Season 3, 003: What's the most difficult question you've ever asked - or had to answer? One where you felt your whole world depended on it...
Hello — this is my first submission. Many thanks to you Tanya for your unwavering encouragement!
I sat hunched and small, a fizzing bundle of self-hatred and yearning, a 22-year old woman in the front passenger seat of a small muddy Peugeot. Dusk spring skies darkened quickly. A sole blackbird chanted dutifully, highlighting the yawning silences between our words.
He spoke softly.
“But — do you not love me anymore?”
It had taken me months to get to this point. A slow process of noticing, feeling, knowing. Wishing otherwise.
It would be years before I would experience my own trust, my own heart, broken. But somehow I sensed it: that this was the worse side of the deal. That doing the breaking is worse.
My heartbeat was doing strange things. Speeding and slowing. My neck ached from cowed posture. I gazed up at the empty terrace in front of the car, felt my thumb rubbing against the fabric of the seat, searching for familiarity, reassurance.
I inhaled slowly, silently, and considered his question.
And considered what was beneath it. What was really being asked, by both of us, was not of love but: where do we go from here? Is this the end? Can we carry on, even if we want to?
I loved him, but that was beside the point, and I didn’t understand why. All I knew was the tight itch in the centre of my chest was whispering leave, go, stretch. This isn’t for you anymore.
So much about my life depended on what I said next. Oh, the vertiginous height of a binary decision. And right before I spoke I felt the weight of all that I knew I would eventually be brave enough to give up: the supportive family, the home to escape to, the friendship group. First love’s gentle adoration and sharp fierceness. Its history powerful, but not quite enough.
We're huddled under a blanket, by a fire. I am drunk. My friend hugs me, strokes my hair.
"You always ask me that when you're drunk", she says. "Of course I will. Of course".
My friend is a hairdresser. The thing I always ask her when I'm drunk is "Will you do my daughter's hair for her wedding?". My daughter is 8, is 12, is 15...I've been asking this for years.
Sometimes we have cried when I ask this question. Sometimes we've laughed as well. We cry because we don't think I'll make it to that wedding. We cry because what I'm really asking is "Will you be there for her? Will you have tissues in your bag in case she needs them? Will you hug her and tell her she looks beautiful? That she is beautiful? That she is loved?".
I am lucky. I've been here longer than anybody expected. My health rollercoasts a little, but my body never gets back to where it was. The cancer is slow - so slow - but implacable.
I'm about to restart chemotherapy, so this is raw. It's hard to write.
Of course, I'm not just asking about a wedding, I'm asking about mothering. Who will mother my children? I recruit friends, relatives. Now they're old enough I try to help them mother themselves, and each other. Sometimes I think they're better at it than I am.
Like some others this is my first submission so adding my thanks for the support and encouragement. I feel quite nervous and exposed. I'm new to Substack too so haven't read many other contributions yet - I wanted to stop myself from going to comparison and judgement before I'd written anything so I'm really looking forward to doing some reading now....
That autumn everything changed. The summer had been strange, foreboding somehow. We’d been to Bournemouth to visit my grandparents – my mother, my sister and me. Mum was strange, unpredictable, her tongue lashed, her skin was grey, eyes dull. I didn’t think too much about any of this at the time. I was 14 and my teenage angst had little to do with Mum and her mood.
September came. Back to boarding school - the usual gut wrenching, punch of homesickness; existence made bearable by twice weekly letters from home. But now her writing sloped, words falling off the page, thoughts and pen dropping to the floor.
“I’m having a little trouble with my arm and leg – nothing to worry about.”
And for a while I believed her. My mind was full of dreams, of plans, of boys and books.
I’m lying in my bed, in my dormitory. January 1972 – the miners are on strike, power cuts, gloom, and a growing chill – sensations of aloneness and foreboding I’m coming to know well. There’s frost on the windows. Christmas has been and gone. I’d been home for the holidays. Mum is wearing a caliper now and a wig. She can’t drive or walk more than a few steps. Her head hurts and nothing is said.
Her letters have stopped. I’m scared and full of dread. I write a letter to Dad. He’s coming to see me. “At last I’ll know”, I say at first, but inwardly my body trembles.
