Essay

F For Phone

Claire Kilroy

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I am sitting here in America. America always feels like America. It feels like a vast continent in the way Ireland never could. Everything is bigger: the trees, the trucks, the sky. Where we are, in Pennsylvania (what a beautiful word), you can still see what this land looked like before the white settlers arrived. It is a landscape of rivers and oaks and rocks. I am sitting out on the deck with a cup of Irish tea. It is hot. A month ago there was snow on the ground, but now it’s almost thirty, or up in the eighties, I should say. The birdsong is loud. The semester is over. The students are taught and the dollar is strong. The church bell has just rung the quarter hour. My child is sleeping. It’s his afternoon nap. I have a couple of hours to myself. I am consumed by dread. It is time to go back, to Ireland and the writing life.

My child is sleeping. This is not a sentence I ever thought I would write, having never really conceived of myself as a mother. I love to watch him sleeping. I dreamt last night that I left him in Connolly Station, can you imagine? And he dreams too. He reported his dream to us for the first time last week. Every day, there are exhilarating developments, glimpses into his inner world. Two years without language and then suddenly, oh, that’s what you think? I tend to call him the child because he is not mine, not really, only borrowed, as they say. He will not always feel so small and ardent in my arms. I should call him mine while I still have him. I am losing him and he is losing me and all of us will eventually lose one another.

I did not think like this before becoming a mother. I thought I had lots of time. And I did. But now I don’t. My child is sleeping. I must press on.

I do not wish to write about motherhood as a pastoral event. It has been an angry few years, marked by countless inarticulate rages. Writing used to be the answer to all my problems – it enabled me to make something out of the bad things in my life, to use them – but now I can no longer write. So I can no longer fix my life.

Look at me sitting here in rehab. Each word is a step towards who I used to be and it is youth itself I feel I am regaining.

I have always found writing scary. I shouldn’t; it’s just writing. It’s just sitting on your own in a room, imagining, and it is all I ever wanted to do. But even on a deck in the hot American sun, it opens up a cold dark place in me. There is no cosiness to be found there – or rather here, because look, I’m finally rummaging around in here once more: in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart. I’ve returned to The Circus Animal’s Desertion, Yeats’ poem about writers’ block, often of late. ‘I sought a theme and sought for it in vain, I sought it daily for six weeks or so. Maybe at last, being but a broken man, I must be satisfied with my heart.’ It appears on page 391 of his Collected Poems. He kept going until page 519: there is hope. Finally, after a three and a half year absence from the page (more than a novel’s worth of time) I have opened a new file on my computer. My child is sleeping. I have a couple of hours to myself. Say something.

Wait, it’s only been two and a half years ...

No, hang on, it is three and a half years. That’s another thing that has gone. All faculty with numbers. The damage to my brain was the biggest shock. The other types of damage – to my body and lifestyle – were anticipated, but nobody told me about the damage to my brain. I’d heard of baby brain but thought it referred to the way some women go all gooey over babies. But baby brain, it turns out, is a euphemism for the cognitive decline (or the mini stroke, as I have come to regard it) that new mothers experience. The brain of a pregnant woman shrinks – it actually shrinks – though it should be back to normal when the baby is about six months old. If not, consult your doctor. My brain has not returned to normal. Were I in the workplace, I would have to scramble around to conceal that fact from my employer. Part of me feels I should not draw attention to this phenomenon as it undermines all mothers in the workplace, but the bigger part of me now knows that mothers are heroes and we should lionise them for the bullets they have taken on our behalf.

Church bells on the quarter hour. My child is sleeping but time is running out. The serial killer dream. I want to get to that. I finally figured out what it was. Is. It’s a recurrent dream. It will be back.

This is disjointed. Roddy Doyle told me that Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is composed in short sentences because he’d become a father and you live life in short sentences after a baby.

Sorry, lost a day there. The child – my child – woke up with a funny rash. Alarming at the time but all fine now. The trip to the doctor, however, killed the morning. Where was I?

