"Edited to Add"....

This started as a pregnancy blog when I fell pregnant in May 2009 after four years of finding a donor, doing all the counselling / paperwork / tests and trying.

And now, thanks to a 4WD which skidded onto our side of the road, killing our baby daughter at 34w and injuring me, my partner and two of my stepdaughters on 27 December 2009, it has turned into something else. We didn't want this something else, but apparently it is all we've got to go on with.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

All I have for you is a thousand broken metaphors

Last night I had the weepy honour of speaking to families grieving babies who didn't survive and the hospital staff who care for them at the Annual Memorial Service at The Women's. Here is the best I could muster in terms of broken analogies and 'my own meandering experience' as Mary Schmich* would put it.
(Edited version)
Thank you for coming this evening. When your own grief feels acute it can sometimes be difficult to encounter more loss – sometimes it can feel like an ocean of sadness. But there is something powerful in grieving together, in knowing that we are not alone, that even when we feel so very broken, sharing that grief can help others feel less alone and can help remind us what a fundamentally human thing it is to grieve your child. 

Some of you have lost your child sixty years ago, some only months or weeks ago. For me, it was eight years, two months and twenty-one days ago that we had our daughter’s funeral near here in the sacred space in this hospital. Being here again, the memories are sharp. The odd feeling in my arms from trying to cuddle a stupidly small casket, the cool feeling of her cheek, wet with all our tears. The main thing I wanted to know then was, would I ever feel okay again? Would I ever feel myself again?
Eight and a bit years on, I can say to my newly-bereaved self and to anyone here with similar questions yes, you will be okay. More than okay – if you don’t already, you will feel joy, you will laugh, you will have times when you think of the little one you are remembering tonight and smile. You will feel yourself again, but a different yourself, because you are a parent to your baby and that love, like any other, expands your heart. And at the very same time as feeling okay and feeling yourself, part of you ‘shall remain inconsolable’, as Sigmund Freud put it. 

Freud lost his daughter Sofi when she was 27. Nine years later, Freud wrote to a friend whose son had just died:
"We find a place for what we lose. Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know that we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually this is how it should be…it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish."
[Freud, S. (1929) Letter to Binswanger. In EL Freud (ed.) Letters of Sigmund Freud, New York, Basic Books]
This is the task of grieving: finding a place for what you have lost – a place in your own belief system, in your family and community, in your heart, in your sense of yourself – where the inconsolable part of you can somehow co-exist with everything else in your life.
This is part of what this memorial service aims to do – to provide a shared space for all we have lost – our babies, the children and adults they might have become, our chance to parent them in the usual way, our public identity as their parent, and sometimes our confidence in our bodies or ourselves because we were unable to bring them home.
Before we lost our daughter, I had a very rationalistic idea of emotions – I thought I could only feel one thing at a time. But this is what grief is – somehow you can feel completely broken and demolished by your grief, but at the very same time feel okay, even happy.
Mostly now, I feel more than okay – things have settled into a new normal, and I know I generally have a lucky life. The inconsolable feelings are just as intense, but they only show up now and then. I had a big conversation with a friend’s nine-year old daughter on the weekend. She was very cranky because she’d written to the Prime Minister about an issue very important to her, and she’d received a generic form-letter back which failed to respond to the issues she raised, and had a printed-on signature. She was so feisty and thoughtful, and as I got in the car I thought, I wonder if our daughter would have been like that by now? Would we have had those big conversations? And I sat and had a big noisy cry, but I also felt strangely grateful – as though our daughter had somehow visited me briefly via that little moment of connection with another child who was a similar age. The word that sums up so many moments like that one is ‘bittersweet’ – a moment when you can taste both the love and the grief all at once. It is heartbreaking, but it can also make you feel connected to life – the whole messy painful mix of love and loss that life is really about.
It hasn’t always felt that way though. There were some big chunks of time in the early years of our grief when I struggled to find the sweet in the bittersweet, when I was so exhausted by the sadness that I just wanted to be numb, to stop feeling. I can now identify that feeling now as the beginnings of depression – the point where feelings get stuck, or more like it, you get stuck under them like under a gigantic boulder. You’re stuck, because you feel like the boulder would crush you if you let it keep moving, and meanwhile, more boulders are piling up on the other side. That is exactly the point at which you need some help – for someone to help face the boulders with you. It is easy to think others are powerless to help you - that it would be pointless having two people squashed by boulders rather than one.
But the thing is, feelings are not boulders. They may feel like it. You may feel like you are Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom about to be squashed into the walls of the tunnel like a bit of roadkill. A more accurate metaphor is feelings as waves at a surf beach. They can be just as scary, and can definitely pummel you, and sometimes you need help to get through them, but pushing them away or trying to escape doesn’t tend to work because they just keep on coming. Numbing out can be dangerous – it dulls your awareness not just of the painful feelings, but of all the feelings and everything else, including others who may be experiencing similar things or who might be able to lend you support.
Sometimes the safest thing is counter-instinctual - to dive in deep and feel the waves roll through you all the way to your toes. You get better at it, you learn more about the waves and the rips, and you get to know some of the other people in the surf. You look out for one another, and you begin to feel okay asking for help.
We are all here because we have faced these waves. Eight years on from our loss, I feel so grateful for the connections made with other parents who lost their babies around the same time as us. Some helped us through a hard spot at the time, and others have become long-term friends, with some, just knowing they were there and suffering too made me feel less alone. I feel a bit like our kids are at school together, as though there is a cohort of ghost babies who bind us together as parents. Other bereaved parents get it like no one else does. We share dilemmas about what to wear to our child’s funeral, tips for weeping on public transport, frustrations about awkward moments and questions from well-meaning others. We exchange weepy hugs, knowing looks, compassionate silences. 

