The Invisible Mother

“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.”
–Kate Bush

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.”

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23 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom says:

    Hi Lesley.

    I am not a parent and I never will be so I can never understand what you and your husband have gone through.

    After following One Strong Girl on Facebook and reading your blog articles… I am not sure what I am trying to say really, other than your writing about the loss of India is extremely powerful.

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you Tom, I appreciate you taking the time to share with me.

  2. Chris MacLean says:

    I agree with Tom, your writing is extremely powerful. I always drink it in and can’t help feeling quite stunned by the volume of your loss. You are a courageous, brilliant woman and I encourage you with all my heart to do what you – because you are so very good at it and because it’s real and honest and gives those of us who haven’t experienced it a shard of understanding of what the pain of losing a child is like. And from that small shard, emerges more compassion and wisdom for all. I know that your darling daughter would be very proud of you.

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you, Chris. As always I’m in awe that you would take the time to read my thoughts. It’s my intention that they make all that grieve feel a little less alone. I do hope my daughter would be proud. That was always my intention.

  3. ThatLittleGirl says:

    Lesley,
    I can not promise you that things will get better, I can not tell you how much I hated the “helpful” words. I can not tell you how many times I broke down in parking lots or in grocery stores or restaurants.
    I can not tell you how strong you are.
    You will always miss her, that will never change. She will always be your baby and you will always be her mother.
    The act of mothering does not dictate if you are a mother.
    I am still my girls mom. She’s been gone for three years but I am still her mom. And you? You will always be India’s mother. You can still talk to her Lesley. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, and it sounds stupid but you can talk to her.
    Alyssa died three years ago from a car accident and to this day I miss her, but I still talk to her. I still show her picture what I’m going to wear out on a date with my sister. I still ask her what to make for dinner.
    There is nothing worse than watching your child suffer, except for maybe the suffering that you will cause for yourself.
    Don’t suffer Lesley. India is no longer suffering and it’s horrible that she’s no longer with you but please Lesley don’t suffer anymore.
    Cheers.
    -S.

    1. onmefall says:

      I hope things get better. This new territory is very rough. I don’t like it. I miss India all the time. But I do talk her, all the time. It’s hard to express but she’s very much a part of all my decisions and life. Thank you for your lovely letter and your concern. I’m so sorry for your loss as well. Please take care of yourself.

  4. Janice Falls says:

    dear Lesley,
    I am drawn to your writing like a species returning to its far-away home; you find ways to say things when words fail us. I am not part of your invisible society though I am a mother who tries not take for granted her children’s lives.
    I agree that India will lead you to what you are meant to do and I trust that you will keep writing because what you have to say is vitally important in this world that doesn’t wish to acknowledge the pain of loss of any kind.
    May your words go out into the world to work their healing for others as they have for me.
    with gratitude and blessings,
    Janice

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you Janice, I’m sorry that you’re part of the invisible society. My heart goes out to you. I’m so sorry for your loss. It sucks being invisible. I appreciate your words of encouragement.

  5. Lee Parpart says:

    Dear Lesley,
    I want to hide copies of your writings around my house as a reminder to be better and more loving with my amazing 11-year-old daughter. I am thankful that you are such a brilliant writer, since you are able to reach out to other invisible mothers and fathers to help heal their losses. Those of us who have the incredible good fortune of still having our children physically with us can also use your words as a guide to help push past the small irritations that come with parenting, relegate them to their proper place, and focus on being thankful for the pleasure and the meaning that our kids bring into our lives. I feel I know India because you bring her to life in every piece you write. I know she is proud of you and not jealous of the way you are using your other baby, writing, to mine your joy and grief.

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you for writing me. I’m very touched that you would take the time.

  6. **I think of myself as a city that has been bombed and is forced to rebuild.**

    Superb description.

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you. It’s the only way I can think of it.

  7. lynne says:

    You are who you are now because of India. When you write, she is in your words. Keep writing.

    1. onmefall says:

      I will. Thank you for reading about India.

  8. a friend passed your link along to me. My story is similar to yours although I lost my daughter before she could turn 2, due to complications from a bone marrow transplant. I miss her so much as I’m sure you know. It is the hardest thing ever to carry on. Nice to be reminded that I am not the only one, because it often feels like everyones life is happy and normal. Wishing you well. Carrie

    1. onmefall says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Carrie. Thank you for sharing about your little girl with me.

  9. rome1994 says:

    Hi, thank you for your deeply moving Blog, there is great beauty in your writing style which draws me to read about your life. I only recently learnt what a blog was. What a classy blog you manage, lovely words to express yourself, It makes me want to try to be a better person. Thinking of and about you here in Sydney. Peta

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you for reading,Peta. It’s nice to know you’re thinking of me in Sydney. I spent a year in New town when I was 25 and loved it. What a beautiful city you live in.

  10. Sally Sue Lavigne says:

    Lesley,
    This week as we approach the girl’s birthdays you are on my heart and mind. How lucky we are to have such an extraordinary girl in our life! And better yet that Margaret got to have the great gift of her friendship. I close my eyes and I can still hear the laughter floating down the stairs as they were talking about Anime. Know you and Mark are muched loved. And you eluquint writing touches my soul. Remember you will always be the great mom in the cool red jeans sitting poolside watching our little mermaids swim. You are the bravest, strongest, and most loving person I know.
    We love you,
    Sally Sue

    1. onmefall says:

      Thank you so much Sally Sue. I’m so grateful for all the love & your support. I think of you & your family all the time, especially the amazing Margaret. I love thinking about those days. THey were so much fun. xox

  11. susanne says:

    Dearest Lesley, I have come back to the site so many time since India’s crossing and hoping you would write again. I will say that I am a medium and I work on connecting those still with us to those who have crossed. Please, contact me. Let’s get you connected to India. I am not after your money I just ache to see your sadness when you can begin to develop an renewed connect with India as an angel. I suggest my web site, iwillwin.ca – we are re-doing it but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is my contact info and a bit about Tony (my partner) and my work. Please consider the offer.

  12. k.b. says:

    Beautiful beautiful writing. The bombed city metaphor is perfect. Still trying to cope with the loss of my young husband after a long fight, I feel like a ruined landscape myself. The WWI art exhibit at the War Museum (Witness) resonated for this reason (also sad and amazing in its own right). I am coming to suspect that in general the bereaved are invisible, bereaved parents more so than the rest of us… Please keep writing.

    1. onmefall says:

      Greetings from Japan, I’m here honoring what would’ve been India’s 17th birthday. It’s weird to be in a place she dreamed about. But I feel very close to her here.
      Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I appreciate your encouragement. I’m so sorry for your loss. xo

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