WHEN A CHILD DIES…

English: A sleeping male baby with his arm ext...
English: A sleeping male baby with his arm extended (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are, in all our complexity of being, part of our family history. Even if we were too young to remember traumatic events that happened in the past, some echo of the unhappiness they caused will stick, somewhere.

Long before I was born, my mother lost two children. I cannot imagine what that felt like. There was a sister born in 1926, who lived until she was just two years old. She died in 1929. Then, there was a brother, born in 1938 who died in 1940, again just two. My mother was born in 1900, so she was a young woman when her babies died.

The circumstances of their deaths was so sad. My sister died of a combination of whooping cough and diphtheria – no antibiotics in those days. My brother died in an accident. Looking through a website that gives you information on births and deaths, all I could find out were the names and dates relating to these awful events. How poignant and sad to read the one simple line, telling me that these children had been born and had died. No sense of the agony, the loss, the grief that such catastrophic deaths would have caused, nor the joy when these babies were born.

My Mum, aged sixteen
My Mum, aged sixteen

I know where my siblings are buried but I have only visited the family grave once, when my mother was interred. Again, just some carved names on a headstone; nothing to describe the short lives of these precious little ones. I can remember, as a child, seeing faded photographs of my brother and sister. There was a large photo in a black frame that hung over the mantlepiece in my childhood home. My sister looked so sweet, her chubby legs so adorable; her serious little face staring out at me. The little blouse she was wearing was passed on to me when my mother died and I keep it in tissue paper in a bag at the back of my wardrobe. Occasionally I take it out and look at it, imagining the sort of person she might have grown into, had she lived. No, this isn’t me being morbid. It’s just curiosity and love for someone I never knew.

There are only a few photographs of my brother as a baby. As he was born in 1938, at the start of the second world war, I suspect there was little time or money to pay a photographer to take pictures of him. In one black and white snap, he is just a tiny head protruding from a shawl in my mother’s arms. The look on her face says it all. She could never have imagined that two years hence, he would be taken from her.

Both of these children died between the months of April and June – Spring time, when new birth is everywhere – one of them, on my father’s birthday. When I was born, years later when my mother was in her mid-forties, I sensed as I grew up, that there had been tragedy in the past, although it was never spoken of and even though I asked questions, it wasn’t until I was an adult that other family members told me the stories of their deaths.

I was not to be protected from tragedy in my own life. My father died when I was eight and latterly, I lost an elder sister and a young nephew. By the time I reached my own middle-age, I was no stranger to bereavement. But the feeling that the deaths of my two baby siblings engender, haunt me more than any of the others.

My mother married at 23 and gave birth to five children. Only two of us are left now. Somehow, she managed to survive until she was 96. Her childbearing years started in 1926 and ended in 1944. She also managed to run a business in her early marriage and hold down a job later on. She was always cheerful and was a very loving and affectionate woman. However, when I was a teenager, she suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalised for a few months. The cause? Unexpressed grief. Underneath that cheerful exterior, her heart remained broken for years. I know she never got over losing her babies or the death of my father, aged just 58. But she lived on; she lived a productive life and was a wonderful mum to me. If I can be half the woman she was, I’ll be happy.

DEFINING LOVE

Love ? I love love love you.
Love ? I love love love you. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Love is a funny old game. It has lots of rules and signposts that you can miss or avoid, depending on where you are in your life. Loving someone is fraught. It’s fraught, no matter how wonderful it feels.

Fraught – definition: fraught / frôt/• adj. 1. (fraught with) (of a situation or course of action) filled with or destined to result in (something undesirable): marketing any new product is fraught with danger.2. causing or affected by great anxiety or stress: there was a fraught silence – she sounded a bit fraught. 

Doesn’t that say it all? The new product you are marketing is yourself and love causes great anxiety or stress. Any kind of love puts you through it, once you are smitten. If you are a parent, you will be in emotional agony for years and years and years… Once that pink bundle of joy is put in your arms, the fun begins. You fall in love with such passion, such fervour, such bloody insanity, that the core of your being gets the sort of shake-up that Herculaneum got in 79AD when Vesuvius erupted. You will never be the same again.

Then the grandchildren come along and it happens all over again! These little clones of your own kids work away at any calm, self-possession you might have built up since entering your golden years. You are back on the fraught merry-go-round with a vengeance.

Adult children think they have escaped your love; they haven’t. You still wake up in the middle of the night, worrying. They are adults, for heaven’s sake! It doesn’t matter how old they are. They will always, in some corner of your sub-conscious, be that tiny person a jolly midwife thrust at you all those years ago.  They will – no matter what they do to you, even if they turn out criminals and murderers – always be your ‘child’ and because of that, everything they do is a reflection of how you did the deed; the parenting deed, I mean.

If they grow up to be hugely successful, will you be satisfied? No. Why? because you will be congratulating them but thinking they are becoming too materialistic, they are missing the important things in life, they must have time to smell the roses, working so hard will kill them! If they turn out failures, it’s your fault (probably more their father’s fault than yours). You can never win and by that I mean, you can never reach that perfect calm you thought would be yours when they became adults. Dream on.