Other bereaved parents know that being a parent of a child who has died is still parenting. The parenting work is different and harder, but it is made of the same core stuff – unconditional love, wonder at your child, powerlessness about not being able to protect them, and the ability to survive feelings and situations you may have thought were beyond you.
Don’t underestimate the skills and knowledge that grief and grief-parenting gives you. This is your child’s gift to you, even though it may often be a painful one. The sudden sensitivity to other people’s loss and grief meant I couldn’t watch the news without bawling for years (and sometimes still struggle, if I’m honest). But you know more about death now because that’s where one of your kids is, and you know more about grieving because it is now a survival skill that you need to get up and out the door every morning. Empathy built on that knowledge is sorely needed in this world, and you honour your child and your love for them each time you are able to extend that empathy to others.
The other hard but valuable thing grief has done for me is that it forced me to think about where I believed our daughter went after she died so that I could keep loving her. I know that is an incredibly personal process, and that people and various communities have very diverse takes on that question. This poem is my take on it.

She was cremated

Not many people
have a baby daughter who is a star.
The light and heat released
with her little five pound eight body
is still travelling
through the heavens
will bounce,
and one day light upon
someone's eye
as the light from a star.
Not many people (I like to think)
have a baby daughter who is an ocean
(and at the same time, rain).
Her water atoms
went up like a mist
found new friends
among the atoms
of other babies
well-loved dogs.
And though it was scary to fall
(as rain)
when they hit the ocean
it felt like home.
(I like to think) Not many people
have a baby daughter who is a ballerina-shaped fuschia bud.
Her nutrients - every molecule that made
her soft skin
her fingers grip
has gifted itself to the earth
(I wouldn't have been so generous)
except for a few of the most beautiful
which circulate still in my blood.
‘You have a daughter’, they say
each time they get pumped through my heart.
‘You have a daughter’, they say
as they tend my broken cells.
The others
(there are millions)
find themselves
pulsing along a green stem
willing a bud to open,
feeding the thing that colours the petal,
scenting the pollen dust,
unfurling the leaf.
Are chewed on or breathed in by
living things,
And find a new home in them.
She is here.
Here a thousand times but also everywhere.
She makes me weep
at how clever and beautiful she is
And at my own small flimsy wish
For a more conventional baby.
(Still her - but here in the more conventional way)
It takes a very still
clear nightful of stars
or a big stormy oceanful of ocean
for me to know
(again, as I've always known)
how many babies it takes
to make up the sky.
Cremated and uncremated.
Missed and kissed.
Sung to and unsung to.
and each such a particular
little pinprick of light.

*Mary Schmich's column on Advice to Young People was subsequently turned into 'The Sunscreen Song' twenty years ago.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Telling

I walked past a paramedic today, in his blue overalls with his stitched red name patch, and found myself weeping. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the one who got into the passenger seat and held my hand after the ambulance people had taken El Prima away, who told me I was calm while the fire fighters levered open the car to release my legs, and who used his stethoscope in the ambulance and thought he could hear a fetal heartbeat.  He did all that for me and I can’t remember what he looked like. 

He came back to Emergency to see me after he’d done all the paperwork. He came in and smiled, and asked how I was, and I had to tell him that my baby had died.  She was still there, buried in my belly which was just as enormous as it had been in the car and in the ambulance, but I think he was wrong about her heartbeat.  What made me cry this morning, though, was the memory of his face once I’d done the telling.   I had told Mum and Rima on the phone, but he was the first one I had to tell in person, and had to watch his reaction.

Aside from random encounters with paramedics, things are feeling a bit shaky at the moment. There is a lot more telling to come this year.  As some of you may know, ever since my second night in the ICU, I have been writing a book – about the accident, and Zainab, and me trying to wrap my head around it all. 

Mainly, I wrote it because I had to, and to honour Zainab and her place in our lives, but also I wrote it because you lovely lot were here to listen and encourage, and share your own experiences.  I can’t thank you enough for that.  I also wanted more books telling about the grief and what comes after, books which spoke babies’ names and dealt honestly with the strange dance between grief and hope when you are trying to conceive after babyloss. 

And soon, the book is going to be out there, telling my story all over the place, and that is a scary thought.  Less because I feel exposed, but more because I know I can’t tell this sorrow without inflicting some of it on you and anyone else who picks it up.  There may be faces like my paramedic, which crumple.  But I also wanted to take my story out of the realm of ‘tragedy’, and tell about the ordinariness of grief and trauma, and the way they gradually get woven in to what is essentially a happy life.  

