Today I turned 37 years old. The journal entry on my birthday each year almost always begins like that, like each age is a huge milestone. And I guess if you’ve reached it, that’s what it is. Some years I then go into some sort of reflection of where I’m at in life and other times what I’ve been up to that day.
The day I turned 31, I was trying to paint my dog’s kennel. I was getting a new pup and felt the pup deserved a clean, fresh kennel. My dog, Indi, had been put down a fortnight before. She was only five and we’d lived, worked and slept together (I know—gross) all that time. When we buried her I held her body while Anthony dug a hole on the dam bank, and I patted her head in my lap and folded her paw under like she used to do, then I saw her purple tongue hanging out the side of her mouth. ‘It looks like you’re dead,’ I said, and I pushed it back into her mouth.
“So today I’ve washed Indi’s kennel and pulled the letters of her name off (that was hard), but I can’t bring myself to paint it. It’s like closure. That then she’ll definitely be gone. And now I’m mad I didn’t wash it or clean it while she was alive. Why should it have waited until she was dead? Nevertheless, she loved that kennel, lying in there often during the day and sharing it at times over the years with a lamb, a kitten and another pup. Is that why people who lose a child keep the child’s bedroom as it was—is it wrong to change it after they’re gone, like you’re doing the wrong thing by them and moving on?”
And from 2008, six months after we’d bought our premature little baby, Elsie, home after five months in hospital:
“Today I turned 34 years old. My sister-in-law rang this morning and said, “You’re 34 years old and a mother”.
Yesterday I finished Jane Hansen’s book (Three Seasons – a powerful memoir in which she writes about the heartbreaking plight of her son Jackson, born too early, too small) and one of the parts that sticks most in my mind is when they stood on top of Thredbo and sprinkled the ashes of their two dead sons, referring to themselves as ‘childless parents’.
And it occurred to me yesterday that we were childless parents before Elsie was born. We had given birth to Maya. But at just 18 weeks gestation, she was not medically referred to as a baby and did not require a funeral. And so we left her at the hospital for testing and came home empty-handed.
So through and after all the pain and grief of losing Maya, with yesterday’s reading of the phrase ‘childless parents’, I obviously never thought of ourselves as parents. And given my sister-in-law’s comment today, probably neither did anyone else. Would we, or would they, if we’d buried her? Would there have been more recognition of her existence? Would I have felt like a mother if we had buried our child?
Not that I want to ever know what it feels like to be a mother burying her child, but I just wonder if I would have considered myself a mother.”
And then I go into a spiel about how badly I want to write a book and how I think about it every single day, but that I don’t know what to write about. If it was about my life, where would it start and finish and why would it sell anyway? It’s a spiel that can be found many times throughout my life journal.
Here’s one of the most comprehensive entries on that topic:
“I have a burning desire to be a writer. Mind you, I don’t know what constitutes being a writer, or when you can call yourself one. I guess firstly you need to write. And then you need to have it published. I have an entire bookshelf full of books about writing. In fact on my bedside table alone I have ‘On writing’, ‘On writing well’, ‘Living the writer’s life’, ‘Writing fiction’, ‘The writing book’, ‘Writer mama’, ‘Chicken soup for the writer’s soul’, ‘Writing down the bones’ and ‘Dear writer’. And that’s just my bedside table – not even the bookshelf. If I wrote, instead of read, about writing, I could probably call myself a writer, instead of a reader.
Why is it that for over a decade the only thing I’ve been able to write about is how badly I want to write? I read about competitions to enter without having written anything to enter. I read books about writing without doing any of their suggested exercises. I buy an Alphasmart and post-it notes and all the things I need to be a writer and don’t use them. I spend at least half of my waking hours thinking about writing without actually letting any words flow. I go to bed at night and lie awake thinking about what I can write about.
Write what you know, they say. What do I know? I know that I’m insecure and don’t want to look bad. I know that perhaps everyone else is the same. I know about the different emotions associated with having a premature baby. I know I was lonely and wanted a husband for a long time. I know a lot of people like that. I know we can tell ourselves a lie and believe it because we want it to be the truth. I know we apply our own meaning to things people say to confirm a story we’ve made up in our heads. I know people like to be right, and that sometimes their desire to be right is more important to them than their relationships. I know that it’s difficult for fathers and sons to work together. I know it’s also difficult to be the mother or the wife. I know that we can learn perspective in life-and-death situations, but lose it again when things return to normal. I know that time heals grief you thought you’d never get over. I know that you can tell a lot about a man by the way he deals with a tangled extension cord (okay, I borrowed that one, but it’s cool, isn’t it?). I know that we shape our personalities with the things that happen to us and what we make them mean, and that that can shape our future, when it doesn’t need to. I know that we think we can’t do things when we can, we’re just too scared to try and have told ourselves it wasn’t possible in the past so we don’t try it again. I know that I’m stopped by certain things in life but that I don’t have to be from now on.
So I’m stopped in writing. Let’s look at why. Because I’m afraid that what I write won’t be any good. I’m stopped because I want my book to win the Miles Franklin Award or Man Booker Prize. How many books are there in the world (published or not) and how many of them are popular, well-known books, loved and read by many, that have never won any prize.
I’m stopped because I don’t know what to write about. So I write about writing and how I don’t know what to write about.
Steph told me today that I’m really a very good writer and that I should write a book.
How many people have to tell me that before I will? And how many people do I have to tell that I’d like to before I do?”
And so, another year goes by and if a bus comes past with my name on it, then writing a book will remain something I only ever talked about. If that doesn’t call me to action, nothing will.
Here I am today, 37 years old, with a little girl who has given me, first and foremost, motherhood, pride, laughter, lessons, grief, anxiety, highs and lows and a love that I never knew existed.