The first moment of grief. You weren’t there. And suddenly the whole future without you was there. And we had to face it. And it was hard. And I had to say goodbye without you to give me a comforting hug afterwards.
You weren’t there to tell when I got pregnant again. Or to tell you it was a girl.
You didn’t visit me in hospital. You didn’t squeeze my hand and tell me it would be ok.
You didn’t get to see my son meet his little sister. You didn’t get to see those first little cuddles and kisses.
You weren’t there to call when I was still sick and the baby was crying and her brother got angry because she was sucking up all my time and energy. Oh, there were so many other people to call, I know. But I wanted you.
You were holding my eldest when he smiled the first time. But you’ve never seen my daughter smile, never seen the way she wrinkles her nose in glee. Or heard the way she laughs when she knows she is being cheeky.
You haven’t seen my son ride a bike. You didn’t get to visit a castle with him and his Grandad, and watch them fire cannons and shoot arrows at imaginary baddies. It would have made you smile.
You didn’t get to bake a cake and give my daughter a beater to lick and see how happy it made her. I remember you giving my son one for the first time, and you took a photo of him all grubby and happy. And it is a precious memory and always was, because even then we knew the memories were running out.
You miss so much, you miss every day. You miss the tears, and the laughter. You miss the falling over and kissing scraped hands and knees. You miss scolding kids who won’t brush their teeth, or put on shoes. You miss sibling fights, and afternoons cuddling on the couch watching TV. You miss first steps, and counting to ten, and learning to write his name, and favourite books, and drawing, and nursery rhymes, and skype, and building duplo, and having tea parties, and wiping runny noses, and doing the same puzzle over and over, and the piles of washing, and 829 family dinners. You miss all the minutiae of life. Because, of course, you are not alive.
Life goes on. It is full and rich and full of wonderful moments. But if I were to write it in a book every page would have one letter erased, the space where you are missing.
By missing you I keep you with me, safe in my heart. In that way my children will know you.
I hold my daughter and sing her the same songs you sang to me.
I stroke my son’s hair as he lies in bed.
I tidy up, and clean, and cook dinners, and wash clothes, and when I feel like my children take me for granted I think of you and know that that is ok. Children should be able to take their parents for granted.
I get out your old cookbook and we bake. I feel the words you wrote underneath my fingers. And it tastes like my childhood home and you are there.
A few weeks ago, as we left my sons daycare, another boy approached my 14 month old daughter and abruptly shoved her, knocking her onto her back. My husband and I were shocked, and our Danish is never quick so neither of us stumbled out anything more than ‘Nej. Nej.’ But I saw my son move in front of the boy ‘That is my little sister’ M said in Danish, hands on hips ‘ You must not push her’
I was impressed. Not just with his big brotherly instincts, but also to see his non-violent conflict resolution skills were better than I had expected.
At home we have the usual amount of sibling arguments for their age. M loves to build elaborate duplo constructions. So does A, but her contributions tend to be bashed onto the top, bringing the whole structure tumbling down. We do an odd shuffle around the floor, me trying to keep A away and distract her with her toy, only for M to decide whatever we have looks interesting and so, to come grab it. What I never expected is how when they do play together the game gets very physical. They really are like two puppies, nipping at each others’ tails.
The other week they invented a game where A lay on the bed and M jumped over her or, at least, mostly over her. Knees into chest seemed to be ok, as they were both shrieking with laughter. That is until the inevitable head clash; I held one sobbing child on each knee until the tears stopped and no sooner did that happen than my daughter threw herself down on the bed, looking at her brother with a big grin. He bounced back to his feet.
* * *
I’m the youngest of three so I don’t remember what we were like at this age. I only remember us as older children. My oldest sister always seemed so grown-up. No matter how much I grew I couldn’t catch up. Starting high school I felt like I was in her shadow. But I idolised her too, choosing subjects she had studied when she had started. My middle sister had that ability to play part of the older wiser sibling unit, only to flip and play annoying younger sibling with me. And we were annoying. Especially that time we watched Lady and the Tramp and we imitated the actually quite racist cats ‘We are Siamese if you please, purrrr’ . I say ‘that time’ but it was many times. Heck I can hear her finishing that sentence as I type.
