In the playground, with my son, it's a lovely sunny day, as he plays contentedly on the swing. We are joined by a mother and her toddler-aged daughter after nursery-school. The little girl is beautiful - laughing and smiling, fiercely independent - pushing her Mum away, wanting to prove her abilities alone. She climbs to the top of the slide, and then changes her mind about her independence, calling for her Mummy. I watch them slide down together, the child on her Mum's knee, blissfully giggling
The child walks with a gait; her feet are clubbed.
Holly's feet were clubbed.
Behind my sunglasses, my eyes stream with tears. I hide them: I have become an expert. The mum introduces herself, and I like her a lot. She is friendly, eloquent and easygoing. I am enjoying her company, but my mouth is dry. The playground is spinning, and I am unable to swallow. I recognise the signs of an oncoming panic attack, but I try to suppress it. I do not wish to cause offence. I cannot explain to a woman I just met, that her daughter is making me cry with envy.
Part of me wants to know the cause of her clubbed feet. I want to discuss it with her, but I equally don't want her to think that I consider her daughter to be anything less than perfect. I cannot find the words. Part of me wants to blurt out the story of the last year of my life. But it's irrelevant because by now, I cannot speak; I am struggling to breathe. Perhaps it is a blessing that I am unable to make conversation. In the event that this beautiful little girl shares Holly's condition, I know that I will find myself uncontrollably screaming.
The child falls over. My son rushes to pick her up. He comforts her, putting his arms around her. My jaw is clenched. I try not to scream.There are moments when I catch a glimpse of how my life could have been. Reminders of an alternative world, in which she might have lived.
In my mind, there are two versions of my little girl - my daughter - who lives on in my imagination. There is the version I pictured throughout pregnancy. The daughter I imagined from childhood. The baby who should have been born in February, kicking and screaming, bearing a different name. Brought into the world through a home birth, celebrated with bubbly. Healthy, chubby, and sharing so many of her facial features with my son. She would have been four months old, now, adored by her big brother. I find her in my son's baby photos, and in the dreams I had for her. In the small box of new baby clothes I'd bought for her (still untouched, brand new with tags), and in the pram that is folded away in the cupboard - unboxed, but unused.
That version was fantasy. She never existed, though I wasn't to know it. I loved the notion of her, the future I planned for her, the anticipation of who she might become. But she was never destined to be.
Then there is the version that is closer to reality. The poorly little girl born too soon, named for the timing of her premature Christmas birth. Imperfectly perfect, she would be six months old this week. The visions I have when I imagine my daughter Holly had she lived, range from a life spent on a hospital ward, unable to move, eat or breathe... to the little girl in the park, barely inhibited. The real version of my daughter was just as loved as the expected one.
As time goes on, reminders of the first version of my daughter - the healthy little girl I believed I was carrying - become fewer, as she slips further from my reality. At the start of this journey, I grieved for the future I'd pictured. Every baby, every bump, was a painful reminder of what I'd lost. But I no longer suffer that jolt back to reality simply from walking past the baby aisle in the supermarket. I am now able to genuinely congratulate others on their pregnancies and new babies without resentment. I am no longer jealous of those other babies. Other babies are not her. And she was unique.
But sometimes, at unexpected moments, I catch a glimpse of who she might have been, if her illness had allowed her to live. This version feels closer to the truth, and as such, when those moments strike me, it takes my breath away. I grieve all over again for the loss of my beautiful little girl - exactly as she was.