Today when I was home alone I washed all of her clothes and watched them dry in the sun. Then I put them away.
There have always been photographs of my daughter in my office, on the shelves and on the walls. But for the first year or so afterwards, there were no pictures of her on display at home because her father was unable to look at them. The sight of them rendered him immobile, and at the time it seemed important to be able to keep moving, even if in miniscule increments. We now have a few photographs of her on the living-room walls, and I keep some on my dressing table in our bedroom. I wear a locket containing two photographs of her that my little boy likes to look at, and sometimes kiss, before he goes to bed. Before I turn out the light and say goodnight, my daughter’s five-year-old brother drinks milk out of her sippy cup, although he has been too old for a baby’s cup for some time. When this ritual started, this drinking of milk from her cup before sleep, I cannot recall, but for him no other cup will do.
‘Do you have a sister?’ asks Leah, a Play School presenter. She pauses, then says, ‘Or a brother? Do you have any siblings?’
‘No,’ says my son to the television.
‘Yes you do, darling, you have a sister. You have a little sister.’
He looks at me. ‘Oh yes!’ he says, and looks back at the television and stands up. ‘I have a sister!’ he tells the television proudly, his hands on his hips.
He has a sister. He had a little sister. I am mother to a daughter. My partner is father to a son and a daughter. He no longer has a daughter but he is still her father. I had a little girl. For some reason that remains astonishing to me, at children’s birthday parties people often ask if our son is our only child. I wonder where these people think our other children could be. Does it not make sense that if there were other, living children that one of us would be with those other, living children? But of course I am with her. There are always two moments for me, two scenes playing out simul-taneously. At a conference I attend for work someone explains that writing scenes out of chronological order reflects how trauma affects the brain, and I wonder how others in the audience would react if I told them that trauma means being unable to live in chronological order. The style separates the reader from the trauma, the speaker continues. The traumatised are separated from themselves, I think to myself.
How to explain that there was no longer time? Time no longer existed. People associate that saying with love. With infinite potential. So to say that time no longer existed does not fit. Did time no longer matter? Again, a concept associated with pleasure. And time did matter. Yet the despair was such that I could no longer mark time; others came to shape our time.
I listen to a colleague speak at his book launch as he explains how the fracturing experience of trauma disrupts time and how the fragments cling to our bodies, doing more than simply stuttering the relation between time of the body and time of the world by incorporating into the psyche the traumatic event (Richardson, 147; see References) so that my body fluctuates between weightlessness and inordinate substance. At what point in time does the shock begin? At what point does it end, allowing the trauma to begin?
The return home
The initial state of shock will not cease for some months and means I cannot trust my memory. It means I cannot remember. ‘Tell me what was happening when you arrived at the hospital …’ I plead with a friend much later. ‘Tell me what I said. Tell me what I was doing. Tell me who called you, tell me how my family knew to come. Tell me again.’ Tell me what happened.
Tell me what we were doing in the first weeks following her death, I ask my brother. Tell me what happened. Did I talk to the people who filled my house? I am in so much pain I am afraid I am dying, I tell my doctor, and we are both crying. But I cannot leave my little boy, please don’t let me die.
I cannot distinguish between the grief and the pain or between what is real and what is not and it has nothing to do with refusing to believe but with an inability to comprehend. I can still feel her in my arms, I still hear her in the house. Before I am quite awake I circumvent the not-yet-future past and all is well, until it is not. Time and time again I am adamant I can change the course of events, for in the liminal space between sleeping and waking everything is possible. But then it happens again. ‘Events are meant to end, but an event from which trauma arises does not’ (Richardson, 147).
Now I am driving my son to a play date and he is yelling out the window, trying to elicit a hello or a wave from other drivers. He scares the life out of some of them and it never fails to make me laugh. When he’s not yelling he’s regularly asking me to ‘Hit the brakes, Mum!’ He is still too young to grasp the concept of time. ‘What is she doing?’ he asks. We will never know the extent of his trauma: his language at this time is significantly behind for his age.
‘What is who doing, monkey?’ I ask, not realising he is continuing a conversation from days earlier.
‘My little sister, where she is?’ I remember that it did not seem like anything out of the ordinary that day when strangers grabbed at me, that it did not seem out of the ordinary that there seemed to be people on either side of me everywhere I went and that it did not seem out of the ordinary that I did not wonder who they were or why they were there. When I drove away in the ambulance and saw our car abandoned in the middle of the road with both doors still open, it did not seem like something warranting comment. I remember thinking to myself, I must remember that when I tell the story about what happened, that we just left the car in the street in everyone’s way and we didn’t even shut the doors. I was in the ambulance and the siren was going although I could not hear it. But I must have heard it because I was aware that I was in an ambulance with a siren going and that my daughter was in the back. I was grateful that my partner was in the car leading the way because it meant I knew where he was.
