Into my arms, oh Lord/ Into my arms

There are a lot of blanks the day my daughter was born.

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.

DSCN9714

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.

I think, therefore I am.

The following conversation may have at some point become confused with the Phil101 course I took at university. I’ll leave it to your discretion at what point that occurred.

The players:
F: early thirty mother
M: her son three years old
A: ten month old daughter

The setting: a light afternoon snack at the table.

M: Are mice real?
F: Yes. Mice are real.
M: Are they this big? The real mice. Holds finger and thumb approx. 5cm apart Can we see them?
F: Yes. But we don’t have any in our house so there are none here to see.
M: Are tigers real?
F: Yes tigers are real. You saw one at the zoo, remember?
M: Do they come to tea?
F: No, tigers that come to tea aren’t real. Or at least I hope they aren’t.
A: unintelligible roar
M: Are dinosaurs real?
F: Ye-es. Dinosaurs were real. But there aren’t any dinosaurs anymore. They lived before there were people. But they were real.
M: Before the Romans?
F: Yeah. Before any people so, before the Romans.
M: Are dragons real?
F: No. Dragons are a bit like dinosaurs, but they are only in stories. Takes a sip of her single-origin coffee
M: Are witches real?
F: Some people call themselves witches. But they can’t do magic. Only witches in stories can do magic.

Silence, except for the noise of all three snacking on their organic vegetable crudités.

M: Is Santa real?
F: Well, what do you think?
M: I think he is based on the historical figure of Nicholaos of Myra, who lived in Asia Minor during the fourth century, and was therefore real. Sips his artesian  water. Furthermore, his name and penchant for gift-giving live on in the story we call ‘Santa Claus’. You and Daddy use this mysterious ‘Santa Claus’ as the embodiment of the Christmas spirit of generosity, and so in that sense you could say he represents a real thing.
F: Good answer M.

A, overwhelmed by angst, throws her cucumber on the floor.

M: Am I real?
F: I think so.
M: But don’t you know?

F passes around the homemade spelt grissini and a pesto dip.

F: Well, according to Descartes the only thing we can be sure of is whether our own self is real. I know that I think. I think I am sitting here talking to you, but our senses can be unreliable.
M: Meaning?
F: Meaning that from my point of view, I am real. But am I sure that you are real? Your sister is real? This house? Perhaps I am solely a brain in a tank – and everything I perceive is being transmitted to me via external electrical impulses, instead of arising from physical experience. From my point of view, I can only assume you are real, but I have no way of knowing for sure. Of course you could say the same thing about me. It’s a thought experiment.
A: Like Schrödinger’s cat.
F: Exactly, A.
M: Schrödinger’s cat?
F: The one with the cat shut in a box, and while the box is shut we don’t whether the cat is alive or dead.
M: That doesn’t sound very nice for the cat.
F: No. Look, can we leave ethics for tomorrow. I feel we can give it the time it deserves then.
M: Okay. I don’t mind waiting for answers to my questions.

F hands around finger bowls and starched napkins.

 

 

People hurry by so quickly/ don’t they hear the melodies

For Mum. Marilyn Joy 11/03/51-23/06/14

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.

1069
Mum in 1981 with my sister

 

Only one half of him slept at a time. The other head was always awake

It’s 1am, or 2am, or perhaps 4am. I hear footsteps, or coughing, or crying. I want to bury my head in my pillow. Why can’t you just sleep? Either of you.

It’s 5pm. My son is asking to watch TV. I don’t want him to watch TV all evening, but I need to get our tea ready. I cave and switch the TV on. At least one of you is happy. My daughter crawls around under my feet, whining to be picked up. I know what you want but I can’t hold you all the time. I just want to be able to drain the pot of boiling water and pasta without worrying about lifting it with a baby underfoot. That’s obviously a bad idea, can’t you just give me one minute to finish a job?

