When I leave the sauna, wrapped up in layers of musty, old garments and towels, a bobbly hat topping it off, I look up at the vast inky canvas of sky, speckled in stars. Here, on this unremarkable Finnish forest land, I plant my feet in the snow and feel connected to my ancestors, who no doubt shuffled just as hastily back to the comfort of our farmhouse.
I have felt this since I was a small child; in Finland, I am part of something bigger, the long journey of pudgy faced farmers, button noses and deep-set eyes, battling in the cold. I am the end of the line of women, shoulder to the wind, tough and poised and practical, matriarchs in a nation where women carve out their own paths with wily wisdom. My mother – “just get on with it” – left her home country at 18 to learn a new language, never returned – but half my heart formed out of those lakes and forests and saunas, because I see my face reflected in the grainy sepia photos of old, because I feel my fate intertwined with theirs.
But that is only one half of my story of creation. Then there is my daddy, my beautiful daddy. Born in 1931 in a Devonshire village (at show and tell I would rope him in as ancient artefact to regale stories of childhood evacuees and coastal bombings), he was utterly modern, nuanced, bright, curious. He joined his work darts team with the electricians and porters, winking when anyone asked why he wasn’t on the team with his fellow Directors. He held an annual bat watching festival in our garden, pouring wine generously into guests’ glasses and whooping with delight at the first sight of bats swooping through the air. He would call my mother from the end of the road on his chunky 80s carphone: “I might have a couple extra for supper, you won’t mind?”… I learnt from him to celebrate everything. He was an unusual combination of academia and practicality, and he had lived many lives – so he was bold and understanding and had committed his life to service, to knowledge, to the community, to my mum and brother and I. He thought my young mind worthy of lessons – “legacy is what you leave behind, and then really that is only your children and, if you’re lucky, your words.” And at 13, I lost him to Motor Neurone Disease and the bottom fell out of my world. His last thoughts were with me: “look after her” before his mouth gaped open and the best daddy in the world left me behind.
Not having a child isn’t just a loss to me. It comes at a cost to all those who came before, who left their footsteps in the snow or who wandered the Devonshire lanes. Who found love or dalliances, but out of them created new lives to leave behind them. And it comes at a cost to my mother, who at 75 is running out of time to enjoy the spoils of grandparenthood, to sing little Nordic nursery rhymes or knit lemon yellow cardigans. I am letting them all down, each and every one. All those journeys, those chance meetings, those births, discarded on me and my incompetent biology.
But my fiercest guilt is saved for my father – a man who lived by his responsibilities to his family, who was courage and compassion even when he lost his voice and with it his dignity. With every fertility failure, I lose him one more time, I am dragged back to that violent Valentine’s Day when, barely a teenager, I begged and bargained on my knees with God to save him. Because with my child there would be a promise of legacy, of carrying my father forward in some small way, of maybe creating his wonky knees or his hazel eyes anew. Or of realising some of his promise, that a little of his creative intellect might be reborn.
So I feel sorry, that I am letting him down, that I let them all down. I am closing the gate to this mystic and cobbled path, generation upon generation woven into me – only for it to end here. And I resent my role, to act as full stop, a final punctuation of sorrow, of legacy unrealised.