Fortunately, there was a publisher willing to help turn all these words into a solid actual book – mostly thanks to the fabulous Monica Dux and her volume MothermorphosisIn preparation for all that telling, this blog is going to get its first makeover since 2009 – so I wanted to warn you that it may be on the blink or out of town for a little while in the lead up to publication on 31 July.  But I’ll be posting updates here and here if you would like to keep track.

Biggest thank yous and love,

Baby Lost: A Story of Grief and Hope is available to pre-order now at https://www.mup.com.au/items/206394

Monday, December 28, 2015

Six years

Sunday the twenty-seventh of December, we meet again.  I'm not scared of you anymore, and I know that it wasn't your fault, or mine.  Six solid years I've had, to practice staring you in the eye, to re-think the small moments that placed us in the right-hand lane of Warrigal Road, traveling north.  For our baby girl, I've closed the door on all the possibilities that might have been had that car trip gone differently.  I've forgiven myself for not being able to go back in time and make the collision un-happen.  Yet she's here in a different form (in my head, I know, I know) - a long-limbed, dark-haired girl, always just out of sight.  A knowledgeable and protective big sister to Ali, a teller of complicated stories, a giver of fierce but quick hugs.  Gah, I wish I knew what those hugs felt like.  She's almost 100% imaginary now.

More real is my sense of her as distributed, as traced through into the elements - via her ashes and our grief and the kindnesses others have shown to us.  Pomegranates, silver princess gum trees, babushka dolls, Frida's face on the wall, a postcard spelling out L-O-V-E.  These are the negative spaces around her little life.

This year, our commemoration was low-key.  Just my dad and me, taking the long way around, over one bridge, along the beach, back over another bridge and through the bush to her spot.  We took her a rose from the garden, flowers picked from the bush on the way there, some pomegranate seeds.  I read her a poem.  A bull-ant fell onto my hand from the branches above. Unperturbed by me or its fall, it hurried along. 

It has been a hard year - my sister's baby girl lived three months exactly, mostly in one NICU unit or the other, mitochondrial disease sapping the energy she needed to keep her small heart beating. (Actually, her heart was enlarged. This is the painful irony - as the heart muscle struggles, it grows)  And while my own grief has become woven into my life, nothing can short-cut the process for my sister and her partner.  It's a particular kind of helplessness, to have built my own road through my grief, but to know that it is completely irrelevant to them.  My words are cardboard cutlery, my metaphors are just a big jumbled mess.  I just come back to the same phrases I say to Ali:  I hear you.  I'm here for you.  I love you.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The 'why' phase

We’re riding the bike and I point out the Silver Princess gumtree to Ali.

Me: Look bub, can you see the blossom? That’s a Silver Princess like the one S and C gave us for Zainab.

Ali: (thinks for a moment)

Ali: Her died.

Me: Yeah, she did, my love.

Ali: Why?

Me: There was a big car crash and she was in my tummy and she got very hurt, so her body stopped working.

Ali: Why?

Me: Well, it was a big bump, and made the placenta break away – that’s the bit that was sending healthy blood and food and oxygen to her. When she couldn’t get those things, her heart stopped working and that made her body stop working.

Ali: Me in there too – I got bit hurt too?

Me: No my love, you weren’t in my tummy then. You were just a twinkle in my eye then, so you didn’t get hurt. But it’s ok if you feel sad about it.

Ali: I miss her.

Me: Me too, my love, I miss her too.

Ali: Her in my eye.

Me: Oh? (not getting it) Oh! Is she a twinkle in your eye now?

Ali: Yeah.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Telling the news

I'd said my goodbyes, and walked out the front gate towards the overflow carpark, hoping to beat the rain.  But then I was running.  My legs had decided before I'd even formed the thought. Back across the rain-slick road, through the back gate and down the dirt road to the bush chapel and Z's spot.  I slowed only as the path wound me back to a sacred pace, stopping momentarily to touch a palm to the old man banksia tree, and to the granite memorial rock.  

You have a cousin.  I knelt in the sandy dirt.  You have a cousin, my love - your Auntie E had her baby on Thursday. She came early, and she's tiny, but she's doing well.  I did the maths - she's two thirds of the weight you were when you were born.  Except she's breathing.  

In the weeks after the accident, my brain had worked and worried over the numbers of Z's gestational age, her weight.  When I heard of babies smaller or earlier than Z who lived, it shot a pang of irrational mathematical injustice through me.  How is it that they are here, while she is not?  But then my nephew (my best friend's son) was born at exactly Z's birth weight and lived, and I felt only gratitude and love - for his aliveness, and for the small numerical connection between our babies.   

When my sister was admitted on Thursday to have the baby, I sat in the surgical admissions waiting room. Everyone else there was in a hospital gown, save two women accompanying an elderly Italian gentleman who'd fallen asleep.  We knew the baby would be small - it was her size and concerns about cord blood flow that had led to the early c-section.  I'd brought my laptop, in case surgery was delayed and I needed to get on with some work.  But I also brought it with me as the modern-day equivalent of the electronic maths game which I'd had with me in 1983, where as a seven-year-old I sat in the B Community Hospital waiting room, while my mum was giving birth to my sister. It took four hours, and when Dad called me in the first thing I said when I saw my new little sister was, 'what's that white stuff on her face?'
(Something super-geeky like this.  Image from here: http://www.computerworlduk.com/slideshow/infrastructure/3291946/kids-computers-through-the-ages/7/)
The timing for a c-section is much more predictable though, so when I hadn't heard anything from my brother-in-law after forty-five minutes, I became convinced that something terrible had happened.  Just as I started shaking with sobs, my phone vibrated - a message from my brother in law, with a photo - baby was on E's chest and clearly well enough not to need immediate assistance with breathing.  Suddenly I was grinning through the tears, and madly passing the good news on to family members.  I looked up and caught they eye of the two hospital gown ladies sitting near me. "My sister had her baby - both well".  Smiles broke out, and one woman said, "yes, I thought that was a happy cry".

