Today, for me, is about a daughter not my son. It’s the anniversary of the birth (and death) of a baby girl I named Hannah Joy thirty years ago today. I can hardly believe how grown she would have been had she lived – or rather how young I must have been (though I didn’t realise) when she was born.
The pregnancy was problematic and I had been in hospital for months. It was as if I was sealed in a glass ship, crossing an ocean to somewhere or other. From my ward window I watched the summer give way to autumn and tracked the falling light across white walls. I remember realising, from the clothes visitors wore, that temperatures outside the hospital must be dropping. My memory is of the birds gathering on the telegraph wires outside my window, preparing to leave.
I was well-supported in 1985. If the National Health Service is a postcode lottery then I was lucky to be a student, at the time, in a well-heeled part of England. I had superb care throughout the troubled pregnancy and afterwards, including genetic counselling when the post mortem revealed the extent of my baby’s disability. Hannah Joy had an extra set of chromosomes: Triploidy XXX. Her condition was fundamentally incompatible with life; she could not have lived longer than she did. What was remarkable, the Registrar told me when he went through the file with me, was the length of time I had carried her. Even so, she was my baby; in my arms, she had been perfect. Afterwards, although I accepted she could not have lived, I found the grieving as hard as if she hadn’t had to die.
While I was pregnant I had been allocated a social worker (I assume because I was a student). I liked her but preferred one of her colleagues who I would see visiting other patients on the ward. He and I discovered a shared interest in poetry and fine art and so this other social worker (the one who wasn’t really mine) took to bringing me books. I looked forward to his visits; he had a knack of finding just the right poem and of knowing exactly what to say. Some of his sayings have stayed with me and one of them in particular. The process of grieving, he told me, is the reconciliation of the pain of remembrance and fear of forgetting. It hurts us to remember but, because we are scared we might forget, we keep bringing our loss to mind.
How had he known I was doing this I wondered? I was constantly trying to recall my baby’s face, how she had felt in my arms, the moment of her birth, as if trying to fix these things in my memory forever. But each time I did this, I seemed to open the wound of it again. With time, the social worker told me, it won’t hurt as much to remember and you will realise that you will never forget. The last time I saw him, on the day before I was discharged, he warned me that it was colder outside than when I was admitted; had I noticed, he asked, that the birds had left?
I thought about this wise man’s advice last week. My grown daughter – the one whose life I celebrate each day – had come home again. My evenings were different suddenly; they passed more quickly, chatting and cooking, sharing stories. One day, however, I realised with a panic that I hadn’t thought about Dylan. I had been so focused on my daughter, I had forgotten to call the care home for my daily update. I felt terrible. How could I have forgotten? What was I thinking? Then (although it is not the same I know) I remembered that advice from long ago; perhaps, I told myself, adjusting to Dylan’s absence is also the reconciliation of remembrance and forgetting.