I’ve always felt lucky to have grown up with my two sisters. So I did want my son to have that. Perhaps a pregnancy barely a month after my mother died was less than ideal timing. But, for all the difficulties of the last few years of our life, I know this is one way my family is very blessed.
The Christmas before my mother died my sisters and I re-staged some of our childhood photos. The photo with my sisters dressed as clowns, me standing proudly next to them in a onesie and gumboots. My sister reading with great concentration an upside down picture book. My other sister with ham on her head – at a wedding! The time I thought lifting my skirt to cover my face while I sat on a chair would be less embarrassing than a photo of me sitting in a chair . My mother loved it, she laughed and laughed.
I wonder, did I know what we were giving her then? Not just a laugh, or a trip down memory lane, not just a thanks for the good times. It was also an affirmation that all that work, every sibling squabble she had soothed, every frustrating afternoon, had been worth it. Here were her three children, together, with bonds that hold them close still.
* * *
My children love to bounce on our bed. They turn the radio on, A bouncing her knees while M jumps around. A few days ago M reached out suddenly and pushed A. I started to intervene, but then I realised she was laughing. Laughing and laughing as she fell through the air and then landing -whumpf- on the soft bed. Then -whumpf- M lands next to her. Their eyes are sparkling as they turn towards each other.
Maybe some people buy dressing gowns all the time; perhaps they have a selection of them in their walk-in wardrobes. A summer one, a winter one, a holiday one.
I have just one. One I’ve had for a long time.
It was green and full length. One of those towelling ones. Not a nice silk one. A practical one. It has lasted me a long time. Cold Wellington student flats, our first cold English flat, our second cold English flat, our cold Australian winters, and our warm Danish apartment. Many many night wakings, up and down hallways to children. And now it was looking decidedly frayed.
Frayed is an understatement. The shoulder had a huge hole. Disgracefully big.
I bought a new one. Another practical one. Turquoise.
It is funny the things that stick in your memory. I remember buying my old dressing gown. I bought it at Farmers in Lower Hutt. I bought it with my mother.
I must have been about 16. My mother took me shopping to buy a good dressing gown that would last a long time. Thanks to surgery that required checking if my growth plates had fused already, I had had the disappointing news I was going to remain the shortest member of my family. So there wasn’t any danger we’d buy something I’d grow out of.
I think 17 years is good going for a dressing gown.
My mother would be the first to laugh and say ‘it was a just a dressing gown’. But she’d also give me one of those little side hugs, not a big cuddle, but a squeeze from next to me. Throwing her arm over my shoulders and giving my arm a rub while she did it. I do miss those.
Life has a funny way of just keeping on going. We keep going and, as is normal and natural, we collect experiences. We change in subtle ways, and big ways. My life has changed in some very big ways in the last two years. I never would have predicted being where I am today. My mother would never have predicted it.
Our lives were threaded together in complicated, beautiful ways. Now I have to manage without her. A new dressing gown feels like the fraying of one more thread. Another tie dissolved. It is sad, but it is also normal and natural and healthy.
Nobody wants to end up like Miss Havisham.
So we cut the ties and dust the cobwebs away. I keep her with me in other much more important ways. But this week, in which we mark two years since her death, when I hung that new dressing gown on its hook, it crossed my mind.
I felt it pull at my heart. I heard the thread snap.
A lot of moments that I don’t remember that I’m glad I wasn’t conscious for.
A lot of moments that I don’t remember that I wish I did.
I remember seeing her, the midwife lifting her into the world, purple and covered in vernix. A beautiful sight. I remember her being laid on my stomach. And I remember her being taken away again. And then they are running, running. And my mind has already gone.
There is an accepted narrative, and I felt guilty for a long time that I don’t fit it. I can’t force my story to follow its simple arcs no matter how many times I rewrite it in my mind.
Months after I told a midwife that I felt like my brain went through its final moments, that the last time I blacked out would have been my last thoughts if I hadn’t been in an OR lifted onto a table when they occurred. She didn’t disagree.
