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.