Published in Eve Magazine, UK
It’s the earliest photo I have of myself. Blonde scruff-haired mop, pulled up at the front; square sunglasses—the photo is black and white, but the glasses, I remember, had a pink edge. My legs, like rugby players legs, are stuck out from a faux Mary Quant dress: polka dots, wide pockets; my mouth is flattened out, I can see that behind the sunglasses I am frowning, and in my hand I’m carrying a brown school case. I am four years old and this is the first photo of me. There are no baby shots of me kicking my feet in the air, none of me as a wide eyed toddler, stumbling through my early steps. This photo marks an awakening: my mother, unseen behind the camera, returned to me, as though risen from the dead.
My mother died on the operating table. I have always known this, the way that children of other families know that Grandpa didn’t come back from the war, or that Auntie Maud was never quite right after that lovely man jilted her. Each family has a set of stories, some happy, some sad—and this was one of ours. My mother died and she came back from the dead. She’s one of those women, my mother, who’s always dancing, full of music; someone who makes people laugh. Not someone who would try to kill herself.
Like many women in the late sixties, the love revolution had passed my mother by. Instead, she was tucked inside brick walls, caring for four children while her husband lived out various alternate lives with a range of mistresses. When she fell pregnant with her fifth child—me—he spent more and more time away. Giving birth, let’s face it, is never a ball of laughs, and this one of the less hilarious deliveries. Afterwards, my mother was unable to breastfeed, unable—she said later—to gather any sense of joy from anything. Her husband, my father, spent almost all his time away, and when he was home he was—well, unpredictable. The kind of unpredictable that leaves bruises.
In those days, health visitors didn’t come knocking, checking up on young mothers. The term ‘post-natal depression’ had yet to be coined, let alone enter into common usage. Certainly, women of my mother’s generation—expected to buck up, to get on with it, to stop making such a fuss—were prescribed astonishingly high doses of ‘powders’—seemingly harmless headache powders which promised to give you a little lift. Valium, too, was prescribed happily. And when everything got too much, these women were hospitalised, often given Electro-Convulsive Therapy, or ‘shock treatment’. So, this is the way it was for my mother, Terri. Children as sole company, and a deepening depression, the certainty that her children would be better without her—cared for by a kindly aunt—and that she would be better gone.
It was my sister who found her—sprawled in the living room, one hand still holding a powder. I was the screaming toddler, still tucked into my cot, my nappy sodden as I dangled over the wooden bars, my cries unheard. Perhaps it’s more truthful to say ‘she’—I have no memory of myself as this toddler, can barely associate her with me. My mother, though, sprawled on the floor, her heart slowing to stillness, my sister screaming, running outside, the screen door banging, screaming for the neighbours, for my father, for anyone—I feel, oddly, as though I remember this, that I can still see it.
My father made it home, the neighbour organised an ambulance, and my mother was rushed to the hospital half an hour away. She was wheeled into the operating room; her stomach pumped, a cardiac compression on her chest. Her heart stopped beating for over one minute. Measurable brain activity stops at twenty seconds. The young doctor told my father that his wife would not be returning, not ever. The cardio-pulmonary resuscitation had not worked and my mother was declared dead. It was only after my father left the hospital that her heart began beating again. She was in a coma for two weeks. Recovering was, of course, merely the beginning of becoming well again: I was sent to live with an aunt, until I was a blonde pre-schooler. When my mother returned to me, I didn’t know who she was.
When I began writing my fourth novel, Captain Starlight’s Apprentice, at the moment I knew that there was a woman in the novel who was in a coma, I knew that there was one woman who could tell me about that state. I flew across the world to sit in my mother’s living room, in a coastal town in Australia, and asked her to tell me the truth.
“I could see myself, as a shadow, in the operating room, could see the doctors. I didn’t want to leave my children, but I really believed you’d all be better without me. It’s a terrible disease, depression.”
I put my hand on her knee, and she paused. We have been over this, many times. She went on: “There was a path, and I was traveling down it. I wasn’t frightened. There were rocks, water, a path down the middle. The rocks were dark—I can still see them—and sharp, and the water was on the other side, with light on it. It looked—it was beautiful, and there was a voice telling me I was fine, I would be cared for. The water—it sounded like a baby crying. When I heard the baby sound, I knew I couldn’t stay there. I had to come back.” Of the weeks in the coma, she remembers little but says she could hear voices, and feel the touch of hands. She was in two worlds, she says, and is unsure that one is more ‘true’ than the other. There is a theory, I tell her, that these visions are physiological: as oxygen cuts off, random images flash into the brain. My mother shakes her head: to her, she inhabited that place as clearly as she inhabits her home, and it was the call of her children which brought her back.
I’m grateful that it did, and that her life became one of laughter. In the photo, I have my suitcase at the ready, setting out for a journey. My mother’s visions mean that I have no fear of that final journey; as far as I can tell, neither does she.