I birthed you, bottle fed you, bathed you and then I buried you.
At 28 your pulsating heart had decided it had been broken too much to meld itself back together. You always had loved too hard and too fast.
And now I broke like I was showing my solidarity with you, whilst my fingernails collected dirt in half moon shapes. The earth was neat and compact, and he was sat on the grass adjacent to me, his legs crossed and eyes wet. It had actually been his idea; Ashton had said we should plant a tree in your memory for future kids to climb the same way that you had scrambled up those trees near our house with quick fingers and eager eyes. You had been so unafraid, and you had been beautiful in your innocence.
All too soon the worlds cruel fingers had plucked apart your naivety and courage like you were just shoelaces to be picked apart, undone.
Embedded in my own thoughts it took a few moments for me to realise that Ashton had placed his shovel beside him and was sat back on his haunches looking up at the delicate leaves and thin trunk wrapped in wire to keep it upright against the harsh wind that night brings. ‘I think we did it.’ He choked, his throat like sandpaper, as he reached for my cold hand.
‘Where’s the plaque?’ I responded as my tears watered this new tree, this new life into existence.
‘Here.’ He reached behind him and held it out to me with his hand that wasn’t still gripping mine like a lifeline, his thumb running back and forth across my palm.
Your fingers had been small and pink whilst autumn oranges bled across the landscape outside my window. It was a day full of colour. Now when I look out the window it seems a bit greyish but not the nice grey like dappled horses or stones rounded by the waves incessant crashing on beaches but the sort of grey where even trees full of colour and life have been bleached of their olive and sage greens.
We’d called you Aperol. Because you were as orange and bubbly as the prosecco you were named after, the very same prosecco that Ashton popped right there in the hospital.
We’d brought you home, wrapped up in the knitted blanket that nana made you with her arthritic fingers and reels of wool waiting to be used. It was this surreal sort of feeling that I could actually take you home, I had been me and now I had you and all you had was me and him, and you depended on me for your entire life and wasn’t that just slightly overwhelming?
There had been these two hairs on your head, and I’d whispered to you that night that I wouldn’t let anything hurt as much as the two fuzzy brown hairs on your head. And suddenly I was combing through thin layers as your furled up body rested on my chest in Babygro’s that were getting too small and in a blink you were picking out your favourite pink hairbands with the bobbles on them and I was scraping your shoulder length hair – still thin – into pigtails. I watched those pigtails swing as you ran away from me on your first day at school, white socks scrunched and collected at your ankles.
I’d spotted your raincoat first, the bright red one with black spots so you looked like a ladybug. You’d been running towards me with a piece of paper clutched in your fist and then you barrelled into me, your arms snaking round my waist. ‘Mummy mummy look what I did today.’ Your heart was full of joy, excitement, pride.
‘What did you make darling?’ I crouched so that I’d be eye level with your gorgeous green eyes, and I brushed a stray hair that had pasted itself to your forehead.
‘We did handprints.’ You waved the paper in front of my face for me to take. It was a lot of pink paint on paper, fingerprints and thumb prints decorating the page with a few rogue splotches.
I saw that same joy, excitement, pride transferred into your netball practice when your little legs would run and jump and throw the ball through the hoop and you would beam. The saying ‘split your face in two’ was created just for your smile when you played netball. You’d fall asleep early on those days and we’d tuck blankets around you on the sofa and light candles instead of using the main light, so we didn’t wake you up when you looked so peaceful.
You carried those good feelings into new friendships and holidays and getting accepted to jobs after interviews went well. But there were splinters of other feelings in those moments too; arguments over new toys you didn’t want to share and tears when it was time to go home and that sense of being defeated when you didn’t get the job you wanted.
‘I wanted to be a bartender, not a waitress.’
‘Honey it’s a good place to start.’
‘I wanted to know how to flip bottles and make cocktails, not bring people sausages and egg for their breakfast.’