Where was I? This is a question I ask myself often. My beleagured memory.

There was a lot of screaming in the early days, and not all of it from the baby. Sometimes all of us were screaming at the same time. We got off to a bad start. The mini stroke did not help. I’d be shouting The thing, where’s the thing, the red thing? The red thing you need to do the thing. I need it NOW. I couldn’t find nouns and I couldn’t find objects either because the baby was screaming and I couldn’t see properly any more. I could not process visual information. Everything was this panicky emergency and I was out of my medium. I had spent twelve years on my own in a room. No boss, no colleagues, just silence, then this. Two angry men – one big and one small – and a raging woman.

I used to think of myself as being as free as a man. ‘You’re as good as any son,’ my father would tell me because I was a tough child, strong. My gender proved no limitation. I could parallel park. I wrote two novels in a male voice. Every so often, after readings, I’d get a question about whether it was harder to succeed as a woman in the male-dominated field of literary fiction and, fool that I was, I said no.

The awful postpartum jealousy of my husband should not have come as a surprise. He could go out. He could just stand up and escape the crisis. I couldn’t because I had this infant clamped to my breast. I’m off for a cycle, he would say, and hot tears of anguish would scald my eyes. I had enjoyed total freedom but I had killed it. More than once, I looked at my body and wished I could cut my breasts off and be like a man again. Mad thoughts, ugly thoughts, self-destructive thoughts. Thoughts I had been fortunate enough never to have experienced before.

The girl in the bed beside me in Holles Street, yes. (You’ll forgive my lack of structure here. I’m up against the clock.) My mother used to tell us the stories of our births and I hated hearing them. The thrust of it was: a birthing woman is a defenceless creature and everyone will let her down. I was in Holles Street for a week. Twelve years living in my head served as poor preparation. I was catapulted into my body, and into the bodies of the women around me, because we were banged up tightly there. A few streets down, vigils were being held for Savita Halappanavar. I spent two nights in the Victorian workhouse that is the semi-private antenatal ward. Girls paced the corridors at all hours, blind to everything but their pain. There were queues outside the toilet. Labouring women queuing for the toilet – it wasn’t good, it wasn’t what we’d hoped for. We would have liked a little privacy. We’d have liked a little soap too. God knows but we asked. A girl practically gave birth beside me. She had been induced earlier in the day. You do not want to be induced if you can help it. The contractions are artificially accelerated and therefore the pain is more intense. She was in a bad way by about midnight. The ward lights were off so she was lit by the anglepoise lamp over her bed. Her body cast a magnified silhouette on the curtain between us, and I watched the drama unfold like a Chinese shadow play. ‘Jesus fucking Christ, the pressure, the fucking pressure!’ she kept crying. ‘Oh fuck, oh Jesus, the fucking pressure. Sorry, sorry everyone, I’m keeping everyone awake, I’m so sorry. Oh Jesus, the fucking pressure.’ And so on, for hours. A birthing woman should not have to apologise for making noise. They could not give her pain relief other than paracetamol because we were still on the antenatal ward. You didn’t get the good stuff until you made it through the double doors into the labour ward.

Two beds down, there was a girl who had that puking thing that the Duchess of Cambridge had, a beautiful girl but ashen and thin. I listened to her retch for days but only saw her once. She emerged from behind her curtain to get a glass of water, and she glanced at us sheepishly, the only non-hugely pregnant woman on the ward. Her retching cranked up with the birthing girl’s cries until the birthing girl vomited too. Finally, she was declared to be in labour and wheeled away. I remember the stricken silence in her wake. If that wasn’t labour, how fucking bad was it going to be? What were they keeping from us behind those double doors?