A bull-ant makes its way across the sand near Z's spot. It considers the pussy-willow stems and moves on.  The small pussy willow heads shake a little.  The rain is setting in.  I can't believe that it has been more than five years since we dug a little hole here, knelt and tipped her ashes in.  I think of the picture from my brother's baby album - me at nearly five, holding newborn J on my lap.  Oh little Z.  The stories you would have told this baby.  You and Ali, in cahoots to make her giggle.  But these are just pictures in my head.  Meanwhile, the bull-ant marches purposefully.  Kiss her for me, dear bull-ant. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

December, you sneaky bastard

So, it's December, and driving in the car is making me cry again.  But this time, Ali says, 'Mama sad'.  'Yes, I'm sad, my love.  I miss Zainab'
'Meb', he says.  
This is his name for her.  It makes my heart leap that he has a name for her.

I try and stay in the left lane as much as I can.  Away from the cars hurtling in the other direction. Sudden movement on the road makes the breath stop in my throat.  There is no crash (this time) but I gasp with tears. 
'Mama sad'
'Yes, Mama is sad. I'm ok, little one, sometimes I just feel scared.'  
I should stop there but I don't.  
'All these cars and trucks are so big, my love, if they bump into one another then people can get hurt'.  The words catch and I sob again.

I don't want to give him a neurosis.  But I also want to tell him the truth.  I don't want this truth to come as a rude shock. I want him to know that 'normal' is not just the good, happy things (though I hope they make up the majority of his days) - that 'normal' includes the whole range of human experience - including heartbreak, grief, anger, not getting what you want.  This truth won't, can't insulate him against the pain that accompanies all these things, but he should know that they are heartbreakingly normal, that they happen to everyone, that they aren't his fault.  That these hard things are just one part of the big glorious horrific picture.

'Digger!' he says - and I'm relieved for the  distraction.

It doesn't help that I've been sacrificing sleep for work.  Sleep is the sawdust that keeps me solid. Without it the tears wash through me, blurring the boundaries between the one big old grief and all the surrounding griefs of this year (my dear friend Sam, cut short far too young, my two friends who have lost their dads in the last six weeks, one to a motorcycle crash, Stella Young, who I'd only exchanged emails with once, but whose wit and heart are sorely needed in the public conversations about disability and feminism).  And then there's atmospheric grief - the colourful shapes that I spy from the train under a bridge, then realise are sleeping bags and mattresses.  The sound of small voices at the library sing-a-along that make my heart ache for my own babies, one safe with his grandad today, the other in the care of the sandy dirt and gum leaves at Somers. 

I have work to do, I need my focus, my solidity, my sawdust.  But if I don't let this sadness leak out a little, it will drown me from the inside.

My sister is pregnant.  She's just had her 20 week ultrasound and everything was wonderfully, swimmingly fine, but still she's not buying any baby things yet.  They have bought a new fortress of a car though.  It gives me the heeby-jeeebies with its 4WD bulk, but I can understand why they might want a fortress.  She's been the one at the other end of the phone line, receiving bad news, she has no interest in making her own news.  

I'm so sad that our experience has made pregnancy scary for her, but so thankful as well for the prospect of being an auntie to this baby who is already so buoyed with love.  The sadness and fear, the love and gratitude are two sides of the same coin now, they are my in- and out-breath.  Neither can be banished, neither is unassailable.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Histopathology (from the greek: the study - logia of suffering - pathos tissue - histo)

When my dad visited me in rehab, he would bring little offerings to make me feel better.  A newspaper clipping about the zoo, little sachets of miso soup, a small posy of violets.  And one day, a pomegranate.  Everything about it was exquisite.  Once my visitors had gone home for the day, I held it in my hand – a crimson magical orb.  I’d eaten a pomegranate before, but I’d never dissected it like I did that day.  The process of cutting into the fruit and cracking it open felt like some kind of brutal surgery, the seeds bleeding into my fingers.  I peeled away chunks of pith and peel – at once leathery and delicate – football red on the outside and a soft cream on the inside.   Row on honeycombed row of translucent seeds was lodged into the pith like teeth in someone’s gums, each compartment veiled from the others with a filmy rose-yellow silk membrane.    I prised them out one by one, and took photos of all of it – the broken scraps of peel, the membrane, the translucent seeds.  Here was something that, even when split apart and broken only revealed more beauty.  

A few days after I was released from rehab and could join Rima and girls in our new house, a pomegranate tree was delivered – a gift in Z’s name from dear friends who lived overseas.  It stood, green and hopeful, on the porch as the summer days and weeks wore on – hot and dry.  I feared it would die there. I almost willed it to die there, and then was torn with guilt at the idea that I could kill my daughter’s memory in plant form.  Nonetheless, we waited.  

