Esther’s Story: ‘Do you remember, the sky was so clear?’

Esther is a film maker and single parent in her late forties who lives in Bristol with her sons, Joe, 11 and Alex, who is 14 and autistic. She home-schools both of her children. 

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‘At the beginning of lock down I was really fucking bereft, I thought ‘shit, I cannot do this, I really cannot do this by myself’.

Our way of dealing with being in our house is usually having loads of people around all of the time. I have got an open house basically, whoever wants to come and stay the night can come and stay the night. There is always at least one if not seven other kids, and maybe their parents here. Because I like it to be a really sociable place, particularly for Alex, who finds it hard to go out and socialise himself, so he has always got mates around. 

I remember the middle of the second week of lock down, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I was so stressed and freaked out by the whole concept of it, it just felt like this was insane. I had read too much news, too much detail; I had analysed it all, and also I have friends who are conspiracy theorists who were feeding me other stuff as well. All of a sudden I got that middle of the night fear; this is the end of the world, I don’t know what kind of life my children are going to have, what the fuck am I going to do? And I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. So I found myself silently screaming, with a child either side of me in my bed. 

Then this really very weird thing happened. Someone outside started screaming and shouting really incomprehensible stuff to themselves; the sounds I couldn’t make, but they were outside my bedroom window. I just thought ‘What the fuck is going on? Is this happening?’ 

So I got up and looked out of the window, and there was this guy just walking up the middle of the road, just completely losing it. I thought ‘I have to help that person’. So I called the police and that kind of took me out of my thing, and I remembered that if you focus on someone else’s bigger need then you forget your own overthinking. And the police talked me through it and told me that they had found him and he was going to be okay. 

The next day I was, like, ‘fuck, I have to get my shit together, because I cannot get in that state again’. So I started focusing on the kids and what they needed; we just did loads of really intense stuff together. My youngest is really dyslexic and he said, ‘right, I am going to read the whole of Harry Potter; by the end of reading Harry Potter I will be able to read well’. So we just spent two weeks sitting in a massive cardboard box reading together, and it was kind of beautiful.

Alex didn’t want to go out. Slowly but surely I convinced Alex that we could go out, and because there was the new ruling that if you were autistic you could go out and exercise further away, to be away from other people, I said ‘we are going to go to the marine lake, we are going to go to the beach’. 

Slowly lock down started to become really profoundly beautiful, because we would go to these places that were empty, there was no-one there, and the weather obviously was fucking amazing, and it was just serene. It was like being in the med sometimes, you know? It was so beautiful, and some of the sunsets were so epic. Do you remember the sky was so clear? That there were no trails, no pollution? 

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I remember sitting on the beach one day and just thinking ‘this is heaven’. It was just so calm, and I didn’t need to worry; the sea was still there, and the pebbles were still beneath my feet, and I could be in the sea, and my kids were happy, and we were going to be okay.

And I know this sounds really bad, but we started to say to people ‘we are going to be at this place at this time’ and we slowly started seeing people, from afar, but fuck, the difference. The kids were calm and happy at home but it was exhausting for me because it was so intense. I don’t think people realise that thing about single parents, about how intense it is, because everything relies on you. Because you can’t get a single moment that you know is definitely going to be yours. Although it was beautiful on one side, it was exhausting on the other.

There were so many other beautiful moments; my birthday in particular. Leading up to my birthday in May I thought ‘right, what do I really want for my birthday?’. I got everyone to send me their favourite tunes on Spotify, and made a playlist. And do you know what was so beautiful about it? As everyone sent in their tune, you could hear in those tunes why they had chosen it and you could hear a little bit of that person. 

So I spent the whole of my birthday listening to these incredible songs, loads of which I would never have discovered otherwise, just dancing around with my kids in the kitchen, and having really beautiful long conversations either by Facebook messenger, or talking via the phone.

The next day, I said to some friends lets just distantly meet on the beach and have a barbecue and go swimming at sunset, and it was so beautiful, it was the best fucking birthday I have had in years.

