Illustration: Pinky Fang
Illustration: Pinky Fang

SocietySeptember 17, 2023

The Sunday Essay: My mother is a pirate

Illustration: Pinky Fang
Illustration: Pinky Fang

There have been times when I hated my body. Hated that it might grow into anything like hers.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Pinky Fang.

A year ago my mother, Rose, paraded around my living room, showing off her new faux leather pants. “I’m retired,” Rose announced, having newly turned 65. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to give up dressing up.”

She put her hands on her hips and pressed their edges the way she does when she’s assessing herself in the mirror. “I just have to find new ways of styling things,” she mused to her mirror-self.  

She had bought too many clothes for the visit. She and her partner had driven up to Auckland from Wellington, so they didn’t have weight limits. Their tight maroon suitcases exploded into our lounge. The girls, including the baby, all dived into Mum’s suitcase to draw out things they liked: long silvery earrings, floaty scarves in shades of blue and pale lilac, black ankle boots, her swimsuit and multiple sarongs. They scattered her treasure chest of small, glittery cosmetics around the bathroom, and the baby tore up each individual cotton face pad into scattering snow.

Now my mother has shrunk. Her faux leather pants are deflated balloons. They pool around her skinny legs and flat bum. 

This brutal round of cancer has taken half my mother’s tongue, and with it her ability to eat. Now she gives me her clothes and I fit them. Suit them. My whole life she’s been two sizes bigger than me, but now I am her old size. Wearing her clothes, I look in my mirror and see I have grown into her proportions. I swap her, giving her my pre-baby jeans. 

The first time I got pregnant nine years ago, Mum instructed me to get rid of all my clothes. It wasn’t unkind, just practical: based on her experience with me, she said, the clothes would just make me feel bad postpartum, and I would never fit them again anyway. Even if I could squeeze back into them, they would be horribly out of fashion by then. Three years later – only half listening to her because I was broke and worried about never being able to buy new clothes – I fit almost everything I’d kept from my cull. 

“Well, that’s the divorce,” Mum had said at the time. “When your father and I separated I couldn’t eat either.” I hadn’t known stress would fill my stomach with something that felt like fullness. I was always a hungry person, until I wasn’t. But this time around I have a two-year-old, no divorce and two extra dress sizes.

My mother and I have distinctly different facial features and hair, but from the neck down I am almost her carbon copy. If you look closely at our bodies you can tell us apart: her shoulders are slightly broader, my bum more rounded, but the curve and swing of our hips when we walk is the same. The drape of flesh on our upper underarms, our over-extended elbows and our slender ankles. We have the same size feet, but I am two centimetres shorter than her. This has always annoyed me.

During my first pregnancy, I put on a kilo each week of my first trimester. My midwife told me that was fine, if a touch unusual. She sent me to be tested for diabetes. Some people even lost weight from the morning sickness vomiting, I discovered in my fevered Google searching. Nowhere could I find out if putting on kilos, piles and piles of them, was normal. 

Except for my mother. “My god,” she said, “you are growing a human. Your baby is hungry. Your body is telling you what to do. It’s simple: you just need to eat.”

My mother fell pregnant at 24. She didn’t want to get pregnant and she didn’t much want me, secret inside her. In the 80s in New Zealand abortion was difficult but not impossible. If you had money, you could get on a plane. From the way she’s talked about it, she was ambivalent for a long time. But I kept growing. Swelling until there was little choice. She didn’t want me, but she didn’t want to fly to Australia in shame and she didn’t want to take a knitting needle to herself like Great Nana Barry had, either.

After she tipped past the first trimester, her mother got her on the phone and told her to face it: I was coming, and she should be delighted. So Mum grit her teeth, swallowed some Weet-Bix to combat the morning sickness, and married Dad in a registry office wearing what was clean that morning with only the dog for company. 

I think now she may have been suffering from something they didn’t know how to diagnose back then: prenatal depression or anxiety, maybe. Or perhaps it was just the fear and confusion and terror that takes over when you know you’re going to be a parent: the shadow of premonition of such a huge life change, without anything to tell you how it will go, how you will go. Or the fear of loving something so keenly it would snap your heart to lose it.

Whatever it was, I know she silently blamed herself when I arrived six weeks too early, with almost no warning. One violent contraction that bent her double while she was striding over the hill with my father towards the sea. 

They didn’t have a phone and they were a long way from help. It was early evening, one of those long Northland summer days, twilight by the time they returned home. They’d kept going, had the swim – almost nothing could stand between my mother and her need to be immersed in the ocean – and come home again; her body had stayed silent the whole time. My father didn’t want to drive her to the hospital all the way in town by now, almost an hour’s drive each way. He wanted to have dinner. And nothing else had happened. 

But something in her must have pushed through. Perhaps she feared I was lost from her then. After the searing and sudden pain her body had gone still and silent. Like a taniwha rising from the depths, something lashed out, woke her up, and then retreated. It was a warning. And she knew it.

They tried to stop me coming. They pushed needles deep into her full of steroids designed to help my lungs develop, told her to lie down and hold on. She knew it was useless, that I was pushing my way out of her, clawing against the current. But no one listened. They sent my father back home, only for the neighbour, owner of the precious phone, to come running after he parked the car to tell him to go back. At once. 

My father arrived just in time to see me force my way into the world. Pink and squalling with a shock of bright red curls. My father’s heart burst into flames. His first natural high is how he later described it. For him it was pure fizzy joy. But my mother knew something wasn’t right.

