The day I said goodbye to my young son to return full time to a job that barely covered the childcare costs, I saw the true face of the world. It was a day that broke my heart and changed me forever.
My son was 14 months old. I was still breastfeeding, much to everyone’s disapproval. People commented that we were ‘too close’ and that nursery was good for him. I tried to remember that as the automatic doors closed behind me and I felt a rush of panic as I absorbed every detail of his little face: blue eyes, light brown curls, the turned up nose.
I can’t remember what he was wearing; I remember getting out of there in a daze, feeling as if I had been stabbed. I took a few deep breaths, wondering if there was anything more I could have done. I’d delayed it as much as I could. I’d received support from my family. But, despite all my efforts, the dreaded day had come, and I just wasn’t strong enough to walk back through that door and take him home.
The day I said goodbye, I learned that a mother’s pain can go as deep as her love. It taught me that I am strong. I learned that the hardest battles in life you fight alone. I felt no emotion but the all-enveloping grief, and hate at the world that had given me something so beautiful only to take it away.
And yet that too has passed, and today I found that I knew nothing of grief. Today was one of those days that taught me more about myself than I wanted to know.
It taught me that I am ungrateful.
It showed me exactly why my selfish desires mean nothing to the world.
In the heart of London, just around the corner from extravagant shops bustling with ecstatic shoppers hungrily searching for the latest deal, sipping their Cappuccinos or admiring the early Christmas trees in the window displays, is a place where children go to die.
I walked briskly through the crisp November afternoon, with nothing but a vague idea about what to expect behind the friendly looking double doors.
Inside, everything is bright. The letters in the Welcome sign are all different colours – Zach would love that, I find myself thinking, and smiling at the thought. The ceiling is painted blue and white, imitating the sky and clouds on a sunny day.
Nevertheless, there’s something sinister about the place. The too bright drawings. The sterile silence of the corridors. The lifts with no mirrors.
The horror lies in the little things: a pair of tiny pink Crocs at the foot of a bed where a girl’s lying still – too still, perhaps, seeing that she’s about my son’s age; the screams of a baby being held down for chemo; the fathers who no longer care that it is not manly to cry. I hear the loud prayers from the chapel. When I walk in, I see the Christmas tree with all the paper prayers of those who, for reasons unknown, have been chosen to accompany little angels on their last journey.
If your children are alive and healthy, you don’t know grief. Go and hug them. Love them. Allow them to run around the house and jump on the bed; let them be silly. Remember that, somewhere, children sit still because they are about to say goodbye.
Behind the animal printed doors, life goes on as normal. There are shops and cafeterias for people whose life is the hospital; parents who don’t think it’s weird to talk about their child’s death, or make arrangements for their funeral.
The small girl with the bruised face. The boy who looked half-dead in his buggy. The toddler who cried ‘No more’ as I sat, frozen, in the waiting area, trying (unsuccessfully) to stop the tears from flowing.
You taught me a lesson. You taught me that life is unfair. You taught me that the world is a much darker place than anyone can imagine. You taught me that I had no right to pick the long straw.
I go to the chapel and tie my own prayer to the unusual Christmas tree. I pray for all of you. Most of you will not be saved, but I’m writing this to make sure you are remembered.
Strolling back into the sunshine, for a while at least, I couldn’t bring myself to look at the sky.