An unholy triad

Tomorrow I was due to give birth to a daughter, but instead she is enveloped in cardboard on the bookshelf in our living room, a breath of ashes in a box. She is sandwiched next to a chess board her father made and a stack of well-thumbed Dr Seuss books that her brothers periodically pull down from the shelf to read, or more often, to pin bedsheets to kitchen stools in the elaborate cubby houses they build.

In my mind there are three versions of my daughter; an unholy triad. They are as distinct as siblings - borne of the same place but each with their own memories and form.

First, there is the daughter I gave birth to in a forsaken hospital room with a butterfly on the door. Her entire body fit into Lee's hand, her skull no larger than a chicken egg, with her brothers' big feet and the tiniest, most delicate fingers.  When we said goodbye, I folded her hands in the centre of her chest, as decorous as a spectre. 

Next, there is the baby that still lives within me, shapeshifting from grief to light and back again. In researching for my novel I learned about microchimerism, a process where stem cells from an unborn child cross the placenta and lodge in the mother's bloodstream, where they stay. When a mother’s heart is injured, the cells of the children she grew in her body - whether or not they stayed in for nine months or three - will flock to the site of the injury and transform into heart cells, capable of beating.

When I read about this phenomenon, I folded at the waist and howled, because of course. Of course she has been with me the entire time. Lately, she has been in the space where grief lives; tucked in the void between my heart and lungs, or perhaps nested in the hollow of my vertebrae, methodically stitching pieces of me back together.

And then there is a little girl, aged about three, with a fringe. She is tall for her age, and bossy. She adores her brothers and her nan, and likes having each fingernail painted a different colour. She pronounces her middle name 'Gwendowyn' and slides into my bed in the middle of the night to press her cold feet against my calves.

She is fierce, and gentle, and loving; my daughter. It is a privilege to know her.

This is the Edie I miss the most. 

Ten easy steps to survival.

Step One.

Say yes to everything. Reply immediately to every text message, offer to bring a plate, make a dinner, organise a catch up. Bury yourself in busyness until you can’t feel your heart beating in your ears anymore. Become overwhelmed, burst into tears in a board meeting and cancel everything. Choose only the things that bring you back to life and connect you with other people.

Step Two.

Attempt to write poetry. Accept that your poetry is terrible. Give up and read poetry instead. Spend hundreds of dollars on books of poetry.

Step Three.

Write like your life depends on it, because it does. Take furtive notes while driving the kids to kinder. Scribble in the margins of your favourite books. Read trashy romances, trade magazines, the newspaper, Virgil, Atwood, Clancy, Woolf, Dickens. Chew up words and spit them out in an order that feels right. Feel the words in your bones.

Step Four.

Go on a diet. Sign up to a weight loss app, measure yourself religiously, track everything you eat. Feel worse, much worse. Tell yourself that a soft body is a reminder of the three children you birthed, and you can’t be bothered being skinny anyway. Eat when you are hungry. Drink a lot of diet Coke and chai tea with honey. Sometimes, when things are really bad, go to bed with an entire block of Cadburys.

Step Five.

Become obsessed with skincare. Buy ridiculously expensive moisturisers, potions, weird spinning face brushes. Spend a lot of time in the evenings poking your pores, prodding the pregnancy-induced acne, tracing the sunspots dotting your cheeks. Let your tears soak into the skin on your hands and your stomach. Kiss your sons on their cheeks, sniff their heads. Force your cheeks into a smile until it feels natural again. 

Step Six.

Stop trying to sleep. You are awake until 2am most nights anyway, so stop fighting it. Read more. Pace your kitchen by the light of the rangehood. Feel yourself fraying at the edges. Go to a kind GP, explain that four months ago your baby died inside your body and stare at a poster about cardiac health while he writes out a prescription for sleeping pills so strong that they come with a booklet of warnings and risks. Wait until the weekend, and then sleep for eight hours straight, more than you have in months, and wake up feeling lighter but denser, more solid, like there is more of you in the room than there was the night before.

Step Seven.

Read back over the text messages you received when your baby died, the words you wrote. See your daughter’s name in the tiny green speech bubble of a text message, and cry again. Walk past her ashes in the cardboard box on the bookshelf, and wonder if you will open them one day, run your hands through her remains. Cry, but be oddly fascinated by the thought of it.

