Thorndon Quay. When Eleanor came out of the changing rooms in the shorts and polo shirt she suddenly looked older. I hadn’t even thought about the fact of the uniform or her in it until she stepped out of that changing room and she was standing there.
It’s always a mixed feeling: the crossing of your child from one place to another. I feel proud and smile. I feel sad. Did I make enough of the last stage in her life? The answer is always no. People sometimes say that I am a good father but, to be honest, they don’t know anything. It will be for my daughters to judge as they get older what kind of father I was and what kind of father I am. The world they grew up in put demands on attention that did not exist before: social media, the internet, hot and cold running entertainment and updates.
On Tuesday morning we took Eleanor to the airport to catch a plane to Napier to go and holiday with a friend and their family. She would be travelling as an Unaccompanied Minor. She’s 11. I think I started those unaccompanied trips myself when I was six; down to Dunedin to see my Gran. Once or twice a year as I grew up. It was probably easier for me because I was so young. I don’t remember any anxiety about it. Eleanor was a little anxious though being 11. She worried about who she would be sitting next to mainly.
When we sent her away and she crossed to the plane on the tarmac there was that tug of fear.
Don’t be silly.
You tell yourself. Don’t be silly. Everything will be fine.
After the plane took off we went to Maranui. I don’t like Maranui: it’s noisy and there is always at least a half an hour wait for food. On the other hand, their salads are flipping good. At Maranui Eleanor calls to say hello from Napier.
How are you?
Who did you sit next to?
Who did you sit next to?
I pass the phone to her sister Rosamund who holds it across her ear and seems only to smile and nod before handing it on.
Maybe about a month ago Eleanor began to send me out of the room whenever she was getting changed. It signals the beginning of a whole series of changes for her. Another reminder that another person’s life is theirs first and foremost. That whatever rights you feel you have over another they make their own way, that their life is happening to them, and that you are a part but not the whole of it.
Again that feeling: the smile, the pride, the undertow of sadness and the question – did I do what I should have done?
Before we left Maranui we got a text. The Whanganui cat had survived another night. The Whanganui cat was coming home on Wednesday.
In the car driving back to Wellington on Monday Eleanor had asked:
Why nine lives?
Why do cats have nine lives?
I don’t know. None of us knew. I think the Whanganui cat used two up on Sunday night.
There’s no making sense of who lives and who dies. It’s like trying to catch your daughter’s life as she lives it in your hands and hold it in place for a moment. There she is standing outside the dressing room door in her new uniform. There she is with her green backpack on her back getting into the plane. There she goes.