A blog about losing babies and losing parents.
We’ve all felt it. 2016 has bottle-flipped the world. Dead celebs and political chaos. I’m not here to add to that conversation: I’m sure no one is interested in my take on Trump or Bowie or Brexit. (Fuck, I’m not interested in my take on Trump or Bowie or Brexit.) For me, 2016 has been a beast for other reasons.
In fact the beast showed it’s face earlier than this year. In late 2014 my mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. At the beginning of 2015 I discovered I was pregnant. Both were enormous shocks; my mother a hugely important part of my life and the idea of being a mother surprising but not unwelcome. I remember saying to my boyfriend at the time “This is terrifying. I have no idea if at the end of this year I’ll have a child or a mum in the world”. Well, one out of two ain’t bad. I miscarried at seven weeks but my glorious mum fought and thrived and we spent a glorious Christmas together.
Hello 2016 and I was pregnant again. Planned this time; six months of weeing on sticks (shit) and shagging loads (great). Again, like some fucked up mantra, I said: “I have no idea if at the end of this year I’ll have a child or a mum”. I wasn’t sure I could cope with either – let alone both. But that is what happened. I miscarried at just under twelve weeks, and six weeks after it completed (it took a long, long time) my mum died.
Just writing those words I had to give myself a metaphorical pinch. Did that actually happen? Am I still walking and talking? Am I sitting in Costa typing? I suppose there is no one correct way to respond to life-changing events. I don’t like the phrase “Moving on” because to me that suggests leaving something behind. But I do believe though that we Keep Moving. Sometimes with a renewed energy, clarity and foresight. Sometimes blindly careering forward into an unknown world that doesn’t seem to have your best interests at heart. I think I’ve done the latter and it’s deeply disorientating. That’s why I want to put fingers to keys; to try to make some sense of it all. I’ve only written scraps about losing mum; little poems, streams of consciousness. I’ve written nothing about my miscarriages, although I’ve tried. And actually, I’m desperate to.
But what new is there to say on the subject of miscarriage? Well, I reckon a fair bit! Can I be bold, and say as a society why the fuck don’t we talk about this more? Why is it that anything that occurs below the belly button and above the knee of a woman talked about in whispers? If one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage then why didn’t I know that the act of miscarrying could feel like you are actually giving birth, complete with contractions and the desire to push? Or that a miscarriage can actually take weeks? Or just how much pain or blood there could be? Perhaps it was my own ignorance, and all the info was there if I had just looked a bit harder, but it felt like a rude awakening.
Despite the wonderful care I received second time round (juxtaposed with the pretty awful care first time), I felt confused after losing the babies. And also a bit ashamed. It was just all so messy and personal and silly. When mum died it was a tangible grief I could wear with pride: I loved this person who existed in the world with an absoluteness she deserved, and now she is gone I am grieving her, again in absoluteness. That’s way more straightforward than: I think I loved this person who wasn’t really a person yet because they ended before they even began and I’m worried that was my fault but best not talk about it anyway because it occurred somewhere in the region of my vagina.
I do believe I was a mother, for two very short stints. When the chance of being a mother was snatched away for the second time, my instinct and desire for comfort lead me to want to be mothered – only to find that this was snatched from me too. This is quite a lonely feeling. And a violent one. A sort of generational rupture. It’s shit.
For a moment oblivion beckoned, but I never went to meet it. I’ve only suffered one breakdown in my life, at the end of a long relationship. It was very frightening but, and this is just my personal experience, there was something alluring about the actual moment of letting go. The taking your hands off the steering wheel. The swift snatching of that block that topples the whole Jenga tower. I always think that by the time Lear is on the heath in the storm he’s having the time of his life, fucking with the elements, roaring at the sky. It’s what comes before that really hurts. I’ve made an unofficial deal with myself that if one more horrible thing happens to me this year I’ll take to my bed and drink gin. Full-on blow wind and crack your cheeks, mate. But until that point life goes on. And it has gone on, surprisingly. I ate. I drank (Quite a lot). I saw people. And I worked.
Actually, I worked my tits off. I was in the process of writing a full-length play for a drama school when I lost the baby and mum. I didn’t feel that I could abandon it, but fuck me if it wasn’t the hardest thing I have ever done. My brain felt like wobbly tofu. Someone pointed out to me that grieving is work in itself; the brain constantly recalibrating, adjusting to The New Normal. It can feel like you’re underwater. Time fucks with you – an hour passes in a heartbeat but it’s a long afternoon between tube stops. I’d sit in front of the laptop for eons; dry as a bone. Then I’d splutter. Words would re-arrange themselves or fall out of memory before they got to the page. Powerful images would arrive (my heart is full of soot, my veins are full of bleach) but they would come alone. Dialogue? Forget it. Structure? You’re fucked. My characters had half formed faces and faint voices. They lumbered around the page, stroppy like overgrown teenagers. Instead of speaking to me they would flip me the bird and kick me in the shins. “Fuck you Anna”, they seemed to be saying. “If you can’t give us a safe space to grow then do you really think we will speak truth, take risks, surprise you? Hell no!” Although, on reflection now, I think they may have just been whispering: “Go to bed.”
