Pauline Maria 1965-2008

A sequence of four new poems

Wendy Perriam

My daughter’s birth could be called a miracle. Having been told I’d never have children, I defied the doctors by becoming pregnant at all. Sadly, that first pregnancy ended in miscarriage (as also did my third), but I was thrilled to find I was pregnant again, just a few months later.

At the 12-week stage, however, the doctor declared the baby dead in the womb. I was rushed into hospital for the removal of the foetus, although the procedure was delayed because I had developed kidney problems. While those were being treated, the foetal heart restarted — an extraordinary event no medical man has been able to explain.

The worry wasn’t over, though, since throughout the pregnancy, the baby never moved or gave so much as a reassuring kick. In those pre-scan days, the doctor feared it might have been damaged, and was maybe even paralysed. So the birth of a normal, healthy baby on New Year’s Eve, 1965, was the best moment of my life. My ecstatic smile, as I gazed down at my perfect child, deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

Fast forward 40 years. My vivacious, energetic daughter, now married to an American and living in Seattle, was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue — one of the rarest and most brutal of cancers and usually confined to heavy smokers over the age of 65. Pauline was in her prime and had never smoked in her life.

After a seven-hour operation to make her a new tongue, followed by months of gruelling chemotherapy and disfiguring radiation, I dared to hope she might survive. Indeed, the surgeon said that if she went a full year with no return of the cancer, the odds were highly favourable. So, as the last weeks of that year played out, I and all her family seemed to hold our breath from hour to hour. The year passed — we celebrated.

A mere five days later the cancer returned, as if to mock our jubilation. Then, slowly but inexorably, it spread to her lungs, liver, pleura, blood and bones. In August 2008, my once-beautiful, vivacious Pauline — now reduced to a pallid wraith — struggled for her life again, as she had done in the womb, but this time lost the fight. Her two sons, aged ten and seven, displayed huge courage during those last days: holding her hand, cooling her forehead with cold flannels and, finally, bringing in their toy animals to share her hospital bed.

She was buried on Whidbey Island, off Seattle, on a perfect summer’s day. The setting was pure Hollywood in its grandeur and magical beauty — cruelly incongruous, I felt. I was burying a beloved child, yet the smug sun shone all day long and the Pacific gleamed and sparkled, as its carefree waves purred against the shore. Some of the guests brought sunflowers, perhaps unaware that, in Chinese lore, they are a symbol of longevity. Their bright, happy faces reminded me of Pauline’s cheery radiance before she was cut down. I can never see one now without a pang.

1. Birth

My womb a wasteland,
engulfing all new 
growth,
briars and poison ivy
stifling any 
shoot.

My first strangulated
foetus was pickled in a
jar,
a teaching-aid for students —
and grisly talking-point.
The third, a bloody bedpan-botch,
went slithering down the 
sluice. 

The second — you —
survived twelve shaky weeks, 
then, “Sorry,” Dr Slade said, “the foetal heart has
stopped.”

I wept gall; ate rocks of pain;
waited in a Limbo for you to be 
excised;
heavy black-crepe curtains 
drawn across my eyes. 

But, Lazarus-like, you picked up life and
ran;
your stuttering heart re-started
and rainbows skewed the skies.

Yet you, the silent phoenix,
never kicked or stirred;
just lay, a stagnant scrag-end,
as if long ago interred.
“She may be damaged,” Slade said, 
“seriously impaired.”

Autumn chilled to winter,
trees shivered, frail leaves
fell.
Even past the Solstice,
the light was sick and
wan.
“You’re a bad lay-er,” Slade said, wryly,
“As in hen — ha, ha!”

New Year’s Eve — my due-day —
I took a train to
town;
frivolities and fashion 
might distract me from my womb.
I never reached John Lewis, but limped
leaking, to the ward.

Your father brought me snowdrops,
the bravest blooms of all,
but the nurses shook their heads still,
and Slade was raw resentment
because he’d miss his New Year
ball.

Foreseeing doom, disaster,
he snarled at them and 
swore, 
but I was in a deaf world,
a world of clotted fear;
you clamped too tight inside me; 
me losing strength and heart; 
my body fraying, failing,
then splintering
apart. 

But, on the stroke of midnight,
you erupted, bruised and bawling, 
and drew your first fierce breath,
and I heard a shout, “She’s perfect”
and knew you’d cheated death;
and a lithe and lusty New Year
laughed doubt and dirge to 
scorn,
as they placed you in my hungry arms, 

the best baby ever born.

2. Last Illness

The wolf I greet first —
wry grin and yellow glare;
beside him, the lion,
imperious, proud-maned,
preening beside the small, shy,
balding bear.

Next, the turtle,
grimacing and green,
and the plump, plush, placid
panda, parked between the bedraggled 
dog and the unlikely corduroy 
dinosaur.

The boys have brought them 
to share your pain, your bed,
while they sleep alone,
bereft of all their toys; 
their only bed-mates 
fearfulness and 
dread.

