THE STORY OF MY CHILDREN
Lasteni tarina, Tammi 2014
Excerpt, translated by Jeremiah Fleur, 2015
One morning my eight-year-old daughter Aino came to me and asked if she had been a lovely baby.
It was a winter morning at Liminka.
The kitchen was flooded with light.
Snow formed peaks and valleys outside the window, maybe it was late winter and spring was on its way by now, for the light was orange. It was one of those mornings when you know who belong to you.
I picked up my daughter and pressed my face against the nape of her neck to sniff her.
I said that all babies were lovely when they were born.
And was I, too?
Was I a lovely baby?
You were. You were lovely.
Was I, was I really? Tell me about it!
I want to tell her all about it. Of course, she must have been lovely.
Then I just look out of the window, unable to do what I promised Aino. I can’t tell the story of her birth because I don’t remember it. I am not able to tell it because recalling it would open up a place within me that would make everyday life with its jobs too heavy to bear. But the story of a birth is vital.
Her request is reasonable at the very least.
‘Tell me about it,’ Aino repeated but less emphatically.
A question mark appeared in her expression, for she sensed the anxiety that had crept up on me.
Then I realised that, since there was nothing I could hold on to, I finally ended up smiling at Aino. It was the kind of smile behind which a child detects grief if she can interpret the smallest and most delicate nuances of her Mother’s expressions.
That’s when I made a decision. I’d gather my strength and then I’d start talking, for I’d have to answer her sooner or later. Besides, I hated the way she hid her demanding gaze from me and gave herself over to my sorrow and confusion. Her warm spirit cuddled up to me. I felt I was bursting with the tenderness I felt towards her - it was so deep that I felt it should be expressed somehow; then I just rocked her, and she began examining her fingers and humming a snatch of something.
Why shouldn’t every little girl have the right to hear the story of her birth in the way it should be told?
My little girl including.
Her story begins here.
I’m sitting here writing at a time when the old year has turned into a new one. It’s the third of January in 2013. The shortest day of the year is behind us. That means the amount of light increases day by day and darkness is finally letting up. Yesterday afternoon, as I was walking towards the city centre, I saw a huge flock of waxwings.
The birds had descended to eat berries from a rowan tree outside a bungalow. When I walked past, the whole flock took wing – it was a good sight. The damp drizzle, the noises made by the birds as I walked, and the sound of trickling water conjuring up drainpipes reminded me of previous springs. Time forms layers, and every winter’s day of a certain kind – when the hues are warm despite snow drifts and the sky tilts in a certain direction – brings back the most important memories of similar wintry days.
Once upon a time, on a day like this, I was in love.
Once upon a time, the children were born.
The story begins here: I gave birth to twins at Oulu University Hospital on the 22nd and 23rd of October in 2002.
It was just over eleven years ago.
Today I have preteen twins who are hale and hearty despite all the events and predictions at the start, and they’re coming back home tonight from their dad’s.
I already miss them, though I spent the New Year with my friends and I was, by now, able to enjoy going out and having a good time in contrast to ten years ago when I insisted on staying in whatever the occasion. I had come to think that I hated all types of celebrations. That’s when I stared out of the window at fireworks exploding against the dark sky.
I’ve started suffering from loneliness when the children are away. It took me over ten years to feel lonely, even temporarily, when I was alone, and now I’m glad. Maybe this new stage means that there at last might be space for another chance of love in my life; I didn’t quite succeed with the father of the children. Because twin A, my daughter, was born on the 22nd a quarter of an hour before midnight – she weighed just over a kilo and was the size of a milk carton – I promised in the middle of contractions that each child would have a cake of their own on their birthdays.
So that we’d remember the difference in the days.
So that they would have space and separateness from each other.
I haven’t kept this promise.
I haven’t got round to baking a single cake, and I’ve ordered all the birthday cakes every year from my sister, who, unlike me, is able to bake and thank God, she’s always agreed. Admittedly, they haven’t yet got cakes of their own and won’t get one until they’re eleven and we’ll be at Grandma’s and run out of cake. Then Grandma will surprise us by baking another one, and I’ll remember this eleven-year-old promise – finally kept accidentally and by chance.
After the birth, I had no time to see the baby girl, who burst into loud crying, when she was put in an incubator and taken away from me. I was still lying there in the middle of contractions when my daughter came into the world.
When I think back on this, everything is a little blurred. My daughter had been taken out and I asked Peter what she was like.
‘She was brilliant,’ Peter said.
‘Was it a girl?’
I knew very well it was a girl but I wanted to hear it.
I wanted to hear myself say all those words aloud.
I wanted to think that I had a baby girl.
