Monday, 21 June 2010


In the first few weeks after the birth of Georgina and Jessica, I felt as if I were walking next to myself. As though some mighty hand had come down and ripped the pith out of me, taken away that essential, central part that is, somehow, me and carefully decanted it, collapsed and shivering, about two feet to the side of where my physical body, fleshy me, was standing.

As though the two parts of me, my body and . . .ack . . . my mind? my soul? my brain? . . . could no longer bear direct contact with one another but preferred to be estranged, kind of hanging around in the immediate vicinity but not on speaking terms.

I suppose that this was shock. This sly conspiracy between my mind and my body who had somehow, between themselves, decided that this situation was simply far too painful and they were going to try their damnedest to absent themselves from it. I could almost catch sideways glimpses of myself without the aid of a mirror. Or, at least, of someone who looked like me, peering into incubators, holding conversations, sobbing in a heap on the floor, buying groceries. But I often felt as though I was slightly to the side of, or slightly above, the frame of action.

I had quite a few disturbances of physical sensation in the months after the girls were born. Fluid pooled in my ankles and feet, giving me the sensation of an extra pair of feet flopping about on top of my real feet. Water felt somehow wrong, too thin, too insubstantial. I'd wash my hands or put my foot in the bath and recoil in surprise. My body felt, by turns, too large and rounded and as thin and insubstantial as a mist. I developed restless legs and kept my husband awake at night with endless twitchings of my feet.

I did return to 'myself' eventually but that strange, disconnected state has never entirely vanished.

Only one person, outside of the family and a couple of work colleagues, saw Jessica in intensive care. I didn't really want anyone to see her, some sort of misguided protective maternal instinct I suppose. Or perhaps I thought, if nobody saw her, it wouldn't really have happened.

One friend came to the hospital. I was so glad to see her. She bought Jessica a present, a tiny, tiny dress labelled up to 2lbs on its size label. She gave me a 'congratulations, it's a girl' card. Just a flicker of normality in a world that had been turned on its end. I was so very grateful for that.

She told me something that I clung on to for months. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer when we were in our early twenties and underwent months of chemotherapy. She told me, during that time, she felt as though she had stepped sideways. As though she were moving in parallel to everyday life, just slightly outside the boundaries. She could still see her 'old' life, her job, worries about paying the bills, getting hair cuts, watching television programmes, fixing meals. But it was translucent or like so much dust. She was in a strange, new place where nobody could really follow her.

But she also told me that, one day, I would take the step back towards my old life. I'm still hopeful that I might because it's lonely here, in this sideways place, where I wage a futile battle against things that were decided a very long time ago. Where that old life and its concerns seem so very, very strange. Sickeningly so.

I tried to step back again.
But I can't remember which direction I took my initial sideways step in.
And I seem to have misplaced my feet.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Alien in the Machine

Pregnancy. Childbirth.

When I try to imagine my body going through either of those states again, something within me simply fails to engage. 
Just the click, click of an empty engine turning over. 
Alien-me turns these two ideas over and over in my hands, squinting. 
Pregnancy. Childbirth.
So that is how it is achieved in this particular species. How very novel. What brilliant mind concocted that particular schema? Surely there must be a better way. 
I throw my alien hands up in despair at the inherent stupidity of the human reproductive system. If you can even call something so crazily haphazard a system. That can take a child so very far, all internal organs formed, limbs, fingers, toes, hair, eyes, nose, brain, and then still force their own mother's body to discard them.

I give pregnant women sidelong glances. Curious. 
They sometimes smile back at me, and at my daughter who beams at them from her buggy, imagining that I know what it is to be pregnant.
I am a fraud.
I did not provision her, I did not breathe for her, I did not nourish her.
I only took my children up to the very, very top of a high precipice. And then I let them go.
But I thought I'd give them a faint glimmer of a whisper of a chance of making it out alive. 
Just for a bit of additional tension.

My body did not experience the stresses and strains of pregnancy. 
I wonder what a doctor would conclude from a physical examination, would he or she be able to tell that I had ever had children, ever given birth?  

My daughters did not grow big and strong inside me. 
My thin babies.
My thin, thin, breakable little children.
So ugly. Like tiny, red frogs. Fused eyes. 
But never, ever ugly to me.
When I look back at the pictures, I am always shocked.
Because I don't remember them looking that way. To me they always looked beautiful. 
But my daughters look almost somehow indecent, appalling.
More naked than you or I would look if we stripped off all our clothes.
The soul too close to the skin, so near the surface that you can see the joins.
How they were made, how we are all made, is too glaringly obvious in those early pictures. 
There is something there that makes people want to avert their eyes, From the pain of it. Or maybe from the beauty.

Not many people have babies who look like my girls. I don't know how I would feel about having a baby that did not, those little forms make my heart twist so. 

One of the many cruel aspects of having a very premature baby in neonatal care is that the units tend to be co-located with maternity wards. I used to stare, google eyed at the new born babies who confronted me every single time I left the NICU. Those gigantic solid limbs. Their eyes were open. The ribs that didn't collapse and inflate visibly with every breath. The firm hold on that life that my daughters' tiny, bony hands scrabbled so to hold on to.