At first we were waiting for the placenta – I wanted to bury those cells that belonged to both Z and me underneath the tree.  The placenta had been dutifully saved by our midwives at the hospital – it was the one part of our birth plan that they were able to deliver.  It was being held by the histopathologists at the hospital after being examined to confirm the cause of Z’s death.   When I tried to follow it up, we were invited to a meeting at the hospital.  They put on their understanding faces, and made the ‘sorry for your loss’ noises.   My placenta had been treated with formaldehyde, making it toxic.  I imagined it floating in a jar.  ‘Does that mean you want to keep it?’  ‘No, no, but it has to be disposed of as medical waste.  Not so great to plant in your garden, especially if you are growing food there’.   It was a very long way of saying, ‘no, you can’t have it.’  By that time the fight had gone out of me.  The poor histopathologists – I think it was probably quite odd for them to have the owner of some tissue that they had preserved and examined show up and demand it back.  So from then on we were no longer waiting on medical bureacrats but on my own battered ability to make decisions and to dig a hole. 

The drought had killed a small tree in the front yard – it stood, unrepentantly ugly between our bay window and the front fence.  I didn’t know what kind of tree it was – much as I liked the idea of a garden, gardening itself was still something I thought old people did.  It was nearly March by the time we started digging it out, when the Preston clay was at its hardest.  I threw the pick at the ground, over and over again, carving out the rough outline of a circle around the dead tree.  The arc of the pick swinging up, the rush down and the ‘thuck’ of contact – the sheer solidity of the earth was a relief.  I didn’t need to weep, or think, or speak.  Just dig. My convalescent limbs were sore and sweaty from the work – I took a long bath with some chalky bathpowder my sister had given me for Christmas a few months ago on that other planet that was my life pre-accident.  

The next day I carried bucket after bucket out across the porch and out to our hole.  I gave the dead tree a relaxing bath in my second-hand bathwater.  The clay held the water almost as well as the enamel bath tub.  The digging, to my regret, had to be postponed while the water level slowly soaked lower and lower until I braved the mud and worried away at the dead tree’s root system , carving away the stiff mud.  My dad and occasionally Rima took turns, but I was alone for the last bit, when the tree developed a tantalizing wobble, like a loose tooth.  Even then it took nearly an hour before it gave way with a satisfying crunch, the small dead tree suddenly lurching so that it looked more dead and more out of place than before.  Remembering what it was like to feel strong in my unfamiliar, resurrected body, I lifted it part-way out of the hole before calling for help.

It left a crater in the front yard – a crater I tended lovingly with clay-breaker and compost, before we finally eased the sickly looking pomegranate tree into the hole.  Promptly on arriving in its new home, the tree dropped the rest of its leaves for autumn, leaving us to wonder about its survival until Spring.  Miraculously, there in August were tiny red buds – having eschewed the colour red for autumn yellows, our little pomegranate tree wore red for Spring instead.  

I would prune the miniature roses at the front of the house, making a tiny posy to bring inside and then carrying the loose petals and heads over to the pomegranate tree to sprinkle the petals at the base of the tree, giving it a composting carpet of pink, red and yellow-gold-pink.  It became a ritual.  A chance to have a natter with my beautiful girl.  “I miss you, my little love.  I wish you were in the house, being loud.”  I would kneel in the front yard chatting to a pomegranate tree – ok with being the crazy grieving mother of the neighbourhood if it mean I could chat with my daughter.  Or maybe they thought I was just a very attentive gardener?

When two and half years later, after Ali was born, I realised that the stash of frozen breastmilk had passed its use-by date, I let it defrost, and then poured it out under the pomegranate tree, finally giving my daughter the milk she’d never tasted.  

We dug that hole a second time nearly four years later.  The ground it grew in was no longer ours – sold at auction to another family after Rima and I separated.  The rest of the garden was theirs – the quince tree with its delicate blossom, the hot pink camellia which helped us through the winters, the miniature roses which I had picked posy after tiny posy for Zainab from – but the pomegranate tree I needed to take with me.  A colleague’s son achieved in five minutes what had taken us hours and days four years before, slicing neatly around the root-ball and leveraging it up onto his ute.  

Here, the pomegranate tree takes up most of an enormous wine-barrel pot on my little deck – within a line of sight from the kitchen sink.  I worried about whether it would survive a second transplantation, into a more confined home, but when it lost its leaves, there on the fence side were two modest sized orbs – its first edible fruit.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Taking the hills

There's a bit of our ride from home to the uni that I love or hate - not sure which. 

We're coming past the playground on the gravel path.  Ali points, explains in Ali-language - I think he's rating the slide as one of his favourites.  "I know, bubba, the best slide ever!  Not this time though, love - we have to get to work.  We'll come back another day".

The path heads downhill and I avoid the gully in the middle of the path made by rain.  I touch the brakes but we are still picking up speed.  Ali flings his arms wide and inhales all that fast-moving air - there are no words, even Ali words, for this.  I scan to check if someone is coming down the path towards us (as far as I can see before the path twists off into the bush), and if it is clear, I push harder, getting the most out of the downhill before we swing up the parabola of the hill, dropping gears quickly (but not so quickly that we lose traction) while turning sharply to the right. 

