Surprised by Joy

I’ve always been accident-prone. It was a label that I carried about with me from as early as I can remember. Just before my seventh birthday I remember wondering if I’d make it to my teens. Summer camp that year was difficult; I’d almost drowned; jumped head-first into the gym horse; walked into doors; the usual tripping up, falling over and choking on my lunch, and now, my calf, cut with glass – a scar I still have – that the nurse was patching together while my sisters explained to her that this was par for the course. I had been acting the eejit in some show-off display of tomfoolery and now I was paying the price. No one was laughing anymore and I was genuinely deeply concerned for my future. But what could I do? Danger hung over me like a dark cloud; my saving grace was that I forgot easily and so my childhood, while peppered with injuries, was still fun for the most part. How I never broke a bone is anyone’s guess. I was then, and remain to be, the person that causes other normal people to scan the room quickly for any obvious obstacles when I appear. When I start to tell a story, some quick thinking person will gently push my glass in towards the centre of the table and away from the edge, a safe distance from my waving arms.

Dramatic was another label; dramatic, accident-prone and free spirited; that was the diplomatic term for whatever I was. I’d like to say I grew out of it but I still fall down stairs and I’ve burned myself so many times that we keep the burn-aid next to the hob. My daughters can’t watch me chop vegetables.

“I didn’t ask to be this way!” I cried – only yesterday, as my husband sprayed something soothing on my wrist – although I’m proud to say, I didn’t drop the dish as I took it out of the oven. That’s progress right there. That’s maturity. My family sighs for me, sure what else can they do? Once the bleeding has stopped they’re rendered useless.  But yesterday that frustrated seven year old was back, biting her lower lip outside Newpark summer school; nothing has changed, I thought. I’m still a danger to myself every waking moment; if it’s not an allergic reaction to something, I’ll have pulled a muscle, or picked the iron up the wrong side. I don’t know; I just do it. Chaos follows me too, generally – whatever path I follow, it will never be straightforward. I’m a girl with stories.

What, you may ask, has this to do with the story of my pregnancy? Well, for a start, if anyone were going to get pregnant, it would be me. My husband Geoff says that the reason I’m so prone to accidents is because my mind and therefore, my attention is elsewhere. It’s true. The only reason I no longer fall down the stairs is because I count the steps as I walk. I find this is a very mindful way of moving safely. So, although I was appalled that I had gotten myself pregnant, I wasn’t exactly surprised. It wasn’t going to be regular straightforward pregnancy and it wasn’t even a straightforward birth. Of course it wasn’t. One minute I was sitting there watching the sun rise and the next the student nurse was reporting that the baby was distressed. I was wheeled off dramatically while my mother was out of the room and suddenly there were seven or eight people around me.
“You’re going to have to have a caesarean section,” a nurse told me.
“Ok.” I said politely, thinking “Typical.” And “FUUUUUUCK!” The words I heard were
“The baby’s distressed.”
“She’s three centimeters.”
“Emer, we’re prepping you for – “
“THE BABY’S COMING!”
“But she’s only –“
“She’s fully dilated, the BABY’S COMING NOW!!!”

I’d like to say I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect but I’m not. It happened just like that. Literally five minutes after a nurse told my mother I was going for ‘that test again’, the baby was born.
Safe.
A boy.
A boy!
Perfect.
Everything’s fine.
Well…

Two years later, Geoff and I had brought our tango of flirtation to a first date; he took me to (but now I’m showing off) Sardinia. Yes, an overnight stay on an Italian island where the most beautiful humans on earth reside. We sat people watching in the evening sun, before enjoying dinner in an empty restaurant served by the grumpy owner who seemed as put out by our leftovers as by our being there (after all, It was Italia 90, the World Cup and Italy was in the process of winning their match.) It turned out he was the most delightful of men; we sat drinking some kind of local hooch after the match, speaking some kind of pigeon Spanish-Italian with a smattering of mime. He offered us jobs the following summer and drove us to the airport as all the taxi drivers were drunk. I was impossibly happy in that moment but I thought it only fair to warn Geoff it couldn’t last.
“Trouble follows me,” I told him. “It will end badly. You should probably get out now, while you still can.”
He’s a handsome man, but that night I fell in love with his hands. I couldn’t look at anything else. After two years of unimaginable heartbreak, I’d assumed I would never be happy again. I wasn’t even expecting it.

