It has been a year since she died. It’s the strangest thing to have become a mother just as I lost my own mother; only the tiniest sliver of time where I was both mother and mothered.
I was just a few weeks pregnant when she passed away, quite unexpectedly (although it occurs to me that death probably always feels unexpected). When I got to the hospital that final long and yellowed night, it was the first time I had seen her since I’d become pregnant. As I leaned down to hug her, she patted my belly’s imperceptible swell and said softly, “hello, little bump.”
Maybe there’s a symmetry to it, this coming and going. Afterwards, at my father’s house I phoned relatives and my mother’s friends, trawling through her address book while my dad sat in his chair, stilled and drinking tea. I called my mother’s friend Polly. She is older than my mother, and pragmatic – she’s seen lots of lives coming and going. I told her I was pregnant. “It’s like that, my love,” she said. Her own husband had died when her youngest grandchild arrived. “One in, one out,” she said, “that’s often the way it goes.”
One in, one out. I sometimes think of their souls, wheeling in and out of this world through a revolving door. My mother’s soul breezing out just as my son’s took shape and contour. I imagine that the souls are translucent like tendrils of smoke or scratches on glass, that they whisper in greeting to one another as they pass by.
A year on, and there are so many things I have wanted to ask her. As my body grew full and taut and heavy, and actually giving birth became a surreal inevitability, I wanted to ask: how was it when she had me? Did I arrive late or early? Maybe she could have answered the question that no-one quite seemed able to: how much, really, was it going to hurt?
In recent months, I have longed to ask her about things that I could barely have conceived of before my son was born. About colic and sleeping and weaning and first teeth. About sitting and crawling and cruising and walking. About all the delicate movements and graspings of babies peering and stumbling into being, things too subtle and otherworldly to have meant anything to me before.
I’ve wanted to know what I was like as a baby, but my dad’s memories of my babyhood are almost as hazy and out-of-reach as my own. My son, now four months old, still sleeps with us in our bed and I think I can remember sleeping in my parents’ bed for years. I can almost, almost touch a memory of first moving into my own room. Was I a year old? Older, even, maybe two? I ask my father how long I slept with them, but he can’t remember. “Oh, yes, I think it was a while,” he says vaguely.
She has not held him. She did not give him a gift or a card to mark his arrival. She has not felt his warm, milky weight in her arms. She has not looked at him with the wonder of a grandmother, seeing in him herself, or me, or my brother. She has not watched the expressions that flicker across his sleeping face, perhaps recognizing in them a glimpse of her parents, her grandparents or other long-gone ancestors. I have wanted these things so much that it aches sometimes. What I have wanted, I think, is simply for them to meet, to connect, to touch.
I have dreamed of her many times. Sometimes in these dreams she comes back to life, but only for a day and then she has to die again. Sometimes she was not dead at all and it was just a mistake. Sometimes we watch TV together or take a walk. But I have never dreamed of them both together – I never talk about my pregnancy or show her my baby son. Even in the dreams, it seems, they can’t quite meet.
Here, at my father’s house, we are almost at the edge of England. From the upstairs windows of the house we can see the summer rain clouds gathering smudgily over the hills in the distance. Standing at the window, we watch the rain roll in from Wales – me, my son, and my father. My father says the garden could use the rain, it will be good for it, then goes downstairs for a cigarette. Without my mother, my father and I are tiptoeing into a new relationship. We drink a lot of tea, and sometimes we talk more frankly than we ever did before. But often, we are still almost shy with one another without her here. He is tentative with his baby grandson. I think he wishes she was here too because she would know what to do, how to hold and love this strange new being.
It is growing late but it is still light outside. It is midsummer and here, so far north, the long days squeeze the nights to a squinty shortness. The days last so long that you almost believe magic is possible. When the rain has passed, I take my son out into the rain-splattered garden. It is warm again now, the earth almost steamy. The garden, which was hers, is blossoming back into life again even though she is gone, but it is growing ramshackle without her care. The shrubs and flowers are unruly and need trimming, just like my dad’s hair now that she is not here to cut it for him as she always used to. My son and I walk through the garden, which is flurrying and foaming with flowers in bloom.
The plants are pearled with little beads of rain on their petals and leaves. It reminds me of how, when he was born, it surprised me to discover that breast milk was not white and creamy like I’d imagined it might be, but that actually it was just like these raindrops. Opalescent and sugary, sometimes spattering my son’s face in a fine spray.
I carry him around my mother’s garden, showing him the flowers. I hold him facing outward and he sits heavy and passive in my arms, surveying it all with the air of a stately, imperious and gouty bee. An emperor bee – carried on a palanquin among the flowerbeds, nodding regally to his subjects, gathering golden nectar and growing plump and fat-cheeked with the sugar of it. I bend my head to kiss him – my sweet, sweet, pollinating child. We stop to watch a fat bee wriggle up into the tunnel of a purple foxglove.
When I lean him close or offer him a flower to smell, he frowns seriously, rumples his brow, sinks his chin down and reaches out his chubby hands to grab it, rip off its head and then cast the remains to the ground. Perhaps not a bee, I think, but rather an infant god. Powerful and wild, felling flowers with a single blow. Destroying anything he wishes with a beautiful, reckless, serious delight.
Soon, his chubby hands are covered with petals, glued to his fingers with milky rain. Mauve, from the windflowers, whose upturned hopeful faces received no mercy from my infant god! Orange, from the montbretia jackanapes, which splutter out their spiky flowers on fiery stalks. Yellow, from the evening primroses, with their floppy heads that wilt so quickly. He rummages his fingers through the frilled hebe bush, catching some of its tiny white-purplish plumes.
I laugh and pick the petals from his fingers. The petals are delicate, veiny and soft as leather and it seems for a second that there is life in this. The garden, these flowers, are things that she tended and grew, that she seems to live in even now. They carry a trace of her, reverberate with her life and her touch.
I think to myself, there are things I will tell him about his grandmother, what she was like, what made her laugh, what she loved to do. But it seems right now that there are also moments when they connect directly, without my stories and memories mediating between them.
Once, when he was a little curl within a bump, just a little comma with no life yet to punctuate, she touched him and said hello.
Now, this evening in her garden, when his baby hands are sticky with wet petals he touches something of her, an echo of her life, still living and growing.