If it works, we hit the hill at a decent pace, and chances are I won't have to get off and push halfway up.  I'm quickly down to first gear and pushing slower and harder as we inch up the hill. 

Ali makes an insistent point, then turns to look at me to see why I haven't responded yet. 
"We're going up a hill, bubba" I pant.  "It's hard work!" 

A part of me just wants it to end, just wants to say "stuff it" and take the car next time.  Part of me doesn't want Ali to see me struggling like this, and sometimes 'failing' and having to get off and push.  But we are here now, and there is no way to get to work this morning except up this hill.  I pull the handlebars towards me with each push of the pedals.  Already this hill is easier than it was last week, but no matter how fit I get, it will always be a slog.  I've learned now that from halfway up, I can take the path around the estate - it adds maybe half a kilometre to the ride, but at least it dilutes that hill.  There's another dip, earlier in the ride, that I skip altogether, zig-zagging through little streets to follow the ridge line.  But really, can I blame anyone for the hills, when I've chosen to ride a bike?  And while my thoughts are going in circles like this, my legs are doing the hard work, and suddenly we're there and cruising on the flat, and I can hardly remember what it felt like to be pushing uphill. 

Now that we're in our own space at last, I've been thinking a lot about the things that may have gone wrong with El Prima and I.  One of those things, I suspect, was the habit (ok, my habit) of blaming, of looking for some excuse or outward reason when things were hard.  I'm re-reading Pema Chodron, When things fall apart,  and her take on the principle, "drive all blames into one".  That doesn't mean just swapping blaming others for blaming ourselves instead - rather, Chodron suggests that the whole blaming process is an attempt to reject whatever unpleasant feelings have arisen, rather than just feeling them and letting them soften us and open us to compassion for ourselves and others.  Rather than just taking the hill and feeling what it is like to sweat and pant and work hard, and sometimes to stall and have to get off and push. 

There's no one to blame for a hill, it just is, and it is up to me to work my way up it, or to navigate another way.  And I don't really need to hate it or love it, just to take it as a hill.  This is what my new life feels like - freedom and hard work in equal measures. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Being here

Little girl

Four years strong.

Tree-climbing, conversation making
Child.  Putter-on of your own
Shoes and socks
(I'll help you with the laces,
my love)
Four years of ghost memories and
I'm still no more certain of
your hypothetical self
Had you lived to four.

But still, I feel I know
More of you
From the tiny glimpses I get
(I'll take any that come my way).

Kids tell serious stories
Using your eyebrows.
Your colours - that orangey-pink-red and the
Grassy pale green, retro light blue
Are apparently fashionable this year.
Every rose and its scent
Is yours by right.
The crush of petal to lip.
Your sleeping brother's eyelashes.
His insistence.
The new warble of young magpies.
The whole moon and your star's
Side of the darkening sky.

I piece you together from
These clues.
I want to find you nearby
To make these circles overlap:
Knowing my child is okay
and Being here.

Yes, it has been yonks.  So many yonks that here we are again, back at Z's time of year.  Divorce, selling the house, working again, being mama have all kept me in a constant path of motion, so it is good and also scary to have a little pause.  I am thankful.  It all could have been so much worse.  The break-up nastiness was shortlived and we're both so delighted to be out of the relationship (and to have sold the house for more than expected) that there is actually goodwill between us, as well as huge love and concern for Ali and Snazzy.  It's hard to know what I feel, though, while everything is still in boxes, awaiting removal from the old house, storage, and unpacking in my new space.  We've been in some state of renovation or divorce induced transit since february.  Why do I need physical possessions in order to feel my feelings?  I don't know.  That's not quite it - it's more the energy that managing possessions across three places and in various states of packed / unpacked requires.  I aspire to own less

I had decided back in July that I wanted to start marking the 28th as Z's birthday, which it actually is - but our accident was on the evening of the 27th, and because there was no sleep that night, and because of that confusing death and birth in the wrong order thing, I had always marked it as the 27th.  A big mashed-up birthday, deathday, accident anniversary sadfest.  This year is the first time I have actually been able to start distinguishing between the grief and the trauma, and I think I optimistically thought I was 'over' the trauma.  But these last few weeks it has come back to bite me with nightmares and feeling triggered and hypervigilant while driving.  So I think I need to mark the 27th as well - even if just to keep it firmly in my gaze because I don't trust it enough to be an ordinary day. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


I am redirecting my mail online.  The mouse hovers between "temporary" and "permanent".  The Australia Post site tells me,  "For a permanent move, you are not planning to return to your old address".  The truth is, I don't know, but at the moment I have no plans to ever return, except to pack up more fully and prepare the house and garden for sale. 

El Prima and I are separating.  It is sad, but my heart is lighter than it has been in years.  I know this is the right thing.  I spent so long closing off this possibility from myself, telling myself I couldn't follow in my parents' footsteps and have a marriage fail, subject my children to divorce.  But fear of the messiness of separation can't in itself hold a relationship together - not without centring our whole lives on fear, resignation, bitterness.  We tried really hard.  We cleaned the slate again and again but each time my heart was less willing to trust, it had to be cajoled, it grew weary and more skeptical.  And despite all the things I love about El Prima, I was not willing to live like that.  I didn't want Z's legacy in our lives to be relationship breakdown.  But I know now that none of this was her fault, and that she sings in our hearts when we are happy - she deserves more of that.  We deserve more of that. 