Step Eight.

Decide not to be sad anymore. It wasn’t even a real baby, anyway. Tell yourself to stop being dramatic. Read stories about families who lost babies at full term, at a week old, as a three-year-old. Imagine losing your boys. Cry. Be sad, and dramatic.

Step Nine.

Keep the words inside your mouth, or don’t. Tell a teenage shop assistant that you need something roomy as you just had a baby, but don’t need any breastfeeding tops because actually the baby died. Watch the words fall out of your mouth in shards, and let them shatter on the floor of the shop.

Step Ten.

In the kitchen, when your husband is making lunchboxes for school and kinder tomorrow, put your arms around his waist and breathe him in. His back is broader than your whole body, like a solid plank, an old growth tree. Press your face against his shirt and hold on tight as your boys barrel into your legs for a family cuddle. Let yourself be held up by the three of them.

Fuck off, Babycentre

An email pinged

Squeezed between an ad for a new film

And a reminder about prep enrolment

Congratulations!

You are 32 weeks pregnant.

 

Your baby is the size of a pineapple.

It’s bones are calcifying, so eat almonds, cheese, whole milk.

You may get heat rashes under your breasts.

Be kind to your back when you roll over in bed.

 

There is a pineapple in my fruitbowl

In the corner of the kitchen.

It is from Yeppoon, where Lee grew up,

Surrounded by mango trees, siblings, heat.

 

My baby was the size of a mango,

And just as sweet.

Her skin was the colour of a plum

Soft, cool and damp. A half-formed thing.

 

I sliced the pineapple after dinner,

Carving through the calloused skin,

The fermented flesh at the base dark with juice.

We eat it with our hands, dripping onto the deck.

 

The rain turns the view monochromatic,

Grey trees, grey sky.

The pineapple is tart, and sweet.

My baby was the colour of a plum.

 

my favourite books of 2017

I have read 72 books this year. I only know this because I have begun keeping a 'reading journal' late last year, after I interviewed a bibliotherapist who recommended that people write notes on their reading habits in order to get the most out of it. I actually read fewer books this year than in previous years, as I stopped reading for a while in late October after the stillbirth of my daughter. Instead, I watched a lot of superhero movies and Broad City, and got addicted to true crime podcasts. Anything else was too much.

I tend to trash books, so I will often borrow from the library then buy copies of the ones I really like. I am a voracious note taker and scribble in the margins, dog ear the corners, stick post-its on the inside covers of books. Sometimes I buy two copies, one to trash and one to keep pristine.

Here are my top few books from the past year. They aren't all books that have been published this year, nor are they in any particular order, but they are all books which have moved me in some way.

Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down

Okay so I only finished it recently, but it is goooood. At a sentence level, the prose gets the perfect blend of florid and spare. Plus she describes both Melbourne and Sydney so perfectly, and captures the messiness of being young, living in sharehouses, dealing with families and death and life. I just ordered her collection of short stories, Pulse Points, too. 

Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain

Oh god, Georgia Blain. I cried in the opening pages. This is probably in my top three books of all time. Her use of metaphor, of allegory, in capturing both domestic minutia and the fragility of life and relationships, is exquisite. 

The kicker is that one of the characters is dying from brain cancer, and Georgia herself was diagnosed with brain cancer while she was editing the book. Georgia's mother Anne Deveson, herself a brilliant writer and journalist, died in December 2016, and Georgia died three days later.

The Dry by Jane Harper

I read this in the hospital room while I was waiting to give birth to my daughter. The book is captivating, and easy to read, and very Australian. It was just distracting enough that I could forget where I was, but light enough to be genuinely enjoyable. I've since read another of her books, and it was okay, but nowhere as good as The Dry.

The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman

A bit of a random inclusion, but I am a firm believer that good relationships take work. Lee and I have been together 10 years, and we are not perfect – far from it – but after a year bookended by a miscarriage and a stillbirth, plus a renovation (always) and job changes for both of us, a tune up was in order. This book is regarded as one of the best on the topic, and for good reason. There is no waffly crap, just helpful suggestions to make sure both partners feel heard, supported and whole in the relationship. 

