I spent years rubbing my rough edges up against anyone who fell into my chaotic inner world. I was in pain, I couldn’t seem to find my feet anywhere; I didn’t or couldn’t belong. I attached myself to people who did their best to love me back, in their own flawed human ways, but I was always close to the spinning edge: the safe, familiar vortex of despair and heartache.
My mother died when I was two years old. The story goes that neighbours were alerted of her death by my crying after she had drowned in her bath following an epileptic fit. It was just the two of us. How long I was there with her I will never know. My father had disappeared long before: I have just one photo of him holding me as a tiny baby.
After her death, I was legally entrusted to the care of my mother’s sister, a complicated and emotional woman who had only recently herself undergone a life changing experience by getting married to her Canadian-born student engineer boyfriend. The loss of her sister was a tragedy that subsumed my new mother in a total and unquenchable grief that was never given a voice, never brought out into the light and examined.
I was not told of my mother’s death until I was about 13, an age when my adopted mother felt I could be entrusted with this information about my past. I was sat down in our front room and given a few possessions kept for me through all those years including a green vinyl-covered photo album containing all the photos that she had taken of me.
The thing was, I always knew everything. I had already, long before, searched through their household papers and found recorded details of my mother’s death that they had no knowledge I knew anything of. ‘Sneaky’ being an oft-repeated epithet of mine. Along with selfish and lazy. From as far back as I can remember, my maternal grandmother had often called me by my mother’s name by accident: this poorly-buried totemic word rising up without her conscious awareness. I always knew of her. Her unacknowledged presence in our lives was palpable, tangible reality for me.
So I had a lot of rough edges. I suffered from unrecognized, untreated depression throughout adolescence and into adulthood, which after I gave birth to my first daughter became manic and severe, leading to me losing the job I tried to return to after her birth and a permanent, unhealable rift between me and my husband’s family. Indeed, my mother-in-law, witnessing my mental fragility during this dark time and, despite training to be a counsellor herself as well as having spent a lifetime working with mentally and physically disabled people, has chosen to treat me with distrust ever since.
My adopted mother and I are not close. She and her husband did their very best for me, but they were cold and distant and my lost and forever sad inner child craved warmth and colour. They are neatness and I am chaos kept neat through duty and necessity. I love them, but they will never understand my world that was, the sorrow that they refused to see, that they could not let loose into their ordered, tidy lives.
I am lucky. I now have my very own crazy, chaotic and beloved family. I have my own tribe at last. We are far removed, living here in rural France, from my scarring, London roots. I tell my girls as often as I can how much I love them, I hold them tightly and touch their beautiful faces. We are not perfect by any means: as parents we struggle in the same way that every parent struggles; with anger and irritation at these noisy, irrational lives we’ve created. But we are all of us held close by the heat of our love: there is warmth in our rage, in our daily frustrations because we are real: this is us, there is nothing to hide or keep hidden, no need to nurture secret pains.
This essay has been brewing in me for weeks now, triggered initially by Jess, who has lately returned to the idea of death – why do we die? can someone just drop dead for no reason? what happens to us when we die? – which has bothered her on and off for a long time. I have always made a point, because of my experience, of being completely honest when discussing important and complicated subjects with all of my girls. I will never respond to any question of theirs with the brusque “I’ll tell you when you’re older” reply that I received to many of my no doubt irritating childish questions. So, my answers to the questions about death have always been honest: that’s the end when we die, our bodies are finished. There may be such things as reincarnation but empirically, there is no justification for believing in that unless you need to use that idea as a crutch to get through life. Lately Jude has questioned my stance on this, suggesting that I should encourage her to believe in heaven, to make it easier for her. And I wonder if he is right, but in my heart it feels wrong to lie to her. I tell her what I believe: our bodies are gone, what remains is what we leave behind, in our lives, our children, our creations. I feel there is something external to us, but I cannot pinpoint it with any accuracy, let alone put it into words. I am attracted to the idea of guardian angels and have been told through a spirit reading that I have my own – described with such a degree of accuracy that it shakes me even now to remember those words. But how much of that is my inner yearning for the mother I lost? We hold such complicated and vast universes within us, every one of us is capable of extraordinary feats – inventing a spirit guide is totally do-able: I just cannot bring myself to tell my eight year old girl that this is fact.
It is a long time now, since I last fell into that solid silent scream of despair, the blank cold embrace of depression. When the bleakness of pure, inconsolable grief is tight around my heart. When I can’t speak for fear that if I let go of the walls around me my tears will never end. I have my love-long, tirelessly, fearlessly strong, indefatigable husband and my four sweet hearted, shouting mad, angry, happy girls, who found me and hold me with all my rough edges. My lonely and forever heartbroken inner child has finally found acceptance and the love she craved so hard, for so long. Death is never forgotten; my experiences make me who I am: this mother, this wife, this human being. Living, loving, remembering and growing stronger every day, held in the arms of the people who matter most to me.
At last, I find myself home, and free.