“I found a book on how to be invisible
Take a pinch of keyhole
And fold yourself up
You cut along a dotted line
You think inside out
And you’re invisible.”
A couple of weeks after India died, I was driving downtown and saw a billboard for the Scotia Bank which featured the image of a mother holding her new baby in a pink blanket. The caption read The moment everything changes. Instantly I was drawn back into the room at Roger’s House where I watched my child die.
Ever since that moment I’ve had to accept that I’m no longer who I used to be. My future is no longer tied to India’s. Not that I ever believed for an instant that she’d feel compelled to look after me or live close by when she grew-up—I understood she had dreams in which I didn’t play a role. Instead I envisioned myself fixed to her as if she were a brightly coloured kite and I, the ribbon tied to her tail.
These days when I look at myself in the mirror, the face I see is entirely different from the one I remember. It’s like looking into the eyes of junkyard dog that’s been beaten. I can tell by the creases around her eyes she’s seen more than she wants to remember and that if I push too hard she just might just bite.
Recently Mark and I stopped at the local hippy place for dinner. It was late so I thought it would be relatively child free. But next to every empty table there was either a group of glowing pregnant women or a newborn nestled against her mother. Finally we opted for the table next to a family with two young boys. However as soon as I began to eat, I noticed a mum rocking a newborn baby and I was besieged with memories: the softness of my daughter’s skin, the weight of her in my arms, the way she smelled of talcum powder and yeast.
Onlookers probably thought I was crying because Mark and I were having an argument. Bereaved parents don’t exist in the public’s consciousness and with the exception of the news or the movies we don’t get much media attention. If you’re trying to sell laundry detergent we’re probably not your best bet. These days being in the world feels like showing up in a tennis outfit when everyone is out on the ice playing hockey.
Twenty years ago, when I took Women Studies at Carleton University, our professor asked us to decide which we considered more fundamental to our sense of identity our race or gender. Like the majority of white women I chose my gender. Whereas the women from minority groups all tended to chose race. I was surprised by this, but the professor explained that often the part of ourselves we most strongly identify with is the part that has been most threatened. Lately I’ve been thinking about that as I grapple with the fact I now belong to a group who are for the most part invisible.
My friends are careful about talking to me about their kids but in my grief group this is not case. I used to hate going because of this. Throughout the meeting, I’d fight the urge to grab my coat and run. The problem was I was overwhelmed with a sense of envy, jealous of the bereaved parents in the group with other children. This guilt combined with my sadness was stifling. I knew their grief was as painful as mine and that it was wrong to compare my situation with theirs. So my feelings troubled me. It was their status as parent’s, not their pain that I envied. They were still families. Mothers and Fathers.
I liked being a mother, I was good at it—and before you think it, I’ll just say it, yes I’ll always be India’s mother, but I’m no longer engaged in the act of mothering her. This is a huge distinction. India and I will not make new memories together. I will have to survive on what I have.
The night I revealed my secret to the group, we had guest speakers, parents who were alumni of our group. They shared the story of their child’s death and how their lives had evolved in the following five-years. The couple, though clearly heartbroken, had gone on to adopt children. The story was beautiful but it saddened me. How did parents without children continue on? When I questioned the group about this, everyone misunderstood and began telling me I could adopt. Perhaps if I was thirty-five, but at forty-eight, after spending six-years struggling with the medical community and India’s illness, I knew it was impossible.
On my way home from the meeting, I was reminded of a conversation I had with one of India’s nurses shortly after she died. We were standing by the window, and the sun was pouring in. Everything that day seemed more intense. It was like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. The light in the trees shimmered, and the air around me seem to crackle as it had been infused with electricity. I told the nurse I didn’t know how I would survive. She said, India would tell me. That parents often told her their children led them to what they were supposed to do.
My grief counsellor frequently uses the term transformative when she talks about grief. When she originally used this term I balked. I thought it was in line with all the usual worn out platitudes. Lately I’ve begun to revisit this word. Now I’m reminded of the tarot card, The Tower. Though there are many visual interpretations of The Tower, the one I’m familiar with is the image of a tall burning tower being struck by lightening. This is why its associated with impending doom or disaster. I like the following reading: Downfall—Ruin—Ego blow—Explosive Transformation. The type of transformation that is thrust upon a person.
I think of myself as a city that has been bombed and is forced to rebuild. I don’t know why disaster strikes some people whereas others go unscathed. That night after the meeting I came to the conclusion India wouldn’t like it if I became a Mum again. She used to tell me off if I showed any of my students too much affection. She never liked to share. All I ever wanted was for India was she be healthy and able to pursue what gave her joy. I know she wants the same for me. So I’m focusing on my other baby—my writing. After all to paraphrase what one bereaved mother told me, “We (bereaved parents) share a secret. We know the only thing we can control is how we chose to live, everything else is out of our hands.”