I don’t know how old I was when I saw the film Philadelphia; I saw it at the cinema, with my friend who had a close family friend dying of AIDS at the time, contracted while working in Africa before anyone knew to be wary. We were teenagers. I don’t think I’ve seen the film since. I remember it affected me profoundly. I don’t particularly remember the details of the story just the sense, the unsettling sense of a man forced to carry on and accept errors and accident and ill-judged moments and make peace with them. The need to know and understand and grasp hold of some fact or some way forward. The desire to take control and ownership and assert some kind of control over a life that has slipped outside of any normal and recognisable parameter. And the realisation, in the end, that you can do what you like but all that you really have is reality and what life has dealt you.
At whatever point in my life I was at, I was too young and inexperienced to recognise grief. That it was a film in part about a man grieving for a life he wouldn’t have. When the song came on the radio yesterday, I half remembered the video and the lyrics drew me back to look at it again. And it seems oddly appropriate to me now. People said “I don’t know how you carry on” and I answered “because I don’t have a choice” because that was how it felt. I didn’t have much of a choice, being too cowardly and responsible to kill myself, but it didn’t occur to me at the time that it was an act of bravery not to find a way out. That getting up each day, mothering, loving, moving, breathing, tidying – all those things were bravery and courage.
In the video, he walks – past beauty, past sorrow, past grim and sodden and joyful. Past the rough underbelly and the cheering crowds and mostly people do not see him. Mostly people are busy being themselves, living a life, not aware of the pain and grief. They have their own joys and pains and griefs. Occasionally, quite unexpectedly, eyes follow him and register than he passes – and not only in the joyful places. Sometimes care and solace appears without warning, where you least expect it. On the doorstep from another bereaved mother. An email from out of the blue. A thoughtful gift that arrives through the post. The friend that arrives with cake or trees and company. The most telling thing of all about grief though, about losing a child, is that it moves away, one step, one day, one week, one mile at a time. Like it or not, it is not always yesterday. The world does not stop spinning. That is hurtful in itself, especially at first. It hurts to know that one day it will hurt less.
On Glow in the Woods there is a an article which I return to at times, wondering if I have got there yet. Wondering if I have got to the point of acceptance where I can go a day and only think of him at bedtime. Certainly that moment streamed closer by more than degrees when I became pregnant again, which is it’s own sort of perfect pain. But the most telling thing is the moment where you begin to be one of the people who guides on Glow, when you find yourself writing the ‘we are so sorry to welcome you here’ post and the ‘there will be a moment when you find you can bear this’ posts. When you slip, without knowing it, from being a mother who totters on to the boards, wrapped in grief and screaming for solace – and suddenly you are one of the ones, almost wearily, offering it.
Sometimes I wonder if I go back there, confronted by the tearing grief of the newly baby lost, mostly to show myself that I am still standing. Mostly to marvel at how far I have come. That it turned out that breathing – in and out, in and out – was enough to sustain me. That I have reached a place where I get joy from a day, make a few plans, see some happiness and think about the future without thinking “I am just marking time until I die; please, please let me die.”
I am different. I am so, so different to the person who grew up inside this skin. I do not remember how to be her. When Freddie died, taking every notion of safety with him, everything fell apart. Within 3 weeks my parents had separated and two fundamental truths about my entire childhood turned out to be false. Everything collapsed. And somewhere in all that, I managed to hold on to enough priorities to decide to screw bothering to try and be a daughter to parents who weren’t parenting me – and to remember to be a mother and a wife. Whoever the over-reacting, self obsessed, over-emotional person was I grew up inside, she’s gone. I’m not the same. I don’t cry at films, I don’t put myself first, I don’t bother about things and people who don’t matter. I might, I accept, make sure I stay sane before I deal with problems outside these walls, but that’s because everyone inside these walls matters most. I let my child die to protect what was inside these walls. I’m not about to let anything else shake and damage them.
It’s trite to say I am better for it. I’m not sure that is the point of having a child die in your arms. I don’t believe in things happening for a reason in that way. But I do know that it is infinitely preferable to be myself now, than the person I used to be. If we had to go through this, I am proud and pleased to have Freddie stitched inside my new skin.
I am unrecognisable to myself.
When Freddie died, I just wanted my old life back, I wanted to go back to when things were okay and everyone could be in a photo together. I hated the shattered, desperate, grief struck shell that I was, the mother who sobbed over a crib and spoke so coldly about not keeping him alive for the sake of it. I hated all the choices I made and I hated the sunlight of a world that kept going when he, one seventh of us, was not here.
I walked a thousand miles – this last 19 months – to slip that skin. And now I find I don’t want to. Whatever skin this is, it’s mine.