unwrapping the cord when it fails

after the meltdown,

a few days later

it takes a while to descend a mountain

carrying wisdom in your hands.

if they tell you otherwise,

they are lying, do not believe them—it is heavy

the road slippery, treacherous

when you are walking for two, holding hands.

another thing that they do not tell you

when you are still pregnant, watering all your dreams

with useless things—what type of pram, what cot, what colour

should i paint his room?

planning a life with no compass, missing a map

nobody says


about failure and guilt, how you will have to eat it.

nobody tells you, how to save your child on a beach

when you do not know what you are doing

even if

you have read all the books—listened

to the people who know, hung yourself onto their wisdom

even then, you might stumble.

—he loves it there, likes to throw rocks into the waves

watches them disappear, happy.

but it will be a while before we return

to those stones—smooth

and tumbled.

there is this thing, now, in his memory

how it found him, perhaps the wind, the sound

of the silence

too much, at once

—jagged, it pierced, screamed through his brain


tired to the marrow of every war that i have failed in,

and God, there have been so many

i fell

without looking, without holding my words by the hand.

my palms, not covering their mouths.

why have i not learnt?

i fell, forgetting how quickly my words run away from me

how much they can do before i round them up hours later

—spent, their work done.

all i can do then, is hold them in my hand, examine them.

a soft animal, dissected, they still breathe, i look at their faces.

then i kill them.

next time, i will know their names, will not

let them live outside of me.

when he climbs onto my lap—

God, still this grace

he spills over me, sharp angles, outgrowing

his mother, asks me softly

‘do you hate me?’

in that moment, i stop breathing.

forget how to keep myself alive, wish

that i could go back and strangle myself.

i eat the guilt.

it tastes like blood, copper on my tongue.

melded into each other, we sit—his fingers on my arm.

i wonder whether his hands explored the inside of my womb,

safe, hearing my voice, my heart


with him.

for him.

a soft swish above him.

i want to stop breathing, want to be better at this

—God, why?

but still, there is silence.

the sound of God thinking that i know what i am doing.

i don’t.

i have told him this before, told him how i fall

over my own feet

—when i get up to do one thing, i do another.

can he not see, help?

his head is blonde in the crook of my neck, he still smells

the same.

how is this possible?

we have both changed around each other, shed

skin a thousand times, since that moment

when we were made in a labour room, cut loose

from each other, but also


my mouth is a wire cage, i open it, let a little bird out

—tell him about the day that he was born, how

he was a stuck, how we struggled, how we needed help

him and i, even then.

suction firm on his head, pulling him out, a guide.

‘one big push now! push!’

and there you were, slippery, blue—umbilical cord wrapped

purple around your neck.

was it something that i did?

should i have done things differently?

and does one say,

my umbilical cord, or yours—ours?

i don’t know, but i should have known

by the way that you liked to move inside me, pushing

against the confines of my borders

that you might find yourself caught, wrapped tight.

i heard them say it, knew—held my breath in my throat, helpless.

i didn’t know then, bruised and wrapped in hormones, my blood everywhere

that in the sharp exhaustion that would still find me,

hunt me

that i would hold my breath for years, sometimes forgetting.

—heard you cry, or was that me, and there you were, new

on my chest.

shaped to belong, who did this?

—i was born that day, and you

searching, finding nipple, finding breast.

what did i know

about keeping the soft inside of you alive


but you—somehow, you knew

how to keep me alive inside, perhaps

remembering what you were told

before you were sent.

even now, you tell me how it feels

inside your brain when it happens, when it crawls

up to you, out of nowhere

setting everything on fire, how you need me to carry water

how it terrifies you, how you wish


that it could all be undone.

can time be unwrapped?

i want to stop breathing, want to shape my hands

into buckets

for the next time, be ready.

still, no answer walks into the room, no stone tablet

with rules

a map is what i need.

i would throw all my gold onto a pile, watch it burn

if i could take this from you.

but i can’t.

i hold him, for hours.

we talk, i tell him how i don’t know what i am doing

—tell him that he is everything, that

i am sorry.

he flows over my lap, sharp angles, we are soft together.

i think how i have learnt something, how

i can carve this onto my life, this

i know that an umbilical cord can fail

—can strangle

even when it doesn’t mean to.

i think of that man, coming down from the mountain

carrying wisdom in stone.


—i don’t need more words, more laws.

i am teaching myself how to pick rocks up, stones

hold them aloft

put them in my mouth, eat them

chew them

over and over, until they are water-soft words, caught

before they have had a chance to escape.

unwrapping the cord, i give my son this.

an offering.

— unwrapping the cord when it fails

© Liezel Graham 2020.

Image by Christian Holzinger.


If you have read this far, my goodness—thank you!

I have written so much about my son, how is autism makes him beautiful, but like most autistic people, his sensory challenges sometimes lead to meltdowns.

These can be profoundly scary, ripping the safety net from his world.

Sometimes, I handle them better than other times. Like most mums to autistic children, I am too familiar with guilt, and what feels like failure.

I don’t always know how we get through them, but somehow we do.

As a writer, I am always weighing my words, choosing them carefully before I show them to the world.

I always choose to hold a bit of hope, a bit of light.

This poem is naked, most of my work is, but these words are even more so.

I hope that you can still find the light in my words, here.



2 thoughts on “unwrapping the cord when it fails

  1. Oh Liezel,

    Once again I found myself holding my breath as I read your words, a lump in my throat. As a fellow mom of a son on the spectrum I am intimately acquainted with the meltdowns … his *and* mine.

    My son is turning 28 this year and lives at home with us. I don’t know how we’ve lived all these days – how any of us have made it this far. And yet still we are here.

    Grace, grace, grace dear Liezel, poured thick over you both. ❤ jenny

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wasn’t sure whether I should share this piece.

      It is such an intimate glimpse into my life.

      I wanted to show that part of autism that leaves everyone reeling, but the love that is always present—even in that struggle.

      I so appreciate your words and you taking the time to comment.

      Thank you, and love from Scotland.


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