“Well, I never!” I muttered to myself as I stared in disbelief at the scene in front me. “What on earth has happened here?”
I was standing in the lounge room having just arrived home from work. It had been a long, busy day and I was tired. The last thing I needed was to be confronted with a big mess. But that’s exactly what I was facing. And no-one home to clean it. Throwing my bag grumpily on the nearest available chair I headed for the laundry to get the vacuum cleaner and other cleaning aides. The floor was covered in discarded empty boxes, bags and other assorted paraphernalia that is the modern detritus of a shopping spree.
My daughter was home from university for the summer holidays. It was wonderful to have her home. However, with her she brought chaos, careless thoughtlessness and the care-free nonchalance of youth. Sighing with a mixture of frustration and happiness, I got on with the task of restoring order out of the chaos. Tidying up took less time than I expected. It was surface clutter, not a build-up of ground-in grime, dust and crumbs. That would come by the time she was due to leave.
I had learnt to expect a major household clean when the whirlwind of her departure had died down. A local cleaning firm was on stand-by every year waiting for my call. Not that the house did not get cleaned during her stay at home. Quite the opposite. It was cleaned more often than usual. Somehow she managed to leave a trail of destruction in her wake. A bit like Pig Pen of Charlie Schulz comic book fame. A cloud of dust always followed him where-ever he went. He attracted it like a magnet. Just like my daughter. Perhaps I should nickname her Pig Pen, I thought smiling to myself. No, that would not go down well at all. She quite possibly had never heard of Charlie Schulz, Snoopy and his gang of friends. It would be an insult and an injury to her pride.
Having put all the incriminating evidence away, I settled down to a cup of tea and a leisurely read of the latest Woman’s Weekly. My only indulgence when it came to magazines. I enjoyed the Australian-ness of it – was that even a word? It was now I decided. I rather liked it. However, my mind kept drifting, I could not focus on any article no matter how interesting it seemed. I gave up and put the magazine away. A shower and change out of work clothes into a silky, flowing caftan and sandals would help to break the mood, I thought.
I had been widowed young. My daughter, an only child, was just two years old when her father died. He had been my Soul Mate. I simply could not consider entering into any other serious relationship. Not for want of offers or interest mind you. I was probably considered a good catch. Fit and healthy, easy on the eye, and independently wealthy. The son of a wealthy business man, my husband’s inheritance ensured a very comfortable life.
That was about to change. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. My life was to be turned inside out and upside down.
Having made myself a light crayfish salad for dinner I savoured the delicate flavours with a glass of my favourite wine, Hill of Grace from the Barossa Valley. My husband had been a keen connoisseur of fine wine and dining. He had the foresight to purchase a substantial quantity of this fine wine in its early days when it was still a reasonable price. I now had the pleasure of choosing from a wide selection of wines not often seen in a private cellar. Not a heavy drinker, the cellar would suffice my needs for many a year. Now and then though I would add to it if I came across a particularly pleasing vintage. I was not one for large parties or sumptuous entertaining. I preferred small, intimate dinners with a handful of close friends. Desert tonight was a simple bowl of fresh strawberries, slices of mango and blueberries with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream washed down with a glass of Dom Perignon champagne. I felt like indulging myself perhaps hoping that it would help to settle what had turned into a slightly moribund mood.
Dinner dishes neatly stowed in the dishwasher, I strolled into the lounge and put on a disc of soft music. After finishing the cleaning I had turned on the aromatherapy diffuser priming it with a beautiful blend of lavender and geranium. The room smelled divine and looked inviting in the soft glow of candle light. I settled into the cosy nook of a favourite armchair and picked up the book I had left on the side table the night before. It was what I call an escapist novel written by Bryce Courtenay, an author whose work I thoroughly enjoyed. A good story, gutsy plot, well rounded, real characters with whom you could identify. And lots of laughs. I was soon engrossed in it and lost track of time. I must have dozed off at some stage as I woke with a start to the bang of the front door closing. My daughter had arrived home, her entry loudly announcing her presence.
“Mum? Where are you?” she called.
“I’m in the lounge darling. Come and sit with me a while. Tell me what you have been up to.”