There was this one song, Double Dutch by Malcolm McClaren, given to me by my ex boyfriend, who I think is the only person I have ever truly loved apart from my children, and it was exactly the right tune to wake up to on your birthday morning. I went to a friend’s field at one point; me, her, another friend and our kids, and we did that thing where you do a tune around. I put Double Dutch on and we went fucking apeshit dancing around the fire to it. It was just beautiful, three middle-aged women losing it around the fire whilst their children cringed. And other people may say ‘god, you crazy witches’, but I don’t give a shit, I don’t care if people judge me.

Then suddenly, all of this processing shit started to come out, and it was kind of full on, and it was triggered by one thing. James, my ex husband, started off lock down saying ‘Joe and Alex can home here as many times as they want’, and they did one or two nights, and then all of a sudden it didn’t feel right, there was something deep inside telling me it wasn’t all okay. 

It turned out he was still seeing his girlfriend through all of this. I spoke to him and said ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this?’ and he said ‘I thought I had this, I made a risk assessment’. At this point we didn’t know anything about coronavirus. My sister was giving birth and I wanted to go and see my sister, and wanted to see that child as soon as I could and be totally clear about who I had seen, where I had been. And he said to me; ‘Yeah, I kind of thought about that and decided you could just self isolate for two weeks and then go and see your sister’. But I thought ‘No! This is not your judgment call! This is not your fucking risk assessment to make! This is my sister and my newborn nephew, you don’t get to make these decisions on my behalf’.

I couldn’t understand that level of privilege, what care or concern for my life, the kids’ lives, an unborn child’s life? Thinking your knob is worth more than all of that? So I had to process all of that and I thought ‘if this is the amount of respect you have for my actual life during the middle of a pandemic what the fuck does any of it mean?’ 

So I went through all of this grieving and anger, and I came out of the other side, a bit like when a caterpillar goes into a pupae and becomes a lump of mush? That was my mushy stage, and I came out the other side and I thought ‘fuck this!’ I know exactly what I want from life… all of that pain and grieving and trying to look after two kids at the same time, one of whom has got special needs’. So I said to him, ‘they aren’t coming to yours now, you have made a shit call, I don’t know how many other shit calls you have made. I don’t trust you, it doesn’t feel safe’. 

Suddenly beautiful clarity hit. For some reason, that was a huge watershed moment. It was so simple and beautiful, and it just felt like shedding a lot of shit. Shedding the dead weight. So you can emerge like the strong person you are meant to be. And I think it correlates with that whole menopause thing as well, like as you get to the end of your forties, start of your fifties, you just think ‘I don’t need to take any of your shit any more’. You just shed the dead-weight and just be really clear with people, and assertive; not being horrible, but saying what you need; and that is always something I have struggled with all of my life. 

There is this beautiful saying; ‘when women shine they spread light on everyone around them’, and that is kind of what it felt like; it felt like everyone else appreciated me when I was being clearer and more myself. And it was fucking painful, at times it felt like literal knives stabbing my heart.

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As lock down eased I went on quite a few amazing camping holidays to beautiful places, the kids were off with other kids, running around in the countryside; all of that time to do stuff for me, and all of that thinking space, gave me even more power, it gave me the power to turn around and say ‘right, this is what I want to happen’. When I was away I suddenly got loads of ideas for other films I needed to make. All variations on a theme of women’s stories that need to be heard. 

I think as a direct result of that I am now directing my first proper film, with proper funding. It is about a woman standing in her own power, but also realising there is grace and humility in that; not holding power in an aggressive, patriarchal way, but in a human, caring way. A woman who can say ‘I am here to hold, but don’t fucking tread on me’. 

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I think the massive shock, the experience of being a mum in lock down, has brought me to this. I have come out  feeling better than I have in years. There has been so much space to process loads of stuff.  

There was so much of that time that was beautiful, it was painfully beautiful. But processing stuff  like that is painfully beautiful. Beautiful pain. And that was the thing, because there was silence around that processing, I could relax into it, and feel that nastiness but also just let it past. I remember just thinking ‘push it out into the wind; this is yours, but you didn’t create it; you can brush it away’. How many fucking years of therapy have I done? At least ten! But that is the thing about slowing down, not having to rush around.’

I have some full-on earth mother friends who say ‘This is the great pause that we have all needed’, and part of me just thinks ‘pah! fuck that!’. But the other part of me is like, ‘yeah, it is a big pause, and, yeah, there is beauty that can come out of this’.

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Read more stories on the 19 Stories website, or get in touch to contribute your own.

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