Edna lives just off the M4 in a tiny brick bungalow with a wheelchair ramp. I crawled to her front door. I didn’t knock; I went straight in and put my head on her knee, pushing the Zimmer frame out of the way. And I cried, and she was still and kind and said: “I think you will always miss him. You lost your son, dear.”
On the way to Edna’s I’d had to pull the car over so the animal in me could thrash the air and grope for my dead baby – a primal scream against the loss, the regret and the pain of it all. The burden shifted marginally, briefly almost felt manageable, when I arrived at her house.
Edna is a 102-year-old widowed former servant. She is one of six centenarian women I got to know while working on a book. Now extremely old, most sit back on life, observing and listening, a wealth of female experience folded up inside their frail bodies. As a 42-year-old writer and (occasional) TV presenter, with a nine-year-old daughter and a husband, I had presumed I would be the one looking after them. But they ended up looking after me.
Loyal Edna had been watching me on Coast. “I saw you the other night,” she said. “I wondered if that was the one you were pregnant in.”
There I was, on cloud nine (a pretty trippy place, as it happens), beaming at the camera and talking about a special bit of British coastline before vomiting over the side of an inflatable dinghy. Me, the girl (woman, rather) who at 41 had won the lottery of life and got a longed-for bun in the oven thanks to IVF.
Edna knew all this. She knew everything, because the first time we were due to meet, eight months earlier (on New Year’s Eve 2015) in the Wiltshire village of Wroughton, I had to stand her up. I was having an 11-week miscarriage (also following IVF).
“Well, dear, that is sad news,” she told me back then. “You must take good care of yourself. I shall look forward to seeing you when you feel better.”
I was grateful for Edna’s reassurance and sympathy. I meant it when I told her I was sorry not to be there.
It was two more months before we could meet in person. I sat on her faded carpet for the first time and heard about life as a live-in servant at the age of 14 (there was little hope of anything better after her dad died when Edna was four). “You see, I didn’t like being in service. I was owned, really.”
I thought of my own childhood in the 70s and 80s. My mother, arms akimbo, standing on the landing, staring down at her defiant daughter and telling me: “Darling, the world is your oyster. You can do whatever you like!” I grew up energised by the rash of possibilities that were finally available to young women. Edna shook her head: such bravado and self-belief were unimaginable.
“No, I never had any children. I wasn’t married in time and you couldn’t have children if you weren’t married.” She leaned over and touched my knee. “Are you feeling better? I’ve been crossing all my fingers and toes ever since your sad news.” So I told her that I did feel better after the miscarriage and that I was ready to try again. To my surprise, Edna nodded. She grew up without choice, but she did not begrudge me mine. “Well, I shall keep praying for you.”
Whether it was the power of Edna’s prayers or a sheer fluke (I suspect the latter), the second round of IVF worked. The 12-week scan was surely one of the best days of my life.
“Guess what, Edna. I’m pregnant – properly pregnant!”
“Oooh, how lovely, dear. I am pleased.” I could tell she really was.
Now, two months later, my head was on Edna’s knee and I was crying. My baby had died of listeriosis, a rare infection caused by bacteria called listeria. I had eaten something I shouldn’t have. Grief was leaking out of me.
Edna sat and listened, her calm buffering my pain. Then she told me about one of her few living relatives, a niece. “Oh, I love Carolyn. She was an only child, you know. My brother and his wife had a terrible time trying for another.” I tried to imagine having a late miscarriage 70 years ago. If things go wrong, mother nature gets ugly. “Oh, back then people died at any age. Yes, there was a lot of death.”
I visited Edna a lot after the baby died (and 101-year-old Helena, in Brecon, who told me: “I was one of eight. My mother had at least one miscarriage and lost a child. It’s very hard to lose a child at any age”).
When they told me in the hospital that they couldn’t find a heartbeat, I heard myself say, “But I have a book to write.” I knew the small dead person in my stomach would be hard to come back from. For months it felt impossible.
I rang Ann, 103, in Richmond upon Thames to explain I was in hospital and not in her house, as I should have been. We met while I was still pudgy and sad. Ann, a discreet woman, proved harder to reach than Edna and Helena, but it was worth the wait. A talented art publisher, she married late. I wondered if it was difficult being single in the baby-boomer 50s.
“Yes, it could be painful. But that was my private concern.”
She has been a widow for over 30 years, coping daily with a giant loss of her own, but Ann didn’t dismiss my pain; instead she addressed it head-on. “I know no rational discussion helps,” she wrote to me in her handsome hand. “Rationality just doesn’t apply.” She then gently nudged me in the right direction. “I had a friend; we found when life gave us knocks or when disappointment hit us, she restored and sustained herself by learning something new, and I by making something new. Worth a try?” I kept the letter in my bag for weeks, smoothing it out and marvelling at its perfect pitch. How different from so many jarring “consolation” comments. “You’re lucky to have your daughter.” “It just wasn’t meant to be.” “Why did you leave it so long?”
Olive, 102, came from British Guiana in 1952; by 1953 she had miscarried twins alone in a London boarding house. When she heard my news, she called me and wailed. She relived her pain and in doing so relieved mine.
Mid-war, Phyllis, then 23, gave birth to a baby who died after a few days. She was miles from her Indian home, living with unforgiving new Presbyterian in-laws in Edinburgh. “Ach, you had to thole it. It’s an old Scottish word. I had to be tough, tough.” She still is. I made a mental note that I wanted to be more like 100-year-old Phyllis.
A classicist and honorary fellow of Newnham College Cambridge, 99-year-old Joyce never had a husband. “In those days if you got married you had to give up your job, and I didn’t want to do that.” She grew up in a world where girls knew they couldn’t have everything. But, having worked with students most of her life, she is not naive about the challenges that women face today. Like Ann, Joyce is a letter writer. “I am so sorry,” she wrote to me, “and can only say when I have had troubles (nothing like yours, though), I have always found that it helped to get back to work – starting with an hour a day and building up to eight or, eventually, 10.”
Throughout 2017 I rolled the dice a few more times, hoping for fertility’s equivalent of a double six. I visited all of the women frequently during that year, sometimes on IVF drugs, sometimes masking my disappointment. Occasionally, I cried. The visits were high points in my calendar. Two years after that first call to Edna, I was back where I began, sitting on her floor in Wroughton, reading extracts from the book I’d written about these women. During a chapter featuring babies I looked up and told Edna that I wouldn’t be doing any more IVF. I was OK now – the sadness had tucked itself up; at last it felt smaller and more manageable. And I thanked her for being a friend and for never saying the wrong thing. “That’s right, dear,” she said. “You’ll always miss him a little bit, but you can’t worry about what you don’t have in life.”