“Oh crap! I was going to clean up before you got home. Honestly! Sorry, Mum. I got a call from Susie and she asked me to meet her at the mall. She had something super exciting to talk to me about and said I had to get there straight away. So I rushed out thinking I would be back ages before you got home. Then Molly and Daniel and a whole pile of others turned up too and before I knew it we had all decided to go to the Sushi train for dinner. What with one thing and another, I didn’t realise how late it was,” she gushed without drawing breath.
I laughed and told her not to worry about it. Just sit down and talk to me. I wanted to catch up on what was happening in her life since she was last home. Our contact between visits was often confined to social media. I found it a most unsatisfactory way of communicating. So superficial and impersonal. But I daren’t say that out loud.
She threw herself onto the sofa, kicked off her shoes and lay down, turned to face me propping her head on her hand. Looking at me silently for a long time her face filled with love. It was so palpable I could feel it. With a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, I stood up and went to her. Suddenly I was aware of just how much I had missed her. Stroking her head tenderly, I told her how precious she was to me, how much I loved her. Always mercurial in her moods, she became sombre. It seemed there was something she wanted to tell me but was hesitant to do so.
“What is it, darling? Is there something you want to tell me? You know you can say anything at all to me. I will not judge you or never stop loving you. I may not always approve of what you say and do, but my feelings for you will not change.”
“Oh Mum! You always know just the right thing to say and do. I wish I could be more like that. I always seem to get into such a muddle.”
She stopped abruptly, sat up and patted the sofa next to her inviting me to sit down. As I did, she suddenly burst in tears. Not just a trickle down her cheeks. A howl of despair emanated from her throat causing me to look at her in alarm. Never had she reacted like this. Not that I knew of anyway. I put my arms around her and held her tightly until the flood of tears stopped, the sobs subsided to hiccups and finally she stilled. She drew air into her lungs in deep, hungry gulps. My mind was racing, trying to work out what calamity had caused such a profound eruption. It could be something relatively minor and easy to sort out, or… She was a bit of a drama queen so I was not too perturbed. Patiently I waited, stroking her head and murmuring soothing words to her like I used to when she was a child and in need of comforting. After a time and a few deep sighs, she extricated herself from my arms and sat up, stretching her arms and shaking herself.
She struggled, attempting to start a conversation, only to stop and fall silent again. I sat and waited quietly knowing that this had to be done on her terms and in her time or it simply would not happen at all. Finally, she was ready. With a deep sigh, she turned and looked at me.
This was the last thing I had expected to hear. It happened to other families. Not to mine. At the end of her fourth year of studying medicine, her life was just starting. A million questions were on the tip of my tongue. I swallowed and asked if she was sure. She was. She had been to the doctor this morning. The story about meeting her friends was not true. Instead, she had spent all day wandering around trying to come to terms with the fact. And thinking through her options. She was still not sure what would be the best thing to do. It had been a one night stand she thought. Which one, she wasn’t sure. Bad luck, she said. Morally she was against abortion, she said. But under these very personal circumstances she was no longer so sure. It had a certain appeal and would solve a lot of problems. On the other hand raising a child also had an appeal. To mould an innocent life into a person you could be proud of and love. But single parenting sucks. And it would not be fair to ask me to take on parenting while she finished uni, would it, she said.
Fact after fact shot into my head like a bullet. It was just too much to take in! I had been so careful to raise her to respect herself and others. To live a moral and upright life. Not to rush into those crazy one night ‘wham bang thank you ma’am’ situations. To use contraception if and when the situation did arise. Which I had hoped would be far in the future. All for nothing. There had not been just one – lots it seemed. So many she wasn’t sure which one was the father! Oh dear God, what now?! Was this really my daughter, I thought. Right now I found it hard to put the young woman I was looking at into the same box as my daughter. I needed to clear my head.
I stood up, looked at her and said I needed some space to take it all in. Perhaps she should shower and go to bed. We could take as long as we needed to talk about it tomorrow. I would cancel all my appointments and make myself unavailable for work. Her shoulders slumped. Without a word she got up and went upstairs to her room. I heard the door slam. Just what had she expected from me? That I would open my arms, comfort her and say everything would be fine? Foolishly I hoped this was all a bad nightmare and I would soon wake up and resume my carefully ordered, serene life. I even pinched myself just in case. It hurt. Damn!
My daughter, in one fell swoop, had rudely yanked me out of my complacency and shattered the illusion I held about our life. During her monologue she had unknowingly and innocently laid bare and caused me to question every value and belief I held dear. I would have to dig deep in order to be present with an open and loving heart for our conversation the next day. Tonight, now, my focus would have to be on my own heart. I needed to talk to someone. There really was only one person I would be willing to share this with. My dearest, closest friend. We had known each since primary school and had a standing pact to be available night and day to each other should there ever be a need. I called her now. Even though it was late, she answered on the third ring. Sensing my despair, she said she would come right over. True to her word, I heard her car pull into the driveway in less than ten minutes. Opening the door, I let her in and we adjourned to what I fondly call my healing room. It is the one room in my home that is strictly mine, my private sacred space. My daughter knows if the door is closed I am not to be disturbed. It had been a long established rule in our home for many years. Only in the event of fire or imminent death was I to disturbed if in there.
As is my wont in moments of deep despair and need, I seek solace and guidance through my spiritual practices. I was a practicing non-denominational believer, if such a label exists. Meditation and deeper more esoteric practices were the foundation of my life. I met regularly with a small group of like-minded friends. We shared, cared and nurtured each other through life’s ups and downs. Now I poured out the events of the evening to my friend. We talked and worked on the issues till the wee hours of the morning. It led us down many twisting paths searching to find the truths that would sustain and help me on the morrow to lead my daughter through perhaps the single most important decision of her life. Finally I had a plan and felt good about how to proceed when discussing the matter with her. I thanked my friend and saw her off.
Exhausted, I fell into a deep sleep till late morning. I had left a message on the office phone and told them I was not to be disturbed under any circumstances until further contact from me. This in itself was not unusual although the timing of the message was. The staff knew my daughter was home on holidays and would assume we had decided to do something together on the spur of the moment.
I woke with bleary, blood shot eyes, stretched, and pulled myself up out of bed. Throwing on a dressing gown and slippers I headed downstairs. Expecting to find my daughter pacing impatiently waiting for me to wake up, I was surprised to find the kitchen empty. The coffee pot had been readied for my usual wake-me-up cuppa. All I needed to do was press a button which I did absentmindedly. Settling down at the breakfast bar I noticed a handwritten note addressed to me in my daughter’s handwriting.
“Hi Mum – I heard you crawl into bed at some ungodly hour this morning so figured you had a late night. Guess I threw you one hell of a curve ball! I’ve gone to our favourite bakery to pick us up a nice breakfast. Back soon xoxoxoxoxoxo”
I was grateful for a bit of breathing space to gather my thoughts. Taking a few deep breaths, I did my usual early morning 3 minute meditation. It always centred and grounded me in readiness for the day. Coffee cup in hand, I wandered out to the backyard and sat under the shade of a beautiful flowering wisteria. It was exquisite.
I loved our garden and spent many hours happily digging, weeding, picking fresh flowers to take inside. I also grew a wide selection of fruits, herbs and vegetables. Far too many for my modest needs. The enjoyment was in the sharing and bartering with friends and neighbours. In this way we all had a far wider range of home-grown organic produce than was feasible or even possible to grow in just one garden.
I heard the clatter of a bicycle in the yard and knew my daughter had gone to the local bakery just a few streets away. She loved the freedom of riding a bicycle in the leafy green streets of our suburb. Bouncing into the backyard with two disposable foam containers in hand, she wished me good morning. Well, at least her mood seemed brighter than yesterday. That was good. Handing me one of the containers, she kissed my cheek and sat down next to me. She had bought freshly baked croissants, fluffy scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, a dollop of freshly whipped cream and home-made marmalade. It was the welcome home breakfast we always shared whenever she first arrived home on holidays. A familiar and comforting tradition it had started many years ago to mark the beginning of all school holidays.
It is at times of great emotional upheavals that traditions become so very important. They ground us into the self, stories of our families and ancestors, providing a solace, wrapping soothing wings of love around us. We ate our breakfast in just such comfort, silently, savouring the delicious meal, the aroma of sweetly scented flowers and the beauty that surrounded us. Breakfast finished, the silence became a little more awkward. I waited, feeling intuitively that it was best she start the conversation.
I sensed her nervousness so clasped her hand in mine, squeezing it, letting her know I was present and ready.
She cleared her throat. Today she spoke softly, in measured and thoughtful tones unlike yesterday’s gush of raw emotion. During the night, she said, she had had time to go over again the things she had told me. She realized what she had said would have been challenging for me to hear. Hurtful even. How thoughtless it had been, she said, to say that being a single mum sucked. Or that it would be kind of cool to raise and mould a child. It must have been a slap in the face for me to hear that she did not live by the moral code I had taught her. For all of that and more, she apologised, tears in her eyes. She loved me more than she could ever begin to tell me. I listened to her words quietly, then took her in my arms and held her tight. We stayed like that for a long time.
Untangling myself, I told her it was time I told her a story. One that I perhaps should have told her earlier. The skeleton in my closet. When I was a student, many years before I met and married her father, I said, I had done something that I regret to this very day. You see, I too had fallen pregnant. The circumstances were eerily similar to hers I explained. Except I fell pregnant on the one and only casual fling I had. What were the odds of that happening! I was so scared. Every option had seemed insurmountable.
My parents were well respected in the local community and very active in the church. I felt unable to approach them or anyone else I knew. It would be a great shame. One they would never recover from. I knew that because I had overheard countless conversations about the immoral, loose women who brought shame on themselves, their families, the church and the local community. There was much clicking of tongues and horrified gasps from those standing on their moral high ground during the tellings. Worse than that I knew some of the loudest protesters involved in these conversations were anything but virtuous themselves. Bigots and hypocrites I thought. I simply could not face the mountain of shame and guilt that my parents and I would be buried under. These prejudiced and judgemental conversations ensured a very different spiritual path for me later in life. One that was more forgiving and heart centred.
I never told anyone except my best friend. Together we talked and schemed. Abortions then were not easy to obtain. But that is the path we decided was the only viable option. It was a holiday, we had told our parents. Just for the two of us to mark the end of school years and the beginning of an adult life. They thought it was a great idea and sent us off with great excitement. It took a lot of careful, secret planning and all the money I had saved up. I had to borrow some from my friend as well. Together we took the trip to another city where my baby was aborted in an illegal backyard clinic. It was heartless, ruthless, over so quickly. Money exchanged hands and we were sent on our way. I was told to make sure I kept myself clean. And if I got sick I was warned not to tell anyone about what had been done. Under pain of death. I was lucky to survive physically unscathed . However, the abortion left me emotionally shattered. I was a murderer, I told myself. I had sold my soul and killed an innocent life out of selfishness. It took many years before I felt anywhere near normal let alone able to forgive myself and find peace. My friend and I – the one to whom I am so close even now – journeyed through many a dark night of the soul together for she too was equally as strongly affected by the experience. No-one knew. Not even my husband. The story remained untold. Until now.
I fell silent. It had been cathartic. A baring of the soul, of my deepest darkest secret. Strangely, I felt lighter and freer than I ever recall feeling. My daughter had listened attentively. Tears streaming down her cheeks it was now her turn to hold me.
“Thank you. I feel honoured that you chose to tell me. It can’t have been easy,” she said.
“It was time. I have told you this story because I hope it will help you to make your decision. I have no right, or wish, to influence your choice. It is yours alone. What I can offer you is a listening heart and ear. And my love. Do whatever you must to help you make your decision. I just beg of you to make sure it is one that you know without a shadow of a doubt is the right one. One that you will never regret.”
My daughter chose to have her child and keep it. It was my delight and honour to be present at the birth with my dearest friend. My grand-daughter is a never-ending source of love and laughter in our lives. She and her mother share my home and fill it with golden rays of happiness. Me? My life is abundantly rich in so many ways that money cannot buy. I am truly blessed. Grace has healed my heart and life.
© Raili Tanska