The steroids hadn’t worked. My tiny body was not ready. After my first squall, still buoyant from the oxygen I carried from my journey inside her, the moment I tried to draw breath on my own, my lungs caved; fluttering shut, failing. When my first child was born 33 years later, I remember thinking she breathed her way out of me, and breathed her own life in. But baby me didn’t do that. I fought my way out, only to find I couldn’t survive on my own. 

Back then, they didn’t know about kangaroo care. About the need for touch. I was trapped inside an incubator for six weeks, isolated. Only four decades on, after the birth of my second daughter, sitting in her faux-leather pants at my kitchen table, did my mother really tell me about that time. She almost went mad, trapped inside the hospital. For long stretches, alone.

She kept vigil outside the hospital room containing the incubators for long hours, not because staff wanted her to, but because there was nowhere else for her to be. Through layers of glass, she watched other people handle her tiny daughter. Change her tiny nappy and lay her back down gently when she started to go blue.

The nurses felt so sorry for this young woman that sometimes, even though they weren’t supposed to, they let her in. They let her put a finger to her daughter’s cheek, whisper to her that she is there. That she is her mama. Whisper to her to breathe.  

The woman sitting on the wrong side of the glass in that hospital corridor is 15 years younger than I am now, and from this vantage point, her youth trembles so clearly. She’s a woman I love so much but never knew. She’s terrified, on her own. She’s been moved to stay in the nurses’ quarters because they all feel sorry for her. And because one of the only woman doctors has had a quiet word to the higher ups that perhaps this young woman’s mental health is slipping away. 

Late each night, an orderly comes to accompany her across the grounds to the unit containing her baby, so she can try to feed her. It’s not safe for her to make the journey outside through the dark on her own. I imagine Rose, in her hospital nightgown: pale, exhausted, a terrified ghost. Her blonde hair limp and stringy with lack of washing, pulled back into a ponytail. I imagine her walking across the hospital grounds, barely making a dent in the dew. In the purple violet of night, she’s making her way towards her child to try to feed her, coax her into her own life. 

She can’t hold her child in her arms, but her body knows what to do. It makes milk. Every three hours she tries to breastfeed her baby, and then she pumps milk for the top-up tube feed. Not all the mothers’ bodies do this. So for the six weeks she’s in hospital she pumps enough milk to feed all the premmie babies who need it.

She’s never said it, but I know she started to want me then. With a pain not unlike the first contraction, violent and haunting. She went into hospital not knowing, with no name picked out. (I was just “baby” until her favourite nurse shooed my father and her into the grounds one afternoon with a book of baby names and clear instructions not to return “until the child has a name.”) But she came out my mother.

Despite all that has come after that, every way she has not been the mother I may have wanted, I can hold onto that image of her: just a girl, so much heartbreak and joy to come ahead of her; scared, but determined; showing up to journey through the night towards her daughter. Towards me. 

There have been times when I hated my body. Hated that it might grow into anything like hers. When I was 12 and in the full throw of rapid puberty, I remember looking down at my wide, pale thighs in the passenger seat of the car and exclaiming that they looked just like my mother’s. My father didn’t know quite what to say, so he asked in a neutral tone if that was a good or bad thing. “It’s awful!” I said, breaking into a sob. “Look at them!” I felt that I was becoming her, my worst nightmare. 

My mother always seemed to love her body. Not in a vain, flashy way, just with a quiet, settled pride. She loved it for the way it carried her. Carried my sister and I. And even when it didn’t, even when it coached the cancerous cells into blooming in all the wrong ways, she still loved it. She loves it now. Even after it’s been slashed and burned. There are radiation scars on her neck she protects from the sun with scarves. There is a long, deep scar on her forearm where they extracted the muscle to rebuild her tongue. There is a cross on her face where they dug out the skin cancer. And then another, and another.

When my children ask her about the scars, my mother says she was a pirate, back before I was born. Back when being a pirate was noble and about seeking freedom. Back before they used guns. She gave up life at sea, she said, because she had me and pirate ships were no place for a child. 

“How come the scars are only there now?” my children ask her, suspicious. “Because bodies are mysterious and miraculous,” she tells them. “I’ve always been a pirate, on the inside.”

And they believe her, because she wears earrings that flash with silver and she’s always dragging them down into the ocean for a swim. And because it’s better this way.

I wasn’t supposed to love my body at 12 and I’m not supposed to love it now, almost three decades later. It’s too short, too fat, too lumpy, too wild. But how can I hate it when I look in the mirror now and it’s her body I see? The body I knew and loved growing up, the body that brought me into being, her DNA that flickers on in mine.

I only exist because of my mother, because of what her body did for mine. And she because of hers. Imperfect as they are, we only exist because of all those mothers and fathers, all the way back, our tīpuna, carrying us. Just as we carry them. Their stories nestled in our bodies.  

Even on the days when I can’t fit a thing, when I look in the mirror and feel repulsed by the stretch marks and wobbly bits, I can now summon a fierce love for my body. This body with a glimmer of my mother in it, glimmers of all the mothers who came before. I see now that my body is the way I can hold all of them; hold my mother too, when she is gone. My body is the link in the chain between my mother and my children, between past and future. All of us standing hand to hand, like cut-out paper dolls. And I will take it. I will take this body. 

When I close my eyes and conjure up a snapshot of my childhood, Mum’s walking ahead of me. The light is low, it’s summer, warm, lazing towards the evening. She’s swinging her hips in her one piece bathing suit, the same way I probably do now, as she walks. Her earrings flash silver. She’s always just in front of me, and she’s always heading for the sea.

Keep going!