Ginger hair. That’s all I saw as I lay in the hospital bed shortly after giving birth, looking to where my new daughter lay in the room opposite.
We named her Kathleen Julia for my mother and my niece. From the outset she was a placid baby, going straight to my breast without fuss, unlike her two-year older sister, Claire Marie. Kathleen grew quickly into a tubby child with don’t-care eyes and pale skin. She loved to drink, and later to eat, and was never fussy, accepting whatever was put in front of her. I played with her endlessly, talking to her with love, and watched her tiny body grow into a sturdy, healthy one.
A year later, when I was forced to return to work, I loaded Kathleen and Claire into the babysitter’s car and watched as the both of them howled as they pulled away. It tore at my heartstrings but with an unemployed husband I needed to work. The babysitter reported that Kathleen amused her with her cheeky antics: she seemed to really care about my two children. In the afternoons when I reunited with Claire and Kathleen, the two of them were delighted to see me. They ran around the house and backyard, chasing one another and laughing.
Kathleen loved to waddle around the house wearing over-sized shoes she’d found in the laundry and clutching her favourite toy, a plastic yellow rabbit wearing red overalls. She was a happy child, always cheeky and fun-loving. She blew strawberries at me and ran around, laughing aloud, daring me to chase her. At night she slept soundly, Rabbit by her side. I loved her dearly and treasured her presence in my life even though I’d been aghast at having another child when I’d learned of my pregnancy.
It was a month after Kathleen’s second birthday when I received the phone call at work. It was the babysitter to say that Kathleen had climbed out of her sunken bath, and fallen in the bathroom. She had hit her head and had been admitted to hospital. Why was it, as I rode in the taxi, that I had an impending sense of gloom?
The news at the hospital was not good.
“The surgeon needs to operate to remove a blood clot; it won’t take long,” the nurse told me, requesting that I sign the appropriate forms.
I saw Kathleen briefly before the operation: she was ashen-faced with closed eyes, a stillness of eyelashes and no body movement. Then I waited for four hours while the surgeon operated, each moment seeming an eternity.
Later, in intensive care, I saw her once more. Her head was swollen, to the size of a melon, and she was in a coma though responding to my voice when I called her name. I stayed with her for a long time, talking and singing softly, but she scarcely stirred. Then, without warning, her body trembled.
“There’s something wrong with my baby,” I said to a young doctor who was making his rounds. Speaking brusquely, he ordered me to the waiting room where I watched as nurses rushed and a machine was wheeled in to the intensive care unit. Nobody came to me for ages; I wished my husband was there, but he was at home with Claire. I knew without having to be told that the nurses and machine were for Kathleen, but nobody I spoke to would tell me anything.
“Where's your husband?” staff kept asking.
A moment before David made an appearance, a nurse informed me, “I'm sorry to tell you, but your daughter has died.”
Weeping, we stayed with Kathleen for a long time, stroking her face, her arms and her hands; kissing the length of her small, dead body. Finally, we left her and sat, stunned and silent, in the waiting room. Nobody came near us though many passed by. How long we sat there, I could not tell, but eventually Claire said, “I'm hungry, Mummy,” and we needed to go. We caught the bus home, sobbing, with four-year-old Claire patting us, saying, “It’s all right, Mummy, Daddy.” She didn’t seem to comprehend Kathleen’s death: all she knew was that her mum and dad needed comforting.
Next day there was a bill for Kathleen’s hospital fees.
A week later we drove in the funeral car with her tiny coffin beside us to the cemetery where only a handful of people celebrated Kathleen’s life. A detective came to question us for hours about whether or not we had abused our baby – we told him she was dearly loved. Months later there was a coronial inquest where we learnt that the babysitter had a second job while she was supposed to be looking after Kathleen and Claire. We learnt, too, that the hospital had drilled a hole in Kathleen’s skull on the wrong side of where the clot was located. I read the autopsy report: each of Kathleen’s organs – her heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and the rest – were labelled ‘healthy’. It seemed so difficult to believe that a single blow to her head had ended her life. Why Kathleen, I asked myself? She had so much to live for: there was so much potential in her tiny body; she could have conquered the world with her cheerful, engaging personality. Why had we lost her? What was the purpose of her life?
With Kathleen’s untimely death, I lost my faith in God, and 40 years later have never regained it. Now married, Claire lives in Canada and I am alone without family, still remembering Kathleen, my darling little girl, with much love.
“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