These beasts’ hot breath
is stoking up your fever,
disturbing your last rest;
the lion hogging half the pillow; 
the wolf hunkered on your 
breast;
his burnished bloom and eager eyes 
rebuking your own 
near-demise.

I let them stay;
glad of this strange retinue, 
to share my long, lone
vigil; 
my cool hand yoked to yours;
your lips open, forming words,
words I strain to hear;
each flaccid hour dawdling like
a year. 

I ache to hold you, but
fear the tubes and wires
that help you feed, respire,  
so I stroke the stricken bear,
caress the dog’s dilapidated spine; 
he as impotent as I
to halt your slow, inexorable
decline; his fur as scant as 
your sheared and stubbled 
hair.

Cheeks sunken, pale lips sore,
you sink towards extinction, 
like the once-deathless dinosaur.
I clutch its corduroy corpse, 
while all the other animals deplore 
your fading form and feeble
breath;
you the Madonna we
have come to worship;
recalling the staid ass and
stolid ox, summoned to the stable
by a star, to celebrate the miracle of birth, 
while I, less bovine and less blessed,
can only mourn the monstrousness 
of death.

3. Death

Blue-bruised,
you burn with fever, 
bedsored feet parcelled in blue bootees.
Blue for a boy.

We named you Paul.
You surprised us
erupting on New Year’s Eve,
as frantic as the fireworks,
and the midwife’s cry,
“It’s a girl!”
outsinging the 
razzle-dazzle rowdies 
in tired Trafalgar Square; 
and my mouth insanely smiling,
until I was all drum-roll, fanfare, hosanna
birthday smile.

I introduced myself,
mother to daughter,
expecting a long acquaintance.
Yet, tonight, in another ward,
you lie dumb and barely
breathing, 
your half-inch fuzz of hair
(its bounteous brown re-grown 
bitter-black)
too stark for the grey ashes 
of your face.

Dumb, but not deaf.
“She can hear,” the nurses tell me 
(stoutly pink against your
fading frailness).
“Those about to die travel back in time —
sometimes decades back to their arrival
in this world —
so tell her, Mother, softly, about her
birth.”

Stroking the chick-soft down,
my too-healthy hand 
against your lolling head,
my whispering voice
tiptoes through your ear,
with the hum of tubes,
the hiss of oxygen,
as I recount the
triumphant tale; 
re-play the rocket salvos,
the hallelujah flags, 
and my own Te Deum
smile.

And, suddenly,
your dark eyes 
open
and you see me 
— mother, mentor, mourner —
as fiercely close 
as in the labour ward. 
And, for one miraculous 
moment, 
you hold my gaze, 
return my birthday
smile,
as Death stalks you, 
scoops you,
scythes you
and I am left
unmothered,
mute

alone.

4. Funeral: August, 2008

August, hateful month;
month of both my 
marriages;
unconsummated holidays;
trips aborted; 
honeymoons short shrift;
fractious children, out of school,
adrift. 

August, trivial month;
month of tourists, camera-lens for
eyes; boarding buses,
buying bling and trash;
capturing London’s cruel 
and complex history in one 
unseeing flash; 
cruising down to Greenwich with their 
cheery Cockney guide, who fails to 
mention mud and corpses
beneath the treacherous
tide.

August, idle month;
bored with cricket, bilious from
ice-cream;
futile fêtes and funfairs running out of
steam;
bargain-breaks a swindle:
seaside stormy, colours monochrome;
away-days lost in sidings, then landing up
back home.

August, violent month;
month of combine-harvesters
guillotining small bodies in the
corn;
meadows scythed, and stubbled fields
forlorn;
shrill-tongued swifts departing; 
dropping, dying, as they fly too far, 
too fast;
mushroom-clouds still smoking from
an older, crueller past.

August, turgid month;
month of heat-waves, thirsty plants, 
tired trees; the green glaze of 
June leaching from the lawn;
the glitter of July
rusting into autumn’s barren 
brown; 
the long, light evenings
contracting to the downturn,
as colour fades and summer frays to winter; 
the relentless cycle of light and
darkness, hope and 
heartbreak, 
birth and 
death.

And her death, dirging August; 
the same black-bordered canker
corroding every year.
The crass sun at her funeral an uninvited 
guest,
haloing her glossy, too-new coffin
in its hard, harsh, heartless
glare;
the spiteful stare of sunflowers
reproaching her once-brilliance,
now destroyed; 
her own light snuffed out; her buoyant beauty 
void.

And, later, at the lunch,
guests quaffing wine and
strolling on the beach 
beyond the house;
the frisking waves more suited to a 
wedding than a wake, 
as friends carouse and brash kids
guzzle cake; sand scattered by their bare and
boisterous feet,
while she stiffens in the chill of August
heat.

Remorseless month, 
I hack you from the calendar; 
genial July now morphs to kind
September, and you are dust,
defunct, 
extinct, 
expunged;
your gaudy garb grey ashes in 
an urn.
You wrecked her in her prime of 
summertime,
so, murderous month,
I slay you in your turn.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens
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