I felt guilty that I hadn’t worried about the baby, worried about who would look after her now. That I didn’t worry about my son. Or my husband. Or my father. What kind of person does that make me? That I didn’t think of everyone I love? Isn’t that what people are supposed to do?
Ridiculous, right? I was essentially criticising myself for dying wrong. As though that’s a thing. As though if I had been capable, or had had the time to worry I wouldn’t have done exactly that. But I didn’t. It was all too fast for that.
So I’ve stopped feeling guilty. Really. But I do feel sad. I think I’ll always feel sad, and that’s ok.
I’m sad that I didn’t get to ‘meet’ her. I didn’t get to lift her to my chest, and gaze at her eyes, count her fingers and toes, touch the tip of her tiny nose. I didn’t say hello, or tell her she was beautiful. I didn’t get to smile at my husband while we marvelled at our baby.
I’m sad when I see photos of women beaming with their newborns, and not because I begrudge them, just because I have one photo of me on the day my daughter was born. I do love that photo, because that moment was the best part of that day. But it is nothing like what new baby photos are meant to be like.
I’m sad because my daughter is wearing a hat in this photo. I knew she had hair. I wanted to see it, or at least feel it against my skin. But someone had put a hat on her while I was in OR, and I was too weak to talk, and nobody knew how I felt. So I didn’t get to feel her hair.
I’m sad that the first time my husband held his daughter it wasn’t a quiet precious moment for the three of us to enjoy. It was when a nurse told him to get the baby out of the way.
I’m sad because once again, my husband had to ring his parents and my father to say they had a grandchild, but…
I’m sad when I’m with a group of women and they laugh about how tired they were after labour, or how hungry they were. How they finally ate the sushi they’d been craving. And I remember how when my daughter was twelve hours or so old, my husband fed me some ice-cream, because I was too weak to feed myself.
I’m sad that my son didn’t meet his sister until she was 48 hours old. And when he walked into the room he was obviously overwhelmed. I desperately wanted to see him, and I’m sad that when I reached out my hand to touch him he was frightened by the IVs, and drew back from me.
I’m sad when people say you forget the pain the moment you hold your baby in your arms. It did feel wonderful to hold my daughter. But nothing will take away the horrors of beginning to wake up again in the OR, strapped to a table with no understanding of what was happening. We all think we know the story; trauma patient is sick, doctors make them better, then they wake up surrounded by kindly nurses who explain what happened and hand them a baby and congratulate them. But the truth is I was not anesthetised – I was unconscious. Conscious and unconscious are a sliding scale and I veered back and forth. Sometimes able to open my eyes, sometimes able to think, sometimes able to talk. The memories of that first day are disorienting, all fog and blurred edges, even now.
I’m sad because people say missing out on those first few moments doesn’t really matter, in the long run. And I know they are right, because I missed out with my son too. I know it didn’t really matter. But the defining memory of my son’s birth for me is hearing my blood splattering on the floor. Of being alone and confused and only holding him later. And I hoped, I hoped, this time would be better. To hold my new baby. And it wasn’t and I didn’t.
I’m sad when I see statements about childbirth not being a fairy tale, and all that matters is the two of you walk out of hospital alive. I’m well aware of how lucky we are. But that doesn’t mean that what happened in that in-between doesn’t matter.
Wanting to hold my baby was not just a desire, it was a biological function – a hormone rush that in my case was left unanswered, confused, overwhelmed with drugs. It’s the moment that gets women through the last difficult weeks of pregnancy, the days and hours of labour. So it’s hard when that moment is lost. We’ve lost the end to the story of our child’s arrival; we’ve missed the start of their life journey. Yes, there are many firsts over our children’s lifetimes. But to miss out on the first first, to have that day so filled with blanks, it feels a little bit sad.
It’s true what they say, that grief is the price we pay for love. Because this sadness is a type of grief. It sneaks in when I see baby photos, when she snuggles against me in the dark, when I run my fingers through her hair. I have to air it, or it will suffocate me. My heart grew with love for my daughter; there is room in my heart for this grief too.
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.