This post was inspired by an exchange of e-mails with Christy B about her son, Oliver. All the best lines are hers. Any spelling mistakes, poorly chosen words or clumsy turns of phrase are mine.
'Here ends the joy of my life, and for which I go even mourning to the grave.'
From the diaries of John Evelyn, written on the death of his eldest son, Richard, on the 27th of January 1658.
I didn't know who John Evelyn was on the 29th of August 2008, the day my eldest daughter died. Yet there he was, striding on ahead of me. Three hundred and fifty years in front, part of this endless procession of weeping parents.
Early September 2008 - I sat on the floor of a hospital corridor. Overwhelmed. Head between my knees, the beating of unanswerable questions bouncing around and around against the walls of my skull.
How do I get up from this floor? How can I go back to work? Or watch a film? Or smile? How do I come back from this? How can I recover from this? How do I continue to live?
Pulsing with the blood around my body, throbbing in my ears with my heartbeat. In strange counterpoint to my unanswerable questions, these statements repeated in an endless loop.
I love her. She died. Ruined. I love her. Ruins.
My own equivalent of John Evelyn's words. Three hundred and fifty years later.
Here ends the joy.
When you arrive here, this place, this Glow in the Woods, someone is waiting to meet you at the door.
On this particular day, it's me. Catherine W. I'm waiting. I have a pot of tea. Cake. I also have red, red wine. Beer. And cold, clear water. Ice. Lemon. Spare slippers.
I peer out into the dark. I call, "My baby died too." I hope you hear me.
Sometimes I don't know why I'm waiting here. I don't have a great deal to offer you. But I want to help you, so very much.
I wish that I could, at the very least, provide you with a schedule, a time table, a handbook. Your Baby Died 101. What To Expect When You Didn't Get What You Expected. Crammed full of practical timelines and guidance. Useful facts such as you will start to feel better in approximately x weeks time.
But we both know the one thing that I want to give you the most. A letter telling you that this has all been a horrible mistake, a bad dream, an administrative error. And those letters are not in my gift.
I beckon you in. I think I know where you have been walking. In a place with no comfort. Where it is always too warm or too cold. Where food doesn't seem to make you any less hungry, whether you are choking down a few mouthfuls or stuffing it in. Where there is no rest and no sleep. All positions, sitting, standing, lying down, crouching. All equally uncomfortable. All postures give you a crick in the neck and a sore foot. Everywhere aches or is pins and needles. Very nearly everyone suddenly irritates or annoys. Even people you used to love.
But perhaps I'm wrong? What would I know. Not a great deal in truth. I'm only one person, with one experience to go by. I can tell you what happened to me but it is not my place to tell you what is happening to you.
You might think to yourself. Her? They sent her, this Catherine W., as a welcoming committee? Hmmm, I'm not sure about this. She's still here? 2008, that was quite a while ago now.
But no matter how different we may be, we probably have one thing in common.
"My baby died." I repeat.
photo by Rainer Brockerhoff
And you notice that my muscles don't spasm. Not any more. That I can speak that sentence, 'my baby died,' without my voice breaking. That I am wearing mascara. That my clothes are on the right way round. That I have just showered. That I appear to have slept last night. That I am still breathing in and out. That I may even be able to give you a comforting, knowing smile.
Sit here with us, try to rest, gather your strength. No pretence, no game face, required. We are here, we will abide with you.
I can't remember the first time I bought some new clothes after Georgina died. When I first made a phone call. When I first went out to buy some food. Or watched a film. Went out walking. Laughed. Went to work. Had sex. Plucked my eyebrows. Smiled when the sun shone. Drove my car. Even when I first stumbled here, to this Glow in the Woods.
But I did. Sooner or later. I have done all of these things. Stumbled. Watched. Walked. Laughed. Worked. More than once. Sometimes I liked doing these things, sometimes I hated doing them. Because I hated that they still existed, food, shopping, cars, eyebrows, tweezers, movies, breathing, internet sites. They all continued when my daughter did not.
At times, I didn't want to do them, I didn't want to even start getting involved in normal life again. Because how could I be remembering her properly whilst I was changing gears? Taking my wallet out to pay for groceries?
And I also can't tell you the first time that I remembered that little baby, that once was mine, and smiled rather than cried. When I saw her, rather than only her absence heavily outlined in red. When I looked at that empty chair and nodded. In acknowledgement of where she might have been. When I looked back and thought to myself, I can't believe that I made it this far. But I did.
When everything else was burnt away and all that remained was love.
I can't offer you a map. I can't offer you any guarantees. I can't tell you how to fix this because I don't think that it can be fixed.
I can only tell you that the joy of my life did not end.
The joy I have now is not the joy that I expected. It is not the steady sunshine of watching my daughter grow from a baby into a young woman.
My joy is a flickering candle, leaping up fierce and brightly. Sometimes it sputters, sometimes it goes out. But it will be lit again, sooner or later.
It is like my ghost daughter, laughing, delighted. Here. Then gone. But I know her still.
My joy. It did not end.
But yet I still go even mourning to my grave.
How do you feel about joy? Is it still there for you? Is it the same as it was before or does it have a different quality? Does it flicker like mine? Or is the very thought of experiencing joy currently unimaginable?
What were the questions and statements that rattled around your mind in the early days and weeks?