After experiencing the loss of our daughter Ella (born prematurely at 26 weeks in September 2008) Chris and I started on a journey that was to take us deep within ourselves. Placing us at the bottom of a huge and terrifically imposing mountain we were to climb it in only a pair of flip flops and it would take almost two years to bring the monster down.
Sometimes you don’t realise you’re on a journey, you just climb aboard for the sheer hell of it. To be free. It can be exhilarating and thrilling, whereas the alternative is scary, frightening and full of the unknown. To have control over your destination (when dabbing the breaks brings you juddering to a stop) is a relief. But with a lack of control, loss of control, or zero control as your journey pitches and crashes through the barriers can be terrifying.
Like many women and couples before me I was on that journey - the one full of zero, nada, no control - for two years. The first year I fell, grappled, heaved, crumpled and cried a river of tears. The second year I lurched, rolled, stomped, and attempted to grab at some sort of semblance of a life lived before – which I eventually realised was never going to happen. So I turned my attention to the future and sought to investigate what was going on with my broken body. It was during this time I attempted to make peace with a past I was running from and held out for the arms of hope.
‘To loose a child once, twice or more is similar to being a boxer. It’s not how many times you get hit, it’s how many times you can pick yourself up and carry on.’ These were the words said to Chris and I when we returned to Ipswich Hospital in November 2008 to meet with the obstetrician (Mr L) whose care I had fallen under when I gave birth to Ella. He invited us to see him at his Tear Drop Clinic, a clinic hosted twice a month for couples and families who have experienced the loss of a child. I hadn’t liked him at the time we slid into our nightmare and I certainly didn’t warm to him two months later.
He went through our file and discussed how there was no known cause for Ella’s premature birth. I’d been on a course of anti-biotics before I arrived in the UK and an infection was high on the list of possible reasons, but couldn’t be confirmed. I remember saying very little just staring at my shoes and then Chris spoke asking if everything was ok with my plumbing?? My neck nearly snapped off, WHHHAT?!?! We were told everything appeared to be fine - my period had returned (shocking me with its bold arrival), my body was repairing itself quickly and although I hadn’t been scanned since the infection I’d befallen one week after having Ella, it was assumed I was ok.
We were advised if I found myself pregnant again to arrange for a cervical stitch at 12 weeks and to make sure that at 20 weeks I had access to medical care either in Europe, South Africa or the UK. JUST GET OUR OF UGANDA. We left the hospital and returned to our car, the afternoon was grey and it was a few days before we were due to fly to Africa and we sat feeling numb waiting for the car heater to work. There were no conclusive details about Ella’s death, no papers to hold or a letter explaining why. We had hoped for an answer, for more, but sometimes there isn’t. It just is what it is.
Chris drew on the positives saying we could still have a family, we hadn’t been told it wasn’t possible we just had to try again when we were strong and had recovered. We returned to Uganda a few days later, it was difficult to leave our families and friends, but we needed to get back to our business and to life as we knew it. We had scattered half of Ella’s ashes on the river at home and had tucked the rest safely away to sprinkle onto the Nile – we just hoped our luggage would arrive safely. I remember waiting behind a mother with her baby at Terminal 5 security and just staring at her and her bags….she was carrying everything we weren’t.
Our great friend Nat collected us from Entebbe airport and Chris drove us through the hub-hub of busy Ugandan streets to our rented house in Jinja. The drive was surreal and it was easy to loose focus. The hardest bit was seeing friends for the first time and going through the details again. I’d made an album of the cards and emails we’d received which made it easier to tell Ella’s story. A couple of girlfriends had had babies in the months we were away and having recently spent time with Grace, our niece, we thought it would be ok. We quickly realised with family it’s different, so at the beginning we kept babies at arms length. It was the only way to keep our hearts from folding.
The local people we worked with were wonderful and kind – Africans confront death daily and inspire in their own understated way when it comes to children and loss. Over time we came to appreciate that not everyone is comfortable with the shadow of death that drifts from your shoulders like a tiny cloak and others find it difficult to accept that certain things about you have changed. I realised the friends I truly drew strength from the most were those who had experienced a personal loss of their own and it was with them that I sat and talked to at length. We spoke about loves lost and how against all the odds you gradually start to grow again - something I was to experience much later - but their words, their wisdom and love helped me no end.
We celebrated what would have been Ella’s birth date, 13th December 2008, with the planting of trees on our land by the river and the scattering of her ashes. Christmas day loomed and we spent it with a small group of friends at a lodge positioned in a rainforest a short drive from town. That night at home Chris and I lay on sofas talking of what should have been, what could have been and what clearly and simply wasn’t. Our first Christmas as a family was null and void and we felt it enormously, so we lit candles and drank Jim Beam. We welcomed in the New Year by attending a wedding and later got confused about whether to stay there or head to another party on the river. Our conscience got the better of us and we stayed with close friends tripping the light fantastic with a huge bottle of vodka as the bride stumbled around like a crazy charlatan!
2008 saw our dreams and our future crash and burn. We were hollow inside and out. Chris dealt with it by holding me close and grabbing the reins with both hands. He busied himself with work - running safaris, the crew, the logistics and our life kept him focused. I tried to hold it together emotionally and physically, but some days our life beat the living hell out of me. To begin with we spent many evenings hanging out, watching movies, eating good food and trying to get a handle on what had happened. We spoke of Ella often and gradually began to heal, just a little. I remember being told that the first year of loosing someone is the hardest, mainly because it’s a year of firsts – 1st birthday, 1st anniversary, 1st Christmas and the 1st of many memories.
Maybe it is the hardest, maybe it isn’t, but I know we looked towards 2009 with a twinkle of hope. Unbeknown to us then the African drums in the distance began to beat a dark and heavy path to our door.