We saw each other again on the other side. She was on her way home early because she needed to sleep. You could not sleep on the maternity ward either because it was full of crying babies. She had her baby in a car seat, I still had mine in the hospital-issue cot, but it’s all bullshit that you forget the pain as soon as they put the child in your arms. I looked at her little girl and said, ‘oh, beautiful.’ She looked at my little boy and said ‘oh, beautiful,’ and then we had this hissed conversation that was characterised by manic eye contact. I could see the shape of her eyeballs. They were all around us, the staff, so we had to keep it down, but we had urgent dispatches from the Front. When she’d made it through the double doors, she demanded an epidural but they said it was too late. They also said they had no delivery room for her. So they brought her up to operating theatre. As her baby was crowning, they were told to get out, that an emergency Caesarian had to be performed. Her husband – who had remained silent throughout the whole ordeal in the bed next to me – stood up at this point and told them to fuck off. Their baby arrived within minutes. They bundled her up and wheeled her out. She wanted to kill your woman two beds down who kept retching and made her puke too. Why was she in with us? I didn’t know either. We congratulated each other and off she went. Though she had almost given birth beside me, I would not know her again.

I liked my midwife. She was a great girl, only twenty two or three. I cannot understand being in that place voluntarily. Hats off. Lawrence, whose heart faltered every time I had a contraction, eventually arrived by emergency Caesarian. There was a queue for emergency C-sections that evening. We were third. I first saw him (and I can still see him this way now) when they held him over the surgical screen and said congratulations. He was so handsome. His lips were full, his skin dark. (He is as pale as milk, actually; maybe the bronzed tone was oxygen deprivation.) Then he was gone. ‘He’s nine pounds,’ someone called out.

He reappeared in a swaddle to my left. I couldn’t hold him because of the anaesthetic. ‘Kiss him,’ the nurse was saying, holding him over my face. I hesitated. There was Blistex on my lips. It was mentholly and tingled when you applied it, and I didn’t want to sting his newborn skin. ‘Kiss your baby,’ the nurse said again, and I did what I was told. I hoped the menthol didn’t sting. And then he was gone. I hadn’t understood that that was it, I wouldn’t see him again for hours. They closed me up and wheeled me to a room to wait for the paralysis to wear off and, because it took so long – longer than usual, the nurse confirmed – I began to freak out.

Nighttime and I was wheeled down to the maternity ward. The other women were sleeping, or trying to. The first breastfeed. ‘Express some with your hands,’ the nurse said. Milk myself? ‘Should he be here?’ I asked, referring to my husband. They both looked at me, not understanding my problem.

Was I wrong to find it humiliating? Twelve years in my head. Poor preparation, as I say. I have no memory of Lawrence during all this. His blanket was blue.

All night, in a room directly across from us, babies howled. It never occurred to me that one of them was Lawrence. They told me he was in the nursery, which I pictured as dark and quiet. My child is sleeping. But no, newborn babies fresh out of the womb whose mothers are temporarily incapacitated are placed under fluorescent strip lighting and left to listen to each other’s screams. It is a harsh introduction to the world. The toast arrived, the famous post-childbirth buttery toast that is supposed to be the most delicious thing you will ever eat, since a labouring woman must fast. The toast was cold and bendy.

Lawrence was brought back in around four for another feed. The nurse asked why my bed had been left upright. Because the other nurse said, I told her. She tutted and put the bed down when Lawrence was done. I slept. I slept! For about two hours.

It was still dark when they woke me for a shower. Climbing out of bed is no joke after abdominal surgery. The blood on my thighs was garish in the strip lighting. Garish in any lighting. I shuffled down the corridor carrying my catheter, smeared in bodily fluids and wanting to hide. Birth is the most dignified human act of all, Carlo Gebler had told me. Breakfast. A boiled egg rolling around on a tray. No, wait: that was in the public ward where I had spent the first night. In semi-private, we got an eggcup. Back to the agony of trying to breastfeed. A man set up at the table beside my bed and was tapping into a laptop. He wasn’t dressed like a doctor. I couldn’t reach the curtain to pull it fully across. Again, was I wrong to feel humiliated? There had been laughter on the other side of the screen the night before when they were prepping me for surgery. I heard the words ‘like a turkey’ and looked to my midwife. ‘The doctor is showing medical students how to insert a catheter,’ she explained. I may actually have imagined the words ‘like a turkey’ but I definitely did not imagine the laughter.

