When [my children] are themselves, with faces and bodies that come to them through generations of people who have done the fundamentally awesome act of making more people, I am amazed by everything that has had to go right in order to give us all to one another.
Twenty-two years ago today, Nanny, my beloved great-grandmother died.
When her daughter, my mother’s mother, died in September, of course it was sad — but after losing my Bean, I could be philosophical about my grandmother having led a good, long life. Nanny’s death, on the other hand, has left a void that I still feel, even all these years later.
The afterlife philosophies — the Western concept of ghosts, or the Eastern, that nothing ever really dies — have brought me a little comfort this year. If there is an afterlife, I know Nanny is looking after Bean. If nothing ever really dies, perhaps we are all playing together in a parallel universe.
Such comfort is fleeting when reality bumps into you regularly. As the proud bearer of Nanny’s mitochondrial DNA, I had always hoped to one day have a daughter, who I would name after her. It is this some-day hope that sustained me after my miscarriage, that made me determined to start trying again in June, that I clung until seven weeks ago when I received the news that I have an inverted chromosome. The scratch, whose faint bruise is still visible on my thigh, was my silent scream in response to the news that my genetic children will never be born healthy. To hell with passing on my genes — I understood then that I might not pass on Nanny’s.
Making the decision to proceed with donor eggs has meant letting go of the final thread that I thought connected me to her. I am her only great-granddaughter who knew her. Like the father in days of old whose last name can’t be passed down if he has no son and heir, the genetic bond and the love that Nanny and I shared end with me. This loss, symbolic though it may be, is as great as the loss of all the genetic children DH and I will never have together.
If I am lucky enough to have a child with Nellie’s help, there will be so much I won’t recognise. I will be able to piece together some features and traits from DH’s side of the family. But I won’t recognise my own in my child. When people who don’t know my child’s genetic heritage comment on how much s/he looks like me, I will smile and agree. Maybe I will be quietly proud, maybe I will be outwardly amused — it’s hard to predict how I might feel years from now — but I know it will be a misunderstanding.
When I am a struck by just how beautiful my daughter is, not despite her wobbling double chin but because of it, I get the chance to touch my grandmother’s face and know, in some small way, that a part of her lives on.
It made me sad to think I won’t be touching my great-grandmother’s face when I touch my child’s, metaphorically or otherwise. I am not sure I can describe how great a loss this is, but I can tell you this: when I was 5 or 6, I realised that I loved her more than my own parents. Shocked and guilty, I challenged myself on this point. I thought I was a bad girl for having such a naughty thought, but it was true. So to not be passing on her genes…
… well, it will be a different experience and although Celeste’s post spelled out what I’ll miss, her post also made me realise what I might see of Nanny in my babies. It won’t be her features passed along, but it might be her sense of humour or her facial expressions — traits that aren’t genetically passed on, but shaped through nurture.
I also know the mitochondrial DNA that she passed on to me through her daughter and my mother has helped shape the woman I have become; and I, in turn, will biologically shape my children. My genes, my womb, this is the environment that will influence the expression of my donor-egg-baby’s genes. If Nanny were alive to meet her great-great-grandchildren, I know she’d love them exactly as she did me: kindly, patiently, with humour, and — let’s be honest — far too many sweets. Perhaps I can pass on the first three qualities and be mindful of the last.