With mothers who touched them, who didn't stop to ask permission. That casual stooping down to a baby hidden within a car seat, the easy cradling of a tiny body. Their effortlessness never failed to fill me with astonishment.
I was knocked absolutely sideways.
At how different I was. 
At how different my children were. 

Both tiny. One dead. Machines in constant attendance.

It is those machines that are with me still. That whir around on the edges of my mind. That suck-thump-thump of the ventilator, the thin translucent lines that pushed nutrition, blood, drugs in, the trace on the monitor, the slow, slow progression of the syringes as the pumps ran down.

I don't really know what I expected child birth to be like.
I couldn't imagine it before the girls were born.
I thought it would be intimate, that I would enfold my new born children in my arms and whisper that I loved them. Show them proudly to my husband.

It wasn't like that.

The fleshy, earthy parts of this process seem to be closed off to me.
It seems somehow related. 
My inability to mother my own existing two children and my seeming inability to have another child.
No goodness seems to spring from me, or from my husband, or from the kind of love that we once felt for one another. 
Just illness and despair and death. I hope that time proves me wrong.

I wasn't able to pick up my child and comfort her. I watched a tear run from her eye, her mouth jammed full of ventilator and I could not offer anything. Unless the mixture of despair and love I felt during that moment was so strong that it somehow took on a tangible physical presence and drifted up to her where she lay in her incubator.

Those kind machines who looked after my children.

They gave one of my daughters back to me, just her and me. Alone. No more gentle mechanical helpers.

And she died.

Slowly but surely.
She died right there in my arms.
These same arms that are still attached to my body.
These same hands that I am using to type this.
Held her.

I would have given anything to help her.

But I was just a bit of feeble flesh.
Without those electronics and metal and plastic, her body failed. 
She stopped breathing and then, finally, her heart stopped beating.

And, in that moment, you realise that you have no say, no input, that your opinion and all of your mighty, mighty love cannot be of any assistance. Because death has all the cards.

When I contemplate the tremendous, hideous abyss between what I thought being pregnant and having children was about back on the 25th of August 2008 and what I believe now, my head feels as though it will simply twist and twist until it spins off my neck and vanishes off into the wild blue yonder, never to return.

I know now that I had false expectations. 

I thought that if it wasn't done perfectly, it was a reflection on my worth as a wife, as a mother, as a woman.
Because there are people who put all their store in natural birth, in bonding, in breast feeding, in avoiding medication and medical assistance. Because there are carefully constructed birth plans. Because other people told me to make certain to do x,y or z. Because different people told me to make certain NOT to do x,y, or z.

I don't have a problem with that. If you have been lucky, you've probably still got it in you to sit and worry about those issues. But I won't be joining you. And I certainly won't be passing judgement on your birth plans or child rearing abilities.

What I don't like about this strange mythologising of pregnancy and childbirth, or implying that there is some magical 'correct' way to approach it, is that it somehow seems to makes me and my children less.
That it has made me judge myself and my attempts to have children as failure.
That it has made me feel ashamed because I found the birth of my tiny children painful.
When I should have been able to grit my teeth through the pain.

That we are, somehow, diminished or incapable.

Because we did not do it properly.
Because the girls were born too soon.
Because Georgina died.
But do you know what?
It was still beautiful. It was still amazing to see my children.
I gave birth. It was too soon. It was sad.
But I am not weak or a failure. Neither are my daughters. 
I still think that all three of us did a good job, given what we had to work with. 
We tried. Everyone does. We live and we try. I don't have time for all this judgey, judgey I gave birth to seven, eleven pounders naturally with nary a squeak. Well bully for you.
Their birth, surprising and agonising and quick and bloody as it was, does not change the strange beauty of my daughters or my love for them.
Nothing can stop that.
Not their appearance, their fragility, not illness, not those machines that stepped in and took over from me, nothing.
On a good day, I feel that even death can't put a stop to it.

People don't want to hear about the birth of my children. It makes them uncomfortable. But I don't care. I'm taking back the beauty and the mess. It's mine.

'You'll be given love
You'll be taken care of
You'll be given love
You have to trust it

Maybe not from the sources
You have poured yours
Maybe not from the directions
You are staring at.'

Some very (very) loving machines.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Don't mistake my weakness for kindness

When I was about twelve or thirteen I fell in with a 'bad crowd.'
Not particularly bad in the great scheme of things as you don't get many, honest to goodness, bad crowds in the Home Counties of England. Particularly not amongst young girls of that age. Well, at least not back in the 1990s.

Just the usual stuff, cigarettes, alcohol, older boyfriends (up to the grand old age of all of fifteen) and so on.
No sweat at the time, hair-raising when I think of Jessica in about a decade.
No hanging around in parks into the evening for my daughter.
Definitely no cigarettes.
Or beer.
Or boys.
Not until she is at least thirty five.

Sadly, none of the above will trouble my Georgina.
I never thought I would say this about a child of mine but I only wish she might be smoking a cigarette, or drinking a beer, or going wild about an unsuitable boyfriend, at some point in the future.
But she won't.
Because she's dead.

