“Time is but a river flowing from our past.”
– The Shape of Water
The story of my birth is short and brutal. During a difficult labour, a country doctor took a pair of forceps and dragged me from the birth canal. The resulting head trauma left me in ICU for the next twenty-four hours. The prevailing wisdom at Grafton Base Hospital was that if I did survive, I might be brain-damaged. Extensive testing and observation over the next thirty-three years have not ruled this hypothesis out.
The tale, to me, is as traumatic as it is irrelevant. An odd detail that accounts for little more than my greying hair and a hidden quilt of scars across my scalp. But to my mother, it is the lede. If you’re lucky enough to meet her, within ten minutes my mother will tell you how the doctor braced his leg against the operating table as he tore my body from hers with a pair of metal tongs.
As an adult coping with depression, my therapist routinely suggests that my emotional problems are related to – or caused by – the events of my childhood. Despite these ludicrous, reductive claims, Alison has led me to interrogate certain blind spots in my thinking.
“How do you think your mother feels about your birth?”
“I’m not sure,” I reply. On my request, Alison has turned all the clocks in her office around so I don’t obsess on the time, the ticking fingers crawling towards terminus.
“I assume she feels bad. Traumatised, I mean.” I clear my throat. “But it’s like, I always ask her not to tell people. I’ve asked her so many times.”
When I pause, Alison prompts, “Why?”
“Because it’s embarrassing. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to be an injured baby or a pathetic kid anymore. I want her to see me as a healthy, confident man.”
“How do you think your mother sees you?”
I force myself to meet Alison’s eyes.“Twisted. Broken. Sick.”
As a result of my birth, the left side of my face is very slightly paralysed. In order to correct this, my mother encouraged me to exercise in front of a mirror. First you grin, mouth open with teeth tightly clenched, then you pucker your lips as if to kiss. Facial callisthenics intended to correct the doctor’s mistake.
I might have been twenty-five when I realised my face was not actually paralysed. When I described my symptoms to friends they often looked perplexed, at a loss to tell the normal side from the twisted one. My face became a surreal landscape. This thing, seen morning and night, that caused me shame to look upon, this was an illusion. My face was ‘fine’; to others, ‘handsome’. It did not require correction. Yet to this day, when I’m distracted or bored I catch myself mid-routine – teeth together, cheeks tight, lips apart. Stuck in traffic, I check my rear-view to see if the exercise was a success, if I’ve finally ironed out the error in my smile.
From this original defect, my mother gave birth to many more: ADD, ADHD, asthma, scoliosis, Asperger’s. Prescriptions return to me like the lost pageantry of school carnivals – inserts for my shoes, chlorophyll for bad breath, dental plates, valerian root, iodine for my cold sores, cotton buds for my ears. I couldn’t ride a pushbike because I was uncoordinated. I should never smoke cigarettes because taller men were prone to collapsed lungs. Beer was okay but whiskey could kill me in my sleep like Janis Joplin.
My mother was a nurse. I had no father; instead I was raised by a parade of random doctors handing out conditions with lollipops. She sought comfort in the surety of diagnosis that her own guilt could not allow her. This pain you are feeling is a disease. Here is balm to soothe it. Perhaps it was my traumatic birth that began this fruitless search for solace, or perhaps it began earlier: her mother’s fatal cancer when she was fourteen; her father’s callous disinterest; the abortion she underwent in her teens.
“It really wasn’t fair to you,” she explained once, as we passed the Lonsdale billboard near Alexandria.
“When I had you, I was so lonely. I just wanted someone, something to love me back.”
She was sitting in the shotgun seat as I drove her to the train station. “You don’t know how hard it was for me living with your Pa, and that awful girlfriend of his, Irene.”
My hands tightened on the steering wheel.
“You know, I remember this one time your Pa said I wasn’t allowed to go out drinking and I should come right home after work. And I came home and I waited on the bloody steps of that house for hours. He was at the pub getting shitfaced. I couldn’t trust him after that.”
“It’s okay, Mum.”