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

I read this earlier in the year, before even getting pregnant, and good lord did it turn out to be prophetic. Levy is a staff writer at the New Yorker and I've read her previous book Female Chauvinist Pigs, which is a feminist examination and critique of raunch culture, and kind of expected this book to be similar. It is actually a memoir of her relationship with her ex-husband, an affair, and a miscarriage. She writes brilliantly.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood

I first read this in year 11 when we were studying Cat's Eye, and liked it then but probably didn't really understand a lot of the meaning behind it. So when the Hulu show came out, I re-read the book and was reminded at how powerful the language is. It is one of the rare TV adaptions where the show is on par, and perhaps even better, than the book.

The World Beneath by Cate Kennedy

Kennedy is primarily a short story writer, and a very accomplished one. This is her first novel, and while in some ways it reads like a series of short stories, the characters and sense of place are so vivid that I couldn't put it down. The book manages to be funny, and warm, and very Australian, while the language still slays. 

The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan

One of my top three for the year. I had read Anna's first novel, The Paper House, last year, and bloody loved it, but this book really is something else. It is a work of art. It is about a teenage girl in an unstable family, trying to protect her little brother, and the sense of impending dread and sadness builds through the story so much that I found myself gnawing my fingernails in worry over the little boy in the book. It didn't help that he reminded me so much of my own brother, and my sons.

The writing is perfect: spare, and balanced, without being melodramatic or overly florid.

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work by Bernadette Brennan

I have a genuine fear the Helen Garner will die before publishing another book. She turned 75 recently, and I hope to god she's got at least another 20 years in her.  I would read her shopping list, such is the genius of the woman. She is frank, and funny, and fierce (alliteration!) and doesn't pretend to be above vulnerability or doubt. This book offered an insight into her writing life, the stories behind each of her books, and how she came to be such a behemoth of Australian literature.

Other notable mentions include Jessica Friedmann's Things That Helped, a collection of essays about postnatal depression; The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, a story based on Marina Abravonic's The Artist is Present performance art piece; The Good People by Hannah Kent, which I think is as good as her first novel Burial Rites; and both Rupi Kaur's books of poetry. Rupi Kaur cops heaps of flack for being an Instagram poet but just like IKEA makes good design accessible to the world even thought the quality of the products is usually fairly shite, Rupi Kaur has almost singlehandedly made poetry accessible to a generation of Instagram kids who are otherwise taking selfies and sexting. 

The very worst thing.

I don’t know where I was when my daughter died. Perhaps I was asleep, or playing with her brothers, or complaining about the exhaustion of pregnancy. Perhaps I was sorting out the baby clothes that we were preparing to fill her drawers. I don’t know what I was doing when the placenta finally gave up, when her cells stopped multiplying. When her tiny heart stopped beating.

I don’t know who I was when my baby daughter died.

---

The day before the scan, we build a bunk bed for her brothers. ‘The baby will wake you in the night. Sharing a room will be better,” we tell them. They fall asleep singing and chatting, and we decide to use part of her brother’s old bed to build a dollhouse, one day, when she is bigger.

---

The radiologist’s face is deadpan as he moves the ultrasound wand across my belly. I have had these scans before, and know the drill. I am nervous and excited. With her brothers, I didn’t exhale until I saw their tiny bodies moving across the screen, like fish, in grayscale.

The screen shows her skull, her torso, her arms. Frozen, a photograph. Lee holds my hand and I shake my head. I stare at the radiologist, his face perfectly still except for one tiny muscle in his jaw, tensed and pulsing. He takes off his glasses and tells us that there is no heartbeat.

I don’t exhale.

---

We are sent to a different hospital, are told that it isn’t urgent, to take our time. We sit in the car, wiping our eyes on our sleeves, hearts on fire. My hands shake as I call my mum, my dad.

My pregnant belly enters the room before me. I sit in the same waiting room I am due to visit in a week’s time, a routine appointment with my midwife. Other pregnant women avoid eye contact as I sob into Lee’s lap. I am living their worst nightmare.

There is a specialist midwife waiting for us named Ali. She calls me darling and holds my arm and leads us into a room. I cry and cry. She waits, handing us tissues. I am amazed at how prepared the maternity ward is for these situations, but of course.