I can still remember the first moment I realized that my baby boy wasn’t on my mind. I was in work, on the packing line, of all things, a Zig and Zag video. Our company had produced it and it was all hands on deck with the packaging. If you weren’t doing anything crucial you were in the studio shoving the paper sleeve of “Nothing to Do With Toast” into the video box. The moment took me by such surprise that I actually exclaimed out loud,
“Oh!”
“What?” Someone said.
“Nothing.” I said, all my actions slowing now as I realized he hadn’t been on my mind. I remembered the Wordsworth poem ‘Surprised by Joy.’ It had never made so much sense to me before. Wordsworth became real, a man, a broken hearted father, instead of some long dead Romantic that had no connection whatsoever to modern life. I can recite that poem with genuine understanding but I can never finish it without catching my voice. One half a second not thinking about my son. An instant of relief, even happiness. Zig and Zag were funny and we were most likely quoting them. I laughed and I forgot.

And here I was in an airport in Sardinia with a gorgeous kind man. The moments of happiness between remembering lasted longer these days, but they would never go away, I was sure of that.
“I’m trouble.” I told him earnestly.
“It’s okay to be happy.” He said. “You’re allowed to live happily ever after.”
I looked at him, and I believed him. He was right; it was okay.
I had no duty to sorrow.
I could enjoy life.
Was I punishing myself? I don’t think so.
Trouble didn’t have to hang over me anymore. With a thought, I could release it back to the wild.
Geoff literally opened the door of my cage; I stepped out knowing that while I’d never forget the trappings that had caused me pain, I was free now to get on with my life.
Dramatic? Moi? Accident prone, yes. Free spirited, sure… happy?
Most definitely forever after.

Surprised by Joy

By William Wordsworth

Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! With whom
But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? – Through what
power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? – That thought’s
return
Was the worse pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

The Roadmap of France

Roadmap of France

The summer after I sat my leaving cert was one of the most carefree times of my life. I wasn’t going to college and I had not one clue as to what I wanted to do. I had studied but it was too little too late. I was one of those students that the likes of Finland recognized a long time ago; if it didn’t interest me, I’d daydream the class away, follow the progress of a blue bottle around the classroom and wonder how everyone else seemed to know what was going on. If it did interest me, I’d delve further and further into the more fascinating parts and move further and further away from what was on the actual curriculum. I sat next to the same girl from second to sixth year. She had an uncanny ability to jump from listening to the latest happenings in my world to a sudden “Sorry Emer, I don’t want to miss this part” and within seconds she’d have her hand up to answer a question. How did she do that? I wasn’t even sure what subject it was. If I hadn’t loved her so much I would have hated her for it. I’d narrow my eyes at her and call her a swot out of the side of my mouth. And I’d plod along, my teachers missing me missing out. They let me down, according to my friend, even today she gets annoyed on my behalf; they didn’t see my potential and they let me slip through the rungs of success. Perhaps. Well, actually, yes, she’s right. But if I had been encouraged to work harder and become that Botanist, or that Montessori teacher, would that have been the right path for me? Would the beautiful things in my life have come to me anyway?

One carefree summer morning, as my friends and I sat over a late breakfast after a late night, smoking and drinking coffee and listening to the radio, my mother announced that she had booked me into a secretarial, or a communications course, as she called it. I opened my mouth to protest and realized I hadn’t any comeback whatsoever. I couldn’t laze in my kitchen for the rest of my life. I shrugged my shoulders, lit up another cigarette and stood up to put on the kettle. One of the girls suddenly laughed loudly and pointed at my bare feet.

“Jesus, look at your feet!”

“What’s wrong with my feet?”

“It’s like the roadmap of France!” And she laughed again as I looked down and saw for the first time, the intricate network of veins across otherwise smooth skin. I suppose my feet were warm, I don’t know. They had never seemed so freakish before.

“You’re actually right.” I said.

I went from loving my feet to hating them in that moment.

A few years ago, I was away on a girlie weekend. As we walked together towards the spa, we discussed what beauty treatment we would each go for. I was going for a pedicure. I had decided that I needed to start loving my feet. That years of hating them had actually made them ugly; my psoriasis, which flared up only occasionally on my elbows and knees, had taken up a permanent position on the roadmap of France. I had scarring that my dermatologist had called ‘odd’ as it came from nowhere and I’d had trouble with an ingrown toenail. Since I was opening up about it, I told my friends about that morning in my kitchen all those years ago, and about the girl who laughed.

“And where is she now, Emer? Do you ever see her?” someone asked.

“I haven’t seen her for maybe twenty years or more.” I said as we walked into the refreshments room, where another group of ladies were lounging. And there, amongst them, she sat: the girl who had destroyed my feet all those years ago. There followed the most awkward of introductions and small talk and when she left, one of my friends turned to me.

“Emer, you really did not like that girl. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you not like someone before.”

There were six of us on that trip. Six varying opinions on what makes something a coincidence, is there such a thing as fate and what defines downright freakiness. Let us say we were all in alignment this time. And we were in agreement about something else: I really needed to start loving my feet.

Of course I didn’t. I went right on hating them. I won’t say I didn’t try. I made so many attempts to love them. It’s an ongoing battle that surges in importance every summer. This very morning in fact, they were of significance in my meditation.