But I got there. No, we got there. Never have in my life have I owed more to the people around me. The wonderful director, supportive AD and patient and resilient cast who dealt with 45 minutes of cuts in the last week! The love of a good man and the support of a good friend who understood saved me too, plus countless others. I’ve treasured my time in the rehearsal room these last couple of years like never before – as both writer and director. A student once did a quite good (and not unkind) impression of me saying: “Every time I step into any theatre, it doesn’t matter where it is, I feel like I’m home”. What a knob I am! But it’s true. Rehearsal rooms and theatres were places I felt like I was still myself, despite the apparent efforts of the universe to erode that sense. They were home. Being there even made me feel more connected to mum – an actor, director and teacher herself. I will always be grateful to those people who held my hand during these shitty months – probably without even realising they were doing so.
It seems I caught the thread of death at the beginning of 2015 and kept on pulling. Now unravelled, that thread has begun to weave its way through everything I’ve made since. And some of it I’m very proud of. I have glimpsed the possibility of writing with a new abandon, rawness and passion. And I suppose this abandon comes from the realisation that, in light of all this, nothing really matters that much. Could it be that this biennial clusterfuckery has taught me the true meaning of mindfulness? That the loss of a huge element of my past (mum) and a huge element of my future (sprogs) leaves me with nothing to play with but the present moment? And I tell you what: I’ve had some smashing cups of tea this year. And some outstanding glasses of wine. I’ve looked into some beautiful faces. I’ve gone on some belting runs. I’ve enjoyed walking round London Town in my purple trainers listening to my music too loudly. And New York City too, now. When there is so much uncertainty in my life and now in the world too, what choice is there but to live in the moment?
But I can’t shake the feeling that that uncertainty costs. Trying for a baby brings huge uncertainty. So does a cancer diagnosis. There’s a lot of parallels: the waiting and preying and hoping and bargaining; the daring to dream. And these are punctuated with moments of such devastating significance that they make you feel like your heart is plummeting from your chest to your arse. Phone calls, test results, appointments, scans and x-rays. Trying to decipher doctor’s faces or blobs on ultrasounds. Waiting anxiously on the progress of tumours and embryos. These moments make press nights look like school assemblies. I am reminded of a line I wrote once in a very early play: Pain like that – It takes something from you. Part of your spirit. You can’t get it back.
On a bad day this cost manifests itself in an all-pervading bleakness. The world through a grey scale filter. To care completely about anything is dangerous. To commit to or covet life; deadly. But on a good day I’m able to flip that and see it’s potential beauty. After decades of fear and worry, the neurosis of my fucking twenties, isn’t it a relief to loosen one’s grip on life a little? To celebrate life’s impermanence and imperfection? To understand that to live is to love and to lose?
I can flip other things too, on a good day. Mum is gone but in our pain we’ve grown stronger as a family. The miscarriages happened but my relationship deepened as a result and I proposed this year. And I met angels in the Medway Maritime Hospital and the UCLH Early Pregnancy Unit.
I dreamed I’d reach the end of this blog and survey neatly formatted paragraphs that express with clarity the way these events have shaped me as a human, as an artist, even. Then I would shut the laptop, have a glass of wine, get on with life. Well, dream on… There’s no neat way to end this ramble. No closure achieved. No conclusions drawn. The last two years will always be a time defined by tumours and embryos; by things we hoped would grow that didn’t, and things we hoped wouldn’t grow, but did.
Perhaps there is one truth I’ve settled on. In the weeks after my mother died, on some subconscious level I hated everyone that wasn’t her. Their lack of her-ness exasperated me. Voices grated. Faces frustrated. Her presence in my life was enormous and her qualities countless. How could anyone compare?
But slowly I realised that I could find all of those qualities in the people still left in my life. And in new people I meet along the way. If I looked hard enough – I could sort of collect them. I’ll find her familiar dry wit in the words of my sister or my dad, her radiance in the face of a friend, her warmth in the arms of my love, her passion in a student’s performance. Bits of her are everywhere, and that’s not as weird as it sounds. Magnificence, joy, strength, mischief; they’re all there, if I look.
And that will have to do, until I see her again.