On Friday night A slept from 9ish to 6am. That’s like all night! Not only was that her longest sleep by a reasonably long shot, it coincided with her brother’s best night’s sleep in a long time. It is amazing how different the world seems when you have some sleep in your system.
Saturday was kinda drizzly, but we got some chores done, and I made pizza for tea. We fed the kids first and put them to bed. We do usually eat as a family, but it is nice, every now and again, to have some time that is just my husband and me. We drank wine and watched TV and it was lovely. It ended up being a late meal, and a late night. Of course the kids didn’t repeat the sleep of the night before. But two nights sleep in a row would just be greedy, wouldn’t it? (Would it?)
But that wasn’t the second magical thing. The second magical thing was we took my son to his first concert, featuring his favourite TV host, Rosa, from the Danish children’s channel Ramasjang. Rosa hosts a show about baking cakes; M Loves it. So we thought it would be special for him to see her show. Also M is quite obsessed with asking if things are real or not. So seeing his hero Rosa in real life, for real, on a real stage, singing real songs, was quite exciting. Really.
We approached it with a small amount of trepidation. M is quite sensitive (for lack of a better word) and doesn’t always cope well with large crowds and loud noises. But the thrill of the occasion was enough to compensate. Sure he spent some of the show with hands over his ears. Sure he was only brave enough to get off my lap towards the end. But I don’t think that mattered to him.
This is what mattered to him: M and I watched the show together – just the two of us. My husband sat far off down the back with A, who ended up falling asleep. And just like parents need time to ourselves, it was a reminder he needs time with just me as well. Lately we’ve spent a lot of time together, while he has been too sick for børnehaven, but always with his sister present. It was good for him, and good for me, to be able to devote my attention to him. To have me to himself. And Rosa. And cuski, his cuddly, because it was a cuddly animal themed concert. And cuski is not really an animal, but cuski is very loved and an integral part of our family. He sits with us at breakfast, so there was never any question of ‘who’ would go with us.
As we waited, my son giggling and bouncing with anticipation, a teddy polar bear wandered through the crowd. The band arrived on stage, but where was Rosa? To pass time they invited the bear up to dance. Then, the mask came off – the bear was Rosa! A gag as old as time. My son’s genuine surprise and delight was magical to watch.
There are no cliches in childhood. They haven’t learnt them yet.
And that is one of the joys of being a parent. Seeing everything through their unjaded eyes.
It has been hard lately. When it is hard, it is easy to question yourself. To wonder if you are doing the best for your children. The world is full of articles about the perils of modern childhood inflicted by inadequate/over-bearing/distracted/lazy/busy parents. Sometimes you just have to tune out the world, and look at what is in front of you.
And so for forty-five minutes, while the sun shone in Aarhus and we could believe it was summer, while the band played and the teddy bears danced, while Rosa sang and we waved our hands and sang along to tunes we didn’t know, in a language I don’t actually speak, while all the sleepless nights and battles and stress faded away, while we laughed and listened, we found it.
We left hospital in a taxi. My husband held our newborn daughter. As we drove I noticed the trees and hedges on the roadside were out in newly unfurled leaf. I commented and the taxi driver asked if I’d been in hospital long.
The seasons here are dominated by the light, by the duration of the day. Winter is dark and grey. You leave the house in the dark. You come home in the dark. Even when the sun is out, it sits so low on the sky it has no warmth. Most of winter the cloud is thick and solid grey. The world can seem strangely uniform, especially when it snows, grey-white cloud above grey-white earth, only the vertical sides of buildings to add perspective and colour.
I know there is no truth to it but winters seem to last forever, an eternity of gloom. If you know where to look you can see an orb of light locked behind the cloud. Have faith, it tells you, the sun is still there. Slowly you notice the days are getting longer. Until suddenly they lengthen in leaps of bounds, gaining hours of daylight in only a single week.