Nevertheless, it’s the perfect storm, this parenting lark. If you have a brain left by the time you reach my age, you will think about your role as a parent. And the older they and you get, the more you will think about it. If you chose to be an older mum, you will know that there is no joy like the joy of talking to your adult child and knowing they are enjoying this time with you. It’s bliss. You can see yourself mirrored in their looks, their mannerisms and, if you are lucky, their value system.  You listen, awe-struck to their brilliance. How much they know! You must have imparted something to them over all those years. Or was it just the work of those teachers? From primary to secondary school to uni. those frumpy, over-zealous, hippy, moaned-about influences on their developing selves were not totally responsible for this amazing person, were they? No, they weren’t.  Give yourself a medal. You survived and your kid reached adulthood in one piece – that’s success on legs!

It’s tough for kids who were born to older parents, however. My own Mum was 44 when I was born and my Dad was 50. When I reached my teens, it was a huge embarrassment for me to know that they were still having sex. Now, I think it’s a blast. They loved each other enough to create me, even though I know I was a total shock, or the menopause, as my Mum named my conception. It was hard to notice that all my mates had mothers who were not grey-haired.  My mum needed a siesta in the afternoon and my Dad wasn’t too keen on taking part in the egg and spoon race on sport’s day. But they had a mature wisdom that younger parents lacked and although I didn’t appreciate this fact for some time, it gave me a wider view of the world.

Women are having children later these days. Thirty-five seems like the right time for most women who have careers and I applaud them for their courage and optimism. I love the way women can stay looking young and childbirth is usually safe in this country even if you are not in your twenties. I like the way that older mums have no qualms about breast-feeding in public and are happy to put a high-powered career on hold for a few years, if that is their choice. I like the fact that women have so many choices these days. It’s about time. There is still much to fight for; equality of pay and conditions, finding ways to stamp out domestic violence against women and making sure we have more woman politicians fighting for our rights.

The way we love each other, whether it be the love we have for a parent, a spouse, a partner, a child, a grandchild or a friend, is important. Unconditional love is the best. With all the pitfalls, the agony, the blind optimism, the dreaming, the wishing, the intensity, the hope, the joy…  love is a lot more productive than hate and much more rewarding. But love is, as I said at the beginning, fraught.

WORD GAMES

teeth
teeth (Photo credit: jfraser)

I’ve taken a break from writing for a few weeks. It’s hard to get back into it. It’s like a missing tooth. You’ve had that little blighter stuck in the back of your mouth for years, then your dentist says it must come out. You go through the agonies of extraction and on your first look in the mirror, after all the pain and blood have subsided, you see a nice clean gap. It’s over, you think; I can eat again. The three-pronged demon drilling pain into your gum like an infected maggot, has gone. O joy!

Back up, you fool. Within a few hours, your tongue begins to search for the missing ivory. No matter how much to tell your brain that the tooth has gone, your desperate tongue needs contact; needs to feel that tooth, needs to know you have a complete set across which to roll. I’m losing the thread here… What I think I mean is that a missing tooth is like the missing drive you had before you stopped writing.  No matter how often you look for it, the muse has shifted like the tooth and you have to retrain your mind to find the will to string words together in a coherent and interesting manner somewhere else. Got it?

This morning, turning on my PC and looking at that blank screen I’m supposed to cover with words was far worse that a visit to the dentist. At least my dentist made small talk and told me about his Magnolia tree. At least there was a nurse, all pretty and white, to soothe my brow. At least I could, if I wanted to, get up from the torture chair and walk. Not so in my writing room. I am stuck to this chair by invisible super-glue. Guilt sticks my fingers to the key board. This computer cost a lot of money. Get on with it, woman!

The only respite is the window. Outside, kids are playing. It’s the school holidays and they have run amok among the bushes. There is a playground just down the road, but today they have chosen to play catch outside my house. Good on them. It’s a distraction I welcome. It’s real life. It’s tactile and explosive and sometimes very funny and I love those kids for giving me a break. Not for long. They soon tire of shouting and running and rush off to the playground. The view from the window is still. Nothing moves, although I know there is a huge amount of rushing to and fro by the insects and birds, who prefer to exercise discretion in their movements. Occasionally, a seagull swoops past the window, but he’s not stopping. The sea is just down the road.  Time to turn back to the screen.

This morning, I listened to a group of eminent writers talking about their work on a BBC 4 programme called The Sins of Literature – Though Shalt Not Bore. In this fascinating programme Sarah Waters, Martin Amis, Will Self, Siri Hustvedt, Paul Auster, Deborah Moggach and Howard Jacobson talked about “their literary sins and commandments.” It was inspiring. Even such acclaimed writers go through the same doubts as we lesser mortals who are still learning our craft. I guess that is the secret of learning anything? Listen to the masters. Read their work and hear their voices, so thanks BBC Radio 4 for giving me the chance to do that.

I am now going to open up the manuscript of my second novel. I can hear music; it’s the musical sound of all those lovely words buzzing about in my head like angry bees. I’ve got to let them out.