THE PERSON INSIDE

My son Christian’s life as an emerging actor has already taken him to places I would never dare to explore. One of these is the McGill Simulation Centre, which is an integral part of the medical education of many health practitioners in Montreal. He works there part-time.

Sometimes, Christian’s only job is to offer up almost every inch of his body so that med students can learn ultrasound techniques. At others, the full range of his acting skills is tested, as he works with other actors to bring to life scenarios for young student MDs and even seasoned practitioners, simulating situations that are designed to test the maturity, knowledge, technique, resourcefulness, empathy, interpersonal skills and even just plain resolve of the caregivers.

The McGill Simulation Centre
The McGill Simulation Centre

Listening to his stories has made me realize how difficult medical training is and how much is expected of the students who are often only in their early twenties. It’s helped me to understand how much thought is put into the training of physicians, nurses, occupational therapists and everyone else who passes through there, and helped me to see that acting at its purest is the art of compassion.

 

Guy, Alexander; Crib; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/crib-84339
Guy, Alexander; Crib; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/crib-84339

Last week, Christian was given his biggest challenge yet. He was asked to play the role of a young adult with cerebral palsy whose symptoms include spastic diplegia and spastic dysarthria. In this especially long and multi-scene scenario, his character, Pat, is fighting to maintain an independent life in the face of increasing pressure to place him in institutional care.

A few days into his preparation, I asked Christian if he could show me how he was coming along with his character. In seconds, Christian transformed himself right before my eyes. His body shifted until it had assumed a strange, distorted angle on the couch. His head twisted backward in a way that exposed his neck and made his chin protrude oddly, as though pulled leftward by a painful force and constraining him to look at his interlocutor from an obtuse angle.

Thomas, Joseph Henry; Representing Bodily Pain from the Passion; Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/representing-bodily-pain-from-the-passion-153526
Thomas, Joseph Henry; Representing Bodily Pain from the Passion; Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust

And then he began speaking. And there was no more Christian. Everything that makes Christian himself had been stripped away and what was left was a thin, monotone and laboured voice, struggling to express itself. Every word seemed to come at a cost to him. Only his eyes were steady. And distressing.

He didn’t make me uncomfortable or embarrassed: he shocked me. Being with him and paying attention to what he was saying, I realized that despite the clarity and intelligence of the thoughts he was expressing, my own mind wanted to reduce him to so much less than he was.

And it became painful to watch my son this way. And it made me cringe, because I know, now, in a way that I didn’t before, what the suffering of this person Christian had briefly become must be. And the struggle. And the injustice of being locked inside a body that cannot come close to expressing the expanse and the dignity of the person inside.

And the vulnerability.

Carriere, Eugene; Maternity (Suffering); Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/maternity-suffering-160108
Carriere, Eugene; Maternity (Suffering); Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

When he came home after his performances that day, Christian told me that he knew that if Pat had any chance of avoiding institutionalisation, that he would have to make every health professional in the scenario like him—fall for him—and begin to root for him.

This is beautiful work.

Every time Christian becomes Pat, even for just a flash, my eyes well up. He does it because he knows he’ll be playing him again soon and he wants to keep him vital and true. And because he cares about him.

This all coincided with a period of sickness that rolled like a wave through my family. One of my sons had fever for three days, recovered for a week and has just relapsed this weekend. His twin was also intermittently feverish and eventually wound up with bronchitis, while Penelope and Graeme, his children, were treated for tonsillitis, otitis and bronchitis. Then it was my turn. Two weeks in, I’m still coughing, but at least my strength has returned.

Until this recent family epidemic, I hadn’t been ill for several years. Sick with fever last weekend and feeling weak and wobbly, I felt vulnerable and diminished and a bit scared. I couldn’t be sure that I’d be able to work the following week. I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t incubating pneumonia. I couldn’t know for sure when I’d be able to go get groceries, or clean the house or do any of the mundane things that make up daily life.

All this brought about by a simple virus. Everything happening out in the world took a back seat to the necessity of recovery. To bringing my body’s affliction to an end.

Sims, Charles; My Pain beneath Thy Sheltering Hand; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-pain-beneath-thy-sheltering-hand-192943
Sims, Charles; My Pain beneath Thy Sheltering Hand; Bethlem Museum of the Mind

These past few weeks, I’ve been schooled by life.