I’m cold, freezing cold and my tummy churns. Dad is here now. His eyes fill with tears, and I know the answer. I squeeze my nails into my palms until it hurts. I must be brave. I must not cry. I must be good.
“What’s the matter with Mum?”
‘Do you have children?’
Just like that. Anywhere and everywhere.
People will ask me this question even before they ask me my name. Without any warning and without giving me the chance to avoid the subject. I brace myself for it almost every day, although the grief is settling into that familiar feeling I know will become part of me and I will just have to learn to live with. But I can still feel my heart tightening, my body tensing up, the mask setting and my face contorting into disarming ugliness (I caught sight of myself in a mirror once and I was shocked) because I am still smiling. Most people do not seem to notice or, if they do, it’s too late, we will have to run through the awkward motions and see the conversation through. I have considered making up answers and making it easier for me and the other person, and I am becoming bolder so maybe I will: ‘yes, a little boy’, ‘yes, yes, I do – five-year-old twin girls’, ‘yes, three teenagers currently living with their father in Vietnam’. Instead, I wish I could tell them how not having children has heightened my fear of death for example. I do not want anyone’s pity or sympathy though, and I most certainly do not want my childness to define me. But I would prefer to continue to be honest and I do reserve myself the right to make it clear that, no, it has not been a choice I have been given the chance to make. Think twice before you ask the question next time, I always want to say. Give it time. Because the answer may very well be the same as mine:
‘No. Sadly not. And I find it heartbreaking to talk about it.’
Thank you, Tanya, for encouraging me to contribute, and for writing such a phenomenal book in The Cure for Sleep! This is my first submission.
That deepest unspoken fear of mine: a seizure during sleep, and being found in the morning, dead in bed, haunted me. I have been scared to think wild thoughts in case it tipped my mind into riotous colour. Seeing sounds, chewing lips. I’d known for years before I had a diagnosis that there was something unusual.
I asked my neurologist gingerly, unable to keep the wobble from my voice: ‘When it feels like I am dying, am I really dying?’
Voicing the question that had privately troubled me for 15 years.
He was young-ish, probably about my own age, and he looked at my notes instead of at me. He paused, put down his pen and swallowed awkwardly in that magnolia-coloured box of a room we were in together.
‘No,’ he said carefully. ‘You’re not dying. Your brain just thinks you are.’
I breathed out for the first time in years and nodded, unspeaking.
He might have been feeding me a comforting lie.
But it he was, it worked.
Anxiety, which had been grabbing me and twisting me into hunched forms, lessened.
I took my fears and began weaving them into the tapestry of my life. Fear lifted for a couple of days or so at first, but then for weeks, until I realised it had been months.
No longer stuffed into a tightly closed box, my epilepsy became something I could speak about.
I let my wild mind untangle and stretch itself out, to create new things.
Ideas, long stifled – if I gave them room to breathe, I worried they would drag me in and damage my brain – were freed.
It left room.
And I grew into that space.
The question was lost in the statement, and found later in the pleading explanation. “I want to die”. The missing conjunction: and will you let me? The parts of this unfinished sentence as broken as she was, as separate as we were. Forced apart by this illness, our communications, emotionally easy but physically impossible, had taken the form of long, intimate, soothing text messages. Today’s had simply said: “Can you speak?”
Well enough to speak, for the first time in two years, this was progress. My heart started going. I didn’t know then that it wouldn’t stop until hers did. I had no time to figure out this feeling. Here was her voice, finally.
“I want to die”
All of a sudden, here we were, so close and so far apart.
I gave her the response that no one else would give. The response her body refused, locked as they were in their daily conflict. The response that went against the instinct and responsibility of any parent or doctor. The response that kept me close to her. I couldn’t have her rally against me as she did with all those hell-bent on keeping her alive. I couldn’t lose her before I had no say in the matter.
In giving her the permission to go, I hoped she might grasp to life. Having her pain and knowing acknowledged might be an act of empowerment, propelling her toward life, instead of away from it. I knew it was a gamble and I had more to lose.
I wonder now if the unsaid question was “Do you know me?” or perhaps “Are you my friend?” On the day she died, I felt special. We’d colluded to this end.
Another newbie here. I've just finished Tanya's book (a timely and much-needed read) and decided to get involved. This is my first submission.
