July/Aug 2021 KR OnlineNonfiction |

The Word for Love is Wound

The weekend before Valentine’s Day my son slammed his right middle finger in the bathroom door. The tip was nearly severed; the cut went right into the pulp, to the bone. I held him in my lap at A&E; during his X-ray, he fell asleep, drugged for the operation that would repair his nail bed. I held him on countless visits to the nurse to have the dressing changed while he watched train videos on YouTube to avoid having to look. On the first few visits, I could hardly bear to look at it myself—the wound confused me. Like the blast responsible for the “red wet / Thing” in Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love,” our door latch had rendered this beloved digit unrecognizable. And I could nearly feel it in my own skin; it was as though I’d been cut, and I don’t mean that in the narcissistic sense, only I hadn’t anticipated that it could be possible to feel another person’s pain to this degree.

So it is that all of motherhood to me has been one admission of ignorance—or lack of imagination—after another. My son had been perfect, but now life had marked him, and even my husband said it seemed a bit early for him to have been permanently scarred. I wouldn’t have thought that this loss of “wholeness,” however slight, would be accompanied by existential anguish, but here it was. All children are injured. We all carry scars. My own left index finger bears a pale, half-moon of scar flesh where a Swiss Army knife snapped shut on me at the age of eight. Down my husband’s sternum runs a thick, pink line—evidence of two open heart surgeries and the artificial valve that keeps him alive. We love each other just the same, despite our woundedness. It doesn’t matter; it matters terribly.

 

Now we are in lockdown in the UK, and I wake up in the night from a dream in which my son has been mutilated. In the dream he’s lying in a hospital bed, cut all over. One of his ear lobes has been removed. He won’t say what’s happened. Awake, I stare into the shadows of his bedroom while he sleeps in my arms. I’d stayed up too late reading and had come into his room to sleep, knowing he would wake up crying in an hour or so; none of us have been sleeping very well. This is an anxiety dream, I tell myself. And who isn’t anxious right now. Don’t worry, children don’t die from COVID unless you have very bad luck.

Still I can’t get back to sleep. I stay up ruminating on my love for my son and my fears for our family—that I might die, that I haven’t made a will, that my husband might die, that with very bad luck my son could be orphaned. I consider removing a story-book version of The Secret Garden from his bookshelf because of the way Mary’s parents die suddenly in the night from a fever. Gradually my thoughts turn to the love at the root of all this worry. The intensity of it. Without thinking, I check the bulky dressing on my son’s hand, to make certain that it hasn’t fallen off. And I recall an essay by Ayelet Waldman, the one in which she famously writes, “I love my husband more than I love my children.”

 

It’s 2012. I am in my midtwenties, newly married. I’m reading Waldman’s essay, and I find it to be deeply weird and anxiety-inducing. We live in a beige apartment in North Carolina with two cats, but we want to have children. Any account of motherhood is fascinating to me, but Waldman’s description of the mothers with whom she is acquainted rings alarms. Their sexlessness, the “marital bed-death” they’ve suffered, the idea that they’ve transferred their erotic longings from their husbands to their children. I love my husband so much, I can’t bear the thought of losing my desire for him. But neither do I want to be like Waldman, her view of love and sex so reductive that the two concepts are perpetually conflated.

 

I return to Waldman’s essay again when I am myself a mother, this time to compare notes, to see where on her spectrum I’ve landed. A decade has passed between the publication of her essay and the birth of my son, and during that time we have moved to the UK, where we have since lived in a series of small and rather depressing rented houses. As my son has grown, I’ve increasingly felt that Waldman had overlooked something. Because the fact is, I do love my son more than I love my husband, but I also still love and desire my husband; my love for him has not been supplanted and the much-feared erotic transition has not taken place. Now it almost seems beside the point, because I love my son like I love life itself. I love my son more than I love my own life. This love wells up from a different place entirely—some pocket in my heart that makes room for newness, for beauty, for ghastliness, for humor, for banality, for all that life may contain. And the experience of being in lockdown has only whetted the intensity of this love. This love treats each day as a palace that a plague may visit one day, but today, today, we are safe and healthy and together and whole.

