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My mother has always told her stories perfectly. When her grandchildren were little, they would long to stay overnight at her house – in part for the nightly ritual of hot chocolate, or for the heavy European bedding that wrapped them up in a bubble of goose down until they succumbed to sleep, but mostly for the magical way she could tell a story. She would give different voices to each character, her expressions veering as wildly as the plots. She was a master of improvisation – if the small listener cried out that they wanted an enchanted kettle, for example, she would quickly introduce one – and each tale finished on a triumphant note.

But today, as she tells me the story of my birth, there are no funny voices, no extraneous details. She is matter-of-fact, deliberate, the way she is whenever she talks about the past. It goes like this … It was 1966, and my mother Mira was seven months’ pregnant. It was her fourth pregnancy, and while the others were easy, this one was not. Her feet were impossibly swollen, and she had recently become sick with a cold. She decided to ease herself into a hot bath to relieve her aches; when she got out, her waters broke. My panicked father drove her to the hospital, where it was discovered that she had a high fever. Her obstetrician was summoned and, since it was the middle of the night, he rushed in with his pyjamas on underneath his clothes. He delivered me at four in the morning, and I was so tiny and sickly that I was not even weighed, but instead whisked away to be placed in a humidicrib. When my mother recounts this to me, she simply recites a litany of facts, and her voice does not falter when the story takes a turn, when it is clear that her newborn was  frighteningly unwell.

‘You were very sick. You had a complete blood transfusion, and you had something wrong with your lungs. The doctor said, “I don’t want to be optimistic. It could be that she will not make it, so don’t count on her.”’

I lean in closely, trying to establish how my mother reacted. With shock? Fear? It is hard to tell. She talks about her husband, instead. ‘Your father started to cry; he was already so emotional. I said, “Don’t worry, she’s going to make it, I know she will!”

‘And two days later, the doctor came and said, “I’ve got to take her out of the humidicrib.” We asked why and he replied, “She is banging on the glass. She is going to break it; we can’t afford it!”’

I believe that this happened. I was born two months premature and I did, apparently, bang on the contraption’s sides. Throughout my life, my mother has told me this story many times, exactly this way. The facts never  changed. Even the words themselves are fixed, the same phrases reiterated.

The tale of my birth symbolises something for each of us. To my mother Mira, it is about my inner strength and potential. Even when my body was tiny, she knew I was never weak. She also wants me to know that something powerful lies within me, and it was always there in spite of what science and history and statistics otherwise claimed. She never wants me to doubt it. It is a quality she recognises, because she possesses it too.

For me, this is a story about my mother’s faith. While my father was in tears, half-expecting me to die, my mother refused to fold this into her thinking. Even though the doctor warned her not to become too attached to me, she knew he would be proved wrong. I can’t imagine Mira was fearful; even for a minute. It is in her character to completely banish such negative thoughts from her mind.

I am hearing this account once again because I have decided to interview my mother while she is still able to speak easily. She is eighty-nine and cancer has been worming its way through her body for several years. She senses the days are running out, I can tell. 

It is my last chance to learn some of the details of her life, which has known both beauty and brutality. But more importantly, it is an opportunity to discover the origins of her deep belief. I am curious about the stickiness of her faith. As her pace to the end quickens, she is not scared that before her is an unknowable void; she does not entertain the notion that she might soon be stepping off into nothingness. That is because her experience of the universe is one where the inexplicable happens, and where the thread of magic teeters across the edges of the darkest fabric. How can my mother be so certain of what lies ahead for her?

Slowly, slowly, I will find out. 

  • A Brilliant Life - Rachelle Unreich

    The powerful true story of a Holocaust survivor told by her daughter - a tale that reminds us of the resilience of the soul and the ability of the heart to heal.

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