"In the small hours of the night with my willpower expended and the animal heat of my son bundled safely in my arms, I petition Google with incoherent strings of keywords, "poor eye contact ceiling fan hates clapping". The words, which feel like a betrayal, form a kind of spell or instruction sending the search engine’s spiders off crawling the web for the gossamer threads which link the terms. As I scroll through the results (returned too soon as if there was no doubt or reason to hesitate), my heart thumps towards a crescendo and then fades out leaving me feeling transparent; edgeless, "Classic sign of autism in early infancy", "'Red Flags' That Warrant a Referral", "Worried about Autism at early age".
Autism? That word and its question mark echoed through my first year of motherhood. There were signs and I saw them. Undeniable and unequivocal. At first the question was silent. Trapped entirely in the black box of my mind. It felt dangerous to speak the word out loud, as if voicing it might create something where there was nothing.
In the light of day, as I folded my son’s small clothes or offered him spoonfuls of sweet potato purée, this superstitious thinking embarrassed me. Perhaps it was more helpful, more reasonable, to view the status of my son’s neurotype as less of a black cat and more of a Schrödinger’s cat. By keeping the question in mind, unvoiced, I was keeping the lid on the box. My son was both autistic and not. But that too felt like a delusion. Surely cats and brains are either one thing or another? I see now that I was buying myself time. Time to mother in the present, without having to invite in the outside world and its questions."
‘Why are you so quiet Helen?’
A text message at 6.30am. ‘You need to come now’. A stomach lurching awakening. 4 hours to think about 49 years. To reflect on the unsaid, the hurt, the pain, the disappointment. A life. Foot to the floor, a reel of words and memories flashing by. How can I choose? ‘Don’t leave anything unsaid’ they told me. It’s all fucking unsaid. There’s no time now for any of this.
Where will they go, these unspoken words? I don’t want them anymore. I want them to leave with him, for him to own them in his skin but that seems cruel, unnecessary now. I’m driving too fast through a life long tunnel of duty and doing the right thing. It haunts me but it won’t stop the clock. We just aren’t that kind of family.
Death looks uncomfortable. Weird, out of sync. Chaotic sentences, arms twitching. Morphine soothes him but it doesn’t help us witness. His hands are freezing and his finger tips white. I hold his hand as I haven’t done in 40 years. Sliding away. Where does it go, this force, this energy, all these words. Gone in one last long groaning breath then waxy yellow silence.
‘Why are you so quiet Helen?’ was the last question he asked me. It has all stayed inside me until I can find a place to leave it behind.
Amazingly, this is my second submission. Thank you, Tanya, for encouraging me to keep writing!
'Did I say goodbye to you?'
I don’t know, can’t remember. An unsaid moment, a memory unmade.
And yet something precious that I needed to cling to and reassure myself of afterwards. Both as a child and now, fully grown with a daughter the same age as I was. Or perhaps not fully grown…still rootlessly stuck in the past.
I can picture getting up and getting ready for school. Brushing my teeth in the icy bathroom, sharp light filtering through the translucent glass. Stroking our sleepy cat, hastily throwing books into my bag, slurping my breakfast of soggy cereal. All the other ordinary, routine things that morning I remember in detail. But I can’t recall the one thing that really mattered, still matters. It’s haunted me for years.
Friends and family tried to help. You’d have said it automatically, they say, you probably wouldn’t have remembered because it’s something people almost always say without thinking.
But somehow I needed to know that I said it. Such a small word, but with so much significance. I wish I’d given some thought to it just that once. Because it was the last time I would ever see you.
You were standing back to hold the front door open, letting the sunlight in, letting me out. Still in your nightie and dressing gown, tired and careworn because you’d been up all night again. Keeping him company, talking calmly because he couldn’t sleep and the pills still weren’t working. You’d have had to get dressed and head to work soon after I left, ironically leaving him deep asleep on the settee.
I remember reaching the end of the path, stopping and waving back to you. You were smiling at me. I’ve held on to that smile for years.
