Drawing strength from his little girl
I DIDN’T tell her everything.
How could I? It was hard enough to hold the trauma of it in my own head.
I didn’t tell Amelia that her Daddy had collapsed at the hospital, on the hard, cold ground of the car park.
That I thought he’d fallen over behind me until I saw the way he was lying, arched forward in a twisted ball of agony.
I didn’t recount for her the sounds coming from his mouth in that moment. His urgent struggle to breathe. Unforgettable sounds that escalated to a primal wailing that ripped through his body and ricocheted through mine.
What use to her would it be to paint a vivid picture of that night, flashing in my mind like a horror movie every time I closed my eyes?
I see it all in colours and let me tell ya, it ain’t no rainbow.
There’s the white of my tensed knuckles gripping onto her Daddy’s shirt as three of us tried to keep his convulsing body on its side.
The hideous transition of grey to blue as his face changed hue. That was the moment when his heart stopped. For one minute, then more. Seven all told.
To me, the time stretched into infinity. Seconds expanded into excruciating intervals of pain. I thought he was lost to me forever.
After that there was no colour at all, only panic and movement. Doctors and nurses running into the car park from the hospital corridor with life-saving instruments. I was dragged away.
It turns out it wasn’t our sweet man’s time to die that night. Maybe Lady Luck was smiling down on us. I’m part-Irish, vaguely Protestant, wholly atheist, but I thanked the Gods with all my heart.
Damn it, they owed me one.
Next morning, it was my own mother’s job to pass on the news with careful hands to her grand-daughter. I can think of no-one better for such an important task.
She said: “Honey, your Dad had a sore heart and he went to the hospital feeling sick but he’s much better now. He’ll be home in five days.”
Amelia paused over her breakfast, eyes suddenly shining with almost-tears but her internal dam walls held them in.
My brilliant Mum recognises that explaining time frames to our girl helps her to feel safe. Together they counted out the days on their fingers, reaching Monday as the likely date of her Daddy’s return.
Amelia nodded and her eyes cleared; she could cope with that.
The note from school the next day read: “Amelia seemed a little sad today.”
I watched her out of the corner of my eye, looking for signs of melancholy or worry. As usual, Amelia’s deepest emotions remained just that, buried in the subterranean depths of her enigmatic heart and mind.
But I know that just because she’s not asking questions doesn’t mean she’s not thinking intensely about the world around her.
So in a light voice, I asked her straight out: “Baby, are you feeling a bit sad that your Dad is in the hospital?”
Her reply was prompt and awe-inspiring: “No. I’m strong.” She followed this with a typical Popeye flex of her arms.
No. I’m strong. You could have picked me up from the floor.
Her response signalled two things to me. One was that she really didn’t want to talk about what was happening. That her way of dealing with the sudden change in our lives was to soldier on as though all was well. I could only respect that.
On a more literal level, Amelia really was saying to me, “It’s okay Mum, I’m tough. I can handle it.”
This wasn’t some statement she’d heard somewhere and was parroting back to me without meaning.
At six, sometimes Amelia’s behaviour still resembles that of a three-year-old. But here she understood that strength is something intangible you call upon in the darkest moments to make it through.
I saw this understanding take further shape when she saw her Dad in the hospital for the first time. She didn’t speak but she held him in one of the gentlest, longest hugs of her life. His silent tears poured into her hair and she held him longer still.
So, I didn’t need to tell her everything, did I? There was so much she already knew. Talking was hard enough for me anyway. Eating and sleeping almost impossible.
Amelia’s very real strength rose up to bolster my own. At night, I held her body close to mine and she placed a hand tenderly on my cheek. She kissed me there with wet lips but I didn’t wipe the moisture away. It made me feel alive.