What can you do
When your mother states
"You're on the shelf,
Past your sell-by-date"? ... [+]
My mother taught me to knit.
Back then, knitting was a necessity, not some artisan craft like it is today. She would get patterns from women's magazines and cheap wool from the market. She knitted my clothes—sweaters, cardigans, even skirts. I was the eldest. As soon as I could hold a pair of needles, I was knitting bootees for my baby brother and sister.
I got married in 1969, when you could buy wool in every colour that you could imagine. I was eighteen, but I already knew how to keep a house. Calum worked long hours, keen to get on in his career and be a good provider. I had a part-time job in our local greengrocers. In the evenings, we'd sit by the fire in our terraced house. It was before we had a television, so we'd talk about the future, about the children that we'd have. I'd knit and he'd do the crossword in the newspaper. I knitted tank tops for him to wear to work—he had a different one for every day of the month. Years later, he admitted that the other juniors teased him about his knitwear. But my Calum was hard worker, and the teasing stopped when he kept getting promoted.
Calum was already a manager by the time I fell pregnant. Lucky that he had enough tank tops, because as soon as I started to show I stopped knitting for him. I bought some new wool, all soft pastel yellow and lilac, and started knitting for the baby. My friends said it was bad luck to knit for the baby too soon, but I wanted to be ready.
I thought I must be carrying a boy, a footballer judging by the kicking. Calum was very modern; he liked to lie by my side with his hand on my bump, feeling every movement. The basket I kept in the new nursery soon filled with clothes—judging by the size of the bump he was going to be a whopper. I started getting nervous about giving birth, but the midwife said I was young and had nothing to worry about.
The kicking stopped when I was thirty-seven weeks.
I remember that night—I slept for eight hours, my longest sleep since I fell pregnant. I woke up rested and, for a minute, everything seemed fine, but my bump did not wake up with me. I begged for my baby to start kicking again, but he was still. The hospital induced the birth, I had to go through it, but they knew it was all for nothing. I caught a glimpse of him before they wrapped him in a towel and swept him away. He looked so perfect, like he was sleeping. I wanted to hold him, but they said it was better for me not to see him, to move on quickly; a strong young girl like me could try again soon enough, these things happened.
There was no death certificate because he had never lived. Yet in our hearts, he was always Leo, due in August, our fierce little lion who almost made it.
We carried our grief out of the hospital door and swaddled it with our hopes in the little basket of baby clothes I'd knitted. I burned them all.
Of course, we tried again and within the year we had a beautiful baby girl; two years later, our son was born. I stopped knitting. Honestly, who has time to knit with two young children and a husband working all hours?
Late at night, though, I'd hear Calum sobbing quietly beside me and knew he'd never got over losing Leo, just as I'd never got over the feeling that my knitting had cursed our firstborn. There was no emery board that could remove the festering hangnail of our buried grief.
Calum lived long enough to walk his daughter down the aisle and to stand shoulder to shoulder with his son when he was wed. When our first grandchild was born, I realised that I had not seen Calum smile like that since the day I first fell pregnant, and our future had sparkled with undimmed hope.
I brooded on it after Calum's funeral, how his poor heart had flexed with grief and joy, like the metal fatigue in those planes that crashed, destroyed by a hidden stress.
It was then I decided to tell my children about Leo. They didn't know, you see, because we didn't talk about those things back then. They were... surprising. They cried, but with relief, they said they had always felt there was something, someone, missing. We had Leo's name carved onto Calum's headstone and I started to knit again.
I live with my daughter now. I have a lovely apartment with plenty of space for my comfy recliner chair. I have everything I need, a TV, my knitting needles and a pile of wool given to me by kind donors. It's all colours and textures, but that doesn't matter. Once I picked up the needles again, my fingers remembered the old patterns, so I can sit here watching my favourite shows while I make babygro's, bootees, and cute berets to keep the babies' heads warm.
My daughter knocks on my door.
"Mum, the driver's here."
"That's fine, love, I've got a load ready for him."
I hand her a neatly wrapped box. The label says, "Knitting for Leo," along with a charity registration number. This batch is going to our local hospital, but I send parcels to maternity units all over the country. You see, Leo's charity got quite big once my daughter mentioned it on the internet. We must have over a hundred volunteer knitters now, each with their own sad tale to tell.
I knit tiny clothes that would fit a doll, or a baby born too soon and too still. I finish each little outfit with a ribbon and put it in the basket by my side. I imagine how parents will take these tiny clothes and dress their stillborn babies. They will hold their precious bodies, take photographs. In that moment, the quiet infants will become part of their families forever.
I raise a cup of tea to the dead who never lived.