I was slipping away, alone, surrounded by people.
- Maggie O’Farrell
I see myself sitting on the edge of the hospital bed, blue gown slipping off one shoulder and cap askew, a plastered-on smile for my husband Jez behind the camera. It’s May 2011. That look on my face. I know what I’m thinking. Fuck. Something’s not right here. I’d only got to hold our new baby, my beautiful daughter Hazel, for a few seconds before the nurses whisked her away, but in those seconds we’d locked eyes and known each other an entire lifetime. She is just over there getting weighed and tested yet I can barely spare her a thought. I’m trying to keep afloat. My older sister Anna, a midwife, is there too.
I close my eyes, trying to resist the wave of blackness, and wonder why it is that no one seems concerned that I’m about to slip under. I slither onto the bed and give in to the darkness for a moment then snap my eyes open. Something is really wrong. Did I say that out loud?
Jez wraps his fingers around mine, our hands a silhouette on the white sheet.
‘You okay?’ he says.
I shake my head then disappear beneath once more.
I resurface in post-op, the specialist and nurses vanished like wisps of smoke. There is a stillness; the pause between exhalation and inhalation. My hand lies beside me, palm up. Jez leans over, his blue eyes concerned. I try to move my upturned fingers, just to know I can.
‘You’re not okay, are you?’ he says.
No, no I’m not, I want to say but can’t. I close my eyes and the white noise of post-op dips into silence and out again, a prank with the volume knob. I’m there one minute and gone the next.
‘Is Hazel okay?’ I whisper.
‘She’s fine.’ He looks around the room, perhaps for a nurse or a doctor.
The room is so very quiet. I cannot open my eyes, this dipping in and out lifting then crushing me. I have to stay awake long enough for someone — anyone — to see that something is wrong. Cool air from where Jez lifts the sheet. Wetness between my legs. My eyes follow his to the floor, to where something has been spilled, a syrupy pool. I’m confused, wondering what it could be, then notice it’s dripping from above, from the gurney.
‘Shit,’ he says. ‘Doctor!’
He’s yelling now, his voice telling me something is wrong. And then the noise sucks back in, violently, at unbearable decibels, and in an instant my brain computes. It’s blood, I think. That pool on the floor is blood. My blood. I’m horrified, weak, vanishing. A loud, summoning buzzer. Footsteps running. The specialist, her face in mine, her warm bedside manner evaporated.
‘You’re haemorrhaging,’ she says, deadpan. ‘Do we have permission for a hysterectomy?’
There are lights all around me and noise, so much noise that it’s as though it’s coming from within me. A nurse thrusts a pen into my hand, holds out a clipboard. Of course, I think. Whatever it takes.
The blood keeps weeping from inside me onto the floor and I know that this is very, very bad. My eyes lock with Jez’s. I’m frightened, I’m trying to say. He’s pale, stationary, frightened too. I scribble ‘CB’ on the page, but my pen slips off as the gurney turns 180 degrees and speeds down the hallway.
I remember thinking three things: first, that this was just like a theatre-emergency episode of Grey’s Anatomy; second, that I won’t be able to have any more babies; and third — and this thought pulsed deeply, repeating, rising above the rest — that this couldn’t possibly be it. Surely not. Life had just begun.
Bright lights, ragged breathing so loud inside the damn mask they’d strapped over my face, gurney wheels squeaking. Suddenly Mum is with me, there inside my mind. She lays her cheek against mine, but I cannot make out what she’s whispering. I hold on for as long as I can, until I know that they know something is wrong, then let myself slip beneath the sea of black.
A second or hours later, still unconscious, I somehow emerge into daylight. In this vision or dream, or whatever it is, we’re at home in Point Chev. I’m there but not there. I’m part of the breeze, the sunlight. I’m outside, looking in through the lounge window by the red couch. Dexter is asleep on his dog bed outside my daughter Georgia’s room and, although I can’t see her, I know our calico cat, Bells, is stretched out in a patch of sunlight in the end room.