Tanya, Maybe not the most difficult, but as soon as I heard her on her podcast ask this, this just poured out of me. Even though my kids are young adults and independent and strong, I still get sad thinking I won't be here to cook for them one day. Also, this is work that has come from the octopus writing on longing...so thanks! xx
Sharon Blackie asks: If death came now, what would it look like? Death would be a woman, kind, firm, ethereal, persistent in her longing to take me from the kitchen I longed to remain in. I would ask her for another day, time to cook another meal, load the fridge and freezer, the canning shelves, the crock pot and oven, cupboards stocked full. I would want a lifetime of food cooked for the kids, one more dish to let them know they are loved, soup for comfort, pies for joy, jams for the bread I won’t be there to bake. Death would be both gentle and fierce, this woman in white with full control, reminding me I had my time, it is over, perhaps placing her hand on my heart, telling me I did enough. I long to know I did enough.
Terrible questions. How terrible a question might ever be? It’s the intention and intensity that matters; that sweet spot between a medicine and a poison.
For me the gaps that are left by the unasked ones are much worse. The silence that loaded with mistrust and misunderstanding. Some of them are as big as crevasses high in the mountains and far too uncomfortable to stay around. Others are like sinkholes in a pretty manicured garden with uniformed lawns and perfectly shaped hedges. Dig a tad deeper and you are at risk of unearthing long forgotten lead mine from two centuries ago.
Terrible unasked questions will sentence you to a life of loneliness as deep as those unseen old mines. Small talk and polite manners keep one in one’s place. The place one doesn’t want to belong...
How are you?
I’m fine; kids are Fine; husband’s FIne; we are FINe! FINE! WE ARE ALL FINE…..
Tell me what you’re afraid of.
How to push through the ache of fear that bridles my tongue? How to piece and police the tumble of raw emotions that shunt into my head at every, waking moment? How to know that if spoken, the darkness in my mouth won’t pool, thick like tar and engulf everything I love with the same sticky filth that lives in me now? How to believe that the words aren’t a spell of becoming? How do I say that I am sacrificing myself to save them from what I know and worse, what I don’t know but fear is true? How to trust that this person will know how to save me?
I don’t believe him. I don’t believe in him. He is just a ghost on the margins, while the things in my head are real, glossy and slick with fear, growing fat in the dark of my mouth. There is too much risk. Too much to lose.
My mouth is stitched shut. My teeth bite down on flesh. Blood wells.
I can’t say.
What do you want? I've been pondering this question in this season and here's my contribution. Thanks Tanya for creating this space - I love the reciprocity of writing together in this way. This is my first contribution.
"What do you want?" Olivia asked me over a spontaneous FaceTime catchup.
We talked about our dreams. About how we could cultivate a life we wanted to live.
It was beautiful. We are kindreds, but not by blood.
We spoke about contentment and how we’re still searching for it.
We talked about success and how we're reframing it.
Something was waking up inside each of us. Sparks of electricity flowing between us.
She told me about her idea, Olive Edit - a wardrobe edit for people.
She was tentative. “Friends first and see how it goes.”
I talked about failure and reasoned that maybe I hadn’t failed at all but that I was trying to meet other people’s expectations?
When we spoke, we were fully alive. Her eyes sparkled, mine did too.
"I would love that! I said. "My 7 year old niece, not so quietly, mentioned to me that I wear the same light brown dungaree dress and striped back long sleeve top everyday!"
And it was true.
"I could use a little help. And this is important work.” I said.
“This is about clothes but it’s also about our lives.”
She asked me to begin with 3 words that reflect my values and we would go from there. I know the first one – “Simple,” I said.
By the end of the process she said I would have a wardrobe and I would be happy with every item I have in there. She was confident and I believed her.
“But my husband said that people wouldn't pay for that kind of thing.” I could feel her mood dampening.
“I would pay for that! You’re coming over for a weekend this Summer!”
You have something beautiful to offer. That’s worth pursuing.
This isn’t a sales pitch, it’s about an awakening. Her awakening.
I wish I could bottle it up.
Hi all, hi Tanya
Thank you for the encouragement to revisit this moment. Tiny and momentous, it seemed to be the only real option to take. I still wonder what if though ....
It was a hot summer that year.
From May to August Marie Peters and I walked the canal in Tommy K’s that chafed our ankles, sometimes in Scholls, soon abandoned after too many times of hurt insteps and cramped toes from clinging to their unforgiving support. The pathways turned dusty and brown, the canal, lower than I’d ever seen it forged slowly onward. Choked in weed at parts, host to predatory pike in the bends, and cheerfully inappropriate fishermen on the banks.