After the long gestational winter I missed last spring. Too sore and huge to go out much in the last few weeks of pregnancy. And then too sick and tired at home. My husband took our son for long walks while I huddled at home, feeding on the couch. It was summer before I noticed. I had worried that the long, long days would interfere with my ability to go back to sleep after night feeds. I needn’t have worried. I was too exhausted to notice.
The days get shorter as quickly as they get long. The closer to the poles you are the longer sunrise and sunsets last. I remember last autumn as being full of coloured skies, lighting us in that beautiful golden sunset glow. Green and gold faded. Frost began to nip the air. It became hard to get out. Hard to get to the shops to buy the snowsuits, the hats, the mittens for two growing children. I bought it all at the last minute as winter settled in and I could avoid the shopping no longer.
In Canberra where our son was born I would take him for walks to fill up our days. In winter the nights drop below zero, but temperatures can rise 20 degrees or so during the day; perfectly pleasant for an afternoon walk. In summer I would go for a walk first thing in the morning, before the heat would drive us inside for the rest of the day. At first he would just sit in his pram. Then the walks got shorter, but took longer as he began to toddle. We lived near some wetlands, so there was always something to see, ducks on the pond or cockatoos and galahs in the eucalyptus. Rocks on the shore to pick up and examine. Ants marching across the pavement. ‘Outside’ was one of his first and favourite words.
The sky was always blue. All except for the storms. When it rains it pours, and the wetlands flooded. Thunder and lightning filled the sky. Maybe it is a trick of memory, but the storms never seem to last long. The rain washed itself away. Living a world clean and soaked and glistening as the sun returned.
Last winter it was hard to find the energy to get out. Hard to spend any length of time in the great outdoors. My daughter and I would venture out for the necessary trips: daycare for her older brother, shopping if I needed too. Otherwise it was easiest to stay in the artificially lit indoors. The walls of our house providing us with warmth and safety. We were insulated; isolated.
Slowly, imperceptibly the days got longer. The light grew brighter. The sun rose on the horizon; lateral light that shines directly into your eyes.
First the crocuses popped up through the soil.
They’ve been replaced with bluebells, and the daffodils are beginning to flower.
My daughter’s eyes are opening to the world around her. She looks past her mother, father and brother. She goes to the glass back door. Presses her face and hands against it. Her eyes ask the question she does not have words for. The door opens and as she pads out, fresh air gusts in.
I don’t spend so long on the couch now. We breastfeed just once a day, in the evening. The other night she was tired, sick and hungry. So we just sat, we two, and it felt bittersweet knowing that this, at times resented, part of my life is about to draw to a close. She fed herself to sleep. And lay in my arms much as she did as a newborn, soft and fat and milky.
I carried her into her bedroom. I kissed her cheek and lay down my baby. Her eyes flicked open and I thought she would wake. But she only stretched, rolled over and fell back asleep. A little girl sleeping in her cot.
Every day with a small child is liminal. You are always on the cusp of change.
When I was 16 or so, my mother and I crossed the road together, between the New World and Queensgate in Lower Hutt. As we started walking my mother reached out and grasped my hand. I pulled it free, with a teenage ‘Mu-um!’ I was embarrassed but an amused embarrassed, not an angry embarrassed. In retrospect I’m grateful for that. In retrospect, I wish I’d let her hold my hand.
My mother’s hands were always dry. Her skin prone to itching, especially from handling food. When my son was about a year old I fed him a kiwifruit. He was enjoying the taste. And then I saw a gesture I recognized. The threading of his fingers, palm to back of hand, scratching in the gaps between them. By the time I got him to the bathroom he was rubbing his mouth and crying. He doesn’t eat kiwifruit anymore.