While that’s the case, I live inside this palace, and I am full of gratitude for our extreme good fortune. Yes, our bathroom may be damp, and mold may be growing in the bay window. Yes, I can hear the neighbors coughing through the walls. In my lesser moments, I feel trapped by the narrowness of our rooms, but I have long given up on the idea that we will ever occupy a house as spacious as the ones I knew when we lived in America. My mother’s house was beautiful, midcentury. Hardwood floors, built-in bookcases, a whole room just for the harpsichords. It makes me smile to consider the bourgeois that world was, obscenely so. But my parents lived beyond their means; we live within ours. Their marriage was unhappy. Perhaps this is further evidence of my lack of imagination: that I perceive a choice between happiness and having fine things, that I believe a materially excellent life is often purchased at the expense of time you might be spending with your loved ones. Consequently, I’ve spent my son’s early years in a state of perpetual under-employment, and I have done so out of an uncompromising sense that I would rather be home with him than earning money. Some bitter reflections goad me to acknowledge that I am only able to turn down paid work in this way because my mother died. Because she left me some money. Because I married someone in possession of a permanent contract. Because I witnessed the relative brevity of my mother’s life. Because I witnessed her mistakes.

 

I think it is unlikely that my mother ever experienced any aspects of Waldman’s motherhood binary. If there was marital bed-death in our house, it was not because she had transferred any of her feelings for my father onto us. When I was cut by the Swiss Army knife, I needed stitches. My mother was away that weekend, and my father—I don’t know if he was drunk or just plain ignorant—did not take me to the emergency room. I was given a plaster instead. For weeks afterward, the wound came open whenever I was made to practice violin. I begged my mother to let me take a break from practicing, but she didn’t register how badly I’d been hurt. My violin lessons continued, and in time the laceration below my knuckle healed. I don’t think my mother felt my pain as I’ve felt my son’s; she was too full of her own sorrows.

 

My mother kept a diary. I don’t know where it is now. In it, she wrote of how my father said one day that she smelled of blood. He didn’t like it; it reminded him of his own mother, who, as we were often reminded, had tried to run him through with a kitchen knife. My mother wrote that she cried in the car afterward and thought about what gave her pleasure: nothing.

 

What gives me pleasure? Rosé and gorgonzola and hot weather. Spotting Holly Blues in the back garden. Identifying all the insects and plants for which I had no words when I moved here. Clumps of tiny, whitish-yellow flowers all over low, dark trees: elderflower. Huge flying green beetle: rose chafer. What gives me pleasure? It’s a long list! Seeing friends and family after a long time apart. Pineapple cooking on a barbecue grill. Gluhwein at Christmas markets, drunk from novelty mugs for which no space can later be made in your suitcase. Snow falling on cities, melting on pavements. Hot springs, saunas, spas, pools, etc. The bright chain the moon casts down over the sea at midnight, as seen from beaches or cliffs. Extremely old yew trees in rural churchyards. My husband. My son. The latter two also give me a lot of irritation. Even that, I can smile about most of the time.

 

Now my son threatens to destroy a kaleidoscope he was given on his birthday. It’s a flimsy thing, made of cardboard and beads, but lovely nonetheless. I prise it from his grasp and set it aside, and song lyrics return to me, something from Death Cab for Cutie, something I haven’t thought about in years. I was a kaleidoscope. What does that even mean? I still have no idea. I put the album on to listen while I play Penfold to my son’s Danger Mouse, and I unpack my pain to the tune of every track on A Photo Album, followed by Transatlanticism and Clinic’s Winchester Cathedral. Most days I would be too afraid to put these albums on. It feels as if I’d packed up the past inside them, sealed them with a profusion of strong tape, and carried them with me from house to house over the past eighteen years.

 

My mother sold her house, the house of my childhood, after she was diagnosed with cancer.  I moved out of my father’s house when it dawned on me that actually maybe it wasn’t normal to be yelled at all the time, when I felt I couldn’t stand it for another second. Circumstance then handed me some hard and lonely years. Years I do not often think about. I have moved house fourteen times since 2003, but I never cut these boxes open to sort their contents; I just stick them in a closet or loft or shed or garage for some future time that I hope will never come. Perhaps my son will sort them after my death. Maybe I will forget them, finally, somewhere—lose them as I lost all of my old journals, my photographs, my cow-shaped butter dish, my blue-and-white striped skirt, my cashmere sweater.

 

I know the contents of these boxes well. I do not need to look inside to see myself at twenty-one or twenty-two, finally legal to drink, inviting guys back to the apartment where I lived alone, nearly broke from the cost of the place, with my fridge containing only hummus and cheap beer. There is no love in my life during this time. None. My family has imploded as a result of my mother’s illness. I have few friends. I do not see them often enough. I have moved to a new city to study photography, although I am no good at it. I am losing weight. I spend my nights smoking cigarettes in front of a computer screen, listening to music, thinking I ought to write something, but not knowing what, feeling that I am wasting myself. I get drunk. I have sex. I am so naïve, I have no idea how ordinary it is to suffer in this way. I have nothing against which to measure the weight of my suffering, to know that this is not nearly as bad as it can get. ll I know is that I am lonely, and beer is cheaper than therapy.