It feels appropriate that this is happening in winter.  I'm not sleeping very well at the moment and have been waking up early, doing quiet yoga in the dark on our friend's carpet where Ali and I are staying.  In those quiet dark hours, I meditate.  I make lists.  I remember what it is like to be myself.

We will make it amicable.  We will put the kids first.  We'll have to figure out what to do with Z's little pomegranite tree in our front yard. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Three years

Oh, I feel so sheepish to have been so quiet on here.  I have all kinds of good excuses - Christmas, my brother's wedding, a dose of gastro, and most of all, a hilarious baby boy whose laugh makes a room full of strangers smile. 
He is lovely.  We feel impossibly blessed.  He really is a cheery little soul and it blows my mind how much I love him.  I have to pinch myself on a regular basis to remind myself this is actually happening.  The blocks of time for writing are much harder to find, but it's not just that.  So many of the things which I relied on post-accident to make sense of our loss and to keep myself on an even keel have fallen by the way side - yoga, writing, meditation etc.  Somehow it seems so hard to keep up with all the baby / house / renovation / christmas stuff while also wanting to enjoy my time with Ali.  I'd really like to find ways to claw back a bit of time for restorative practices.  In a way I don't need them as desperately as I once did, but I really could do with a little more of the calmness and reflection they gave me.  Am I kidding myself to think that these things are compatible with caring for a small child?  Or do I just need to organise myself better?  It doesn't help that we're also renovating at the moment, so that there is a constant list of decisions to be made, bricks to be cleaned, bills to be paid, calls to be made etc. 

It feels like Z is with us enjoying Ali's babyhood.  She's here in her pomegranate tree in the front yard, in the roses I inhale as I walk up our street, in the few items of her baby clothes that Ali still sometimes wears, in her blanket I use for Ali when we travel, in the stars when I hang the washing in the summer night, in the extra tight cuddles I give Ali when I soothe him to sleep.  The grief still hits me now and then, but it is like a sneeze - I sense it coming, it shakes me, and then it moves on.  I look at Ali's face and wonder what she would have looked like at his age, or as a three-year-old. 

We spent her day and a few days either side of it down the coast, near the bush chapel where her ashes are buried.  We played her some music, we sang her a lullaby, my mum sat next to me and squeezed my hand.  A part of me feels guilty that our grief has mellowed - in some strange way I miss the clean intensity of the early days.  But this is now a grief that is woven in with our lives. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Both my babies

Ali has changed so much already since he was born.  Even within 24 hours of his birth, his head was no longer the soft squished newborn head, and the cord which was so plump and pulsing at his birth was quickly drying up and turning into a belly button.  Too many tiny changes to catalogue - new skills, new habits, growth in every direction.  He's now over a month old - and yet his birth still feels so close - the surprise of having a living baby hasn't worn off yet for me. 

And it hit me that this is what being a parent is - to bear witness and care for another human being through their most intense period of growth and change - where their existing self is constantly slipping like mercury through your fingers, becoming a new baby, a new little person everyday as they grow and change.  As much as I want to grasp onto who Ali is this very minute, I know that this current version of him is just a snapshot - that he is the process rather than the minute by minute product of himself.  

When I had that thought, it made me cry because I'm only just starting to grasp how much we missed out on with Zainab.  Does that mean I completely missed parenting her - because, by the time I held her in my arms, she was still - she was not going to grow or move any more? I felt lost for a moment as her mother.  But not only did I love her through the constant transitions and growth of pregnancy - from a tiny cellular possibility to a kicking, hiccoughing, nearly six pound baby, but I also loved her and held her through that other big transition - from life to death.  I was there surrounding her as her heart slowed and then stopped as we sat in the wreckage, but I was also there after she was born, holding her as the living warmth ebbed away from her body and her little soul stretched away to begin its travels. 

I asked El Prima the other day whether she thought Zainab could hear my dad singing her a lullaby when he held her after she was born, and she said, "Yes - the soul hangs around for a while - at least a day - that's why we stay with someone who has died, with their body for the first day."  That second transition - from someone you love whose heart has just stopped beating, to a cold body - has always frightened me a bit. thanks to all those cultural phobias of dead bodies and deterioration.  There was a moment on the day we spent with her, when I had slept briefly and I woke and asked to hold her again, and the cold on her cheeks was noticeable.  I knew we didn't have much time with her - that the little baby soul we loved so much was mingling back into the atmosphere and gradually relinquishing the atoms of her body back to the elements. 

I look at all the beautiful cards and gifts that family and friends have sent congratulating us on Ali's birth, and it feels so unfair that Zainab got condolences instead.  It will always be unfair.  But I feel now that she exists in a state beyond fair and unfair.  And that having held her as she crossed into death and to love her even all the way into death was all I could do as her mama.  