“Thank you darlin’. You’re a good son.”
The boy in the photo is three years old. His lips and eyes are dark, his hands hold a book close to his chest. Like many photos from my childhood, it makes me anxious to look at, but this one holds a grim distinction: it led to me cutting my mother out of my life.
“In the photo I look so sad, Mum.”
“You never did like when Mummy brought other men over. You were very jealous.”
“It freaks me out. To picture myself so little.”
“Oh darlin’… you don’t think…”
“Don’t think what?”
I knew straight away what she was implying, but I couldn’t believe what she was saying.
“I didn’t know him! He was just a friend of a friend. Maybe he, you know, touched you or something.”
Let me be clear with you, dear reader: I was not sexually molested when I was three years old. But my mother is so histrionic that she would suggest I was, all because I felt anxious about a photo. Nothing could be worse for her than feeling bad about the way she raised me.
“Are you being serious right now?”
“Well I don’t know!”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know why else you’d be afraid to look at a photo of yourself!”
My face was hot, as if I’d been drinking red wine. I tried to fathom what she was saying.
“Wait. So before this very conversation, you never thought this guy had abused me? Never even thought twice about the bloke?”
“No, of course not! But I was working when you were young. I had to leave you with other people. I felt so guilty.”
I told my mother I could not trust her with my wellbeing and did not want to talk to her. I should have known this would not go well. She barraged me with sad GIFs over Facebook, sobbed onto voicemail, rang my wife at work. When I reiterated my desire to not speak with her, she said she had done nothing wrong, that I should stop being a victim and “get on with it”. Two months later, she changed tack again. She asked to speak to my therapist, wondered if I’d received my birthday present, if my wife was pregnant yet. She wrote long, incoherent text messages saying she didn’t understand, asking if there was something wrong with me, saying she could help if I would only tell her what was wrong.
It would be better if my mother were a tsunami, some mindless crushing force, whose motivations were attributable only to tectonics and time. Or if she were truly malign, if she had deliberately sought my destruction, tied me to the train tracks and left me to die. But my mother is neither of these. She is an insecure child in a family of wounded dropkicks whose wisdom on trauma amounts to “toughen up”. Unable to control herself or her world, she trails her pain like a jellyfish veil, poisoning her loved ones as she seeks succour for her unbearable solitude. To my mother, the idea that I could have been sexually abused in her absence is preferable to the reminder that I was neglected in her care.
Strange beasts click and twitter in the purple gloaming. This black river that flows from my past twists between my ankles. Tomorrow I will wake and make myself coffee, scour the job sites, do the dishes. I will punctuate my week with friends in order to win their praise and affection, see a better self in their vision of me.
When I was younger, I thought I could defy my past entirely, that I was not merely a victim of a mediocre childhood. I would have described my younger years as average, despite having no father, no connection to my sister or cousins, no encouragement to succeed at school, nothing but the dog tags of diagnosis my mother had laid over my scarred head. Our society expects a lot of mothers and my mother expected a lot from herself. As she would later point out, she had no one to instruct her, no one to help or guide until she made a someone, birthed another boat to beat back endlessly against the tide.
Guilt girds this confession. Children often try to protect their parents from recrimination even as they – as I – seek to resolve the sundering of innocence. Imagine how terrible the child’s comprehension when their mother breaks down at the supermarket register, unable to pay for a week’s worth of food. Until recently, I would have described this recollection as a memory. Now I understand I am still that dark-eyed boy, sitting in the grocery cart, wailing. The black river binds us like blood to our past, to our mothers, to the dreamless sea that came before. Helpless.
But there is strength in me. I am learning to be my own father, my own mother, to comfort the wounded chrysalis – that bawling infant who could not be soothed. I am a man, a child. My feet are numb but I surge forward with confidence as I say: I was small. I was hurt. I will love again. You are forgiven.
Night birds sing their savage lullabies. I hope too, dear reader, that you can ford the shoals of your own cold river, and heed not the chatter of that idiot wind.