I stood wearing black, the grieving widow, wondering why that day of all the days, the day of Matthew’s funeral, I found myself returning so vividly to that place. I had thought it was so far locked away, hidden behind the closed corridors of my life that it was no longer part of me.
Was it the sadness that dredged up the memory or was it the feeling of being alone again? I shuddered when I saw that young girl, I barely recognised her, the girl that once was me.
Twenty crucifixes hung in that room, each in an identical spot, centre above an iron bed. There were ten beds on either side and at the end two long windows that allowed the outside in. Below us, hard shiny floors, around us pale pink walls with Jesus Christ dying over and over. The room smelt of chlorine, clinical, uncaring. I remember thinking it strange that the wails of young women and the first cries of life coming into the world were linked with Jesus leaving it.
He looked sad up there, long curly manes of hair hung loosely around his shoulders. Each of his faces drooped inwards, allowing twenty chins to rest on twenty muscular chests. When the contractions came, I stared up at him, the Jesus, the one above Nora’s bed with the chip missing from his elbow. Apart from that they were all the same. The one with the chip looked more humane, kinder than the others. Part of me was glad he looked down at his nailed feet. At least it was away from me. I bit down hard on my lips, so hard they bled. The blood tasted warm, sickening.
‘One born every minute,’ that was what my father used to say. ‘No daughter of mine would ever get that way’. ‘In trouble,’ was how folks described it.
She came not long after dawn, moments before I twisted and moaned animal like. I had heard my own cries, coming from so deep down, I no longer felt they belonged to me. The nuns too must have worried death was near. They spoke to each other in the silent language of the eyes. Soon a priest stood above my bed mumbling prayers for my forgiveness, he no more than a child himself. I can still see the holes that adolescence left in his pimpled skin, his disposition awkward, afraid even. I must have looked quite mad to him, the white gown I wore covered in blood and sweat, and devoid of any shape other than the large protruding bump. It was after he left they put my feet in stirrups, the desire to push becoming so strong that I screamed from the very core of my existence. Sister Bernadette, the one with the moustache, gave me a look that said I disgusted her. She rammed the gag into my mouth. I no longer cared if Jesus stared.
I never told Matthew, never told my husband. Not when I met him, nor later. Standing at the graveside forty years on, I wondered why the moment never seemed right, why the reasons kept changing even though the truth remained the same.
As I watched Matthew’s coffin being lowered into the ground I could feel the claw of the mid-January day eat my skin. I watched the breaths of mourners rise like smoke signals into the dusky pink sky. Four men, strangers to me dressed in mud-clad boots and dirty clothes griped tight the two thick straps that suspended Matthew’s last remains. His old work friends and our neighbors stood with collars raised and shoulders stooped as my eyes followed the lines of gravestones marching along the graveled paths.
There were tombstones in the shapes of Celtic crosses, heavenly angels, others with shiny marbled slabs. Some tombstones sunk sideways into the earth, no longer cared for by anyone of this world. My body felt old, tired. Matthew had deserved more. He had deserved the truth. It was my own shame that kept me from telling him and I suppose the fear of losing him. Later when no children came, I couldn’t hurt him with the truth.
What was the truth? I remember wanting deeply to see my baby, hold her? I had needed to know the colour of her hair, her eyes. It seemed important to be sure that she had ten little fingers and ten little toes. They should have let me say hello. They should have let me say goodbye.
As the funeral party left the graveside, they followed me, the grieving widow.
‘Come back to the house for a cup of tea, won’t you?’ I heard myself saying.
‘He’s in a good place now,’ someone said.
‘He’s in our prayers.’
They meant well, but I was glad they could not see inside of me.
As the breeze around us gained pace, my heart quickened and I thought about how many times I had tried to feel my baby touch me in the breeze or hear her cry when all was silent other than the sleeping night. She used to skip behind shadows, but she was always there.
When we reached the black iron cemetery gates, the promise of snow from early morn arrived. Secret flakes barely visible at first multiplied and cascaded in each direction. I thought of the snow globe I once had as a child. One moment the little town square had the clearest of skies, but with the lightest shake, it became a wondrous place.