 *               *             *

I dreamt last night that I was out shopping with El Prima and the girls – we were in a toyshop, and Zainab was with us – she was a curly-headed toddler about fifteen months old.  One moment she was looking at toys in our aisle, and the next I asked El Prima where she’d gone – and we couldn’t see her anywhere.  We were searching all over the shop – calling out her name, and when it was clear she wasn’t there, we ran out to the street and were looking for her.  I saw El Prima run across the road and I was so scared that I’d see her pick up Zainab from the road – I wanted to find her but please god, not on the road, not hurt or killed.
Then a tram came, and I realised it was our tram home.  I felt compelled to get on – in my head all sorts of arguments were tested and rejected – maybe she would know it was our tram, maybe someone took her on it – I had no idea, but I just knew I had to get on that tram.  Somehow we were now looking for both Ali and Zainab.  I stepped up onto the tram and searched up and down, and there was Zainab, running into y arms.  I hugged her to me and breathed her in, simultaneously looking around for Ali.  “Who found her?” I asked “Was there a little boy with her?” I asked.  Some sulky-looking teenagers waved at me to indicate it was them who had found her who had found her.  They pointed, and there was Ali – himself, but a toddler only a few months younger than Zainab.  I drew him to me and held both my babies – a solid little person in each arm.  “Oh my babies”, I cried, “I’m so sorry.  I’m so sorry I took my eyes off you!”

I woke to my own crying, and find my arms around someone warm – El Prima.  I listen for Ali’s snuffling breath in the co-sleeper next to our bed, and when I hear him, I exhale, grateful for him, grateful for Zainab visiting my dreams (it's been a while my darling girl), and so so grateful for that feeling, however brief, of holding both my babies in my arms.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Right Where I Am 2012: Two years and five months

I'm glad Angie has decided to put on the Right Where I am Now project again -  my god it feels like so much has changed in a year.

Its a Sunday the 27th again, which makes it two years and five months exactly since I was strapped to a trolley in the emergency department, hand on my 34w pregnant belly, still hoping that we might hear Haloumi's heartbeat.  I'm back in hospital now - this time in the adjoining maternity hospital, but things are so, so different - and I am acutely grateful for that.  This time, it's our six day old baby boy, Ali, who is a patient in the special care nursery, but his outlook is the complete opposite to Haloumi's.  He's alive, to start with, and in rude health, but needs phototherapy for jaundice due to ABO incompatibility.  I'm sleeping on a recliner next to his isolette so that we can continue breastfeeding.  I'm still in a state of disbelief that we have a living baby who I can breastfeed, who gives me serious looks with his dark eyes, whose noises I wake up to in the night, thinking, "A baby is crying... oh, that is *our* baby". 

In the family lounge I talk to the grandmother of a baby girl born at 27 weeks, and I send out a silent thank you to all available deities for our chubby, healthy, full term little boy who looks so much like his older sister.  But where we only got still glimpses of her, he is here in real time - moving, making faces, clearly enunciating his "Waaaa" cry and drinking my milk - all the things I longed for so much  with Zainab.  I know now that all those possibilities are gone for her.  What she (and we) missed out on still makes me cry, but there's now an ocean of experiences which mothering her has given me.  If I had to choose, I would always choose for her to live, but none of us get the luxury of that choice, so I have to take what I can from being her mama.  And even if it isn't what I would have chosen, that is still a lot. 

It feels corny to try to enumerate what exactly to that is - to be honest, it feels as though my whole personality and belief system has re-shaped around being mama to Zainab.  It isn't that I've "found religion" or anything like that.  It's more that being mother to a dead child has meant that my love follows her into death, so I've had to think about what death entails - where is it exactly, and can I still connect with her while she's there?  I've come to realise that, if I thought of death as some separate, alien place that I needed to get to in order to be close to her, then being comfortable in the land of the living was just not possible. I didn't want to choose between being close to her and living - so I had to find her here - to inhale her softness with the rose petals, to wear her memory in my choices of jewellery, to let death sit comfortably at our table - feeling her existence each time we missed her.  And now, to notice all the resemblances between her and her brother. 

I feel like she is built into our lives now - we have our small rituals for her, and family and friends (mostly) acknowledge her as a significant part of our family.  The blanket my mum knitted for her - which she was wrapped in for much of the time we held her, is here wrapping Ali - especially on car trips, and exerting a protective warmth.  I like to think that they know one another - that her cells watched over his as he grew within me, maybe bossing him around a little like the big sister she is.  He's still in that newborn place where he seems to be in two worlds at once - staring at things just beyond my shoulder, making inexplicable but beautiful facial expressions.  I whisper in his ear, "tell your sister we love her".

Just as I refuse to choose between living and being close to Z, I've also realised that I don't need to choose between feeling the sadness when it comes, and enjoying pure joy when that arrives - even if they both tumble in the door at the same time.  It doesn't make sense, but I've now given up on trying to make sense of emotions - just feeling them honestly and genuinely is big enough. 

Looking back, my post last year touched on similar ground, but while I'd started to make friends with the intensity of losing Z, I was still so so sad, so much of the time.  I feel like my life has recovered a lightness since then. There really was a cruel little part of me that felt like I would never have a living child, that mocked me for wanting one so badly.  And yet here he is - soft-snoring, velvet-cheeked proof that the universe can be unimaginably good as well as unimaginably cruel.  I am so grateful that the odds favoured us this time.