The car he was in, the one leading the ambulance, had a siren, too, and it ignored all the red lights. I was already writing the story in my head, writing the ending to what would become a famous family story, and I imagined us retelling it at family gatherings and I imagined my children telling me in bored voices: no-one needed to hear that story again, for god’s sake, Mum. I imagined this even as I screamed for people to get out of our way and noted how quiet the driver was so I kept quiet and just concentrated on the story in my head and kept imagining the future when this day would be over and I would simply be telling a story, and I recognised the workaday look on the man’s face who pulled over on his moped and I saw the bored looks on pedestrians’ faces and I noted the way I was sitting on the edge of my seat with my hands braced on the dashboard as if I could make the ambulance go faster and I kept repeating all the details so it would be a finished piece in no time because soon what was happening would just be a story about the day she gave us a big fright.
I did not stop the story until long after people unknown to me were reaching for me and holding me up and now I stop to think that part does seem so very strange—that I didn’t push them away—because I have never quite liked being near people I do not know. And that it was still the same day, the same ordinary day her father and I had been laughing together, home for a few days before the next phase of our lives as working parents began, the day I was laughing as I answered the phone and then he was running before I could even tell him that everything would be okay, the day the famous family story began but did not end.
The silence. I am trying to sneak up on the memory because my body is not strong enough to hold it and I understand now that it may never be strong enough. The memory of when we arrived and abandoned our car when we saw all the emergency vehicles and the neighbours gathered on the street feels silent, although I understand that this is a false memory because I was screaming at people and her father was quiet, and he is never quiet. We somehow lost each other in the chaos and would not speak again until we had arrived at the hospital. I was screaming, ‘Where is she, where is she?’ and no-one was answering until a woman got up from the brick fence and pointed and then led me when I kept repeating myself because I could not make sense of what she was saying. Bereavement. The bereaved.
I think of English manor houses, mourning dress, servants. I think of the past. We were poised, my little family, we were ready to begin another chapter, but then the life we were living was taken. I wanted to tell someone that we had known how lucky we were, that we had not taken our life for granted. That we were not being punished for hubris. Is it possible to build a legacy in 14 months? There were not enough memories. I had not taken enough photographs. I had deleted photographs, blurry ones, some perfectly adequate that resembled others taken seconds before. Why had I discarded them? Why could I not have understood that I would need them one day, that I would need everything?
In our culture of display, there is incongruously little performance of grief. I immerse myself in a virtual world where what is recent is prized over retrospection and communications are distributed within a multidimensional web of connections (Page, 423). In this virtual world I build my monument to my daughter in the pre-eminence of the present moment where I create many small stories alongside those of other people (Page, 249). Here, where it is accepted, where it is a given that we exist in multifaceted and multilayered moments in time, my little girl exists still, she is remembered and celebrated and I continue to create my small stories.
The day we came home without her, our house looked the same even though nothing was the same and I did not want anyone to see our house and think that all was well, that life continued as before. On the verandah I built her a shrine, a living sculpture of flowers and photographs and toys and candles that would leave no doubt in the minds of passers-by that this was a house in mourning. When I returned to work things continued as before but I was not really there because I was no longer the person I had been. I am not religious and I am not superstitious but I could not change the month on the calendar hanging on my office wall that still bore traces of my former life, nor throw out the notes on my desk that my former self had written to someone who would now never appear.
No-one acted as if my presence was some sort of miracle, which it was because I no longer existed. My partner went back to work for one week and was then unable to return. One day I was having lunch at work alone when a woman I knew from attending the same meetings sat down with me and asked how on earth I had managed to avoid a particular work responsibility and I hesitated and said that there had been an accident and her face collapsed like a soft meringue and she said, Of course, I’m so sorry, and even though she did not avoid the difficult topic and kept talking to me, all I was thinking was, How do you forget?
We were late to parenthood and I remember, when asking advice from friends with older children, my disbelief when they said, ‘Oh god, I can’t even remember when they were that age, I can’t remember when they first did this, or if they ever did that’, and I would wonder, How could anyone forget? But I have only 14 months to remember and I cannot remember everything even when I am trying so very hard. So it is even more of a jolt when memories erupt into my mind such as the other day when I remembered that she rarely cried when she woke up from a nap and I would pop my head into their room and she would be sitting up chewing on her blanket and, still chewing, she’d start bouncing up and down on her bottom because she was so happy to see me. What sort of mother forgets that, even for an instant?
I am not religious and I am not superstitious but I craved ritual. When I got home from the hospital I took off all my jewellery. I removed the polish from my hands and feet. When I saw my reflection it upset me to see my own face unchanged and I told my partner I was going to cut my long, red hair off as close to my scalp as possible because I could not bear anything that could be construed as adornment. He asked me to wait for a little while and the moment passed. I stayed in loose nightclothes because I could not bear anything too close to my skin. On the few occasions I had to leave the house I yearned for a mourning dress so strangers would understand my suffering at a glance.
