Hazel McHaffie

loss

Motherhood lost and found

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How did you feel, I wonder, when you heard this past week about the bodies of 800 children in a septic tank in Western Ireland, stumbled upon by a group of teenagers in 1995 and now suspected to be the tip of a much larger iceberg? The site was formerly that of a home for unwed mothers between 1925 and 1961; decades during which illegitimacy carried a serious stigma, abortion was illegal, and infant mortality rates were high.

I’m old enough to distinctly remember the effects of backstreet abortions: the terrible sepsis, the mutilation, the deaths of young women, abandoned babies … I was a practising midwife in Scotland in the 1960s and worked in areas of multiple deprivation as well as a large specialist hospital, so I saw these things firsthand. Even after the Abortion law came into effect here in 1967, Irish girls had no such provision, so they came across the sea secretly for a way out of their dilemma.

This latest news story of the 800 bodies brought back long-buried memories and emotions for me; it was a harsh era riddled with double standards and hypocrisy. But it also reminded me of a book I’ve read much more recently:  A Small Part of Me.

The author is Nöelle Harrison who’s spent the last two decades living and working in Ireland, where part of this story is set. Briefly, the novel tells of a family hedged about by these same harsh realities and customs, at once offering protection and driving them apart. Christina’s mother, Greta, left home without warning when her daughter was just six years old. Her mother’s best friend, Angeline, took over the maternal role and eventually became her stepmother. Now in her early thirties, Christina has reached a crisis in her own marriage, and she goes on the run with her younger son, Cian, to find her lost mother and offer her forgiveness.

Her journey takes her to the west coast of Canada where she meets Luke, a native Canadian with his own sorry tale of family breakdown and guilt. They are instantly attracted to each other, and he helps Christina find the place where her mother now lives, although sadly they arrive one day too late. Angelina follows Christina and Cian from Ireland to Canada, and she reveals a very different story from the one Christina has believed all her life. (I’m deliberately omitting colourful detail so as not to spoil the story if you plan to read it.)

It’s not the easiest of reads. It flips about between both the main characters’ points of view and in time, and until I got to know the characters, I confess I found it a trifle confusing. Not surprisingly: both Greta and Christina have mental health issues; both apparently failed as mothers; both ‘lost’ their children; both had troubled childhoods. However Harrison subtly captures the constraints and customs and mores of an earlier time, the prejudice, the naivety, the punitive laws and judgements, which had a very powerful effect on women there – the same ‘decency rules’ which underpin the real life story of that macabre graveyard which is now the subject of a police investigation.

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I, for one, would not want to go back to those dark days when life was cheap and appearances were everything … although, it could be argued that today’s permissive attitude to abortion itself cheapens life. What do you think?

 

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Let Not the Waves of the Sea

I confess I’ve been haunted by the horrors in the Philippines following Hurricane Haiyan. Somehow it feels indecent and somehow disrespectful to carry on eating meals, arranging flowers, thinking about Christmas, selling books. Luxuries all.

So it seemed a good time to read a book l’ve had in my tbr pile about one man’s experience of loss in such a calamity, and at the same time celebrate Book Week Scotland by sharing one of my best reads of this year. Let not the Waves of the Sea is Simon Stephenson‘s memoir about the death of his brother, Dominic, in the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, a disaster that claimed the lives and futures of 230,000 people – it’s a number too big to get your head around, isn’t it?

Crashing seasDominic, an architect, lived and worked in Edinburgh. He was born in the hospital where my children were born. He and his brother grew up not far from where I Iive. He went to the school where my brother-in-law taught. He played in the same park around which my grandchildren cycle today. So it feels very real and close to home.

The book begins with Simon making a pilgrimage to the Thai island, Ko Phi Phi, scene of the tragedy, and instantly we know we’re in the hands of a master story teller. He climbs up a vertiginous path until he reaches a high viewpoint where people below resemble matchstick men and women going about their everyday lives. There he stands in silence for a long time thinking, imagining, grieving. Then he walks back down again, still in silence. ‘You put one foot in front of another, all the way down, but this day is broken before it has ever begun.‘ Symbolic of his life after Dominic.

That fateful day – Boxing Day 2004 – when news of the massive underwater earthquake and tsunami poured out of our televisions is surely indelibly etched on all our minds. But somehow Let not the Waves of the Sea has joined the dots and coloured in the outlines for me.  Simon explains in careful detail that it wasn’t a wave as many people say. At the point where Dominic was, the first wall of water roared in at 20 feet high and kept coming for 30 minutes. It was followed by another one bigger than the first. The third one was bigger still. No, not a wave, more like a river, moreover a river ‘boiling with bricks and metal, with glass and timber.’ And this displacement of so many cubic miles of water was caused by the second strongest earthquake ever recorded. It ‘occurred deep below the Indian Ocean. For over a thousand miles, the Indian Plate has moved beneath the Burma Plate, elevating the seabed above by as much as twenty feet‘. He excuses the scientific detail by saying it’s for all those people whose physics teachers were no better than the one who taught him and his brother at school.

There follows the terrible wait. The not knowing. Simon poignantly captures the sheer unbelievability of losing his brother: 27, fit and healthy, with a ‘thousand-watt smile‘, a strong swimmer, having a holiday of a lifetime on an island paradise with his girlfriend. It’s Christmas time – only hours before they’d exchanged greetings over the phone. Dominic and Eileen have just bought their first Edinburgh flat together, and face a lean time starting to pay off the mortgage. The possibility of his death ‘remained unthinkable.’ And yet, in the midst of the denial, the TV ‘spilled its foreign tragedy into our lives’.

Simon hopes against hope, against his mother’s quiet conviction. But during all the uncertainty, there’s the unimaginable horror of desperately seeking to identify – or not – his beloved brother amidst the bodies ‘battered in the chaos, bloated by the water then scorched black by the sun.’ To find something, anything, that belonged to him. And even once a body with Dominic’s surgical scar is found, there’s the agonising wait for DNA confirmation.

Then comes the finality of knowing for certain Dominic is not holed up somewhere waiting for rescue, that the longed-for call or email will never arrive, that they will never again see or hold each other. ‘On what should be Dominic’s twenty-eighth birthday, I am sitting in a small room near the centre of Edinburgh, my head rested upon his coffin‘ and whispering ‘some of the things I wish I had told him in the restaurant three doors down the street whilst I still had the chance.‘ No one is allowed to see the body, sealed in metal within the wooden coffin, and Simon realises he doesn’t want to. As a doctor, he has certified many deaths, but he wants his beloved brother to remain undisturbed.Calm seaIt’s a beautifully written memoir. Simon has had some success professionally as a screenwriter, and he captures mood and sentiment with as much skill as fact. His familiarity with the people and places, his identification with all things Thai, make his natural use of local phrases like ‘when the waters came‘ entirely right. And through his warmly intimate memories we feel the closeness of these two young men, the special love and shared life, the shattering loss.

Even the title is perfectly chosen. It comes from the mystic fable, The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran, an extract of which Simon read at the funeral. ‘Let not the waves of the sea separate us now, and the years you have spent in our midst become a memory.’ Stories of those years are alive with mischief and energy, sibling secrets and teenage pranks, making the present loss at once more raw and yet somehow softer.

Perhaps his simple account of the first anniversary, as the bereaved stand in the memorial garden on Ko Phi Phi, best captures the feel of this tribute to a lost brother:

Last year the water arrived at half past ten in the morning and so this is the time our ceremony begins. Twelve months ago there would have been noise, so much terrible noise, and we remember it now with silence, our collective gaze drawn to the names on the wall and the still sea beyond. Our silence lasts only a minute, but carries for an eternity that will echo down through all the quiet moments of a lifetime.’

