The Shortest Day
I’ve been gone from here for a while. It seems sort of appropriate to return on the shortest day, at the natural turn of the year. We’ve had a tough few weeks. My mother passed away on the 15th of October past. She dreaded the long dark nights. It was always a relief to be able to say on the 21st that the light was on its way back. In tribute to her, I’d like to repost this story from Sleepwalkers which was written for her and for my first daughter. She and I sat in her kitchen the day it was first broadcast on the radio, listening together. The story had been pre-recorded in Belfast. I was more nervous about that reading than I’ve ever been about a reading before or since. She was a very private person. I wasn’t sure how she would react to the telling. In the event, it was fine. It was more than fine. I think she was really very proud to have it told.
Here’s to the return of the light. Wishing us all brighter days ahead.
This is how you lay, little one, the whole night long in my mother’s house, with me on my back and you on my chest and your left cheek on mine. I remember I lifted you and laid you in your travel cot, but you were not for travelling. Once the cold of the sheet touched your face, you twisted, opened your eyes, screwed up your fists and cried: cries fit to waken my mother and her mother, and her mother’s mother before. I lifted you once, twice, three, four times, lifted you until you taught me what I would not learn: that the only place you wanted to be was next to me, heartbeat to heartbeat, cheek to cheek.
In the morning, my mother looked into my bleary eyes, into eight months of lifting and laying and lifting again. She put her little finger into your small mouth and felt an eruption, the shock of a chip of ivory that had broken the surface: your first tooth. It made sense of everything. She told me once that after the birth of her ninth child, her doctor had told her to stop birthing children, for the sake of her health. But she didn’t stop. She bore another boy, and then me. ‘Where would you have been if I’d stopped?’ she said to me, and she took your hand, ‘And where would this one be?’ I don’t know the answer to that. Later, she told me she was annoyed that she had found the tooth, upset at having the glory moment when it was me that had lost sleep over it. Would I not have wished to have found it myself, she said? But who better to have found it, her last baby’s first baby’s first tooth? Who better but your mother’s mother; your own mother, once removed, and not removed at all. We make ourselves over and over again. Your teeth are my teeth, and my bones are hers and her skin is her mother’s, and her mother’s blood is the blood of hers. Who better to have found your tooth? ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m not annoyed. You know the rule – the tooth-finder is the cobbler. Now you’ll have to buy the first shoes.’
Seven years on and the tooth is jutting straight out of your mouth, dangerously loose, hanging on. It’s been like that for weeks. It seems reluctant to go. You won’t let me near it, and I’m afraid to touch it. What if it doesn’t come free at the first pull? What if something stronger is holding it there? I’m tempted to take you down to see your grandmother – down to the place of the getting of it – and ask her to put her finger once more into your mouth, take a hold again, give the tooth one good tug. I’ve a good mind to ask her to finish what she started.