The oncologists estimated that she had five months left to live, but she survived six, waiting for my son to arrive so she could pass the baton of life onto him.
He was born a week early, perhaps knowing that every day depleted his grandmother of the strength to embrace him in her wasted arms. She held him once, gingerly – this photograph adorns our kitchen wall. My five-day-old firstborn bound in apple green muslin and my mother struggling to not drop him. Three weeks later she passed away.
My four-year-old son knows he’s the baby in that photograph, however he sometimes puzzles over who’s holding him. Like most kids, he forgets myriad things: where he left his shoes, what he did at kindy, who he played with at the park, why he needs to share with his three-year-old sister.
And that’s okay. I just wish he wouldn’t forget who’s holding him in that photo. Or in other pictures of loved ones who have also passed away.
Some of my son’s memories will be genuinely remembered. Others will seep into his psyche via my recitals – both purposeful and pondering – of what I hope will be remembered. That is, more of the good stuff than the sad.
I often wonder what my son’s earliest memory will be. Will it be something beautiful – a touchstone for his future – like our family holiday to Noosa last summer when he discovered a giant barnacled turtle swept ashore at the end of 40 Mile Beach? This snapshot also adorns our kitchen, his bedroom, my computer screensaver, and his paternal grandparents’ loungeroom.
Or will it be something terrifying, like the Father’s Day I vented a volcanic rage at his dad and stormed out of the house supposing I might never return?
Most likely it will simply be something from his everyday – jumping on the trampoline, playing chasings in our backyard, running under the garden hose.
Memories rarely depreciate in value, yet many of them fade with time. Hopefully the thousands of photographs I have amassed in albums and on hard drives will suffice to remind my son and me of what we want to, need to, ‘should’ recall. At the very least these colourful cues might help us patch together a narrative that reassures, reacquaints, remembers.
Again, more of the good stuff than the sad.
The time my son discovered the wizened turtle washed up on 40 Mile Beach, we didn’t tell him it was dead. Like the lunar tide that had carried this ancient creature, we wanted to safely carry our son and prolong the innocence of his experience.
Theories of childhood amnesia suggest that by the time my son reaches adulthood, he won’t remember much – if anything – from before the age of two to four. He won’t remember moving house aged 21 months, just before his sister was born, or pooing in our new bath whilst I knelt next to him grimacing through second-stage labour. He won’t remember his father and I getting married five weeks after his first birthday and crawling down the aisle in aubergine silk fisherman pants. He won’t remember our 5.55pm walks down to the ferry wharf to greet his father, snuggled tightly to me in a hand-me-down Baby Bjorn. He won’t remember the rhythmic lap lap of the summer waves whilst I swam swollen with him in my belly.
Then again, maybe he will. Perhaps history will dwell so deep within that he’ll be startled when the memory surfaces.
When I was five months old, my young Thai parents relinquished me for adoption, handing me over to foreigners who wouldn’t need to pawn their possessions in order to buy me milk. I have no memory of that moment and yet when my son reached the same age, I ached with forgotten pain all over again, unfairly ambushed into remembering. I shed tears for my sad five-month-old self, despondent because I didn’t know how to comfort her. I shed tears for my birth parents – I couldn’t imagine ever having to give up my own precious child.
Sometimes I fear that my son won’t remember me if I disappear or die during his childhood. Like a hazy dream that blurs the border between real and imagined – and that is so indiscriminately recalled or vanished upon waking – I know it’s out of my control. Is it normal to fear being forgotten by your own child? Did my birth parents ever wonder if I retained any memories of them during those first 159 days?
Some of my son’s own memories will be buried like ancient treasure; others will be relegated to the realm of not wanting to remember. I shouldn’t urge an early excavation of his spoils and I shouldn’t obsess over what he’ll forget in order to protect his inner child either; I mustn’t misappropriate his experiences.
Because memories help us make sense of how we got here, and where we want to go. And whenever my son spontaneously shares any of his memories, it permits such beautiful insight into his not-yet-old soul.
My mother wasn’t a sentimental woman but I’m sure she’d like to know that I take my children to visit her grave. Last week my son wanted to know why he couldn’t play leapfrog across the solemn tombstones, whilst my daughter tried to pillage lovingly left flowers.
Now I accept that it’s okay if he doesn’t remember my stories about her; after all, they’re my memories and can’t be diluted by another’s forgetting. Still, I really hope that he remembers it’s his grandmother who is holding him in that photograph on our kitchen wall.
“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