Why am I writing all this? Because I cannot write anything else. I am lying down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

The Yeats invocation detonates a surge of optimism. I know who I am: a girl who used to read poetry.

Alan showed up later that morning with a bouquet of flowers. ‘Where the fuck am I supposed to put them?’ I practically spat, gesturing at the tiny curtained cubicle. He was someone to take it out on.

Then the realisation, when I came home from the hospital, that I had never been so alone in my life. I am a novelist: I am used to being alone, but this was existential. I had to care for a baby. After major surgery and a week of sleep deprivation, I had never felt less able for anything. The early days were black and they got blacker. Hormones were flooding out of my body. Out of Alan’s body too, perhaps. He later admitted that fatherhood had driven him mad too, and that he went harder on me than he should have because, in dodging a natural birth, he reckoned I’d gotten off lightly. He headed out on Christmas Eve and came back with two or three electric guitars and an amp, and he played the same six notes over and over that Christmas, claiming that they were going to make us a fortune. It turned out they were the intro to a Hank Marvin track. So yeah, everyone had gone a little mental.

When Lawrence was three months old, I got away for two nights to give a reading. It was so good, so extraordinarily good, to dip into my old life for a spell, but the fight upon my return did for me. The next day I was composing a suicide note to my baby while walking him in his pram. It was essential that he know that he would not come to the same end because he was a boy. I was so relieved he was a boy. He would be free. He would never be a mother. A friend intervened and set me up with an appointment with a perinatal psychiatrist. I talked for an hour. At the end of the appointment, he told me that I was not depressed, that he had absolutely no worries about me at all, that I just had to ride it out. He made another appointment in two weeks.

I went home. I rode it out. When I came back for my second appointment, I asked the psychiatrist how he was so sure I wasn’t depressed. Because when you were away for your reading, you were happy.

At no point had I considered how I might carry out this suicide, so in retrospect I would not say I was actually suicidal, merely wild.

The psychiatrist drew a diagram to explain to me why I could no longer form thoughts or finish sentences. I was too stupid to understand it (the parking meter on the street below was an aptitude test I had failed) but it was something to do with the pituitary gland and the hormones released by breastfeeding, how nature tamps down the cerebral faculties (I’m paraphrasing) of the lactating woman to enable her to focus on her child. Language and, more worryingly, the ability to imagine, were debilitated in me.

It is now the summer of 2015. If I hadn’t had a baby in 2012, I’d be publishing a novel this year. I published one every three years, regular as clockwork. They were my babies. I had relationships with each of them. They were never a job. Women who devote their lives to callings other than motherhood are called selfish, and they are, and original thought stems from the self. I used to be selfish. And I long to be selfish again. I had an idea, and this is what I am here to record. Not the idea itself, but the fact that I had one. It happened about six weeks ago while looking at my child. My hands were of course too full to act on it, and the idea itself is not significant. The significance is that the part of my brain that went dormant with pregnancy has started transmitting again.

The recurring serial killer nightmare. I figured it out the other day. We are all huddled in a white room in terror. Every so often, the door opens and one of us is taken away to be tortured to death. The one who is being tortured tries not to scream too loudly so as not to further terrify the ones left behind, and I can’t decide whether I want to be next so as not to prolong the horror, or last, because I can’t face the horror yet. It is childbirth. I have been dreaming of childbirth.

And so here I am, catching the last of the big American sun before returning home. My boy is nearly two and a half, and he is a joy to me. He is awake now and thumping the cot. He will be an only child. I will write when he is sleeping. He has slept and woken several times during the cobbling together of this piece. And now, he is sitting on my knee. The dread I felt starting is gone. I want him to be raised by the old me, not the strung out crazy lady who supplanted her. I want him to have a writer for a mother. This is the first step. These are my first words. Lawrence, I am back.

Villanova, May 2015

Claire Kilroy is the author of four novels. She has been shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year three times, and was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

First published in Winter Pages Vol 1, October 2015


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