I’m on the plane now, and I still can’t stop thinking about you. You, tiny, 12 days old, asleep in your mother’s arms as I said my goodbyes and blinked back tears. Emily. My niece.
I didn’t manage to hold those tears back for long. They spilt just before I got in the cab, and continued almost all the way to Heathrow. The driver didn’t want to know as I sniffed and wiped, and I was grateful. Talking about it would have only made it worse.
I’m not a particularly sentimental person, and the tears surprised me. I don’t think they were just because of leaving you though, but rather that I’d suddenly realised that this was only the first of many, many leave-takings to come, for the rest of my life. That I would always be saying goodbye to you, my only niece, and to your mother, my sister. I live in Australia, and you are all the way across the other side of the world in the UK.
It’s a bit of a family tendency, this trans-globe migration. My parents are Australian, but lived for a few years in Manchester after my father received a Commonwealth Scholarship to study at the university there. Funnily enough, Emily, your mother was born during this time, making her British by birth. Perhaps it was her destiny.
Many years later my husband was offered a job in Edinburgh, so – just as my parents had done three decades earlier – we packed up and moved from the bottom of the world to the top.
My first child, a son, was born during our stay, and your mother flew over to be with me during his birth and that first overwhelming post-natal month. Not much more than a year apart in age, we have always been close, but that month sealed our bond for good. Both my son and I developed major complications after the birth, and with my husband frantically busy in his new job it was your mother who saved the day. She cleaned the house, did the shopping and the laundry, sat with my son in the Children’s Hospital on one side of Edinburgh, sat with me in the Royal Infirmary on the other, argued about our care with doctors and midwives at both sites, rang all my friends back home to tell them the news, snuck me in Mars Bars when I thought the hospital menu of haggis and neeps was going to kill me, even – as a paediatrician – helped me master breastfeeding when it all seemed too much.
My family and I returned to Australia three years later – just in time to say goodbye to your mother, who had been offered a hospital post in London. Within six months of arriving there she had met your father, then moved in with him. The rest, as they say, is history. They came out to Australia to get married at our family home by the beach, but it seems they plan to make their own home in Britain. Your mother and I had the conversation last week, when I was over meeting you, visiting her, hoping I could help out a little after your birth in the way she’d helped me.
“So,” I’d asked gingerly when you were feeding, and it was quiet. “Is this it? Will you stay here?”
“I think so,” she said, her eyes on you as you nursed. “I miss Australia, but Pete couldn’t get the same sort of work there, and I don’t think he’d want to move.” Then she smiled at you, the child she has waited 39 long years for, and looked up and added, “Besides, we’re happy here, particularly now.”
I’d suspected this would be the case, but still my heart sank at the news. Many of my closest friends have siblings that live nearby, and I’ve always envied them their geographically and emotionally close relationships, particularly once the children arrived.
In contrast, my own two children will never really spend much time with their British cousin; will never swap toys and clothes or whoop and tumble together on the lawn of the family beach house, except perhaps for one stolen week every couple of years. I worry, too, that the tyranny of distance means I will never really get to know you Emily, that you will always be a girl in photographs and emails, but not a truly living, breathing part of my life.
Your mother already understood this, of course – she has been saying goodbye to her only niece and nephew, my children, for years. “It’s awful,” she once said to me, choking back her own tears at yet another departure. “I won’t see them again for ages, and they change so much and so quickly. It’s almost as if you have to start over again each time.” I didn’t really appreciate this at the time, but I get it now.
The plane is taking off, and I settle back in my seat for the long journey ahead. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve made this trip. No doubt eventually you too will get to know the particular rhythms of this 22 hour flight, the disorientation of jetlag, the change in the light and the air and even the colours between England and Australia. I’m surprised every time I come to the UK how green it is; then surprised again when I return home how washed-out and bleached my own drought-stricken land appears in comparison.
The woman next to me has leaned across for a chat. She’s British, but has lived in Australia for almost 50 years. Funnily enough, she’s just been back to visit her sister in Kent. “She’s not well”, she tells me, and her face creases in worry.
I suppose one day this will be your mother and I, illness compounding separation, the fear each time that this trip across the globe is the last. But for now, that’s the least of my worries. For now, I’m just missing you.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem