For Olivia


This story could begin in any number of places, but there is only one way it ends. I’ll spare you the suspense.  She dies.

Beginning at the beginning, I grew her, held her body from the inside and then from the outside, and in the end, I crawled into her bed in the ICU and held her there too.   She was as warm then as on the day she was born.

People have been unbelievably, impossibly, unbearably kind.  They brought love and food and hands to clean my house and they played music and brought photos and told stories. Karen deserves a special mention, an award, Companion of the Order of Bereaved Mothers—now there’s a club you never want to join— but there are many other nominees.  You brought coffee and tea and hot chocolate and this amazing vanilla chai stuff in a can, we have run out and I would like more.  Except that I don’t know who you were to ask where you got it, let alone thank you. You brought wondrous things:  a Leunig print, a child’s drawing, a maple tree.   Later, others of you hung that tree with fairy lights.  Did you know how much I loved you?   You bearers of soup, you doers of laundry? You even put laundry away; I can’t find my blue sweater now.   You took my boys shopping for clothes, my girl for a dress, and you took my husband’s suit to the dry cleaners.

It wasn’t your fault that later on, with minutes to spare, me having left with Olivia in the hearse and the menfolk only having one job left to do,  said husband could not do the suit up.  It was ten sizes too small.  In a panic he checked the lining: Tip Top Tailors Toronto, yes;  no possibility of a mix up at the cleaners.  They must have shrunk it.  Which, dear husband, is an impossibility, the very purpose of waterless dry cleaning. The men try to hammer him into the pants but it will not work. They, marine biologists in their rank, line up like hermit crabs, an elaborate game of suit trading ensues.  In the end my older son puts on the too small suit which fits him perfectly, my husband puts on the son’s—modern, low cut pipe pants,  which he can button up underneath his (smallish) gut, like pregnant woman do.   I alone recognize the suit my son wears—vintage perfection– from wedding pictures 26 years old.   The other suit, the one my husband wore two weeks before to a meeting, the one that actually does fit, hangs in the cupboard still, exactly where I said it did.

And it rained and rained, which they say happens when someone important dies.   Our septic tank could not cope and in the middle of everything we had the poo hoover arrive.  The disimpaction was not a success.    We ordered in a port a loo.  My friend David made funny signs directing our guests, they made me laugh.

Over the septic tank’s tile bed, a duck died.  I worried it had been overcome by fumes, but David plucked and dressed it, performing an autopsy at the same time.  The post mortem exam revealed it had been -thankfully- shot, and in a desperate, dying last flight, this dear duck managed get away from the hunter, instead, laying down its life in my semi-vegetarian yard.   It felt like an offering too sacred to pass up.  Justine, playing the role of Nigella, cooked it with rosemary and red wine.

Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.

We retrieved Olivia’s from the coroner’s own section of the morgue. I think it is the equivalent of first class for the dead. Jessie climbed into the back of the hearse and rode with her that way to the funeral home, lying beside her and chattering like the two good friends they were.   We, the women who were Olivia’s mothers, cared for and bathed her body, washed her hair, and clothed her, and brought her home.    I hardly need mention that I hoped it would be the other way around.

There is a lot written about death.   It feels ridiculous, embarrassing, and deeply presumptuous to add my two cents.   What I might as a mother and a semi-atheist contribute to that huge lexicon?   People send other people’s words to me, hoping I’ll find some comfort there.  Thank you and please keep trying, though nothing works as yet.   Death isn’t merely in the next room.  There’s no God for me where Olivia is.  You can believe that but I cannot.    Let’s state the obvious here: there is a three year old with an exact match of her mother’s eyes and you dare to tell me – and her– that your gods are good with that.

Yes, the angry-at-God part, so predictable when there isn’t any other suitable target.

Oh, but there is, you see.   Writers are a vengeful lot: and oh, I promise you my daughter, that day will one day come.  I always thought I wrote stuff down to try to make sense of things.  I always thought there was sense in things to make.  There is no sense in this.  Which is why the only stories that are sensible are fairy tales, once upon a time, and happily ever after.  In her coffin, which we placed in her old bedroom, my daughter looked like an exact replica of Sleeping Beauty.  An exact replica of a figment of someone’s imagination. Iris said, “Mommy, wake up!” Except she died for realisies.

I spend these days in memories.  I open her closet, and smell her clothes, the scent ignites them.   In that paper mache head of mine, edges curl and smoke and then they lift here and there, lit up in flames of green and yellow and blue.    Inside my brain the memories are dancing like the northern lights.   I stand, in awe, gasping with the memory of her birth, satin sliding out from me, heartbreak beauty die laughing funny. Biddiee biddie bee. She snorts, she cries with laughter trying to get the stories out, she is riding horseback, higher Mommy, higher she squeals. Inside my own head, I rummage deep, holding up my favourite parts to the flickering aurora lights.   Her belly swollen with Iris, she is floating in a birth pool, huge brown eyes locked into mine, and she gives me one small gift. “Oh Mom.  Why does it hurt so much?”

Because, my own sweet girl, I am whispering, we don’t know the pain ahead of us.  You don’t know, in the future what will be asked of you.  I myself back then didn’t know what kind of daughter I would get.   This, I tell you, is preparation.   She nods, and reaches in.    I am watching her, a woman at the peak of strength.

I am grateful.  I am grateful. I am grateful.



Molly Aug 2014 (100)

13 thoughts on “For Olivia

  1. Dinie

    I have been thinking of you and your family since I heard about Olivia’s death. I do not know what to say, words may hold little comfort. One of the hardest things as a parent, I have found, is that your gorgeous, amazing children grow into adults and follow paths sometimes unfathomable to us and there is little we can do at times but observe … as their journey, whilst not ours to direct, impacts our lives. I find at times the worry about their choices so much harder than the ones I had to make for them as little people. And yet, always with love, we have to accept it is their path, still ever gorgeous and amazing. Stay strong (sometimes) and aroha (always). Take care, Dinie

  2. I read your words and I still can’t comprehend what has happened. Cause I remember when she was born. I remember walking around yorkville with little Olivia in the stroller. I remember walking around Montreal with her still in a stroller. I remember that fearless toddler who walked right into the swimming pool even though she did not know how to swim. And now I see makeup ads and I can’t forward them to her. And I still want to. And it hurts me that you are hurting. And I remember being angry after my dad died how it was so unfair. And now I am angry again. Angry that someone I care so much about is suffering. But thank you for letting me into your world.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. I’ve been thinking of you sweet and beautiful Alison. This post is so heart-achingly real and terrifyingly beautiful. There are many of us in the order of the ‘Companion of the Order of Bereaved Mothers’ and we know, even though we never really know what it’s like for another, that visceral deep despair that sits side by side with the humour and the pain of our human experience of loss. Hope does flicker and glimmer through the cracks and eventually joy comes back to life, even though it feels ‘wrong’ for a long time. Thank you for letting us into your world and your heart and know that we are all here, guarding the territory, surrounding you with love, acting as sentinels for the new world to dawn for you, as it will.

  4. Anna

    You won’t know who I am, but I met you a few weeks before Olivia died. I sat in the tea room at work as you and Olivia interacted, not knowing who either of you were. As the fifteen minutes passed, I caught on that you were mother and daughter.

    I was having a bad day, as a mother living apart from my beloved daughter, who struggles with chronic depression. Her best friend had text me saying she was worried that she was in a bad place, our accepted code for the times when she was deep in the dark lands that overtake her sometimes.

    I sat, a passive observer as you two discussed simple things. Your mutual love was obvious. Her respect for you and yours for her, was noteworthy. I thought to myself “oh, please, one day, let it be like this for us. Let me just enjoy her, one day”.

    I cried when I heard of your loss. I remembered sitting there, and wishing for what you two had. And the weight of what you had lost felt so heavy I wondered how you were still breathing.

    Thank you for your words which have helped me today as a mother, as they so often have as a midwife. And I am so very sorry for your loss.

  5. Jenny

    I have no words, only a massive heartache for you. You are living every Mother’s worst nightmare and I so wish you weren’t.

  6. Kyra

    Even during this time of sorrow you have such a beautiful way with words. Sitting here in tears with an aching heart, so sorry for your loss, will be thinking of you and your family.

  7. Catherine Clarke

    Dear Alison, so sorry you have to go through a mothers worst nightmare. May your journey become peaceful and the joy one day shine again for you and your family.
    Much Aroha x

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