Jonny McCambridge: When my whole world fitted inside one hand

There is an old photograph which sits on top of the little wooden chest of drawers at my side of the bed.

Wednesday, 14th April 2021, 7:00 am
As a younger man I support my infant son against my chest

Because I am lazy and careless by nature, I’ve never got around to having it framed and now the edges are slightly tattered and curled, the surface often coated with a thin film of dust.

The photograph shows me as a younger man, without whiskers, hair not so white, cradling my then infant son in the palm of one hand as he rests his face against my chest.

The very fact that the photograph exists physically at all, as opposed to just being a tiny fragment of memory on a mobile phone, is because my wife took the trouble to print it out some years back so I would have something to remind me of home and family when my mental state had collapsed and I was a patient in a hospital psychiatric ward.

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I’ve long been discharged from hospital but I still look at this picture most days, considering the utter helplessness of the new-born child and the complete dependence on the parent. Like most images, there is a story behind it.

On a sunny afternoon in May 2013, my wife and I, anxious and clueless, brought our son home for the first time.

That evening was one of the longest of my life as we tried desperately to get this tiny, purple ball of rage to settle. In a pattern that was to become familiar, he just would not sleep.

Eventually, in an effort to give my exhausted wife some rest, I took the bawling infant in my arms and began to rock him. I sat on the chair near the bed and rested my son on my chest, supporting him with my right arm. I could feel the warmth of his cheek burning into my skin.

To my astonishment, he settled. He pulled his little legs close into his body and fell sleep.

I sat immobile in exactly the same spot for maybe a couple of hours, terrified that the slightest movement would cause him to stir and start off the bawling once more.

This was to become a pattern throughout his first year. If I was struggling to get my boy to rest, I would usually place him against my chest in this way.

He would often fight against it at first, before the anger would leak out and he softened, seeming to take some comfort from feeling his skin against mine. It was on one of these occasions that my wife took the photograph which still sits on my side of the bed.

Those days are long gone. It will not be very many years now before my son is taller than me and the idea that he once fitted inside the palm of my hand will seem fanciful, if there was not photographic evidence to prove it.

The idea of complete dependence on the parent is also diluted. My boy has his own interests and obsessions, and, as I’ve written about on this page before, they rarely overlap with my own.

Part of the growing process is the inevitability of the child pulling gradually away from the parent. Like the old photograph, my memories of a time when he needed me for everything have become slightly tattered around the edges over time. But I accept this is the way it has to be; he has already substantially outgrown me.

Also, we have settled into adopted roles of domestic existence. The boy lavishes love and affection on his mother. The daddy plays the comic role, to be laughed at and scorned, to entertain and delight the others with his sheer silliness.

It has been a long time since I have been allowed to kiss my son, and hugs are permitted rarely, and even then just for the briefest of moments.

The holding of hands is restricted now only to when crossing busy roads. I am keenly aware that the sound of my voice and even my very presence often irritates and embarrasses him, so I have to give him space.

The more I lean towards him, the further he pulls away.

But he is still a young child. At night, more often than not, he ends up in our bed, seeking comfort from his mother.

I sometimes watch him in the fading light, troubled by the fact that, like me, he is a poor sleeper. I worry about the twists of anxiety which seem to torment him in the dark.

On one such night I can feel his presence behind me in the bed, his body writhing and turning, his mind seemingly not at ease. I am facing the wall when I feel a light touch on my shoulder.

‘Daddy, will you hug me?’

Silently I turn and fold my arms around the boy, pulling him close so that his mop of hair tickles my nose

But peace cannot be so easily found. He is somewhere between sleep and consciousness, still moving around within my grasp, mumbling small sounds of protest. I feel powerless, unable to read or understand what is troubling him.

He continues shifting until his head ends up on resting on my chest. Once more I feel the warmth of his face against me.

Soon, I notice that he begins to relax and the tension leaves his body, the limbs go limp and I know he is finally sleeping peacefully.

We lie there just like that. I can’t help but think about the tattered and dusty old photograph which is just inches away.

I tell myself that it’s probably best not to read too much into such things. He has merely found a comfortable spot tonight, rather than re-connected with some latent infant memory of a safe place.

Only a silly, sentimental, old fool of a daddy could think there’s more to it than coincidence.

But, just in case, I lie perfectly still in the dark. Soon, my back begins to ache but I hold the same position. He is asleep and I am awake, once again too afraid to move in case I disturb him.

Each morning, when the sun rises, I watch my son pulling further and further away from me.

But, at the end of the day, when the dark comes, I will always be there for him to lean against.

* Jonny McCambridge’s new book, Afraid of the Dark, published by Dalzell Press, is available now on Amazon

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