The friendly young man in the bookshop approves of my reading choice*: ‘Good book, I really enjoyed it. It was prescribed in my literature course last year.’He looks young, too young to be a uni graduate: ‘What was your course?’
‘School. I finished last year.’
‘What are you doing this year?’
‘Working here. Saving. I’m going to travel; I’m taking a gap year.’
Everyone takes a gap year nowadays. I never thought of it. No-one did back in 1963. I was keen to get on with becoming a doctor. I couldn’t see a gap and I would not have walked through it if I found one. Tempus was fugit, vita was brevis, gluteus was maximus, so I sat myself down and flogged my humanities brain over the sciences that were the stepping stones to doctoring. I never gave thought to my already clear history of stumbling through the sciences. I entered medical school, I studied the sciences and I stumbled on. If in later years I referred to my undistinguished undergraduate days, patients refused to believe it. They’d look at their trusted doctor and smile, knowing he must be joking; their peace of mind required he have no gaps.
I became a husband, I became a father, once, twice, thrice. I had four new people in my life to love, four more to work for. And I did work. A joyful and fulfilling part of my work was caring for women in pregnancy and childbirth. I became the intimate stranger, the guest at the birth of families. I’d be called to the hospital in the middle of the night, during dinner, at the kids’ bedtime, at quiet times alone with my wife. I’d leave home early in the mornings to visit the mother and her newborn in hospital. I’d leave before the children were awake. I left lacunae in our family, gaps where the dad was elsewhere when a daughter was sick, when our son had asthma, when our youngest cried at bedtime because a classmate at kinder teased her about the warts on her fingers. After twenty years I bade farewell, a long farewell to obstetrics, and hoped I’d mend the gaps.
The children grew, graduated, went to work, married, became parents. Became busy. Their time cramps them, crowds them in. The gaps that open in our children’s lives allow my wife and me in and enrich us.
The friendly young bookseller-bookreader will head off into his gap. He’ll travel towards his Ithaka and become rich with all he learns.
The truth is, life is full of gaps. As Leonard Cohen teaches us, that’s how the light gets in.
*Brenda Walker’s ‘Reading by Moonlight’. A gift for a friend with a couple of cancers.