My Fur Baby
I always expected there to be another baby. From the moment the boys were born, in the back of my mind was the idea that someday they would have a sister. I attribute this expectation to a childhood fantasy, where I was actually the naughty little sister to two rambunctious, smart, cheeky older brothers. Twin brothers, as it happens. Leave aside the fact that the fantasy brothers’ names were Sebastian and Pierre (this being what the hunky male dancers in my ballet school stories were named). Leave aside the fact that Billy was never a huge proponent of the “more babies” approach to family life. Gloss over the lack of sufficient money, time or space for a large brood. Pretend that sod’s law wouldn’t have blessed me with twin boys again. There was a plan, and the plan was called Josie Boyle.
Josie would have been arriving into our world right about now. Right when the boys were settled at school, when Billy and I had got married, and when at least a few nights a week were unbroken by the wail of a little voice. Just before the Nuisance declared itself, my negotiations with Billy over Plan Josie had come to fruition. He was signed up. I had even begun to talk to Isaac and Oscar about the idea of a baby (Isaac was keen, Oscar thought she would cry all the time and break his toys. Wise little Oscar). And then Plan Josie, like all of my plans, was violently de-railed.
With the Nuisance came a surge of panicked guilt. How could I possibly have been so irresponsible as to have children? Suddenly the whole exercise of parenthood seemed fraught, and I couldn’t believe people did it so nonchalantly, every day, when they might just die at any moment. The idea of having more children whom I might leave motherless seemed feckless lunacy. Then my treatment started, and I discovered that chemotherapy would probably fry my reproductive system or push me into menopausal hot flushes before my time. The doctors said probably, not definitely. And they said I could freeze some eggs, but that would have slowed the whole chemo caboodle down. And anyway, even if I successfully knocked the Nuisance out of the park, I’d still have five long years before the all clear, by which time I’d be 40-odd. Goodness knows what would still be functioning down there by then. So, Plan Josie became Josie the baby ghost. A little girl who grows older only in a parallel world, the kind you find by accident at the back of a wardrobe, or through a crease in time. I think about her fondly, warmly, without tears. It is as if she is true and real, just somewhere else. She is little moon-faced Boyle child with brown hair and blue eyes, though obviously she would have inherited my love of stories. I see us in our other world visiting the Costume Museum in Bath together, exploring the collected novels of Jean Plaidy and comparing our most favourite historical heroines over a slice of Victoria sponge (mine: Elizabeth I. Hers: Hillary Clinton. Or more likely, Kate Middleton).
But though somewhere Josie and I are playing happily with my old Sindy house, when I return through the wormhole to this world I feel sad. Sad for all that should be but isn’t, and sadder still for the half-hope I still carry that someday she will exist, and for everything else that would mean for us.
I remind myself that I am one of the lucky ones, and that there will be people reading this who would kill for what I have. Half the fantasy: healthy and rambunctious twin boys who are the centre of my world (even if I might not be in their world for as long as I should be). There are people whose cancer treatment will mean that even if they survive, they will struggle to be able to have children – like this beautiful American blogger. There are people with diseases explained and unexplained who can’t conceive (on which, I can ardently recommend Hilary Mantel’s memoir and the stories she tells of her own lost little girl). There are people who can’t conceive, and those who conceive and miscarry, little balls of cells and hope dropping out of them over and over again. I don’t know how they have the strength to keep trying, to keep hoping that somehow the next time will be different. But they do, because sometimes all you can do is put one foot in front of the other and leave space in your life for the thing with feathers.
So whilst I mourn Josie and all she stands for, I remain grateful for what I have. Which brings me on to Baxter. Another element of the Life Plan was to grow old with a hound at my feet, some silky ears to stroke, a furry sibling for the children. Josie may be a dream, but I could still bring a little fur baby home. As I write he sleeps next to me, legs splayed and tummy bared, eyes twitching as he chases rabbits in some wild dream. He farts softly, yet pungently. Baxter is a vote for now. Never before have so many hopes and fears been vested in so runty a puppy! He is here because whilst the future is uncertain, the present has to be lived, and he makes our present better. I have been surprised by the strength of my feelings for him. I am passionately attached to his pathetic little form. I crumble inside when he cries at night, my maternal bones quiver with the ecstatic realisation that he NEEDS me. I stop myself from puppy-wearing (I’ve still got that sling somewhere, surely?) and I make sure Oscar and Isaac don’t feel overlooked by this new infatuation. I feel a new completeness at night when Billy, Baxter and I snuggle on the sofa for Homeland. But this happiness makes me uneasy. I feel sure I have tempted fate by selfishly bringing him into our world. What if I can’t be his human forever?
My words go up, my thoughts remain below. My best self tells me that all I have is now, and now is to be lived joyously. Compromising on life would be criminal. But my desire to carpe diem tussles endlessly with dark thoughts about the future, with a sadness that preoccupies me and takes so many forms, one of which is the absence of a small girl called Josie.