Holidays seem to make me count backwards. Where was I last year? The year before? I did this before Eva, but now it feels even more pressing.
Easter is no different.
Last year on Easter I drove to the Hawkes Bay for a holiday with friends. The holiday coincided with Eva’s 1st birthday so we all got up at dawn and went down to the beach to light candles and watch the sunrise. We read a poem and I stayed behind after everyone had left.
The Easter before that Eva was just a few weeks old. She was in Wellington NICU and I was exhausted. I was spending long days in the NICU with Eva, sharing my time between the pumping room and her side, while trying to fit in doctor visits and therapy drop ins. My nights were spent getting up every 3 hours to pump, huddled under a blanket in the winter night. To put it lightly, I was stretched thin, in danger of breaking.
My parents got me to come home for Easter for a break from the relentlessness of the NICU and I arranged for people to visit Eva and give her cuddles while I was gone. She had at least one visit every day where someone who loved her would sit and cuddle her for a couple of hours.
I was gone just a few days but I felt uneasy the whole time I was away from her. I felt an arm around my waist pulling me back to her, and the further I got from her the tighter the grip got. I rushed back to Wellington earlier than planned to be back by her side.
It was my first major indication that I was never going to be able to let her go. Not for good.
If I concentrate now I can slip into the feelings of that time. I can walk down the halls of the NICU in my mind. I can wash my hands at the entrance, visit the pumping room and the freezers with all the breast milk and make my way to Eva’s room. I can see all of it and if I concentrate hard enough I can almost smell it. That mix of disinfectant with something earthier, breast milk, tears, something human. If I think hard enough about that smell I feel caught in a time warp, with feelings of worry and tiredness and a sadness like no other slowing my steps and dragging at my feet. I can put myself in those hall ways, and while it’s hard, I like to stay there for as long as my brain will let me.
I know why I can picture this time so well. It’s because this was the time I wish I could do again. It was impossibly hard and the feelings of uncertainty were like a grater on my nerves and mind, slicing the top off my skin over and over again so I was exposed and raw and unable to heal. But if I could do it again, I would in an instant.
But I’d do it differently. I would be brave. I would get Eva home sooner. I would be pushier and more insistent. I would take Eva out more in her pushchair. I would listen closer to the physio instead of feeling angry that she insisted I still talk to my baby who could not hear me. I would shrug off the medical jargon and focus on Eva. I would push harder for some tests and decline others. I would ask if that next heel prick was really necessary, and I would stop them if it wasn’t. I would use the voice that Eva taught me I had. I would not leave her at Easter, even if I needed a break. I would stay and instead of receiving photos of other people cuddling her, I would do it myself. I would reassure my family I was ok and didn’t need that time away from the hospital.
But this regret is useless, because I cannot time travel and be the person she needed me to be. I could not be that person for Eva when she was first born, because she was the one who made me that way. She was the one and continues to be the one, who pushes me when I feel like shrinking. And when she was born, I hadn’t figured that out yet. I didn’t roar or growl or even speak. I whispered and nodded and ignored the voice in my head screaming at me.
It’s useless to sit here wishing these things. I would not have these regrets if she had lived. This time sits in my mind now because she is gone, but if she were still here it would be a blip in our time, inconsequential.
But even though I know this and can rationalise it over and over until I am convinced, it’s also so hard to turn off those thoughts, those voices that say “what if it had been different?” They sit in my stomach like a hunger that cannot be satisfied.
So instead I try to fill my belly and my mind by thinking of other times where there was no regret, where I was Eva’s mother and doing her proud. I think about walking into her room each morning to see a squirming Eva, already aware I was coming before I turned on the light. I think of Eva’s weight in my arms, and her head on my shoulder. I think of so many days on the couch when she was so little, with her on my lap between my legs so I could tickle her face with my hands. I think of naps on the couch together, her lips parted ever so slightly in relaxed sleep.
I don’t want to have regrets like this again in my life. I want to listen to myself and to Eva and do what I think is right. I can’t get that time back. But I can speak up now.