Charlie had been exposed to death and grief all her life. To all in the outside world she was an only child. But to Charlie herself she was the eldest child of a large family, it was just that her siblings were deceased. You see her mother had experienced many miscarriages. It was unknown whether they were boys or girls. Mother had never seen them; they were whisked away at birth and not spoken about again. Everyone knew that Mother had experienced these miscarriages although they were never discussed. Charlie was aware of this situation, but no matter how she tried, Mother would not talk about these children. She would tell Charlie “It was a long time ago, it doesn’t matter any more,I have you.” Charlie didn’t buy this, she knew deep down that her mother didn’t believe this either. She knew that her mother would not be at peace until she knew where her children were buried, whether they were boys or girls; they had their own identity and were named.
Charlie had immersed herself in family history, she was learning about her past through saved documents and the state library. She shifted her focus; she did some research on the protocols around miscarriage and stillbirths in the 1970’s. It seemed that these births were not registered, nor were the deaths, there were no funerals and all arrangements were made by the hospital. These babies were gathered together and buried in large unmarked mass graves. Oft times the bodies were cremated by the hospital and god only knows what happened to their ashes. Charlie was mortified by this. How could a life be so unceremoniously disposed of, these were peoples’ children? She tried to talk to her mother, but her response was always the same. “That was how it was done back then.” Charlie was exasperated, how could she explain to her mother that this was not just about her, it affected Charlie as well. She tried to talk to her father, the response was not dissimilar to her mother’s response, although he did try to explain why her mother had taken this particular stance. “It is painful for her, it was a difficult time for both of us, but especially for your mother. You have to understand, she will let you in, in her own time.”
Charlie continued with her research and was distressed to find that the experience of her mother was echoed by many thousands of women. It was only in recent times that mothers, fathers in fact families were encouraged to see and hold their baby, to name the child, to create memories, albeit painfully sad ones. They were encouraged to hold funeral services or similar ceremonies. Photos, handprints and footprints were taken and given to the parents as keepsakes. As she continued her research she found that that these births and deaths were now registered, although there were some clear regulations. For a birth to be registered the child must be of a minimum 20 weeks gestation or of a minimum weight of 400grams. If the child was born at any stage and drew breath then the birth was registered as a matter of course. So complex were these regulations, they seemed to Charlie to be black and white, there were no shades of grey.
Her mother wouldn’t discuss this research with her, she felt that Charlie had an unhealthy obsession with death. So like many times before she swept it under the carpet and didn’t discuss it. As time went by Charlie became more and more aware of this, to the point that her once open relationship with her mother had become pained and difficult. Over the years she grew further and further apart from her mother, she never gave up hope that one day she would be able to locate her siblings.
Her father called her late one night to let her know that her mother had been admitted to hospital. He was very quiet when he said “Charlie, you know she’s dying?” “I know, I’m sorry.” Charlie said, not knowing what else to say. She made arrangements to meet him in the morning and visit with her Mother.
She went to the hospital unsure of what state her mother might be in. She held a small posy of flowers, somewhat like that which a young child might gather for their mother. Charlie entered behind her father, as if he would protect her from whatever it was that she was about to see. Her mother was dwarfed by the hospital bed, she seemed to Charlie to be so much smaller than she had ever been. Her colour mirrored the white bed sheets. Charlie’s father approached his wife, bending to kiss her brow and whispered words that only they could hear. He straightened up and made some excuse to leave the room.
Charlie approached the edge of the bed, placing the posy on the side table, she pulled a chair close to the side of the bed. She kissed her mother’s cheek and clasped her frail hand in her own. Charlie sat with tears rolling down her cheeks, dropping from her chin and splashing onto her bare knees. Her mother spoke in a whisper, which Charlie had to strain to hear. “Don’t cry honey, its nearly time for me to go , but I have some things that I need to tell you, some things you need to know.” She took a breath and continued. “There is not a day goes by that I don’t think of my children … all of my children.” Charlie knew that this was difficult for her mother to voice, but it was what she was had been waiting for years to hear. It was true her mother had never forgotten, she just never spoke of them. Charlie’s father returned, she thought she would give them some time together and so she left them, going down to the garden. She sat on a bench in the sun, it was springtime so the flowers were all in bloom and birds chirped. She noticed a raven flying overhead, it circled and perched in a nearby tree.
A nurse came bustling through the door, she spoke quickly. “Charlie, are you Charlie?” Charlie nodded, the nurse continued, “You must come quickly, your mother …”Charlie did not listen to what came next she was through the door and headed towards her mothers room. Her father was clutching mothers hand and tears streamed down his face. Charlie knew that as soon as she entered the room that her mother had died. She went straight to the window. She looked down upon the garden, looking for the tree where she had seen the raven perch just minutes ago. The raven was gone, she knew then that it had come to bear her mothers’ soul away. She returned to her fathers’ side and tried to console him. He was calm as he said “It is okay, she knew her time had come, she was at peace. She gave me a message for you Char, she said that one day you will have your answers.” Charlie too was in tears as she bent to kiss her mother.
Charlie and her father left the hospital together and she took him home and prepared some dinner. He said he wasn’t hungry, Charlie ignored him and prepared the meal. Over dinner they discussed plans for the funeral. Charlie was surprised to learn that her mother had organised the funeral service herself and the plans were set. There was little for Charlie and her father to do. She spent the night and made arrangements to stay with her father until after the funeral at least. Within the week her mother was laid to rest.
Slowly Charlie spent less and less time at her parents’ home, visiting with her father and more time getting back to her research. One afternoon she arrived home to find a parcel notification from the post office. She checked, it was only 4pm, she still had time to get to the post office. Charlie couldn’t think what the parcel might be she hadn’t been expecting anything. As she waited in the queue, Charlie became more and more intrigued. It was her turn next, when the booth was free she presented her notification card. The woman took the card disappearing into a back room. She returned a short time later with a large bulky parcel and an official looking book. She deposited the parcel on the counter in front of Charlie and said rather officiously, “We require identification and a signature.” Charlie fumbled in her purse and presented her drivers license, she signed the appropriate space in the book and she was free to take her parcel and go.
She sat in the car looking at the parcel sitting on the passenger seat, it was bulky, but Charlie had no idea what it was. She could not wait to get home so that she could open it. She sat at the dining table the parcel in front of her, it had been posted locally, but there was no return addressed. There was only one way to find out what it contained. Charlie tore at the brown paper packaging to reveal a manila folder and a smaller parcel, again wrapped in brown paper. Charlie opened the folder to find a letter clipped to the front, the tears started falling as she read:
Please find attached your medical records as requested.
If we can be of any further assistance, please contact us.
Charlie turned her attention to the smaller parcel, her tears flowing freely now. A leaf of paper fluttered to the floor, she left the parcel to retrieve the paper. It was a note in her mother’s hand.
My Dearest Charlie,
I hope these papers and my notebook are helpful
to further your research. Please know that I never
intentionally kept information from you.
Love Mum xxx
This was probably the last selfless act that her mother had committed before her death. Charlie now held before her, the answers. Rather than delving into the papers with her usual fervor, she bundled them up and placed them in her filing cabinet. She needed the answers, but there was time enough to get those answers.
© Megan Warren 1/9/2005