Jez and Georgia (19 months old when her baby sister is born) are on the wheat-coloured mat, stacking pegs into towering rainbows on a board — blue, yellow, red, green. Beside them, asleep in her capsule, is baby Hazel. She’s dressed in the white woollen hat and booties laced with white ribbon that Mum knitted, and has a cream blanket tucked around her.
Sunlight slants through the windows by the dining table, a triangle of light pooling in front of my little family. The sun is high, so it must be afternoon, after lunch perhaps. There are flowers, so many flowers, on the table and bench: lilies, white hydrangeas, white roses, and a cheery bouquet of bright gerberas that do not seem to fit, still in brown paper on the bench. Unopened envelopes torn from bouquets lie in a pile by the fruit bowl.
Hazel stirs and Jez lays his hand on her foot. She twitches, her deep ocean eyes flick open and I swear she sees me because her eyes widen and her hands, her tiny fingers, pulse as if surprised. He strokes her cheek and Georgia shuffles towards her sister, those awful navy rubber clogs she loves so much on her feet, her bottom bulky from the nappy beneath her jeans. She leans over and lays her lips against her sister’s. Just lies there like that, not moving. Hazel’s mouth lifts — a smile, I think — then she settles back down, eyes drifting closed once more.
A gust of wind tugs at me. I look again through the window at my dear family and know that I am gone from this house, those hearts, that life. It is time to go, says the wind, lifting my collar.
Feel me in the breeze, my darlings, I want to shout. See me amongst the trees that sway in the wind, in the lapping of the waves down on Point Chev Beach. See me in the kingfisher that stands sentry every morning on the power line, in the gulls wheeling overhead. See me in the sunlight moving over the house from backyard to front; follow me as I move, all day if you wish.
And then, with a final delicate gust, I am gone.
Later, I find out I’d haemorrhaged 15 litres of blood and almost died. Fifteen litres. A human body my size holds around five litres. I learn that I had a rare condition called placenta accreta, occurring in one in 500 or so pregnancies, where the usually genius, life-giving placenta becomes attached to the uterine muscle, so it cannot be separated without tearing, causing a haemorrhage. Even with a top specialist and several scans, it wasn’t picked up. I’ve scoured the scans myself — it is impossible to detect. My placenta nearly killed me, but it was no one’s fault. I learned that after I lost consciousness the doctors unstitched my brand new caesarean wound, extricated my uterus (but not my ovaries), and sealed me up so I wouldn’t bleed to death.
I wake up after the operation, somewhere with white curtains on all four sides, a place between places. My sister Anna is holding my hand, trying not to cry.
‘It’s good to see you,’ she says.
I squeeze her hand, so pleased to see her. ‘Where’s Hazel?’ I whisper, my lips fat, clumsy around the words.
‘She’s safe,’ she says. ‘She’s upstairs with Jez.’
Much later, I wake to find myself cold and alone in a stark room that smells mossy and dank as though underground. Is this hell? Am I alive or dead? I turn my head a few centimetres to the left, yanking the wires stuck to my chest. There’s a machine next to me that beeps intermittently and a screen with a life-affirming zigzagging line. I hear footsteps. I am so very, very tired. My head settles back on its axis and I drift to sleep. Who knows how long after, I wake again to find Jez squeezing my nipple, holding a doll-sized paper cup beneath it.
‘What are you doing?’ I croak.
He places the cup on the bedside table and dodges tubes and wires to hug me, and I’m so relieved to see him, to feel him close.
‘Where’s Hazel?’ I say.
‘She’s upstairs with your mum.’
‘Is she okay?’
He nods. ‘Darling, she’s absolutely perfect.’
I raise my hand to my breast.
‘Oh that,’ he says. ‘The nurse told me to come down and try to get some colostrum for Hazel.’
I smile, wanting to laugh, but don’t have the energy. I whisper something.
‘What’s that?’ he asks.
‘That’s true love,’ I say, then fall back under.