Although my mother liked the taste she was always careful of handling tomatoes. So, I found it strange when my mother was drawn into really long conversations about tomatoes at the supermarket with a European woman we didn’t even know. She would approach us in the fruit and vegetable section, and wind her old wrinkled fingers through the mesh of our trolley, holding us prisoner. I would hang on the sides, bored and puzzled, listening as she complained how tasteless the tomatoes in New Zealand were. My mother would nod and agree. It is only now, living in a European country far from home myself, that I understand why my mother stayed. It wasn’t simply pity. My parents lived in Rome for four years so my mother had also enjoyed the food markets, the colours, the smells, the tastes; there was pleasure in her own recollection. More importantly, I think my mother understood that loneliness – the need to share experiences with someone else who knew. So there she stood, listening and lamenting the modern mass produced tomato.
I remember watching my mother paint her nails. Slowly and carefully, sitting at the dining table. It always meant she and my father were going out for the night, some dinner, or work function. I would watch the brush neatly flare over her nail. Painting in the jewel tones she liked to wear, deep reds and purples. I can’t recollect ever seeing it washed off, though she never left it on to get chipped. Perhaps I found it too mundane to watch. Perhaps for some reason my mother usually removed it privately. Most likely, now that their night away from me was over, I lost interest.
I held that hand one last time. I thought I had said good-bye at the hospice. But I decided to see her again, at the funeral home. She looked more peaceful, more herself, than she had lying on a hospital bed. In one hand she held a picture drawn by her oldest granddaughter. She was cold; my mother who had always hated to be cold. I held her hand, kissed her cheek, said goodbye. Letting go and walking away was hard. Is hard.
I could say some of my fondest memories are of baking with Mum. In honesty, I would struggle to recall a single memory. Rather I have an accumulation of wet Saturdays and preparation for Christmases. I can picture the room, the cake mixer, my mother’s favourite brown plastic spatula, the blue measuring cups, the way my mother would stop the mixer-bowl rotating briefly with her hand on the side of the bowl, the way she slowly and patiently drifted sugar into the pavlova mix. I can sense her standing just behind and to the side of me. I know if I just turn and look she’ll be right there and I’ll see her.
Two days after my son was born my mother was told her annual check-up had returned abnormal results. Nine days after he was born my parents rang and told me her breast cancer had returned. They still travelled to Australia to visit us, but the trip had to be shortened. For all the happiness my son’s birth occasioned it was also a terribly sad time. My parents hired a car and drove from the airport to my place. My mother walked into our house arms outstretched, fingers twitching; I couldn’t hand her first grandson to her quickly enough. A few days later, lying in my mother’s arms, my son gave her his first real smile. I’m glad I was there to see it. If I wasn’t, who else could bear witness to it now?
She returned home for treatment, including a chemotherapy that damages nerve endings in the fingers. Mum was determined to keep them working as long as possible. She took up making bead necklaces. She would type emails to friends and family to keep them informed of her treatments and prognoses. She knitted, and she knitted beautifully, using circular needles – a style she picked up in her years living in Europe. Her grandchildren and great-nieces all have beautiful baby clothes. My son wore a cardigan she knitted to her funeral. When my daughter was brought home from hospital she wore the cardigan and hat my mother knitted for my son. My mother never got to knit anything for her. Never got to know I was pregnant. Never saw her face. Never heard her name. I can’t imagine a time when these simple truths do not sadden me.
When I was 19 my parents moved to London for a few years. I visited once for an extended Christmas holiday. Mum met me at the airport and we drove through a dark northern winter morning to their home. Much to my mother’s amusement I marveled at how much it looked exactly like Coronation Street. Dad was working, so Mum and I spent a lot of time together. Just the two of us. We visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, Oxford Street, and the Tower of London. We took two day trips: Oxford (an open-air bus tour, Christ Church), and Bath (the Pump Room, the Abbey, the Fashion Museum). On our drive home from Bath we tried out the new-fangled Satnav. We followed it, though we did begin to wonder, until finally we found ourselves, at the tail-end of dusk, in very much the wrong place. Headlights illuminating a narrow dirt track between hedges. In the distance we could see a motorway.