One night I find myself in bed with a guy—there are no lights on in the room, not even streetlights through the window. Or perhaps there is light—a small amount, faintly orange. My head feels like it has come detached. I remember making out. I feel sensations, warmth, I possess a faint but increasing awareness of the present situation; the guy is on top of me. I realize that we are having sex. I am uneasy. I ask him if he’s used a condom. He says no. I tell him I don’t think we should be having sex. He says, Do you want me to get a condom? We are both too drunk to drive.

We stay the night together anyway. I really do like him, this is the thing, and I tell myself, at least he had the decency to stop. The next morning, we have coffee together at a diner. I am wearing a green knit hat, as if it is cold inside. He takes a picture of me with my camera, on a roll that I work with later in my photography class. As I make test trips, print, develop, and hang myself up to dry, I study this portrait: my eyes downcast, mouth and nose obscured by white coffee mug, blurry, underexposed, lacking shadow, lacking depth.

 

It’s night in lockdown and my husband is on top of me —there is a gesture, an attitude, the shape of a man’s body in the dark, and I feel panic. Just for a moment. The feeling recedes, and I say something bitchy. My husband calls me out on it, but I don’t say why I said the bitchy thing, I don’t explain. I have simply gotten tired of the past, of wounds that refuse to stay shut. I don’t like to make excuses. I really am OK.

 

In October 2007, my mother dies. I do not know it, but the day that she is buried will be the last time, for a long time, that I will feel truly and desperately alone. The sky is blue, bright, totally without clouds. After months of drought, many of the small, brown creeks and rivers that split the landscape of central North Carolina have run dry. It’s into this hard, parched clay that she’s buried next to my paternal grandfather and his second wife. They have come here from Florida, Ireland, and Norway, respectively. To lie like strangers in this huge, foreign, manicured graveyard. We drive away from there in hired cars. There are meals afterward: dry ham sandwiches prepared by church ladies, something more substantial early evening at a restaurant. My father leaves at some point, goes back to his house. My sister goes off with her friends from college and high school. I do not know where my aunt and uncle disappear to at the end of the day—back to their hotel probably. My grandmother has not even come up for the funeral at all. I ask my ex-boyfriend if he will hang out with me, so I won’t be by myself. He can’t. He tells me that he has to go to work.

Alone, I drive the two hours back to the house I share with my friends from college. One has cleaned my bedroom for me. There are pink flowers next to my bed, and a handmade card. They treat me with real kindness, give me space and companionship and compassion. I had never had such friends before; not even my family is as good to me as they are. In their company, all the dysfunction of the past is thrown into relief. I cry myself to sleep for months afterward, get pink eye, strep throat, anxiety, the flu. I begin to learn what it is to be a friend, to grasp at something peaceful, like the normality that other peoples’ families had always seemed to possess, but which ours had not. Here I come home at last. I can no longer delude myself that there can be any home other than where I am. The home that I make now is everything.

 

From here my circumstances improve, gradually. I fill my life with love—or try to—love being easier to come by when I stop degrading myself and wearing my body down. Now I think, were it not for those early experiences of pain and loss and loneliness, and the trading in of one world for another, I doubt I would be capable of feeling the goodness of our life in the UK so intensely. Having myself been raw and obliterated by grief, unrecognizable to myself at times and frankly often drunk, I am tempted to think I have arrived at a place where my wounds begin to knit together, and I can better see their value. The gifts they’ve given me. I do not know why I should still be afraid to listen to Winchester Cathedral, as if by allowing the sound of it into my life, I would invite catastrophe as well. As if by admitting I once felt despair and lovelessness, I would admit the possibility of future despair, I would be reminding myself of how life turns on the sudden and the irrevocable. A few rogue cells. A few rogue droplets. I think of my mother, how many of her years were ruined by a bad marriage, and how at any moment that pain in your spine might turn out to be a tumor. My husband could leave me. Our marriage isn’t perfect—we aren’t above hurling our passports at each other after a red-eye flight. Will I feel again the way I did in the years leading up to my mother’s death—alone, abandoned, reckless, self-destructive—when my son is grown, if my husband dies? Oh yes, inevitably. I might even take up smoking again.

 

I would like to smoke now, sometimes. It’s stressful being home all the time, working from home, dealing with the moods and whims of a four-year-old, never having a break, never having any time alone unless I wake up at five, and I do wake up at five for this reason. But the day is peppered with moments of reprieve: walking down the street during our hour of state-mandated exercise, in fine weather in a pleasant part of town. I think, A cigarette would be very nice if only the warnings on the packet weren’t so ugly. I think, It would be nice to have some Camels. I think: Should I get a carton just in case the shit really does hit the fan? And I think: It really is good to remain in this moment where there is some certainty at least.

