No, that would be wrong. Ours is a long and winding narrative that, gathered up in my memory and in my very bones, is a whole universe. By some strange miracle of quantum mechanics perhaps, each and every decision we made, separately and together, each and every action and reaction, brought us to now.
If you believe in fate, then I am, we are, where we were meant to be; and if you don’t, then it was all so much bigger and incalculable than we are—my husband, my children and every human network sprouting from us or connected to us—that we were only ever meant to do our best and keep moving forward.
When I turn my gaze toward the days to come, I’m more aware now than I’ve ever been that any future I project myself into—in a new house, with a new version of my family, with new traditions and patterns, in a new town—is not my future, but rather a cinematic narrative fashioned in my mind, my predictive brain doing what it does best: imagining what might be in the simplest, most familiar images.
Most of me lives for this imminent future—the island of a life that’s there for me if I can only reach it— but a smaller, hardened part still grapples with the reality of it. In seven days, I shall have left my house on Laurelwood. So much has happened to bring me to the brink of this new life and yet, so much stands before me, casting shadow, that even this small patch of future still feels unreal.
And the network of people—family, friends, all my loved ones, who are here, now.
Their presence has been a constant in my life, not subject to hours and seasons in the way that most things are.
Their love thrums steadily and more and more loudly these days.
I’m so grateful to them for it.
In a message to a friend the other day, I likened the feeling of connection their love creates to the network of roots that link the trees, hidden away underground, hundreds, thousands of ramifications that bind them, allowing them to communicate and to nurture each other.
Illness clears the calendar of imagined, possible things. What’s left is the inevitability of medical appointments and treatments…and spaces in between. There’s no need, yet, to try to fill those spaces.
For now, I fill boxes and clear rooms. I staged my house for sale, and now I wait for my cancer to be staged. Who could have predicted it?
My day had an upbeat beginning. My teaching engagements have slowed to a trickle, so I have more windows of time to fill differently.
This morning, that meant accepting my mum’s invitation to a tea party at her house with Anne, my daughter-in-law, and Penelopeand Graeme, my grandchildren(now 5 and 3). While my mum and Anne stayed at the table a little longer enjoying each other’s company, I was called to a higher purpose—that is, playing with P&G (or Beans and Chuck Norris, as their papa calls them).
Aside from a bit of teaching preparation for tomorrow that still needed doing, the only other thing on my agenda was (and still is as I write this) an invitation to attend the vernissage of the latest collection of works by members of the Montreal Camera Club.
In between, I spent some time in front of this laptop. A couple of hours ago, an email dropped into my Inbox. It was from Miriam, a former student of mine whom I last saw in class last fall. Its title is MEET OUR BABY BOY.
These are just words to you. Happy and upbeat.
But in me, they’ve set off something altogether different: a swirling wash of feelings that have completely taken me over. Even as I sit here typing, I’m almost entirely absorbed in the emotional memories Miriam and Abmel’s newfound joy has awoken.
I feel such bliss for them. Such empathy and euphoria. And something close to disbelief, because this event is sublime, and laced with a residual sadness that has made me cry and left me with a pressure in my chest from so many more tears still wanting to be released, and my physical self just barely able to contain them.
Miriam and Abmel became parents on June 15th, at 9:12 pm. Their son weighed 7 pounds one ounce. A lovely time of day to be born. A perfect weight. In her email, Miriam wrote: “We are very happy and just wanted you to share our joy.”
How perfectly normal.
But no, no, no. NOT to Miriam and Abmel, who are in their early forties, who have lost several babies, I think, to miscarriage—the last time, at more than twenty weeks—a baby they could hold and touch and recognise as having everything and yet still did not live. A baby old enough to tear their hearts out.
Miriam was a beginner when she first started French lessons, and more than once had to endure the litany of beginner questions like: Are you married? Do you have children? How old are they? What are their names ?—to which her colleagues responded so naturally, but which required of Miriam tremendous grace and discretion. I only realised this later.
When she first became my student, and those questions came up and Miriam answered “No, no. No children”, with a polite smile, I thought that perhaps there was a fertility problem with the couple, or that they’d just chosen not to have any. Miriam was always so private.
But when Abmel, who was more advanced in his French, became my student, things changed between the three of us. While Miriam is ebullient and expressive, Abmel is quieter and more intense.
He was struggling with his pain, and with a weariness that was in part the result of dealing with family problems back in his native Cuba, but more profoundly, with an incipient loss of meaning in his life.
Miriam is always warm and optimistic, despite the trauma of her losses, but Abmel’s was the energy of someone aggrieved. It isn’t just that he had the words to say more; Abmel wanted to say more; to express his feelings of growing dissatisfaction with a life in which career pursuits seemed hollower, and in which there was nothing, yet, that he could imagine on the horizon, to quell his unease.
Miriam stopped coming to French class a month early. I’d heard that she was very busy with work; that her department was overwhelmed by the effects of a recent project. And then, one Friday afternoon in December, after his class, Abmel waited till everyone had left the conference room and told me that Miriam was pregnant again. No, that’s not quite right: he whispered that Miriam was pregnant.
I remembered an earlier class when, speaking of the last child he and Miriam had lost, Abmel had spread his hands out in front of him—the width of a shoebox—his opposing palms slightly curved, as though touching invisible feet and an invisible head, to show me that THIS was the immensity of their loss.
On Abmel’s face last December, I could read everything. He didn’t smile when he delivered his news and I knew why. He was afraid that Fate was listening.
He didn’t smile because he was afraid to hope and to believe that this time could end differently. He didn’t smile because he was now on guard. Again. Thrown into a state of powerless vigilance. There was fear in his face and a tightness—each experience having further compromised his capacity for carefree joy. Abmel’s face is beautiful, and lined.
MEET OUR BABY BOY detonated in my Inbox. I had resisted contacting Miriam, asking for news. I knew that she was on precautionary pregnancy leave and I worried that if something had gone wrong, my inquiries would only cause her distress.
MEET OUR BABY BOY. And attached to her words, a photo of baby Samuel, minutes after his birth, resting on Miriam’s breast. And on her face, an expression of completeness and peace.
I lost most of this afternoon to a flood of feelings that I couldn’t contain and that left me spent and all upside down and, improbably, calm.
Miriam and Abmel’s son Samuel is like my Christian: the life that vanquishes a grief that seemed bottomless.
His parents are not sleeping very much these days. Their lives have just expanded a thousandfold and are no longer their own. Abmel’s search for meaning is over. And Miriam? Well…I like to imagine her in the moments captured by Abmel’s photo.
June 15th, 2017
Today, you sit up in a hospital bed. It is early evening. Your bleary-eyed husband stands next to you, staring in awe at the beautiful new son you cradle in your arms, who is as fragile and miraculous as life itself. And imprinted on his tiny head and body are all the joys, sorrows and pains that Fate will cast upon him. But you will love him enough to make his journey worthwhile.
And then, you turn him toward you. You lift him to your face, feeling his breath, absorbing his scent. And you bring him closer, ever so gently, so that his tiny head might nestle in the warm hollow of your neck. And slowly, slowly, you rub your jaw along the silky down covering his delicate skull, and then it happens: that long awaited moment of absolute remembrance. It is exactly as you knew it would be. It is timeless. It is sacred. And at long, long last, you tilt your head and kiss your son.