I lit candles every day. Although her funeral was not held for three weeks due to the circumstances of her death, my Jewish friends assured me I was sitting shiva, which comforted me, because along with the grief was an inherent urge to mark her passing: where I live, death and bereavement are private and they should not be. Scenes from the Day of the Dead, a Mexican celebration I had long admired for its theatre and romance rather than any association, suddenly became resonant and inarguably rational. And I retreated to the virtual world, which offers ‘a creative means to seek both individual solace as well as collective redemption’ (Kern et al., 2).
In the physical world we create new memories for our son, we speak of his sister constantly, we talk of the past and the future. We place her everywhere so there is no doubt that she ever existed. We mark her birthday, the day she came home to us, and the day she died, and we create new memories of which she is part. When people ask how many children we have, we say two, we had two, but our little girl died. We say her name. We want others to say her name so we can hear it. We remember her, and we remember her dynamically. Her life was not long enough, but know she was happy every day of her life. We both told her almost every day that we loved her, as we do our son.
Grief is universal yet individual and we do our best not to shy away from our grief in public or in private. And so we gather and part, gather and part, forming a collective of remembering (Ricoeur) and the memories we create are processual (Zelizer, 218) as together we build and evolve, to grieve together and alone, privately and in public. The virtual world erupts into my world and is as much my reality as any other as the shock of immersion in past moments once again becomes the present, collapsing into the past to be my future. My virtual world is as legitimate as a calendar or a clock in maintaining the temporal flow of my life; all create a sense of, and construct, my time. When referring to the inescapability of media, Lefebvre (46) asks: ‘Can you imagine this flow that covers the globe, not excluding the oceans and deserts? It has a meaning: time.’
When we are in this alternative world together our temporal experience is one of immediacy, yet still we remember. We update our memories constantly, but still they return. We search for, and find them. There are no clear beginnings or endings to our memories. We coexist in and out of time, the relationships between tales and selves, images and meanings all rupturing and mutating to create new stories. When the memories come unbidden there is still some sense of control, some awareness that the thoughts can be saved for another time. But when the body acts as memory and is thrust into the past, time does matter because it is inescapable. The cot, the car seat, the high chair. The sling. The sling that held her to me even when my hands were elsewhere. The little red pram made of wood; the first birthday present for which I paid too much. The fire truck she preferred. When one cot became two cots became one cot again.
Two car seats became one car seat, from one high chair to two high chairs back to one. The bath that was never a bath but a reconditioned plastic storage tub which they shared. The air I try to breathe when these absences became a presence. The searing and physical pain as I write this while sitting in a public library. The first tooth, the second, the third and fourth, the fifth and sixth. The fact I cannot quite remember each one because it never occurred to me that every single event would become so vital, that every second was vital. The somewhat restrained laugh that was never the raucous giggle that escapes her brother. The angle of her head as she presented herself to be kissed. The weight of her in my arms. Her patience and curiosity. And the love the love the love my love, and love. The shock of immersion in past moments moving into the present. My relationship with my daughter is time itself, the rupturing and fragmenting of time as the present collapses into the past and is now my future. The savage mutability of time (Richardson, 145–57).
We manipulate time together and in the process of marking the present time the virtual world also brings into experience the near future: the reach of thought and imagination, of planning and hoping, of tracing out mutual influences, of engaging in struggles for specific goals, in short, of the process of implicating oneself in the ongoing life of the social and material world. The memories also appear unbidden in the virtual world too, often with photographs, and I am reminded of when they were a true memory and not a memorial, and how we had all gathered together with joy, not despair. In the virtual world we can all be noticed without interruption and there is confirmation and comfort. We gather and part to keep her memory alive. I mourn every-thing she will miss, and attempt to explore the conflicts inherent in having more than one sense of time, the disparities between the temporal sensibilities. We are all existing, in this moment, in multiple, interrelated senses of time, but I am also here in the now and always (Bakhtin).
Few people can say I am here. They look for themselves in the past and in the future. I see now, because I am always here.
Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, University of Texas Press, Austin and London, 1981.
Rebecca Kern, A.E. Forman and G. Gil-Egui, ‘RIP Remaining in Perpetuity: Facebook memorial pages’, Telematics and Informatics, 2013, pp. 2–10.
Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2004.
- Page, ‘Re-examining Narrativity: Small Stories in Status Updates’, Text & Talk, 2010, pp. 423–44.
- Richardson, Gestures of Testimony: Torture, Trauma, and Affect in Literature, Bloomsbury, New York and London, 2016.
Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History and Forgetting, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004.
- Zelizer, ‘Reading the Past against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 12, no. 2 (1995), pp. 214–39.