Growing up, I always knew there was some kind of dark secret surrounding my paternal grandmother. We never talked about her for a start. And the only photo I could find of her was a small black and white one at the back of a rarely-opened family album.
All I’d been told was that she had died in Finland when my father was still a teenager. I was curious to know more of course. But I sensed that she occupied something akin to a Pandora’s Box in my father’s mind, and I was afraid that if I opened it, untamed emotions would be released.
As I got older, though, not knowing her story bothered me and I felt a strange injustice that she seemed to have been dropped from our family history.
One day when I was fourteen I came straight out and asked my mother. She hesitated but then told me the truth. And that’s when I discovered I’d had an uncle I never knew existed. His name was Markku, and he died when he was only seven.
It was a brutal Finnish winter. 1966. My grandmother was alone on the family farm with her two youngest children. My father had joined the merchant navy by then and her husband, my grandfather, was critically ill in hospital with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
No-one knows exactly what happened, but one morning my aunt, who was 13 at the time, awoke to find her mother and little brother missing, and a pile of partially burnt clothes smouldering in the fireplace.
When she opened the front door and saw her mother’s footprints leading away in the snow, she knew that something terrible had occurred.
She went to school as usual, because she didn’t know what else to do. Later the police came around and told her the devastating news. Her mother had committed suicide and taken little Markku with her. Both their bodies were found floating at the bottom of the farmhouse well.
Suicide. Worse. Murder suicide.
This revelation imprinted an anxiety in me and over the years I became somewhat obsessed by it.
How could my grandmother do something like that? Could a predisposition for such a thing run in the family? Did she suffer from anxiety and panic attacks just like I did? Was it her husband being unwell in hospital that tipped her over the edge?
Those thoughts were strongest in my mind last year on the worst day of my life. I was home alone for the fifth day in a row with my 16-day-old baby, while my husband lay in intensive care 150 km away, critically ill with tick typhus.
I had an infected episiotomy wound, early mastitis, diarrhoea, and I hadn’t slept for more than two hours consecutively since giving birth. My mother lived eight hours drive away and I had no-one else I could turn to.
I was just drifting off at 5 am after being up all night with a baby who was either crying, breastfeeding, or needing a nappy change when I was suddenly aware of a tall man standing silently by the foot of the bed. I sat bolt upright and yelled out in terror. The tall man disappeared – he’d only been a hallucination as a result of my extreme fatigue. I flopped back, relieved. But my baby woke up and started crying again.
At the sound of her high-pitched wailing, I knew I had to go. I dashed to the toilet but my pelvic floor muscles, damaged by recent forceps, were too weak to hold it in. As I slumped on the seat with splatters of shit running down my leg I heard the ‘waa, waa, waa’ coming from the other room and my breasts started leaking as well.