Actually, I believe that this should be a daily occurrence, as constant as sunrises and sunsets. Every day should be about gathering in more learning and seeing more clearly. But there’s something about human consciousness that’s flighty and inconstant and it causes us, me, to check out or else be diverted.

At the same time, reliant as I am on the stream of information pouring into my life through the mushrooming screens that have become my most used windows on the world, I’m not growing wiser. My representations of life are hardening around ideas and actions that test the strength of my connections with the world, that wipe away understanding and compassion, and fuel fearful, anxious feelings.

Recently, I’ve felt more like a greyhound on a track than a sentient, mature woman.

And then there was Christian and Pat.

I marinate every day in news about wars, walls and the billions in currency it takes to make each happen; about mass migrations and refugees and camps on almost every continent that have become lawless dead ends where violence and starvation have set up permanent residence; about immigrants, both legal and illegal and about how, for some, living off the radar without status is the brightest option; about national greatness and sovereign borders which seem to depend more and more on turning inward and away. About Others. Aliens. About Them and Us. More recently, about white-nationalism and just this week, an anti-egalitarian, anti-democracy movement skittering behind the scenes and referred to as Neoreaction or NRx.

 

Currie, Ken; The Troubled City; National Galleries of Scotland; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-troubled-city-211226
Currie, Ken; The Troubled City; National Galleries of Scotland

It’s a swirling vortex of what’s worse about us. Its clamour is drowning out the calls of our better natures. It’s smothering our compassion with darkness. It’s making us blind.

I think that our civilisation needs retraining. I think serious intervention is required to help us see what’s behind our outer shells, to understand every individual’s struggle, and to embrace the expanse and the dignity of the person inside each one of us.

I think it needs its own simulation centre.

Cauchi, Carmel; The Touch of Comfort; George Eliot Hospital Chapel; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-touch-of-comfort-55804
Cauchi, Carmel; The Touch of Comfort; George Eliot Hospital Chapel

 

 

A LOVE SUPREME

Pablo Picasso – Mother and Child, 1901

 

This May, three babies were born among my neighbours and family. The first is Scarlett, the closest to my heart, who joins her three-year-old brother in what I know will be a happy and close sibling adventure. The other is Audrey, who lives right next door and will do the same, I hope, with her big brother who is just two. The third lives around the corner.

They arrived like the warmth of spring trailing joy and hope.

They arrived inevitably, after a slow and patient wait that veered sharply as it came to an urgent ending.

They arrived, and for all of the preparations—the fresh feathering of the nest and frequent medical monitoring—they’ve brought unpredictability and disorganization into their parents’ lives.

They’re all healthy babies and their seasoned mothers and fathers aren’t having to reinvent the world. They have a frame of reference, a bank of experience from which to draw. These families are already up and running.

The job of child number two or three or four, in any family, is to hop on a train that’s already moving and in which some seats have already been taken.

Each child eventually finds their way into adult life while bumping alongside siblings or else never having to share their ride.

It’s the experience—with some very sad exceptions— we all have in common.

But what of motherhood?

Amanda Palmer, Pregnant living statue

All human life on the planet is born of woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body. Because young humans remain dependent upon nurture for a much longer period than other mammals, and because of the division of labor long established in human groups, where women not only bear and suckle but are assigned almost total responsibility for children, most of us first know both love and disappointment, power and tenderness, in the person of a woman.” 

― Adrienne RichOf Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

 

My breath caught when I read this. It has such weight. The enormity of it. The unquestionability of it. The responsibility of it.

I’m the second of three sisters. My father decided when I was very young that I should wear my hair short and then gave me the nickname Mikie. I think it was a clear message about who I should be, or who he was expecting. But, mysteriously and despite my tomboyish appearance, the strongest memory I have of my childhood hopes and dreams of the future is of a deep, unswerving desire and conviction that I should one day be a mother.

I can’t explain it. It was just there inside me.

I became a mother at twenty-four, while still a graduate student.