We visited Hampton Court, my father, mother and I, one very cold January day. Once it was home to Cardinal Wolsey, and later seized by King Henry VIII. I’ve been watching the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall. I loved the book, and now I can’t remember, did my mother read it? Given we went there together it seems like I would have discussed it with her. But I can’t recall, not for sure. That day we walked through rooms trod by some of the most well-known names in English history. I vaguely remember them. I do remember the cold, and the sheer number of hand-crafted bricks. But who remembers the brick-makers, the craftsmen, the char-women? They are lost to history. What I remember most from that day is the blazing fire in the kitchen. How the three of us huddled in front of it as long as decently possible trying to chase the chill from our bones.
My mother is dead and now belongs only to memory. I can recall. I can tell my mother’s story, but only as I see it. Her voice is gone. I alone tell the story of our time together, of the everyday life we lived. I can tell my children these stories, I can tell them how we laughed as we looked across at that motorway. But I cannot conjure the sound. They will only know her by her legacy. The way she shaped the lives of her husband, my sisters and me. Some baby clothes. Her old hand-written cookbook. How ordinary the works of my mother’s hands were. But to me, she was, and always will be extraordinary.
A few weeks ago I was walking home with my children. My son stopped walking and turned, asking ‘Why are you holding my hand?’ I had to think for a moment before I realized I just hadn’t let go since the last road. Satisfied with my explanation my son continued walking. Me with one hand on my daughter’s pram, one hand in his. We walked home together.
I listened to Joyce Carol Oates on the radio recently, discussing her widowhood. I can’t remember her exact words, but she said ‘I never knew how weak I was’. Those words really struck a chord with me. On its own parenthood, motherhood, can be hard and exhausting. Combined with my mother’s death, and an extremely traumatic birth. It’s fair to say it has been too much.
I’m not entirely comfortable with using the phrase ‘triggering’. It sounds a bit zeitgeisty, a bit pretentious, a bit precious. Yet, it is a good word for what it can feel like sometimes. Facebook is determined to advertise for blood donations to me. When I see that ad, I see the mess of bruises on my hands and arms from four IV lines, numerous other injections and blood tests. The hospital undershot on my transfusions, and I received more two days after my daughter was born. I feel the chill of the stored blood hitting my veins. When I hear a siren I cringe, thinking no paramedic could have saved me that day; the 200m sprint to OR was far enough.
My son can be anxious sometimes. I’m not sure how it started but sometimes he finds it reassuring to spend time listing our worries; it’s a way for him to get things off his chest. The other day he told me he’s worried he’ll be left at børnehaven. It broke my heart to hear it. That he has been so worried about something that has never, and may never happen. That he is old enough both to imagine it, and articulate it.
And it troubled me because it is so close to my own fear. The fear of leaving my children motherless. I’ve spent the last year reassuring him that although we all die, we expect to live a long time. In the months since his sister’s birth those words have felt like ash and lies in my mouth.
I don’t want to pass on my fears and anxiety to my children. I know I will never forget those moments of my life, but I have to let go of the fear, the guilt.
Because I am here.
I did live.
Sometimes the fear can be crushing. Some days I am so drained I’m not as patient with my children as I would like to be. Some days I’m overwhelmed by the washing, the cleaning, the cooking, the sheer amount of needing.
Some days are glorious.
Some days we read, and bake. We go to the market and count the apples as we put them in a bag. We wrap ourselves in coats and mittens, and throw snowballs, or go for frosty walks, M zooming ahead on his bike. He runs, and bounces, and laughs.
And my daughter?
She watches. She watches the world from the safety of her parents. She watches and smiles. When she turns her bright eyes to mine I feel the aptness of her middle name; the name we chose because it belonged to my mother, and grandmother before her. Joy.