I couldn’t protect you from everything and this was the beginning of your descent. The feelings of not being enough and tears that couldn’t be turned into laughter from mummy being silly. I wasn’t even ‘mummy’ to you anymore, I was now a ‘mu-um’ with an exasperated sigh when you passed me in the kitchen, and you didn’t have enough cheese for food tech the next day.
‘Where’s the rest of the cheese?’ You rifled through the fridge, pushing aside pork pies and tubs of butter.
‘That’s all there is hon, I made a lasagne for dinner, so I used more than usual.’
‘I need it for food tech tomorrow, we’re making pasta bake.’ You plucked the meagre amount that was left and shovelled it into your pocket.
Years later there was the wedding thing. When you were meant to get married to Cole, a man 18 months your senior with cocoa butter colour hair and brown eyes tinged with green. I still remember when he took you on your first date and you had been equal parts excited and anxious. He’d dropped you home by ten and the details poured out of you in a flood of what you’d eaten and what you said and then what he’d said back.
I’d called your work one day to say you were sick and then took you on a spontaneous wedding dress shopping trip. You’d been engaged for seven months by then, but the day took on more a draining tone when it was early evening, and you hadn’t tried on anything remotely like what you wanted. ‘Maybe I’m just not meant to be a bride.’ You had let a singular tear fall despite the fact you were feeling a whole lot more inside.
‘Don’t be silly honey. Of course you are.’ I’d spoken without knowing how right she was because isn’t it a mother’s job to tell her children to stop being so silly? I’d consoled her and held her close and personally thought she’d looked beautiful in the big flowy skirts, the elegant swaths of white and ivory and the corsets with intricate lace up backs. Almost two months later to the day you stumbled through the front door reeking of cheap spirits. Your depression had been spiralling in those months and he’d said you weren’t the person he met anymore, that he couldn’t do it anymore. I hated him for that, I still do. All he ever had to do was love you.
After the initial heartbreak I had watched you walk the length of a wooden panelled room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the countryside and felt your heart lift slightly. An estate agent with too neat hair coated in three layers of gel and hairspray clicked her tongue in the corner. She assumed she was wasting her time with you, that you were a young 22-year-old woman without the funds to own a place like this. But you did, and you brought it and you were happy there.
But that first day you had held my hand as we went in and asked for my opinion on everything, ‘Mum what about a navy blue for the walls? What do you think of these windows? Will it be like a greenhouse in here in summer?’ And I had answered honestly and choked with emotional that my baby bird was flying the nest and that you still valued my opinion enough to want it on everything concerning your first home.
I say first home but wasn’t I your first home? When you danced and tumbled in my stomach and I held you there and kept you warm. Or was it that little flat where we all squashed together until you were 4 and we outgrew the table with two chairs and one bathroom. Or maybe it was the house we’d been in until now with your grown-up room and your grown-up things. But this first home that you chose kept you safe for a little while. Until it stopped being a place to keep bad things out and instead became a thing to keep bad things in. You buried your secrets there and your doubt and fears and insecurities. They consumed you, they warped you. You weren’t innocent anymore or unafraid, but you were still so beautiful.
I’d seen you on the stretcher, you were pronounced dead in the ambulance, and I could not tell you my reaction because I honestly don’t remember. There’s a black moment in time between the then and the now. They said your body hadn’t fought hard enough but hadn’t you fought every day that you woke up so you could fight this off for as long as possible. By the time you were on the stretcher you had already succumbed to the battle raging inside you. You had looked as peaceful as you did when you used to fall asleep after netball. There were two baby hairs interlocking with your fringe that had never grown out. I held them delicately in my hand and let them fall through my fingers before lightly kissing your forehead.
At the end it wasn’t one thing, it was hundreds of little things that had chipped away at you like a carpenter chipping away at wood and taking too much off. This world was meant to shape you, not crack you open.
I shifted to sit closer to Ashton. Comforted by his presence and knowing that he was carrying part of you with him too. He was happy to drink from the bottle, but I brought wine glasses so that we could sit here and raise a glass of Aperol to our Aperol in the sky.