Marie and I, friends from junior school but separated by the 11+, somehow found each other during those weeks of limbo, all our previous routine displaced by O’Levels and CSEs, we met to journey together through free falling days. United by the AEB timetables, and a sense of something ending, something beginning.
We laughed about me being woken up by the Deputy Head and taken, in her powder blue jag to sit my Physical Geography exam, a journey that both humiliated and exhilarated me. About Marie’s hatred of the Games Teacher, talented runner that she was, and her pleasure in infuriating them by her refusal to perform to the school’s glory.
We circled, orbiting planets in a moment of conjunction, results day.
Failure of 6 O’Levels for me; I discounted the CSEs they were of no consequence; reasonable results for her, but our mutual disaffection with school, with education, was already set.
We would not return. Marie had a job already as a telephonist receptionist, found for her by her father the caretaker at the local Catholic secondary school. I had been beguiled by an advert for GPO telephonist training,
I would have skill! My parents celebrated, unaware of my abject failure.
Our destinies set, we parted.
Complicit in small horizons and limited choices.
Under the rhodies, sound and light dark-damped. Fusty soil and rot and chlorophyll and—in May—flowers (but those were on the outside of the tunnels and we were within). Do you remember the tunnels, Daddy? Do you remember the smells?
Duckboards wrapped with non-slip chicken-wire. Their song so familiar: ti-clunk ti-clunk ti-clunk. Wellington boots on twisted metal on wood on boggy ground. Do you remember the sound of them, Daddy?
Out. Blinking onto the swan-guarded bank. Lakeside swan-avoidance smells emanate from the glaucous spikes. Minty, but not mint… but… rushes! A smell all of their own. Do you remember the rush-crush, Daddy?
Sweet chestnut stands beyond for prickly lime-green Yule-tide forages. Do you remember those, Daddy?
Furthest point: best bit. Magic sand. Particles of finest silt and clay. Alum Bay colours though it would be years before I’d bring back a bottle from there. Grief-stricken and homesick. Do you remember the sand, Daddy? Do you remember the feel of it under a scribing stick?
Do you remember the old weeping willow watching our lake walks from the far bank, Daddy?
Do you remember the snow on Christmas Day, Daddy? The fern by your desk?
Do you remember Mummy was out, my brother asleep, and I felt poorly so you lifted me.
h into your arms, Daddy? I think this is the only time.
Do you remember any of those moments, Daddy?
I remember them for us, Daddy. For you.
PS I can’t remember if you held my hand, Daddy? Did you?
The doorbell rings and he’s standing there, grinning. He asks if he can borrow a pen. It’s daytime. I never see him in the daytime, only at night, usually in the tiny nightclub down the steps in the Merrion Centre. I’m shocked. Delighted. Yes I’ve got a pen, I say. He makes no move to come in, so I run up the three flights of stairs to my attic flat to get it. When I come back, his dog is licking his face. I didn’t know he had a dog. I would like to lick his face. I would like to lick him all over. Upstairs I have checked how I look. It’s okay, I think.
He takes the pen, pulls a piece of paper out of his jeans, writes something, hands the pen back. The dog barks. He reaches down, ruffles its neck.
It’s October 1985. No mobiles. Neither of us has a landline. I never know when I’m going to see him again, feel him inside me. The longest gap has been six weeks. Today I am daring , and I ask if he wants to go to the pub. He says he has no money. I say I have, and run upstairs again to get what’s left of my giro. I need it for food. I need it for the meter. I get my coat.
The pub is packed. One of the rooms is shut off so we have to sit on the stairs, the dog at our feet. When someone pushes past us, his leg presses against mine. Desire is instant, like a flame. His brown eyes look at me as he offers me a cigarette. He is here, now.
There is only one question I would like to ask him, and it is this: did you ever think of me, in those years, when you weren’t fucking me?
I lie: there is another question. Have you ever thought of me ever, even once, in the years that have passed, like I think of you?
Dear Tanya…so sorry for the delay in posting anything…have been suffering from severe depression as still trying to extricate myself from my toxic relationship.
I think of you often and what it means to have your support.
I also think of you and your mum, and would like to send love . Very moving to hear about your daily talks on your video calls…