It was a summer evening, two days after my extramarital affair had become public knowledge, and my life was in small pieces around me. My dad had invited me to come over for dinner but I didn’t really want to go. What I wanted to do more than anything was to lie under the covers in my bed and stare at the inside of my eyelids while I mentally listed all the lives I had ruined, but no one would let me do that.
So, fine, I drove with very bad grace to my dad’s house, and his long-term partner Etta — my wicked stepmother, I always called her — had made something spicy for me with pumpkin and lentils because I don’t eat meat. It was totally delicious. It was the first food that I’d really enjoyed in many days. I was surprised that anyone had bothered to make such a lovely meal for me when everyone knew what I’d done.
My dad is a quiet, kind man, very gentle, and I knew that evening he didn’t really know what to say to me. He had always been so pleased that after a tumultuous youth, worrying him at every turn, I’d met a kind husband with whom I’d built a stable and happy life. He saw me as a box ticked on the daughter chart — done! I’ve raised that one, finis! — and now I’d messed with the neat order of this mental list. He looked drawn and pained.
“I suppose,” he said in the end, “I’m just wondering why you’d choose to make yourself unhappy, even leaving aside anyone else you’ve hurt in the process. You must have known how it would end. You’ve always been so…sensible.”
Etta, vibrant as ever in bright batik cotton with her trademark pink streaks bouncing in her grey hair, was apparently busy on the other side of the kitchen. I knew that she was eavesdropping, though, and sure enough, when he said this to me she wheeled around.
“But isn’t that rather the point?” she said, firmly but kindly. “Isn’t the point here that she’s always been sensible, always been good? Em was a mother before she was anything else. She’s never had the chance to rebel or do anything for herself, not really. Are you surprised she did something selfish for once?”
I goggled at her. I was genuinely lost for words. Was my dad’s tensely stand-offish, disapproving partner supporting me, here? She and my father had been a couple for well over a decade, but she and I had only ever had the blandest of conversations: how to flavor cheese scones, perhaps, or whether it was worth planting roses in a north-facing garden. We weren’t family. I wouldn’t have honestly said we were even friends.
“Thank you,” I said eventually as my dad stared into the middle distance, unsure what more to say. Etta squeezed my hand and went back to the dishwasher. We didn’t talk any more about it, but I knew now that she would encourage my dad not to worry about me too much and this was reassuring beyond belief.
Within three months, the scandal of my affair faded into the background, pushed aside by something far more serious. Etta received a cancer diagnosis and so for the next year, there was very little other than a merry-go-round of surgery and recovery to occupy her and my dad. I did what I could to help, but none of my interactions extended far beyond the practical. They had each other, and no real energy for anyone else.
And then one day I rang my dad’s house to speak to him, and Etta answered. She sounded vague and distracted as she told me my dad wasn’t home. But there was more, I could tell. “Oh, Em, I’m just so frustrated,” she burst out in the end. “I can’t see properly to read, and I’m so uncomfortable all the time. I really don’t know what to do. I miss books so much.” She started to cry.
It was the most intimate conversation we had ever had. I sat at my desk in my office, looking at the dust dancing in the strip of sunlight that crossed it, wondering what to say to her and wanting badly to get it right. I decided that if it were me, I wouldn’t want practical advice; she would be getting plenty of that from my dad. No, I’d want to be indulged in my moment of self-pity.
So that’s exactly what I did. I listened to everything that was wrong, without being annoying by reminding her how far she had come and how close she was, now, to being fully better. And I made endless jokes; the stupidest, most ridiculous jokes, mainly at my dad’s expense. By the end of the call, which was long, Etta was laughing out loud and she told me as she hung up that she wished I could ring her every day, “just to make me laugh like you did today.”
I hung up the phone and ordered a big bunch of flowers to be delivered to her house the next day. “Something to look at when you don’t feel like reading,” I wrote on the card. She texted me gratefully when they arrived. And from that day forward, we sent text messages back and forth to each other. It was only sporadic, but something had lifted between us all the same and I felt the distance receding.
A few weeks later, after getting the all-clear for cancer, Etta went back into hospital for a routine operation. She sent me a text when she came round from the anesthetic, telling me that the medication she was on was making her incredibly gassy and “unpleasant to be around”. “Ha, my poor dad!” I texted back gaily. “About time you got revenge, though — he’s a very stinky person, if you hadn’t noticed.”
That trite swap of messages turned out to be the last exchange we would ever have. Tragically, Etta died suddenly the next day after entirely unforeseen complications arising from the simplest of surgeries. My dad fell apart when she died, and I don’t think he will ever be fully complete again.
As I helped him clear her things, several months later, we talked about Etta. It turned out that she and I shared the same taste in so many things: music, books, films, handbags. We would have had so much to talk about if I had only got over my childish belief that she was stealing my beloved dad from me, and my groundless sense that she disapproved of or disliked me. For her part, she had been wary of me because she believed I was more protective of my mother than I ever actually was.
Nothing we had believed about the other had ever been completely true, and now it was too late to show her how grateful I was for how happy she had made my dad. She was the love of his life, and I should have been more generous with my own affection towards her. Why hadn’t I been? All of my petty, immature gripes about her seemed ridiculous in hindsight.
Needless to say, I’m a fan, now, of being less politely British and reserved. Even if I’d been a total brat about it — even if I’d petulantly addressed, head-on, the fact that I always believed Etta disliked me and that she was taking my dad away from me (stupidly immature words that I feel embarrassed even to type now) — then we’d have cleared the air far earlier, and become the true friends I know we could have been, rather than it all happening too late.
So if something bothers me now, I try to pluck up the courage and talk about it straight away. You know what? It’s not as hard as I thought, and it gets easier every time. Plus, I like to think that Etta would have approved of this stance.