The day I told my father about the baby, it had snowed. I could still see the anger in his eyes, fierce, bubbling, boiling anger. He ran at me, grabbed my arms and flung me right across the front room. Huddled in the corner I watched as my Mother tried to speak.
‘No more of it,’ he roared. His body growing larger in size, swinging at the door as he turned, slamming it so hard, it bounced back upon itself. After a time, my mother whispered, ‘go talk to him’.
I climbed the narrow stairs, my knees shaking with fear. When I reached the top, it was then I heard the sobbing. I had never heard a grown man cry, least not my father. I walked out past my mother, past the sadness in her eyes. Opening the front door I saw the snow, just like my snow globe.
The mourners back at the house clasped their shoulders and stumped their feet leaving large slushy puddles in the porch. Most congregated in the front room. Those helping with the tea and sandwiches set up a factory line in the side kitchen. I could hear the click of cups on saucers, spoons in cups. I smiled that grateful thanking smile of a recent widow before I snuck away upstairs.
From my bedroom window I looked out at the snow, the room dark, the white outside almost dazzling in reply. The snow created such purity of form, the rooftops, the trees even the dirty old back yards took on a beauty far greater than themselves. My eyelids flickered open and closed each time adjusting better to the changing scene. I thought about my little girl. I thought of her as a baby covered in pink and smelling of talc. I thought of her going to school for the first time, laughing on a swing in the park. I saw her as a teenager, running through the house looking for her gym shoes. I thought of all the years that I had let the snow drift on the memory. Somehow, I had built so many layers, too many layers.
Before I went downstairs, I switched on the amber bedside light. Reaching into my sewing basket, I found underneath the thimbles, spools of tread and pins, the leaflet I had hidden. It arrived months before, ‘The Irish Adoption Society’, inviting adoptive people and natural parents to register. They sent them to every household in Ireland. I had put it carefully away, hidden it.
Months later the reply came. I knew what it was before I looked inside. It took some time for me to open it. When I did, I read and reread the typed contents, not believing my daughter had registered too. ‘Daughter,’ I repeated the word out loud as if by saying it, it would become more real.
And now today has arrived, the day of our supervised meet. I walk past Trinity College and look up at the almost cloudless blue sky. The streets feel alive, energised on this vibrant June day. I pass two young men strumming guitars. One of them has a mouth organ attached around his neck. They both look so engrossed in what they do; it gives them a protection of sorts.
I maneuver my way forward through the endless buggies and bags. I see people in a hurry, people taking their time. Where the women sell flowers at the top of Grafton Street, a baby is crying. A mother reaches down. I stop then and look at the flowers, they remind me of things. The blue iris brings me back to my parent’s front garden, sunflowers, a holiday myself and Matthew had in France. I see white lilies, the chosen flower these days for homes and apartments with exquisite dining room tables. I catch my reflection in a shop window, a middle-aged woman, well dressed, looking lost amongst the crowd. Part of me wants to go back home, to catch the Luas which is parked on Stephen’s Green, to come up with an excuse for not being able to be there. Then I get angry with myself and mutter definitely beneath my breath ‘no more excuses.’ I turn the corner and walk past the Shelbourne Hotel. One of the Nubians princesses looks down on me. Her hands reach up to the sky and I gain strength from her and carry on.
The hum of the city is silenced as the red Georgian front door closes behind me. I climb the stairway hearing the creaking sound of wood beneath my feet. The backs of my knees feel weak, just like that day all those years before. My breath is short and I can hear my heart thump. I pause before I knock and stand staring at the paneled door as if beyond it, I might just fall off the very edge of everything. I am more afraid than I ever thought possible. Like a small child learning to walk, I stretch out unsure at first, but then somehow I clench my fist and knock down hard. I remind myself, that today, today at least I will get to say ‘hello.’
Louise Phillips is a Dublin writer. She began writing 6 years ago when her children were older. Shortly after starting her writing journey in 2006, she was chosen as part of a small group of emerging new talent for workshops given by Dermot Bolger, then Writer-in-residence for SDCC. Since then, she has had a number of short stories and poems published. Her debut novel RED RIBBONS will be published by Hachette Ireland in October 2012. Louise is represented by literary agent, Ger Nichol.