She tells me that the baby is too small for a caesarean, but too big for a curette. I will have to give birth to her, like I did with her brothers. I can’t speak.

---

We go home and get into bed fully clothed. We hold each other and cry.

I tell the boys that there isn’t a baby after all, and that mum and dad will be sad for a while. They say, ‘again?’ then go back to their Lego.

This is not the first sibling they have lost this year.

Ali, my angel midwife, calls later that day to see how we are going. I am still in bed, still fully clothed. Lee has made two lasagnas. We are in shock.

She tells me to sit with it, to feel the pain, that blocking it out now will make it harder later on. I agree, but don’t know how to let the pain all the way in without turning completely to dust.

---

We drink strong gin and tonics and watch Batman. I fall asleep on the couch and dream of little girls, of cots and carseats, of my Nana who died when I was a baby. I wake up sobbing.

We go back to the hospital. Ali takes us through a door into another section of the maternity ward, where there are no pictures of babies or pastel feature walls. It is clinical, and unmarked. This is where they bring the women like me, who have to experience a death before a birth, who have to do the one thing that no mother should ever do. Who will arrive pregnant and go home empty handed.

She hands us tissues and answers my questions about stillbirth, about preterm labour, about what the baby will look like when she is born. She shows us the birthing suite where we will stay after I am induced, and then the Quiet Room, which is dark and small and has a couch and a tiny bassinet. She shows us the tiny wraps and shrouds that the hospital will provide, if we’d like, and we both break then, struggling to stand and to breath.

---

I will take a tablet tonight, a name I can’t pronounce. I google it and realise that it is RU86, the abortion pill. Two days after I take the tablet, I will be induced, and will deliver a stillborn baby. So now we wait, in a holding pattern. We wait to climb a summit, to cross a threshold. It is hard now, but it will get harder still.

I still look and feel pregnant, still gag when brushing my teeth and feel my hips creaking as I roll over in bed. I am holding my dead baby girl close inside me, until I have to do the Very Worst Thing.

---

We are in limbo, visiting our children at my mum’s house but unable to care for them properly. I fall asleep often. A head lice infestation is a distraction. My brother brings brownies and my dad brings icecream. My friends send texts, offers of help and love. I read them in the middle of the night when my eyes are aching and my face is raw from crying, tiny capillaries spreading across my cheeks.

---

I don’t know who I was when my daughter died, and I don’t know who I’ll be when she is born.

Consumptions

 

Tess and I have taken a podcast hiatus for the indefinite future, but I realised that I miss blathering on about the things I've been reading, listening to and watching lately. So instead, I'm going to periodically bore you all to death with the random things I've been consuming.

A book...

Or two, or three. I just finished Caroline Overington's The One Who Got Away. Her books are much-hyped, and she is an excellent journalistic writer, but I was underwhelmed. Also on the finished pile: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (excellent, like an Aussie To Kill a Mockingbird), Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (okay, not groundbreaking but suitable captivating) and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (fun easy read about maintaining adult friendships). Up next is Clem Ford's Fight Like a Girl and the new Man Booker winner The Sellout, both of which look excellent.

A product recommendation...

MAC lipstick in Mangrove. It's a good orange-red for ladies who look weird with pinky-red lippie (me, I'm talking about me) and literally lasts all bloody day.

A show...

Catastrophe. Several people have recommended it to me lately, and it is SO GOOD. Like literally so funny I have to pause it until I stop laughing. Also, the fashion is excellent, if you are into that.

An article...

How To Invest In Yourself. I'm planning on bringing back the birthday list and this article has some good tips on actually getting things done.

A thing I've written...

Dealing with negative feedback

A podcast...

The Real Thing, an Aussie podcast by the ABC featuring stories from the 'real' Australia

A forget-me-not...

Archie was talking to Mum about my uncle, who passed away about 13 years ago.

A: Is he a skeleton?

M: Well, maybe.

A: Because skeletons are really good drummers.

M: Oh.

and

Archie walks past Jed and brushes his shoulder.

Jed: *dramatically throws himself on the floor.* ARCHIE HURT ME! You a BUM, Archie!

Archie: *looks at me, rolls his eyes* Sometimes brothers are crazy, mum.