When the children were born, I was twenty-five years old.
Even now, as I write, I find it hard to shake off these words.
They are so good.
They are something you want to wallow in.
Like for example the words ‘mother and daughter’. Quite something, isn’t it.
‘It was. It was a girl,’ Peter said.
‘Did she have a foofoo?’ I asked.
Because I thought the matter was of grave importance.
‘Yes.’ Peter said. ‘Well done.’
His presence and calmness in the delivery room were the best medicines for my pain and the enormity of the situation.
I had previously seen dads on TV fumbling for laughing gas past the mother who’s gasping with pain. They made a dash for the mask in the delivery room, fired by the sheer joy of experimentation to the extent that they managed to clamber towards the laughing gas nozzle over the massive stomach of the woman lying on bed, or even got on top of her.
These same fathers-to-be also got sufficiently carried away to warm their own feelings and limbs in birthing pool water, not giving a fig about their brides panting on all fours, begging for help.
I gave birth to the twins during week 27 + 5 of my pregnancy. This is hospital jargon, but everyone who’s ever had a child understands what it means.
It means that the children were born well before their due date. They were premature, and they shouldn’t have headed towards the world at all but slumbered on safely in the water and warmth of the womb for a long time.
A baby’s lungs are completely developed in pregnancy week 30. After that, it’s safer to give birth, though not advisable or by no means necessary.
But because when tidying up after Peter’s birthday party on an October evening in 2002, I detected a small discharge and it made me worried, we drove to Oulu University Hospital to ask if something was wrong.
At the hospital, I was made to lie on my back in order to be examined. I didn’t get back home from that trip with the children in my tummy. I won’t go into my son’s birth at all at this point, because I estimate this beginning I’ve written to be about the tenth, could even be the fifteenth, version , and because grief, for anyone, is a swamp that swallows them if they can’t negotiate it. And that’s the case for anyone who’s had to learn the whole grieving process as an emotion and as a concept from a scratch. Anyone like myself.
In 2002 I lay in hospital after the babies forced their way out of me, because my body couldn’t withstand the weight of the double pregnancy. That’s why my daughter began to push herself out of my body. The next morning, on waking, I didn’t believe when my husband claimed there was snow on the ground. He responded by pulling up the blinds a little. The room was filled with light.
Yesterday, as I was trudging in a blizzard in Oulu, I recalled Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. I was reading it around this time last year. It was January 2012 and I was preparing for a trip to a residential writing centre in Sweden.
I was then dating a man called Anton, he’d go to the retreat with me and our days would be made up of writing and an intimacy established by a new relationship. Everything still felt fine at that stage. It was a time of undressing – the best moments in a new relationship are those at which you undress and those at which you put your clothes on again, for I never miss an opportunity for watching. But it’s a rare relationship, however good, that survives a period in a writers’ retreat. I was writing about the most critical moments of my premature babies at the beautiful, old vicarage at Överkalix. I was overwhelmed by grief I couldn’t bear alone and even less in the presence of a person unable to tolerate another person’s sorrows (not to mention his own; we did nothing but quarrel all the time) and that’s why I had to come home half-way through the course.
When I got back to our terraced house on the wintry night, Aino came to meet me in the hall.
‘Why did you come back.’ she said. ‘I told you on the phone not to come.’
Mariann, the au pair, had tidied up for my arrival. I saw from the door that her idea of order was completely wrong for me. Despite her tidying, piles or heaps of stuff lay on the tables, and the rhythm of my home was wrong. It wasn’t untidiness but her idea of tidiness and I knew from experience based on the past summer that she didn’t see the heaps – I also knew that I would spend the next two days or more on arranging everything into the correct rhythm. I’d do it anyway, even if she had cleared up in the right way. The smell of a pasta dish wafted out of the kitchen. I assumed Kalle was playing some internet game on the laptop in the living room.
He called out a greeting from there as if confirming my thought. ‘Darling!’ I shouted to him by way of reply.
Then I turned to Aino.
‘I missed you so much. And it was really boring there.’
Anton, who had carried in my last bag, the shared groceries we hadn’t got round to eating, smiled at my words apologetically.
Aino’s face glowed with disappointment. Mariann was the friend that filled a gap. Aino spent all her time by the au pair’s side, and because Mariann had the energy to play with her and listen to all her tales without ever judging her, Aino didn’t want to be parted from her. Not now, not ever.
‘Go back, ‘ Aino ordered in the hall with arms akimbo.
