The morning after my first daughter was born, my father came to visit us at the hospital. He brought a stuffed Winnie the Pooh toy for his new granddaughter. I loved that, especially because I remember Dad reading Pooh Bear stories to me when I was little. He did the voices so well.
It’s one of those everyday memories, but it’s only now, eight years on, I can write about it. You see, Dad came to visit me by himself because at the same time my mother was in another hospital being treated for lung cancer. She had not wanted aggressive treatment: she was 75 and had smoked for many years before giving up in a courageous late-in-life effort, so her illness came as no surprise to any of us.
Even so, when Mum died 10 days after my baby was born, I was left reeling. The spheres had shifted and I didn’t know what to hang on to. Just two days after that, my father died. It was one of those almost trivial household accidents that plague older people, especially when they are off balance with grief.
Out of nowhere, my sister, brother and I found ourselves parentless. I felt completely adrift. I remember waking up to breastfeed my little girl with tears streaming down my face. I tried not to cry, feeling that somehow the sorrow would mix with my milk and poison my baby.
I was almost obsessively determined that my child would have the best, unaffected by circumstance. And to me, breast milk was part of that. We struggled through with breastfeeding for almost six months before introducing solids. At nine months, a dietician asked me to describe what my daughter was eating. I rattled off details of a rigidly healthy, nutritionally balanced diet. She looked at my child’s growth chart thoughtfully, then looked at me. ‘A biscuit won’t kill her, you know.’
What sort of mother would I have been if my parents hadn’t both died right then? Maybe not a whole lot different: I’ve always been quite conscientious, some might even say pedantic. But I did tread more lightly before. Afterwards, everything seemed to be a matter of life or death – and probably for good reason.
At times, though. I felt nothing bad could happen to me – it had already happened. That made me reckless. Early on, I attended a book launch and left my baby parked in her pram while I chatted with friends. She was well out of sight and hearing, and there were 100 or more strangers between us. More often, I was a cautious, even fearful, mother. I felt death was behind every door. I rarely carried my baby outside the house: someone could bump me and I might drop her, or I might fall down some stairs. I just didn’t feel strong enough to support her in my arms and keep her safe.
In a park with my mothers’ group one morning, one of my friends described how her mother, visiting from interstate, was ‘taking over the household’. She was frustrated and couldn’t wait for her mother to leave again. As I listened, I felt myself trembling with suppressed rage and envy. To have your mother there, cleaning your benches and putting a load of washing on. ‘Don’t you know how lucky you are?’ I felt like shouting. I stayed silent and left early.
How long does it take for grief to go away? Maybe a year. Maybe a lifetime. Little by little the sharp edges soften. When my second daughter was born, I wanted her to have my mother’s name as her middle name. I like to feel that my mother is at the heart of her, and she is – this girl is wise and funny like Mum. I also see my father in her: sharp, straight talking, no-nonsense. Strange to see an old man in the face of a little girl perhaps, but it’s lovely to me.
For a long time, Winnie the Pooh sat on the shelf in my daughter’s room. I couldn’t stand the thought of him getting damaged, so he stayed up there out of reach. When my older daughter was about five, it seemed right for Pooh Bear to come down off the shelf. It was time for him to take some risks, time to be vulnerable again.
[A longer version of this article appeared in the Dec 11/Jan 12 issue of Melbourne's Child magazine.]