No one believes me when I tell them about my parents; about how they died as if they'd made a joint decision on the matter, my father just a few hours after my mother. Of course, no one actually says they don't believe me, as that would be unspeakably gauche, but I can see it in their eyes. I probably wouldn't believe me either.
I expected it, though neither had ever come out and said. Which was also like them.
They were old. Dad liked to talk at length about human lifespans, how rapidly they'd increased with modern medical science, how the thymus gland and various other factors contributed to the ageing process. To be honest, he was a bit obsessed with the topic, but I couldn't blame him. Mum and I usually just let him lecture us about caloric restriction and diseases where the body clock goes haywire. I always accepted this field of study as a bit of a hobby for him, but the look in Mum's eye when he'd go off on one was of carefully concealed pity.
My mother was one hundred years old when she died. Even with Dad's much-talked-about increased human lifespans, that was still a very respectable number. In her last year, she wore it like a badge of honour and would tell anyone who'd listen about how, when she was a little girl, living to such a fine, round, three-digit number seemed inconceivable . People would smile indulgently at her, thinking she'd gone a bit dotty, but that was never the case. She was sharp as a tack to the last, as was Dad, who was even older than she.
They died the way they lived, doing the impossible. Even my existence, they said, was just one more impossible thing. For a little while, when I was a sulky teenager, I took this information as some sort of cosmic sign that I shouldn't exist. I made Dad cry once, insisting that I was a joke or a mistake, wishing I'd never been born–all that rubbish that adolescents tell their parents in order to punish them. He told me then, though I didn't understand until later, that in me he'd traded one sort of immortality for another. It sounded so self-centred of him at the time, but now I understand. The first time I held my own daughter, I understood.
They were stupidly in love, my parents. That's another impossible thing. Stupidly in love and never caring who knew it. Once I'd gained the self-awareness to know that this was not entirely normal, it mortified me. They'd touch and kiss and hold hands, and I felt that it was hardly appropriate. Teenagers are always the experts on decorum when it involves anyone but themselves.
Mum never really broke Dad of his habit of talking openly about sex. By the time I was old enough to understand what he was on about, she'd stopped even trying. This is why I scheduled all my dates for when Dad was out of town at a conference. Can you imagine? Being sixteen and bringing some poor young bloke over to your house only to have your own mother and father carrying on, winking and smirking and making unsubtle allusions about what they'd be up to while you and your little friend went to the cinema? As they grew older, and the thought of them actually having sex grew more universally horrifying, they never stopped revelling in it. Now that I've got bulges in places that never bulged before and my own grandkids making faces every time I and my husband kiss, I understand this habit of theirs as well. Time is too fleeting, love is too precious, the world is too unpredictable . Make a go of it while you can, even if it means your children faking sick sounds. Teaching them this lesson is much more important than being proper.
Dad was both older than anyone could imagine, and forever just a big kid himself. He couldn't stand having anything, animate or inanimate, within a thirty-foot radius that he was not somehow having an effect on. It was a compulsion of his. People must be spoken to, objects must be touched and shifted and examined from all angles. Gadgets must be operated, taken apart, and reassembled in a new way. Kitchen appliances were a frequent target, as he remained convinced that there was always a better or faster way to boil an egg or blend up a banana smoothie. When I was little he'd ask me and my cousin Tony (who's really my uncle) to not tell Mum, but she always found out. Usually because Tony and I couldn't shut up about the massive explosions and how exciting they'd been.
I'm an artist, because of him. I know that does sort of beg the question of what taking toasters apart has to do with art, but it has everything to do with it. He didn't take toasters apart to see how they worked. Most people know how a toaster works, and he knew much, much more than most people. He took toasters apart because he could, and because he wanted to try and make them better. A better toaster. It's daft, isn't it? But that was his way of affecting the world and of bringing something to it. Something new, something–in its own way–beautiful. It was often messy, and thrilling for a six-year-old to watch (especially when he'd let me hold his tools and hand them to him one by one), and I learnt everything I needed to know about making art from watching him run, giggling, to get the fire extinguisher.
I'm a mother because of my own mother, which I suppose makes much more sense. The thing of it is, though, Mum was as far from the sort of Earth Mother type as one can get. She was a career woman and an adventurer. There were periods where she wasn't around much, and it was just me and Dad, blowing things up and eating nutritionally deficient meals of nothing but heaps of jam on toast. But I suppose if I'd had a more traditional role model, I'd have wanted none of it. I was a contrary child, taking after both my parents in that regard, and seeing Mum struggle with her job and her desire to be a mother made me want to prove to her and to everyone else that she'd been right to do it. It was everyone else (even as a child I noticed the tension at larger family gatherings) who was wrong.
My father's last words to me were: "It is easier now, that I don't have to be reborn."
But he is reborn. Every time I pick up my brush, he's reborn. Every time I take my grandchild on my knee and tell her the same fantastic stories of the impossible that he told me, he is reborn. Every time I kiss my husband, wrinkled as we are, he is reborn. And my mother as well, when I call my daughter for a chat or read in the paper of another of her achievements. When I feel that pride, my mother is reborn.
How do we learn to be human? To live this life and do what we must, and to know when and how to end it?
We take it for granted, that we just know, and we act unthinking, like cattle. But not my parents. They, both of them, knew what it was like to be lost, to be less than, and then to learn to be more.