Monday, November 22, 2010

My happiest day...

should have been each time I gave birth to a child, but oh! the first birth was so fraught and difficult, days of labour and a contemptuous obstetrician and a supervising midwife who talked about me as if I wasn't in the room and I wasn't really sure I wanted a baby anyway let alone like this being ripped to shreds and when the baby was born she didn't sleep for hours just lay there looking at me with her big eyes and sucking out the ragged remains of my soul and I've been picking up the pieces of my shattered self ever since.

Perhaps it was the second birth, or the third – but then again, each time the hospital wouldn't let me go as soon as the baby was born so I paced the room like a caged animal and did crosswords to distract myself while my husband held the baby and adored her; and each time I was filled with guilt that my husband was more affectionate than me, even as I was frantic to whisk my daughter home.

It might have been the day that I married, but my mother had exacted a death-bed promise that we not postpone it. A week later we held her funeral; and a week after that, the wedding.

I wore my favourite dress, a red cheongsam slit up the side. Instead of pants, I thought I should wear stockings. I hate stockings. In my grief-stricken muddle, at the last minute I stripped them off and went bare legged. As I stood on the steps up front, I realised my white thighs were on display to the congregation, and my new sandals hurt. I beamed anyway at my pale and grumpy groom, who was standing at a lean; he had an ear infection.

Undeterred by sadness or dresses or illness or shoes, I bowled through the vows until 'in sickness and in health'. I had hoped to gallop through unthinking. Instead I stood there on the brink of eternity with my mouth gaping open and no sound coming out; although I loved my husband I didn't want to nurse him as my father nursed my mother – bathing, dressing, feeding, toileting, propping up with pillows and turning in the night – and I sure as hell didn't want him to nurse me. The congregation waited out the minutes, grieving with me, and out of the silence I felt them lift me up and find the voice to make that hardest vow.

Perhaps it was a day in Italy, where we had a long holiday with friends. I sat on a hillside and for the first time put pen to paper and knew I could write something that wasn't academic. I wrote about visiting the Sistine Chapel where the guards bellowed at the crowd to be quiet; I wrote about God, and Michelangelo, and the sanctity of chickens. And later it was published. A good day, but I was a tourist there; to be deeply happy, I need to feel at home.

Perhaps it was the day I first had dinner with my husband and stayed for hours? The day in Washington when it snowed at Christmas and our grandfather took us sledding at midnight? Or was it one of many days we picnicked on a hillside; or the cold night we built up the fire, stayed late and, as the thermometer dipped to zero, watched for an eclipse?

Or was it a rainy day, uncomplicated by anything much? I was a child, I don't know how young. My parents were gardening and, in the joyful lunacy of being outside in the rain, were at peace; my mother didn't even criticise. For the time being, we were safe.

My sister and I wore raincoats and plastic pants and gumboots. A shallow concrete gutter ran down the side of the house, keeping the water which ran down the driveway at bay. We floated leaves and sticks down the gutter and ran races, leaf against stick against leaf. We watched our little boats churn into the drain, then scooped up the water and drank it, clear and cool like a mountain spring, flinty, earthy, tinged with eucalyptus from the trees which hung over the drive.

We jumped in puddles and sent them splashing; we kicked up water and threw it around as rain sheeted down and the drive shimmered silver. The world was awash.

At the end of my sleeves, my shrivelled hands were pink with cold. Damp tendrils of hair curled around my face; my lashes were beaded with droplets. Rain ran down my runny nose and dripped onto the ground. I was sodden, yet I burned with delight; I felt ablaze and alive and wholly me.

And, as simple as that, and for all the adult joys and delights, that's probably it. On that well-remembered day in a year long gone and otherwise unremarked, I was, however briefly, the happiest.


  1. "did crosswords to distract myself while my husband held the baby and adored her; and each time I was filled with guilt that my husband was more affectionate than me"

    I loved this bit because it mirrored my own experience of birthing. Both times I've needed to regroup a little from the trauma of giving birth. If you're an introvert that often means distancing a little ...or at least some kind of retreat. And leaving the early nappy changes to my husband seemed to make such sense, him not having stitches in his reproductive organs and all, but I still felt a bit guilty.
    He'd say in wonderment "Look at our baby!" And I'd joyfully agree "Yes! A baby!" But the agreeing "Yes!" also made me want to bury myself in a book even more because of the enormity of it all...
    It was such a big "Yes!"

    Too big miracle to swallow in one gulp.

    PS. I leave the longest comments.

  2. Too big a miracle, and too meaningful a relationship to form it all immediately. I felt I needed to form it without trying, which somehow meant carrying the baby all the time but not paying it much conscious attention!

    Long comments are lovely. (and we loved the Wookie Leaks).


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