It’s 11am, I’m trying to read to them both. Providing quality, enriching experience. My son is happy enough. As long as he gets to choose the book. And where we sit. And as long as his sister doesn’t chew the book. But luckily she’s crawled off. Somehow she’s found paper (again) on the floor and is eating it.

It’s 3pm. My son and I stand at opposite ends of the living room, I’m trying to follow his complicated instructions. I’m not doing it right. He flings his arms wildly, his whole body full of frustration. I have no idea what this stupid game is about or what I am doing wrong. His sister sits in the middle of the floor, bemused.
I understand what I’m meant to say

‘How far is it?’ I yell
‘ten past three centimetres’ Is his gleeful reply ‘Now swim like this to me’ He wriggles.
So I copy his wriggle, swimming across the floor to him. He laughs. His sister laughs too, and claps her hands in delight. Suddenly there is nothing more important than wriggling across the room and laughing with my children.

It’s 11am. He chooses The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He finally stays in one place and his sister crawls back over to stick fingers in the holes. When I lift her onto my lap too, she grabs my hair and pulls my face to hers rubbing her mouth on my cheek in her gross but very adorable gesture of affection.

It’s 5pm. My son’s favourite TV programme is on; the one where the presenter Rosa bakes cakes with children to surprise their loved ones with. He turns to me
‘We could fly to New Zealand and sneak into Grandad’s house and find out what he likes, and then bake him a cake with his favourite colours.’
His sister is still whining. I look down into her big blue eyes, and marvel once again that I managed to produce two blue eyed children. I know she’s hungry. Perhaps she knows after I move metal objects around on the stovetop food will be presented. But she doesn’t know it is a necessary part of the process yet. I pick her up and she snuggles against me.
‘Grandad would love a cake’ I say.

There is a character in the Doctor Doolittle novels, the Pushmi-pullyu. It’s so long since I’ve read the books I don’t remember much other than the name and some troublingly racist colonial attitudes that mean I might not urge the kids to read this one. But I love the name. It is a name that deserves a life of its own. It is a word that sums up how I so often feel when I am surrounded by the needs of my small children.

They push me. They push me when I am tired and stressed. When the days are long. And miraculously the nights are even longer. The push me when the amount of rest I get is dictated not by my own body, but by the needs of two small dependent children. And sometimes I want to say ‘enough!’

It can feel like the world expects us to have children that behave every minute, or for us to be enjoying every minute. Instead of just enjoying the ones that are actually enjoyable. It can be easy to feel despondent when your child is the one misbehaving, eating-pickily, or refusing to put their socks on. We forget no parent ever has had a child that did exactly what they were told, every time, without argument. So we joke about being ‘bad’ parents.

This is how I know I’m not really a ‘bad parent’.

Because every time they have pushed me to the edge. Every time I swear under my breath. Every time I snap and take away a toy just so I can get them to listen. Every time I lean my head against the door frame for a split second thinking they might just magically go to sleep in that pause. All of those are not the summation of my parenting, because every time, in the end, I open the door and I hold them.

I don’t pretend to be perfect. Sometimes I think I’ll scream if I see another Janet-bloody-Lansbury article. I spend half my days torn between what needs to get done, and what my children want right now. I can feel pushed and pulled in a dozen directions at once. And I have to remind myself to stop. That even if I yell sometimes, or distract them with TV, or the floor is covered in books and toys, it’s ok. Because the house is clean enough, my children are fed, my children are loved.

When it is good it can be wonderful. When both my children laugh it is the best feeling. Watching my son push my daughter on a swing while she laughed last weekend felt like the highlight of my life. A highlight. Because life is not like that all the time. Never. Nobody’s. So when it’s tough I just have to breathe, and remind myself ‘pushmi-pullyu’. We’ll be on an upward swing again soon enough.

It’s 1am, or 2am or perhaps 4am. I want to bury my head in my pillow, but I don’t. I sit on my son’s bed and stroke his hair. Or I rock my daughter in my arms. In the dark we sway together. To and fro. To and fro. To and fro.