Only two photographs survive from that day. The first is of Jez wearing my cream silk dressing gown, the one with embroidered flowers and dragons, lying on a bed in the maternity ward. He’s holding Hazel and toasting to the camera with a glass of red wine. The second photo I’ve spent years endeavouring to unremember. It’s of me holding Hazel in the ward, recently discharged from intensive care. My face is so puffed up from having three-bodies-full of blood pumped into me that it looks as though I could be popped by a pin. My lips are too swollen to close and my eyes are two frightened black holes. I know it is me, but I cannot recognise myself.
Today, five years later, after my gruelling session with Alice (not her real name), I drove here to Eric Armashaw Park with the wind at my back, my lips sealed, returning to the place I used to come when things got bad. Sometimes, when it got bad enough, I’d recline the seat and close my eyes, hoping none of the other school mothers would walk past and wonder why that six-foot tall, onto-it mum was asleep in her car down by the water at one o’clock in the afternoon.
Today, I had to get here before speaking out loud, before sending one email, answering phone messages, or collecting Dexter’s arthritis pills from the vet. Before any of that, I had to race here and write about going back there. My cheeks flush hot and my heart thumps in my chest as though experiencing it all again, and my eyes setttle on the horizon in an attempt to calm myself.
In the distance, snaking across the bridge over the water that links West with Central Auckland, is a silver car, a bright orange and red rubbish truck, a white van, a blue car. Never-ending. Behind the cars, the Waitākere Ranges lie heavy against the hem of the smudged grey sky. There’s a sprawl of buildings, then those cars and trucks flowing like unstoppable thoughts, then the stone wall holding up the motorway that subsides to muddy flats. Closer still: pōhutukawa trees — four, like a tally, disrobed of their blood-coloured blossoms. The water, blue-brown from last night’s rain. At one of three park benches down on the grass, a man in a grey hoodie furiously writes, a green smoothie at his elbow.
I always feel like this after seeing Alice; as though I somehow have to goad the scattered pieces of myself, orbiting in my atmosphere, back inside me. I’d put off today’s session, knowing how difficult it would be. Today was the day I had to hold it up to the light, turn it around, inspect it. Go back there.
I’ve been here for more than an hour now. The tide is nearly high, the sea a ruler of blue-grey against pale sky. I turn the ignition. Tick, tick, tick. Dead. I phone the AA. ‘The mechanic will be with you in an hour,’ says the woman on the phone. Something wells inside my chest, joyous and liquid. Alice’s words echo: ‘You need to rest today. You’ve begun processing something very big, gnarly. You might feel exhausted or have intense dreams.’
Funny how life gives you what you need, I think. Today, another hour to write it all down. Eventually the AA man arrives.
‘You know,’ he says. ‘I was parked here a few hours ago, then I had to go and do a job in Ponsonby. Now I’m back.’
Me too, I think. I’m back here too.
‘It’s a good job,’ he continues. ‘You meet different people. Some angry, though. Last week I was fixing a guy’s car in the city and when I asked him to turn on the ignition, he started swearing at me, you black cunt and all that.’
‘I unhooked the jumper leads and went back in my van then phoned dispatch, but he kept yelling and swearing. Don’t ruin my day, I told him.’
‘I say that to my kids sometimes,’ I say.
‘Don’t ruin my day.’
Sadness fills my chest and I think what a terrible mother I am, that I just need to get a grip, be the adult. Stop being so damn angry. I think of Hazel’s look of utter shock when I smacked her leg yesterday as she stood naked in the swimming pool changing room. All she’d done was not put her clothes on fast enough.
I sink into my seat, wishing I could erase myself, a pencil line gone from the page. The AA man looks at me through the windscreen, weighing the corroded car battery in one hand and the shiny new one in the other, and it feels as if he can see right through me.
The breeze has picked up, making the pōhutukawa branches sway. A man and a woman nibble pies from white paper bags at the table where the man with the green smoothie had been writing. The gulls are on the move, a change in air pressure. The tide has poured itself several more inches across the mudflats. The lines of cars on the motorway move on. And on. And on.