I got used to this the first summer Mariann came to look after the children. That’s when I still did my writing in an office with a very high rent – over 250 Euros per month – located in the city centre. After two weeks of being looked after by Mariann, Aino came to me and said she loved her. I didn’t get a lot done in the office because it was new and I hadn’t got accustomed to it but there was a good park next to it. I was in the habit of going into the park to look at the statue and the water feature; I liked the sound of water. It was warm. I didn’t do a lot of thinking but got to spend my time on my favourite hobby: staring. I lit up a cigar and watched passers-by and felt I didn’t belong anywhere. Not to my home, not to the office or to my own story. It’s not a good feeling. I wasn’t used to freedom. When existence becomes too light and easy, I begin to doubt everything.
‘I won’t,’ I answered Aino, ‘because I’ve come home right now. End of.’
Then I put down all my bags in the hall. Anton had driven me. He had driven the car right up to the front door, there was so much stuff. We carried all my bags in together. We both knew that the relationship wouldn’t last much longer and the rest of it would merely amount to palliative chat conducted by text messages and emails from a distance. Your separation will be similar to your relationship, says Pernilla Glaser wisely. She’s the author of Happy Happy Happy – a Book about Divorce. She’s right about that. Anton represented my first relationship after the divorce. We met six or seven times during the whole of our liaison. We went on some trips. Visiting the Arctic Ocean with him was unforgettable, despite the fact that when I began crying over my dead Grandmother in a cafe, he first looked awkward, then lost his tongue. Afterwards he walked with me to the car, in which he finally muttered in a low voice: ‘If this relationship won’t endure, it’s because we’re both so sensitive.’
My liaison with Anton was based on emails and texts.
It was a long-distance relationship and yet it was the best I’d managed after the divorce. Anton didn’t like it all when I phoned him and he liked it least of all when I felt bad, because he thought my voice then always sounded as if it belonged to a small child or a teenager.
Anton couldn’t stand my indecisiveness at important moments. Neither could he stand my grief and melancholy at the retreat. We ended up avoiding each other and striving for a distance after the outright quarrelling and blaming in the first few days. We resorted to excessive politeness and eloquent phrases, which reminded me of Åsa Larsson, a character in Happy, Happy, Happy.
One afternoon, when Larsson finally tells her husband she is going to get a place of her own after she has come back from a business trip to Africa (previously, they lived in the greatest possible harmony with each other like a good Swedish couple), her husband says: I’m making the dinner. Do you want to eat with me and the children or have you got other plans?
Larsson feels she dies a death at that moment. And she has felt she has died thousands of times before during the marriage. She explains how they always talked to each other whatever the situation.
Loosely translated, she writes: ‘We never talked about it (the divorce). We only said: Thank you for this time. You are fantastic, no, it’s you who are fantastic here.’ And so on.
Anton and I were just like that. We were cowards. All the same, getting to know Anton held up a mirror to myself. Being with him made me see the place I was in, and I was no better than he at tolerating weakness.
On the contrary.
I had always despised weak men.
I had always despised weak women.
I had always despised weakness.
It’s in my genes.
We all ate Mariann’s pasta with a mince sauce in the kitchen. Aino and Kalle were chatty; Anton and I feigned a happy relationship with the politeness that still remained, though he’d told me just before we arrived that that his main feeling for me was that of compassion.
I replied that personally I felt compassion for the neighbour’s dog.
Then I got out and slammed the car door. I didn’t need sympathy. Sympathy is for dogs. I needed love. And when after tea I saw him off to the door – he wanted to be on his way home to Helsinki straight away – I gave him a long kiss in the hall and cried. He embraced me tenderly. ‘Poor you,’ he whispered and he didn’t exude love but pity, a totally different thing. His warm palm landed on my hip at the point he liked best – the point at which the hip curves before becoming a bottom.
Kalle stood by our side. He had made a habit of getting his share of our moments of affection. Kalle might join in a hug or stand next to me watching when I touched Anton. Perhaps he hadn’t got used to the situation because Anton was the first man I kissed at home after the divorce.
‘Mum, why are you crying,’ Kalle asked after the door had shut and Anton was gone.
‘Perhaps because I miss Anton so much.’
‘But he was here a minute ago,’ Kalle said.
‘That’s right,’ I said, ‘and then he had to go again.’
‘But he’ll be back, Mum,’ Kalle said.
‘Bound to,’ I said. ‘Everything’s fine. It’s just such a long way to Helsinki. I don’t suppose I’ll ever get used to it.’
Then I scooped the boy into my arms. He giggled in the way a nine-year old boy giggles, somewhat childishly, in a clear voice.
Doesn’t every child have the right to hear the story of his or her birth in the way it should be heard? It took a decade before Essi Kummu was able to write about the early years of her premature twins Aino and Kalle. The story is told here.