Meditation is a sporadic affair for me; everything in my life goes better when I make it a daily practice and I’m grateful to the person that has recently encouraged me to do just that. I guarantee you I have read every self help book there is and I know from years of practice that to forgive someone is a gift to yourself. I forgave the roadmap of France years ago, by the way, so that’s not where I’m going with this, but sometimes we can know something so well, that we forget it. Two weeks ago I forgave someone in a guided meditation. It had a powerful effect; physical pain that I’ve been suffering for years suddenly disappeared, and the only thing I did was forgive. It has had a profound effect on me and I can’t stop thinking about the power of, in the end, such a simple thing. So it occurred to me this morning, I need to forgive someone else; the manifestation of my feet trouble has to stem from somewhere. It’s like pain that I push down as far as it will go; my feet are the last stop, but they still have to carry me and help me to stand strong. Who, though? In this instance, I thought, who am I to forgive?

Me.

That’s who.

And I’m already ahead of you: you think I want to forgive myself for giving my child up. I don’t. I look back and I look back and still I know I would do it. If there is one thing I know I did right, it was to go through with the adoption.

No. Not that.

I have never felt guilt for giving him up. But I have felt a constant stream of miserable self-flagellation for having gotten myself in the position where I had to make that decision. I have called myself a wild and selfish girl back then, and that I didn’t care about anything other than my nights out and my clothes and how I looked and who looked at me.

First; that’s ok. I was nineteen. I see that now that I’m fifty.

Second; I wasn’t actually all that bad. I had pangs of stabbing love for my own parents even as I shouted at them to leave me alone. I even had spiritual considerations. I was just trying to work it all out. I’m still trying to work it all out, but I have the advantage of looking backwards at a pile of life-stuff that I managed to survive. I guess that pile gets bigger the older you get.

It was extraordinarily easy to forgive myself. Later, In the bathroom mirror I stared, not at the allergic reaction I’m currently having on my face, but deep into my own eyes and I saw her, the girl I was before I spent years giving myself such a hard time. The girl I was before it even occurred to me that a road map of veins on my own feet could be construed as ugly.

We smiled at each other because we knew…I have the most adorable feet.

I’m Listening…

I'm Listening

 

“Is it good or bad news?”

“That depends how you look at it.”

So.

I am pregnant.

I’m on the phone to my friend. She has been to the Well Woman clinic on my behalf. Travelled in there on the 46A with a sample of my pee, on a mission to find out, for once and for all whether the nausea I’ve been getting for the past few weeks is just a wild coincidence. She sighs into the phone. She has been through this herself. She is one of the defiant ones. I know her still, she was born a mother, she would never, not for one second, have considered adoption.

“Emer…”

I’m in work. People are all around me and pretty soon someone is going to come looking for something and then they’ll wonder why there is no colour in my face and why I cannot move, let alone speak. I can’t remember if I said anything to my friend, or if I even thanked her (thank you babe) but I couldn’t stay standing behind a reception desk.

“How the fuck could you let this happen?” I asked the blotchy face with the horror-story eyes looking back at me in the bathroom mirror. A model walked in just then, checked her makeup for the photo shoot that was taking place in the studio. I’m tall but her hips came up to my shoulders. Grotty? Moi? With the spotty tear stained blotch infested skin? A colleague came in. One of the video editors. She had probably spent the past three days in a darkened groundhog day room, so it was well into her chatter when she noticed I had been crying. I couldn’t tell her why. I liked her but we weren’t close. I couldn’t let her be the first person to know. It hadn’t even sunk in with me yet. I feel sorry now for it, thinking back to the genuine concern in her face. I know she wouldn’t have said anything and it would have been welcome support in a workplace full of men. (Not just any men; cameramen and editors for those of you in the know about this species of male.) This was my first job and I was still intimidated by them. Women were massively outnumbered. Out of about thirty of us, there were three women and I was the youngest by far. They could be rude and loud and boisterous and I never knew if they were serious or joking. I had no brothers and I went to an all girl school. Obviously I knew guys or I wouldn’t have been standing there in the predicament I was in, but I wasn’t cool about it. I’d had a boyfriend for a couple of years and that sort of turned me into a middle aged married woman before I snapped at age eighteen. Aye, and there’s the rub; the old elastic band syndrome. I had been minded for too long and now I was free. Wild and free and pregnant.

Shock and horror and terror and a sense of dread that was suffocating me.

Twelve years after this moment I was involved in a car crash on the M50. My four month old baby Aisling and I were thrown into the middle of four lanes of traffic. As my car spun and spun out of control, I remember saying aloud “I don’t know what’s happening! I don’t know what’s happening!” If aliens had suddenly landed on the road in front of me I could not have been more confused.  There are not many times in your life when you are rendered so utterly helpless. This was one. Finding out at nineteen that I was pregnant, was another.

