The Story Of You
Photograph by CJ Clarke, Story by Rebecca Stonehill
You. Is it possible to love a person before they are born, before they are conceived, before they are even a whispered hush in the corner of a dark, warm night? I believe so, because I loved you before all of that. I loved the future shape of you. Why? Because I loved your mother. Not just the physical presence of her, but her very essence. I loved her inside out.
So when you came along, a tiny bird of a bundle with the startled cries of an egret, I wondered if a heart could break from too much happiness. That night, frost misted up the windows into tiny stars and the odd, leftover Christmas carol could be heard on a strain of the cold wind that blew beneath the door.
I was prouder than I thought possible, carrying your tiny form in a blanket while your mother slept, heavy-lidded with exhaustion. You looked like a wise old elf, a frown puckering your forehead and your bow lips pursed shut as though you were guarding the world’s greatest secret.
Your cries ceased and your limbs stretched. You grew, your mother and I two benign, watchful moons orbiting your existence as you skipped through your school days and were propelled through your teenage years. We stood at a distance and watched your despair as the ﬁrst girl you gave your heart to ﬂung it back, placing palms against your bedroom door as your heartbreak seeped like a wound beneath the door. And then there was the pull of college and the dance of confusion of which course to choose.
Through it all, you were always our child. Our son. But then, you found out. It was only a matter of time, of course. For years, we thought sixteen was a good age, but by then you were in the throes of GCSE’s and we didn’t want to heap more stress on you. Alright, eighteen, we decided. But by then you were so buoyed up by leaving school and planning jaunts with your friends, and that opportunity slipped past too. But the intention was there: we’d always meant to tell you.
My sentence was handed to me at the tender age of seventeen: seminoma germ cell tumour, the polite way of putting it. In other words: testicular cancer. My father’s face was ashen and my mother fumbled in her handbag for a tissue, not meeting my eye and asking the doctor But he will be able to have children one day, won’t he?How could I know back then they were already mourning the grandchildren that might never come? And I was so young, full of life and optimism and as I looked at my parents’ stricken faces, I couldn’t share their grief. All I knew was that I was going to get better and still had a long life to live. And I did get better. Just one year after surgery and a single dose of chemo, I was given the all clear, celebrating alongside O Level results. The fact that I’d never be a father meant little to me.
But that changed, of course. I wasn’t sure at what stage I’d tell your mother: too early and I’d scare her oﬀ, too late and I’d risk her fury. So I told her on that sunlit day, the longest day of the year on the beach in Norfolk with the endless light, pebbles and sky. Two wine glasses, a bottle of sparkling wine and a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. What should come ﬁrst? The bombshell or the proposal? I’d never felt more nervous in my life; sick to the stomach. Bombshell, I thought. Thatmust come ﬁrst, so she still has a chance to run.
But when I told her, she didn’t run. Far from it. She cupped my face in her hands and kissed me deeply. I still remember the way her chestnut hair fell across her face and I smoothed it back. It’s okay, she told me. It’s alright. I wanted to sob with gratitude and relief, but I didn’t. I took a deep breath and drew the box out, praying the ring I’d been saving for would ﬁt.
It did. And we lay on our backs on the pebbles, your mother and I, hands clasped and smiled up into the wide sky.
As your mother’s belly swelled and your tiny comma shape grew, I felt you move and kick and turn somersaults with unbridled joy.
You found the documents at the bottom of a box in the shed when you were looking for something one college holiday. And you just left, driving oﬀ, never saying what you’d seen. Four days later you messaged your mother, both of us sick with worry, those two words which sent us reeling: I know.
You wouldn’t call us, see us, speak to us. Nothing. Your mother cried a lot, locked in the guilt of knowing we should have told you. And me? I walked barefoot around the garden at dawn, cold dew creeping between my toes, and everywhere I went, everything I looked at, I was reminded of you and the pain of possibility that I may have lost you forever.
So when you ﬁnally wrote a letter eight months later and said you wanted to talk, your mother and I wove our ﬁngers together, lay our heads on one another’s shoulders and cried. We didn’t know what you’d say, but it was a start. You said you’d be at the petrol station bus stop at a certain time and could we collect you?
‘I’ll go,’ I said.
‘You sure?’ Your mother ran a ﬁnger down my cheek.
Pulling the car in, I saw the familiar, beautiful outline of you step away from the bus shelter and start turning towards me. The sperm donor may have been the biological father, but the emotion I felt searing my soul could only be a father’s love. My son. You.
Rebecca Stonehill is the author of The Poet's Wife, The Girl and the Sunbird and The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale. She lives in Norfolk with her husband and three children. You can find her here @bexstonehill