Anyhow, my parents didn't like my friends. My teachers didn't like my friends. Some of them asked me, straight out, why I was suddenly attached to this group of girls when I obviously didn't fit in with them. Too quiet, too studious for this louder and more bolshy set.

These girls all called me Doogie, after Doogie Howser the boy genius doctor who, according to Mr Wiki P, was the proud possessor of a genius intellect and an eidetic memory. Sadly I don't have either of those things but, in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king as they say.

I remember talking to one of these girls, discussing how on earth we could be friends when we were so dissimilar. She said that we needed one another. She said, "Catherine, you are a weak boffin and me, I'm a hard thicko. THAT, in a nutshell, is why we are friends."

A pattern that continued to pop up in my life over the next decade or so, although once I hit my mid-twenties I moved in the weak boffin crowd pretty much exclusively. It is my natural milieu.

I needed the 'hard thickos' because
(a) they were useful in avoiding getting beaten up at school and, believe me, after you've seen someone getting their front teeth knocked out on a school bench that is quite the priority and
(b) they knew how to have a good time.
So I adopted the weak and weedy role and came along for the ride.
Oh and I never got beaten up. Still have all my own original teeth. Grin.
I have never figured out why the hard thickos would need me but I was never one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Another conversation, with this same girl, more of an argument really, ended in an insult that STILL stings to this very day.
She said that I was like a glass of orange squash that had too much water added to it.
Weak. Watery. Tasteless. Passionless.
I can only conclude it must have hurt because it was close to the truth. That is why I can still remember this insult about eighteen years after it was flung.
I am a weak person,  I will go to some lengths to avoid a fight, I overuse the word 'sorry' (I was once challenged to go an hour without apologising and I failed miserably, I think I lasted ten minutes or so), I have a fine line in repressing my anger but will go and sit and pick at things for weeks and years (and indeed decades as I've illustrated here) after they have been said.

I used to think that I was quiet because I was kind.
That I didn't speak out because I was thoughtful.
That I apologised because I was wary of hurting other people's feelings.

Since Georgina died, I have had a few unpleasant moments of self revelation.
Confirmations and negations of things I thought about myself.

I cannot be relied upon in a crisis. I am weak.
If you are looking for a tower of strength I suggest you move right on up the line.
Sorry, you said you wanted rubble of weakness? Well step right up, we have the best rubble in town. That is our speciality.
Here you go, have some of this brick dust that used to be Catherine W. Her daughter died and she crumbled.

I'm not as kind as I hoped I was. Not as gentle as I thought.
My weakness, or wussiness, or spinelessness was not kindness.
How I ever got those qualities all muddled up is beyond me.
What I thought was kindness was, actually, pretty tepid stuff. I'm sure you've all been on the receiving end of what I used to term 'kind.' The person that writes a card but never calls. The friends that disappear after a couple of months. Kinda there for you, almost, and then . . . . kinda not.
Even more annoying, I was pretty self congratulatory about my supposed kindly nature.
Look, I even bought sympathy cards. How very sensitive of me. Sigh.

I think I have become colder since Georgina died. And I thought it would make me more caring somehow. I wanted something good to come out of this messy situation of life, and death, and birth, and falling to bits, and my marriage disintegrating, and rebuilding. I'm not sure it did.
A little beady eyed bean counter has taken up residence in my soul and assesses those around me to see whether they are deserving of my sympathy. When his calculations are finished he often throws his hands up in despair and shrieks 'But your children didn't die. Nobody is dead. Leave me alone, take your stupid so-called problem somewhere else.'

Any kindness I have left in me is for Georgina's memory and for looking after her sister.
There isn't even much left over for my husband. Certainly not much for friends.
Because I somehow feel that I am entitled to all the pity and all the compassion.
Because I feel so sorry for myself that I don't have anything left to give out, other than to emit a sort of continuous whine about how sad I am.
For myself. For my daughters. A big greedy pity monster who wants to gobble it all up herself.

The world is infinitely harsher than I ever realised.
When I look around me, I am surprised that there aren't hundreds upon hundreds of us, fallen to our knees in the streets, flailing at the pavements with our hands, wailing. 
Because if it doesn't hit you with a dead baby, it will probably cut you down with something else.
It's in the post folks. It's lurking out there.
And that thought doesn't make me want to go and wrap my arms around the masses.
It makes me want to run away screaming.

I don't know which is worse to be frank.
The watery, annoying person I was before.
Or the cold, cranky one I seem to have become.
I hope I know a little bit more about being kind now.
I hope I know what I'm talking about even if I can't summon it up for every occasion that might deserve some.
Tights laddered, missed the bus, parking ticket, broke a nail.
I hope that if I attempt to offer kindness to someone it will have a bit more meat to it, be of a more substantial variety, than that old, over diluted squash version.

As the man says, 'It's so easy to laugh. It's so easy to hate. It takes guts to be gentle and kind.'

Maybe, just maybe, I'm slightly more gutsy than I was before?

And you? Kinder or colder? Neither?

'I know it's over, still I cling. I don't know where else I can go.'