When my son was born we were pretty sure we would only live in Canberra another year or so. We used to joke about where we would move to. What accent should we pick? Should we stay in Australia? How about the UK: possible work opportunities in Leicester – bit Midlands: back to Cambridge – so he could pronounce ‘th’ as ‘f’? What aboot Canada?
It is actually a serious question for us. Where will our children belong? Where will they find turangawaewae?
Will it be Denmark? Hard to say, probably not. Not forever. And being an immigrant in Denmark is not the same thing as being an immigrant in NZ. Or the child of immigrants.
I know I’m not particularly qualified to write about that experience. But I’m also not entirely unqualified. I was born in NZ, but actually lived the first four years of my life in Germany. We can tell you about turning up in a school environment where the only thing children know about Germany is WWI and WWII. So I know NZ is not perfect. (This is an excellent article on life as a Chinese New Zealander)
It’s hard to deny though that NZ isn’t better at dealing with immigrants than many countries. During my language classes I was the only person in the class surprised to learn that there is a specific term used for the child born in Denmark to immigrants, even if the immigrants have become Danish citizens. It seemed bizarre to me, that the country of birth of your parents can determine your place in society. I sat there, pregnant, and realised that even if we stay, in the eyes of Danes my children will never really belong. My daughter, born here, will always be called ‘efterkommer’. That, even stranger, my son’s children would be ‘efterkommer’. That only a child who was born in Denmark to a parent born in Denmark, can call themselves a Dane.
Sometimes I can feel that we spend so much time trying to assimilate to life here, trying to fit in, trying to just get by outside our doors, that we can forget who we are. My children are New Zealanders. Officially. Even if one of them has never actually been there. Sometimes it can be sad, and even slightly daunting to think that if we don’t take them back, take them home, they will not be New Zealanders in the sense that R and I are.
I miss home. I miss watching the light fall on the Orongorongo ranges. I miss the noisy tui and the darting fantails, the kererū whomping as they land heavily in trees. I miss fish and chips, and lamb chops. I miss walking down a street and seeing foods from a multitudes of cultures, skins in a multitude of colours in this country which is white, white, white. I miss all the intangible things. A love for a place that I cannot put in a box and give to my children. It is a love that grows from familiarity. I miss familiarity.
One thing, I haven’t had to miss is the Rugby World Cup. We have managed to watch nearly every game via (legal) streaming. M was at first baffled, as we hardly watch TV with him around. Suddenly there was this ‘rugby’ on all weekend. It’s been lovely to introduce him to what was such a mainstay of my childhood. Just listening to the on-field play takes me back to watching the Hutt Old Boys with my father. M got the hang of the game pretty quickly
‘The men and women jump into piles, and then the referee blows the whistle.’
He is quite taken with the referees. I’m not buying him a whistle.
He does have an All Blacks t-shirt that he loves to wear now he knows what the All Blacks are. He likes to check what the women’s rugby team is called (Black Ferns). He liked seeing some games played in Gloucester, as we have a book about the Tailor of Gloucester. He likes to watch the Haka, he asks every game if they will do one, even though we try to explain only the Pacific Island teams have them. He likes to haka with his father, but ‘only the bit I know…He!’. He likes to watch goal kicking, as he can understand that bit. He likes to eat his tea watching a game, yup television dinners have entered his world. Rather sweetly, he cannot comprehend what ‘winning’ means.
On Saturday night the All Blacks played early enough for M to watch. I made my Grans signature ‘toasties’. M put on his shirt. I tried not to rage as the game was being played, while A slept on me. If you knew my father, you’d understand how hard I found it. At 72min I sobbed ‘we’re going to lose.’ At 76min I woke the baby. At 80min R and I were on our feet. There are New Zealanders who don’t want their country to be defined purely by our ‘rugger thugs’ as they are wont to say. But when a stadium and a nation come together, that collective holding of breath, then the joy of victory, I find that to be a beautiful thing. Watching the cup has bought us pleasure, a sense of home to our life here.
Now, if only they played ads for Cydectin at half time.