For me the book should end at page 253; the remaining 50 pages would be better as an appendix, but that quibble aside, I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly. A poignant and brave memoir; a deeply moving picture of the life and death of a beloved brother; an analysis of family bonds forged and broken; what it means to be left behind. And a salutary insight into the ongoing devastation of major catastrophes.Sunset over the sea

 

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Hands: new and used

Last week I was talking about over-use of my hands during interviews. This week those same hands have been in overdrive in a different kind of way: taking photos, packing picnics … pointing out landmarks, exploring history … playing games, doing girly things … all the fun that lies behind having grandchildren for a holiday. Then to cap it all, my trusty Kenwood Chef went up in smoke (literally!) after thirty plus years of valiant service, so I was back to pounding bread dough manually again. The notion of an extra pair of hands seems more than usually appealing.

Which brings me nicely to the book The Fourth Hand which I read a few weeks ago and haven’t yet told you about.

John Irving has won prizes. Big prizes. Even an Oscar. I’ve read his A Widow for One Year, and seen The Cider House Rules, so I was looking forward to The Fourth Hand. As you know, I’ve been ploughing through a minor mountain of novels about organ transplantation, and such was my confidence in Irving’s literary skill, that I reserved this one till last to savour the flow and style of a master.

But oh dear, what a disappointment, what an anti-climax. I really couldn’t find anything much I liked in Irving’s tale of a hand transplant. Briefly it tells the story of a well known journalist and TV anchorman, Patrick Wallingford, who gets his hand bitten off by a lion in full view of the world watching his news report. Far away in Wisconsin a married woman, Doris Clausen, obsesses about giving her husband’s left hand to ‘the lion man’, whilst in Boston a renowned hand surgeon, Dr Zajac, awaits the opportunity to perform the nation’s first hand transplant.

The blurb says the book ‘seems, at first, to be a comedy, perhaps a satire, almost certainly a sexual farce’ but it is ‘in the end … characteristic of John Irving’s seamless storytelling and further explores some of the author’s recurring themes – loss, grief, love as redemption. But this novel breaks new ground; it offers a penetrating look at the power of second chances and the will to change.’

Hmm, well, that wouldn’t be my summary, I’m afraid. To me the plot is flimsy and unbelievable, the characters are implausible, and to be blunt, I really didn’t care what happened to any of them. Is it likely that every woman he meets wants to fall into bed with this one-handed, immature newsreader? Would any sane woman behave as Doris did for the sake of a complete stranger and an unfulfilled wish for motherhood? Would any surgeon be as indiscriminate and absurd as Dr Zajak? I don’t think so. Of course, you would be perfectly justified in asking, who am I to dare to criticise the work of a literary giant like Irving? But regardless of my credentials, the fact remains that this novel left me cold. It took all my stubborn obsession about finishing what I start to keep me turning the pages.

But then, towards the end of the story, I found a tiny redeeming feature, a little nugget of truth that gave me pause for reflection. Doris loves The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Patrick has seen the movie but recognises that seeing and reading aren’t the same, so he sets about tackling the book to try to discover what it is that charms Doris. He slowly comes to a humbling conclusion, and he feels ‘like a fool’.

‘He’d tried to invade a book Doris Clausen had loved, and a movie that had (at least for her) some painful memories attached to it. But books, and sometimes movies, are more personal than that; they can be mutually appreciated, but the specific reasons for loving them cannot satisfactorily be shared.

Good novels and films are not like the news, or what passes for the news – they are more than items.They are comprised of the whole range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else’s love of a movie or a book …’

I don’t believe I was in any particular kind of mood when I read The Fourth Hand. And I’m pretty confident it was nothing to do with transplant-book overload since this is quite unlike the rest of the books on the topic I’ve read. I simply didn’t like it. It was indeed ‘personal’. No matter how many people laud this work, I cannot ‘imitate’ their emotions. Period.

After writing these comments something still niggled though, so I sneaked across to Amazon to check the reviews from other readers, and there I found a surprising number shared my reservations. Instantly I felt a kind of reassurance, which is paradoxical given what I’ve just said about reading as a subjective experience dependent on many personal factors. Hmmm, again. Am I really as confident in my opinions as I think I am?

In any event, I could still use an extra pair of hands! Oh, and I now have to read The English Patient because I’ve only seen the film.

 

 

 

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