 

We are growing kale in a trug with some old compost; we are letting our son shoot his water gun over the fence at the neighbors’ children; we are arguing about how hard it is to work from home in a small house; we are arguing about the dishes; we are finding a dead magpie in a bag in the alleyway; we are safe here, in this moment, and who can ask for more than that?

 

It’s hard work. I am often bored and restless. I check my email compulsively, hoping for good news that never arrives. I have trouble paying attention to our thousandth game of Danger Mouse. What brings me back to the moment—memories of my mother, zoned out, wishing perhaps that she was somewhere else. Anxious to get away to her art, her music, the way that I am anxious to get away to my writing. In my memories she is always walking away or late to pick us up. Her work was her refuge, and in my lesser moments I resent her for that. I don’t want my son to resent me; I know I will be resented regardless. It’s always your blind spots that make your children hate you. I empty out my sorrows as much as I can. I make a gratitude list in the back of my diary because some article told me to do so. I am often failing. I redouble my efforts.

 

In an article I read that over seven hundred people died yesterday, among them a five-year-old. I click on the article to make sure that the child suffered from “under-lying health conditions.”

I do not have the capacity at this time to think of how their family must have suffered, be suffering still. It’s shameful, really, to reach the limits of one’s empathy during a time of crisis, but here I am, and perhaps perversely, I am mostly happy. The dressing has come off my son’s finger at last. It has been almost two months since the accident. His fingertip is pink, the nail half-grown. At least he still has a nail, I think. The place where his nail has not yet grown is scabbed over. I wash it carefully every day at bath time, and I note a bump above the nail bed, his scar. I love him, his injury, and yet I remain stung by the loss of his “perfection” and all that it entails. He is mortal. He is fragile. He says this sometimes, I’m fragile, and I can’t remember where he picked it up, but I am almost certainly responsible because I say odd things when I can’t think of what else to say.

To my husband I say, If I have to be in lockdown with anyone, I’m glad it’s you. I don’t know the future more than anybody; I know enough to know it won’t be good. Outside our shabby house death is raging, and if it passes by our doorway this year, it may come the next. I look outside my son’s window, and I find myself wanting to laugh about the absurdity that has brought us to this point. The cars parked on our street will not be driven anywhere today. The sky is blue, the lilacs are unreal, and April is set to be the sunniest on record. In the absence of pollution, the air actually smells sweet. There is nowhere for us to go, so we stay home together. And our home is safe. We have food. I’m with the people I love. Many are not so lucky. If this event had occurred at a different time in my life, I would not be so lucky. In the face of this awareness, I can only hunker down and wonder. I know I don’t deserve this. If there were conclusions to be drawn, I would.

 

I nick my fingertip while opening a tin of peach slices. During my son’s bedtime, I pull on his duvet wrong, and the cut begins to bleed again. He wants nothing to do with this: blood, plaster. He kicks me out of his bedroom, and my husband takes over.

 

My anxiety dreams continue. I wake again in terror, this time from a dream in which we are about to be executed by the prime minister. My subconscious is not having to work very hard these days. It takes me a long time to shake my fear—why does no one say before you have kids that the fear you will experience will be profound, unimaginable? Yet another issue untouched by Ayelet Waldman in her essay, but of course she never pretended to be writing about that sort of thing. Why would she? She wrote from a world that felt secure, more or less. I remember that world and its very particular absence of difficulties. Waldman writes that she hopes her children will find a love as intense as that which she feels for her husband. I hope my son will be community-minded. I hope he will know how to forage for food if necessary. I am always keen to point out edible plants on our walks.

 

It’s a month into the lockdown, and my son and I are sitting in the back garden in the sun. He’s eating a bowl of frozen pineapple because we’ve run out of fresh fruit; we’re actively trying to avoid visits to shops because of my husband’s heart condition. My son is in a silly mood. He asks me to feed him the pineapple, and I pick it up piece by piece. I tell him, It’s so cold, it’s turning my fingertips white.

            Give me your hands, he says. I do. He takes my fingertips between his palms, very serious. I’m the power of love, he says. To warm you up.

            I know he’s only talking about the final scene in Frozen, when Elsa finally learns how her powers work. Even so, the uncanny resonance of his words stays with me for days, being, as they are, bizarre, ridiculous, twee, and completely true all at once. My son’s finger now bears a little scar. But he has healed, and I am warmed. Warmth is survival. When my son puts his arms around my neck, I store it up as if in a battery for the unknown, for future days.

Katherine Meehan holds a master’s in creative writing from the University of Oxford. Her work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Brittle Star, Wilderness House Literary Review, and other places. She lives in Reading, where she works in the charity sector. She has recently completed a novel manuscript and is currently working towards a poetry collection.