A few weeks ago now, well into the task of decluttering ahead of our impending move, I was faced with the monumentally difficult task of sorting through Romy’s belongings. As you can imagine, I had been dreading this for a long time. The smallest bedroom in our house, happily vacated by our older daughter as she moved in with her brother, had been earmarked for Romy and contained drawers of her clothes – some worn, some still with tags attached – and baskets of her toys. Our older children had wooden name plates for their doors and a few days after Romy was born we excitedly ordered her a matching one which was proudly displayed on the door that would be hers. We had moved her sister’s plate and reattached it onto the joint bedroom before placing the new plate onto Romy’s bedroom door, where it stayed for weeks.
The day after she passed, a strange thing happened. The name plate fell off the door. At the time, this upset me a lot and I insisted on reattaching it, weeping many tears as I did so. The following day, it fell off again. It was a particularly hot summer and I rationalised it by telling myself that the heat must have melted the glue. But why, then, was the other plate, with its much older glue, still sticking resolutely to the door of the other bedroom? Romy’s name plate dropped off no less than eight times before my husband gently pointed out to me that perhaps it was not meant to be on the door and, distraught, I picked it up and placed it carefully into a box of her things.
This was one of the many items I faced when I entered her room with the intention of sorting through the small pile of items that represented my youngest daughter’s time with us. For weeks I had been unable to enter the room at all as it stood full of memories that I just couldn’t face. However, our house is on the market and I was obsessing about the fact that the room was jam packed with ‘stuff’. And so I steeled myself to empty it.
The task was worse than I had imagined. Several wonderful friends were aware of what I was preparing myself to do and had kindly offered to help, but when it came to it I knew I would have to wait until my instinct told me it was the right time, and just do it. Alone. So one Tuesday morning I went into the room and began. How to look through so many items, all so precious, all once worn or touched by her, and make the hardhearted decision of which to keep and which to let go of? The task was so daunting and so painful that it seemed nothing short of impossible. For some reason, the hardest item to release was her pram. This was one of the few items we had chosen just for Romy, as we seem to have a poor track record with baby vehicles – we must have gone through at least four for our two previous children. My parents had bought it as a gift and we had superstitiously not ordered it until days before her birth. This pram was truly my nemesis. It sat in our garage after she passed and on the odd occasion I encountered it, I would be immediately overwhelmed with grief and longing. Just the simple act of touching the handle would fill bring me to tears and I wondered how I could ever part with it. We discussed at some length what we should do with it. If we ever had another baby, would we use it? No. Could we pass it to someone else? No. Too weird. Should we pack it into the loft and move it with us? This seemed faintly ridiculous. So we arranged for it to be collected by a local woman who sells on baby paraphernalia, but the day it left was a hard one.
In the midst of this turmoil I began to ask myself, ‘What really matters?’
I had painstakingly sorted through and packed away all the clothes which Romy had worn and which I have memories of her wearing, along with toys which sat by her side regularly. This was close to unbearable but I managed it, and eventually two large lidded boxes were carefully placed into our loft space. One day, I was at the children’s school assisting with a bit of a clearout and one of their teachers remarked during conversation, “You can’t remember people by things.” This really resonated with me. Goodness knows I can barely face any of Romy’s things anyway, but I questioned why we, the bereaved, feel the need to keep them in our grief. The conclusion I drew is that somewhere in the back of your minds lurks a fear that we will forget them. I can barely bring myself to admit that I am terrified that I might one day realise I have forgotten my daughter’s features, the sound of her voice, the feel of her skin. What kind of mother would admit that she has forgotten any tiny detail about her much loved child? Yet still the prospect haunts me, as it must many others in this situation. And so we hang on to the physical things in a desperate attempt to guarantee that we will remember.
Of course, in my heart I know that I will remember all of these things. The problem is that in the first throes of grief, all you can remember are the things you don’t want to remember. My blood still runs cold every time I see or hear an ambulance siren, having been blue lighted from Cuckfield to Brighton and then from Brighton to London in the same day. I remember the sights and sounds of the childrens’ ICU – a place I never want to visit again, ever. I remember the sound of her breath when I realised that something was terribly wrong, I remember my daughter, my baby, as no mother should ever have to remember her child. I remember. I am in fact so sick of remembering that I couldn’t even bring myself to recognize Remembrance Day recently.
What really does matter is my faith in human nature and how it has largely been restored over the past four months. The kindness of family, friends, acquaintances and total strangers has been overwhelming. Beginning with my own sister, who jumped on a train to London and sat up all night with Romy when my husband and I couldn’t find the strength to keep going, to our amazing friends and neighbours who not only organised rotas for meals (I didn’t cook for a whole month) and childcare, then presented us with the most beautiful hand made solid oak bench bearing Romy’s name. The dear friend who absented himself from work, drove from London to Sussex to collect our things, brought them back to the hospital and then repeated the journey the following day to bring us home straight after Romy had passed. The friend who, unbelievably, flew himself home from anniversary celebrations in Italy for the few hours required to sing a beautiful piece of music at Romy’s ceremony. Everyone who sent us rose bushes, made prayer flags and lit candles in Romy’s memory. My wonderful close friends here in Cuckfield who have been there at all hours of the day and night; helping me sow grass seeds at Romy’s place, choosing and planting a tree in her memory and accompanying me to hot yoga for a month. All the parents at the children’s new school who have welcomed us so warmly and been so caring and kind, offering gifts, massages, hugs and coffee. The friends I made at Kasper’s old school, many of whom have been in touch since we left, and one who recently came and took away a bag of baby clothes and items to sell for me at a forthcoming sale; such a difficult task and one that was so much appreciated. Many many other friends far and wide who have been constantly in touch offering support and love; especially a dear friend in the US who is planning a special visit.
This is what really matters. The fact that, even on a really bad day when I don’t think I can muster the strength to talk to anyone, people still reach out and talk to me, ask me how I am, ask about Romy or the children. I recognise how hard this must be; to approach a grieving mother and find words. But you all do, and I appreciate it so much because every time this happens I walk away feeling loved and supported, and it makes a bad day just that little bit brighter.
Hilariously, the kids have got very into one of my old ‘Duran Duran’ CDs while we drive to school in the car, and my daughter’s top request is ‘Ordinary World’, which we have now listened to a record number of times. I am struck by the lyrics and their relevance to how I feel on most mornings:
I won’t cry for yesterday, there’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find.
And as I try to make my way in the ordinary world
I will learn to survive.
My youngest daughter is no longer here, and this I must accept. However I still have a life ahead of me, and as unpalatable as it may seem at times, I have to continue on within it. And so I look for things to make this worthwhile, to make me feel that I can do it. Obviously my children help with this enormously, but so do all of you in reminding me that life really matters.