Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Monday, 22 June 2009
Last week I was browsing the college bookshelves and hit upon a slew of random books, each sparking ideas for themes giving context to my memoir, such as displacement and travel (I lived in the US for 11 years), uses of autobiography (what is memoir but this), and female self-representation (I can’t write a book without understanding my own vision of identity, and particularly motherhood). I found about eight books that I couldn’t leave behind, so I took them all out. When I got them home, it was the smallest, simply written, most unassuming book, Adrian Poole’s Tragedy that had the biggest instant impact. That one word – tragedy - began reverberating in my head and refused to go away. It took me back to a moment over eight years ago, to a coffee shop in Minneapolis, in the heart of the American Midwest.
I was sitting in Starbucks overlooking a snow-filled street, meeting with my bosses, Anne and Mary, before going back to work. I’d had a baby four weeks before by C-section, and was still hobbling around in discomfort. The day was so cold, my nostril hair had frozen (it’s a very odd feeling; when that happens, you know the day is going to be below zero Fahrenheit.) Minneapolis has something of a second city looming over the city streets. It’s called the Skyway, and it’s a consumer Mecca of shop-lined bridges linking offices (and yet more shops) so that Minnesotans never have to go outside. You can insulate yourself from the harsh conditions to the extent that you can leave your house via the integral garage and drive to a heated parking lot in the system: you don’t even need a coat. So there we were, coatless and hatless, sipping lattes in our brown leather armchairs, discussing my new baby: nothing odd about that, except that Maia had been born 15 weeks early. An early Christmas present, as the obstetritian put it.
I was incredibly optimistic about how Maia was doing, and I proudly relayed all my stories about Maia to Anne and Mary. My daughter was robust and feisty for a 25-weeker; at five days old, she’d astounded us by coming through surgery to fix her patent ductus arteriosus. (The “flap” that normally closes at birth, allowing a baby to breathe air, had remained open: it was a common problem for a baby born on the edge of viability.) I laughed as I described the everyday task of changing Maia’s tiny preemie diapers; they swamped her impossibly tiny bottom, which was about as big as a plum. But the best story of all was the one about New Year’s Eve. While everyone else was out drinking themselves to oblivion, my husband Dan and I were holding Maia for the very first time: holding her, skin against skin, heartbeat against heartbeat, trying to pretend that the tubes, the screeching alarms and the flashing lights didn’t exist. In the middle of the intensive care unit, sitting in a rocking chair, I closed my eyes and tuned in to the smell of Maia’s skin, her silken dark head cupped under my hand, the Barbie-like limbs curled up tightly under her soft belly, tickling my own. It was heavenly.
“It’s so tragic,” Anne said.
Tragic? I couldn’t understand what she meant, not at all. I had an amazingly strong baby who was going to survive, despite the odds. She was small and, while what she’d been through was immense, we were convinced the worst was over. What did Anne mean by calling my baby “tragic”? Maia was alive, wasn’t she? I pitied the other babies in the intensive care unit: Maia was in crack-baby company. Their stories were tragic. The nurses reassured us that Maia had had the best start; she was bound to do well. And for the first six weeks of her life, that was true. Having a preemie was overwhelming, it was frightening and stressful, but we had hope, we had good care, and we had each other. Tragedy was not a word I would have picked to describe Maia’s existence.
Until she died.
Tragedy, catastrophe, devastation: these were all words that took on new meaning. I understood them now. They were real, no longer figments of my imagination; they mutated from distant, amorphous, conceptual terms to the here and now. I couldn’t get Anne’s comment about Maia being tragic out of my head. How could I have been so optimistic? I wept at the fourteen days I'd wasted back at work when I should have been with Maia. I’d been saving my maternity leave, so that I could spend time at home with Maia in the spring. I was worried about losing my job if I took extra leave. So I spent two weeks at an ad agency researching ways to sell more dog food, in between breast pumping in a cupboard and seeing Maia at lunchtimes. At the end of that fortnight, when Maia was six weeks old, she became critically ill, and we moved into the intensive care unit to be with her night and day. Three weeks later, I watched my child die. I took the rest of my maternity leave, nursing my grief, my devastation, my catastrophe, instead of my beloved child. I was still pumping milk and Maia was dead. Then, and only then, did I realise what Anne had meant. It was a tragedy.
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
Tuesday, 9 June 2009
Everybody has a book in them, apparently, and I am no exception. In January this year I started a professional writing master’s degree. I thought I might pull off writing a book if I actually knew what I was doing. I still don’t, but I’m starting to feel a little bit closer to identifying what my book is going to consist of. Words, for one. Hurrah! It’s a breakthrough. It’s so easy to tell people you are writing a book – and, as I did, to leave work in 2002 telling everyone with smug certainty that’s what you’re going to do – but it’s not so easy to admit, seven years later, that not only are you nowhere near achieving your goal, you haven’t even started, and furthermore, you don’t actually know what kind of book you want to write. I have been in the dark for a long time.
This week, everyone on the MA course had to pick a specialism, and for me, that choice came down to fiction and non-fiction. In order to make the decision, I had to look very closely at my motivation for writing. The reason I’d given up work to write a book in 2002 was because my daughter had died, and I desperately needed to write and tell the world about it. At the beginning, I shared everything: the grief was my guiding force, and I couldn’t believe anyone wouldn’t want to read about it. I even sent one of my heartfelt poems to the New Yorker: that’s how good I thought it was. (Now I know I was mistaking depth of feeling for good writing. I don’t know anything at all about writing poetry for public consumption.) As time went on, I began to feel embarrassed about my wretched prose as well, and I didn’t want anyone to see my naked grief any more. Deciding to do the master’s course was a push to make good on an old resolution in a way that wouldn’t be just writing-as-therapy. The grief is a guiding force for my writing, but now I understand it is not the only one.
I browsed my bookshelves looking for a sign, something that would inspire me to make the right decision. I came across Isabel Allende’s Paula, a book she began writing while her daughter was in a coma and finished after Paula died. I pulled the book down to examine it again. I’ve read it many times. It is a book mired in sadness, but it is also a book about the joy of living. One reviewer described it as “beautiful and heart-rending…Memoir, autobiography, epicedium, perhaps even some fiction: they are all here, and they are all quite wonderful.” For me, the book was like a grief potion: as soon as I opened it, familiar waves of loss came streaming out of the bottle. I sat curled up in my favourite armchair, lost in the narrative and sighing at Allende’s prose, and realised this was a format I wanted to explore. It reflected something I wrote in my MA application, and somehow I’d forgotten: I want to document my daughter's story and help others understand and deal with grief and loss; I would like to help others avoid feeling, as I did, like an undignified, invisible, stupid human being. Then I wrote to Isabel Allende in bold sorrow and told her I was going to write a memoir.
To my astonishment, Isabel wrote back, not just to tell me she was sorry about Maia’s death, but also to offer some advice. Could I have received a clearer sign? I don’t think so. I am finally going to get my words down on paper, although I am well aware that the hardest part is yet to come: I’ve got to start looking the facts in the eye again. Isabel told me this: “Writing a memoir about loss is like going into a cavern with a candle, illuminating every corner slowly, finding your way in the darkness.” I haven’t gone into the cavern yet, but I’m glad to have found the candle.