Incidentally, we survived. An articulated truck had rammed us from behind, we spun and it rammed us again from the side – the side Aisling was on.  No injuries; not even a scratch. While I had been crying out to the Universe, Aisling had been laughing. In fact, I think there was more danger coming from the driver of the truck offering my four month old a custard cream as we gave our details to the police. I apologise now for being the cause of one of the many hold ups on the M50 as our vehicles were moved from the centre of the road and a Garda tried to help me stop crying. I cried for a week, basically every time I looked at Aisling. But we got past it, and I supposed, once I got past the shock, that I would get past the problems that would now arise for a girl with an unplanned pregnancy.

I didn’t consider abortion. But that is, hand on heart, because it didn’t occur to me. You must understand, not only was it not available and not legal but it was a big black dirty word that only the very brave uttered. I can’t remember if it was suggested to me eventually, but if it was, I was already past the place of choice and day dreaming about being a cool mom. One that would calmly sit down beside her toddler and light up a smoke until the tantrum passed. One that would look damn hot, throwing her head back and laughing while the beautiful child on her hip delighted passers by. I considered nothing other than these fantasies until adoption was suggested five months later.

Nothing would happen straight away and no one would force me to do anything I didn’t want to do. There would be a period of time, about six weeks, where I could make up my mind. It seemed fair to consider the baby’s life and my back was not against the wall. My tendency towards emotional reaction was lessening somewhat – could it be that I was growing up? I weighed and considered things now. I agreed I would give it a chance. Six weeks was a long time and the baby wouldn’t even be born for another four months. I didn’t have to decide now. But one day I would. And the closer that day loomed towards me, the more I slowed down, all the better for listening to myself. I was not interested in the church, but I was intrigued to know what God thought about it. When you have a decision this important to make and you have been gifted time to think about it, you listen; to everyone, to myself, to my head and to my heart. To the radio and in books; would there be some strange coincidences in my life now that would clear any obscurity? I really wanted to hear God, if God chose to speak. The remainder of my pregnancy and the time my baby spent with the angel who was his foster mother was a transitional time with a capitol T. I had never been so honest with myself.

“Motherhood won’t change me”

Motherhood wont change me

I think everyone in Ireland has seen me cry on national television. Strangers in queues recognize me; mothers at parent-teacher meetings hug me; friends joke that I ruined their mascara as they watched me. Everyone, it seems, cried along with me. I had no idea so many people watched television. I had no idea that my story would land so deeply in everyone’s hearts. No one looks pretty when they cry. I had to endure newspaper stills of my crumpled up face, not to mention screaming headlines that missed the point of it all.

 

In October 2016, I was featured in the TV3 series ‘Adoption Stories’. I gave my son up for adoption in 1988 when Ireland’s daughters were paving the wave for Choice. People kept their babies and I gave mine away. It was unusual for a rule breaker like me but I didn’t think it was a very interesting story. Sharon Lawless, the producer, disagreed. So, it seems, did everyone else. It’s a beautifully made series and I’m happy I did it. It wasn’t easy but Sharon and the team were exceptionally kind and patient. The PA, Aisling, re-applied my makeup so many times, in the end it hardly seemed worth the effort. The outpouring of support and goodwill from people then and since has been overwhelming. Strangers have contacted me  – some wondering if I’m their mother, but also women older and younger than me, birth mothers who have been carrying the same pain.

 

My story began as a secret in an Ireland that was beginning to stand up to the Catholic Church. Pregnant girls defiantly gave up their carefree days and settled down to the business of motherhood. Some managed well, some struggled. I daydreamed of being a good mother; of somehow becoming more glamorous and hip, of managing motherhood with aplomb and not having it change my life. But I also considered another option that was put to me; adoption. Just an option; not just for me but for the baby too.

 

For the baby.

 

I had control over another life. The baby’s fate lay in my hands.

 

 

I had just turned twenty but my teenage years were wildly selfish. I can still stand inside myself as my mother made pastry, calmly telling me that she had washed her hands of me, that it was the only thing left for her to do. She couldn’t continue to worry about me or it would drive her mad. I watched her hands working the flour, remembering how she’d sometimes comment as she’d bake; how important it was to let the air work through the mix. I didn’t care about her worries. I was relieved that she was letting me go, free to do what the hell I pleased. A better daughter would at least have hugged her, said sorry for causing you stress. I had to stop myself from clicking my heels. I was possessed by absolute selfness. I left her there, making a pie that I would no doubt eat a slice of at some ungodly hour of the morning, feeling only the tiniest sliver of guilt. Not enough to make me a better daughter then, but enough to turn my head in the not too distant future, to force me to stop, to think of others. I had to become a mother to be a better daughter. I had to become a mother to know what it takes to be a better human being.