 

“That first pregnancy is a long sea journey to a country where you don’t know the language, where land is in sight for such a long time that after a while it’s just the horizon – and then one day birds wheel over that dark shape and it’s suddenly close, and all you can do is hope like hell that you’ve had the right shots.” 

― Emily PerkinsNovel About My Wife

 

 The story of how I became the mother of three goes like this:

The first time, I wanted a baby, and had two.

The second time, I hoped for one baby, but my son died in utero and was lost at 29 weeks.

The third time, I had learned to just hope for a healthy child and mindfully experience every second of the time he lived inside me.

This doesn’t begin to express what any of these experiences were like. How beautiful and terrifying and difficult and euphoric and painful and instinctive and dangerous and traumatic and life-threatening and life-altering and true and transformative they were.

This is the medical lexicon of my motherhood:

Twin high risk pregnancy, pre-eclampsia, prolapsed cord, emergency caesarian, intra-uterine death, compound presentation, prolapsed arm.

My childbirth experiences are all stories that I must hide from women expecting for the first time. They’re unshareable.

    

He carries no burden, he feels no pain. What man, like woman, lies down in the darkness and gets up with child? The gentle, smiling ones own the good secret. Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make flesh that holds fast and binds eternity.” 
― Ray Bradbury

 

I’ve thought so often since I became a mother about what it would have been like to live the way most women have lived since the beginning of time— that is, without the possibility of choice. Without any control over whether or not I would become with child.

 

No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” 

― Margaret Sanger

What I experienced in bringing children into the world branded me for life and changed me profoundly. I was brought right up to the brink of myself and of what I could bear. I became the place where life and death did battle over my own and my babies’ existences.

I carry the wounds and scars of those battles with me every day.

This is not nothing. It is, in fact, almost everything to me. And to many women, I think.

Had I not had any choice at all in the matter…would I have survived?

I bring all of this to my mothering. And always have. How could I not?

And yet, I’m no different than every other mother. I feel a connection with my children so visceral and so deeply embedded in all of me that I know it will never abate.

 

 “When you moved, I felt squeezed with a wild infatuation and protectiveness. We are one. Nothing, not even death, can change that.”
― Suzanne FinnamoreThe Zygote Chronicles

 “It’s come at last”, she thought, “the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.” 
― Betty SmithA Tree Grows in Brooklyn

 

There’s a pain in mothering that just never goes away, and it lives conjoined with a love supreme. And from this connection comes the strength possessed by every mother to defend and protect her child no matter the consequences; no matter the danger; no matter the cost to herself; no matter who or what stands in her way.

Stephen King wrote that: “There’s no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids.”

He’s right, of course. I’ve transformed many times during my decades of mothering, and the ferocity of my feelings shocked me.

Lioness, Furiosa, Elen Ripley. I’ve been all of them.

When Elen Ripley took on the Queen in Aliens, I was on the edge of my seat, roaring along with her.

But I’ve more often felt very close to Joan Allen’s character, Bonnie, in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer:

In that small and very personal movie, Bonnie is the mother of the boy—a chess prodigy—whose life is fast slipping into a very adult and male world of competition for its own sake. In a short and very powerful scene, Bonnie is the quintessential mother: she’s not projecting herself into her child, she’s simply drawing a protective line in the sand that she will not allow to be crossed:

Bonnie: He’s not afraid of losing. He’s afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their fathers’ love every time they come up to the plate?

Fred: All of them!

Bonnie: He knows you disapprove of him. He knows you think he’s weak. But he’s not weak. He’s decent. And if you or Bruce [her sons’ chess teacher and coach] or anyone else tries to beat that out of him, I swear to God I’ll take him away.

 

If I live to be a hundred and ten, I’ll never do anything more meaningful, more hopeful and more astonishing that bringing my sons into the world.

With them, I’ve lived many more lives. I’ve experienced innumerable do-overs—those opportunities to start again and do things better, do them right and become a much better person.

I’m filled with an immense sense of gratitude.

My gratitude has four names. They are Simon, Jeremy, Gabriel and Christian.

 

As I cooked in the cauldron of motherhood, the incredible love I felt for my children opened my heart and brought me a much greater understanding of universal love. It made me understand the suffering of the world much more deeply.”

― Tsultrim Allione