The third piece in the Hope series
In moments of extremes – extreme sadness, extreme stress, extreme disappointment etc., I have a perverse hankering for apple compote and natural yoghurt. An urgent need for those contrasting flavours; the sourness of the yoghurt, the syrupy sweetness of the apples. Focusing on the clashing sensations exciting my taste buds, relishing the thick creamy sludge squidging over my tongue, is the only way to cap my feelings – make them more manageable.
I say perverse hankering because that’s what I was given each time I came round from the general anaesthetic. That and a crusty cob with a triangle of Vache qui rit cheese which I didn’t have the energy to eat. I’d peel the thin foil lids off each pot and take a teaspoonful of apple then a teaspoonful of yoghurt. Apple then yoghurt, apple then yoghurt. Sweet – sour, sweet – sour. It was quite therapeutic. And it tasted like hope.
It was the second to last step in a long and draining process. Hundreds of consultations, thousands of examinations, millions of daily injections. Over a week of one-hundred-and-ninety-five-kilometre round trips to the hospital in Clamart – a depressingly faceless area of high rises and highways spreading like some concrete bacterial fungus on outskirts of Paris. Over a week of queueing along the corridor with the other hopeful couples – none of us making eye contact for fear of seeing that agonising, pathetic look of desperate hope that we knew we were all trying to hide. The women taking it in turns to climb into the stirrups and watch our wombs lit up on the big screen – black with a smattering of starry white speckles – while the doctor scanned around searching for possible eggs, lassoing and measuring them like newly discovered planets. Then finally strutting out of the examination room like I’d just come top of the class when the doctor finally found three plump eggs grown to the right size. This was always rewarded with a trip to the theatre, to have them removed and plopped onto a petri-dish bed of jelly to await the arrival of the blessed spermatozoa.
Apple compote and yoghurt seemed to be the post-theatre menu du jour. An odd mix of siltiness and creamy smoothness experienced through that post-anaesthesia, ever so slightly hallucinatory druggy state. Half propped up on pillows – the teaspoon unaccountably difficult to coordinate with the mouth opening – the gastronomic delights of a late lunch unfolded in hazy abstract. The textures complimented one another; silky and rough, yin and yang, him and her, sperm and egg… It was a time to relax. To breathe. Time to prepare the body to accept the arrival of the long awaited. Each mouthful of appley-yoghurt was bursting with potential. Baby names drifted across the mind unbidden. Colour schemes for nurseries floated by. Absolutely no blue or pink gender stereotyping clothes in the tiny wardrobe that would have to be bought. Would s/he take after my side or his? We’d have to take lots of trips back to England and Ireland of course so s/he could get to know her/his cousins and aunts and grandmas. Where would we hold the Birthday parties? And what about schools, universities…. whole lives would stream by until the anaesthetic finally wore off and reality slapped me across the chops shouting STOP!!!! Chickens, hatched, counting and all that.
With the last scrape of each plastic pot, that sugary apple and tangy yoghurt flavour was filed away under ‘H’ for hope. ‘H’ for happiness.
Two days later the lovely old surgeon would gently slip three tiny embryos into their new warm bed, making sure they were all snuggly and safe.
–We’ve done all we can, now it’s up to God, he’d say each time, patting my stomach.
And for the next week or so, comfy socks and fluffy jim-jams on, fave music playing, I’d take my temperature every day and phone the nurse with the result.
–Ah! J’en suis desolé.
I’m not sure if I hanker for that sweet and sourness out of some masochistic impulse to make myself more miserable, to dig the knife in a little deeper because it’s so pleasant once you stop or whether it’s simply my inner wiser self reminding my self-pitying, wallowing-in-it self, to hope. Hope for better times to come.
After all, you know the old adage, ‘where there’s life…’
We asked writers, artists, readers and anyone with a story to share to share their interpretation of the theme: “hope.”
Contributed by an anonymous writer, this moving essay is the first response to the call.
Whilst There is Breath There is Hope
She had mothered me out of my traumatic teenage years and into adulthood. She had coaxed me back from my first dark night of despair with tenderly enforced trips to quiet cafes to drink tea and smoke cigarettes. She had tried to love me by plugging holes as my vitality leaked away.
On a hot Saturday afternoon she took a rope, tied it to a tree, fashioned a noose and hung herself. He told me later that when he’d found her her toes hovered an inch or two from the ground, the bough of the tree couldn’t quite reach to put her down.
She died and I didn’t
I took scissors, which had only been returned to the drawer along with all knives after her death, and cut late spring flowers from her lovingly tended garden. Her suicide note revealed she had planned to die there but ran to the woods when it was realised she had escaped from the house. Without knowing what else to do I took the flowers to the tree and placed these delicately pathetic offerings of aquilegia and poppies at the edge of the gaping abyss- where despair had run out, movement ceased, breath ran out. It was an offering of love, mine and hers, left to wither at the place where hope ran out.
My whole adult life I have ricocheted between the opposing poles of hope and despair, at one extreme the pull of suicidal thoughts, a desire to delete myself, and at the other the magnetic draw of hope; salvation by the blessing of external circumstances, or to put it another way, a feeble belief it’ll all work out in the end. Both poles are dangerous. When this kind of hope gets shattered time and again by life’s ordinary offerings of trauma and disappointment the downward spiral to the opposite pole becomes a well trodden path.
Arriving at despair, this time as a mother, prompted a different course of action. I feared for myself less than I feared that my children might become motherless so I asked for a new model of hope.
The NHS, unsure what to do with me, sent me on a meditation course. Every Friday afternoon, I sat with my comrades from the four corners of Despairesville and we learned to watch our thoughts. At first I ran at my despair with a war mongering cry, “Come on then you fucker, show yourself so I can annihilate you!” – not quite the mindset the teacher was looking for, and with a bemused kindly tone he encouraged a friendly, compassionate approach.
We practiced listening to sounds; silent sounds of the room, the faulty fire alarm that blipped, gurgling stomachs. Immersion in the sensory awareness of life was a welcome break from the analytical mode I usually inhabited. We watched our breathing, we watched our thinking, we felt the tingle of aliveness in our muscles. We dwelled in our bodies and in our pain; we did not run from it. Actually we did, constantly, but we tried to notice ourselves doing it and not tell ourselves off.
I didn’t like much of what I saw. But a tiny miracle occurred; with gentle attention I prised open a paper thin gap between being in ‘it’ and observing ‘it’. That gap sprouted a seedling of hope. I noticed that my immovable rock-face of pain, whether a plague of anxiety-rats scattering around my head, or the dampening thick white-out of depression, was not as solid and immovable as it appeared. Diminutive changes occurred as I breathed. The embodied sense of despair moved, in a geographical sense, across my body. Sometimes it moved like waves, sometimes like slow compacting earth. The important thing was that it moved. As long as there was breath there was movement. Movement meant change and change meant potential and with that came a crack in the rock-face just large enough for my seedling of hope to grow. Not the shiny and alluring hope-as-flimsy-optimism but an authentic hope grew out of the ground of despair.
With achingly dull repetition, meditating led to a fleeting, scarcely perceptible sense of one vast net of interconnectedness; the warp and weft of the present also had living threads that stretched far back into the past and far forward into the future. It was impossible to see it all, only my little corner of it, but I had the sense that whatever I did, even just breathing, it mattered.