They say “the body remembers.” Somewhere in my mind, the intrusive sound of the soles of men’s sensible shoes slapping onto the shiny floors throughout the corridors still haunts me now and then. Sitting on a shelf labeled “incongruity,” the sudden thunder of racing footsteps filling the hushed, echoey hallways of the hospital gathers dust in my mind, year on year. So many of them, running to save a tiny life, only four hours old.
As the heatwave subsides, we celebrate a beautiful late-summer wedding in the English countryside, followed by a reception, complete with a champagne barge cruise on the canal. The following morning, we fly to Switzerland at dawn, to honeymoon on the shores of Lake Geneva. As the first afternoon fades, we walk to a nearby, lakeside castle. Sitting on a stone window ledge, we talk about what’s next; having lived together for five years, we both agree that we feel ready for children. By mid-winter, I am pregnant.
A classic perfectionist, I need to be the best pregnant mother ever. The first thing to address is my disordered eating. I force myself to eat little and often, having researched the safety of a vegetarian diet for the tiny being growing inside me, its body the same size as a grain of rice, so the book said. The stack of books by the sofa grows, along with the unborn I am carrying, as I read all I can about how to be pregnant, how to do it well, how to do it The Right Way. I drink bottled water, 1.5 liters a day, I cross to the other side of the street to avoid second-hand cigarette smoke, I continue exercising though stop running, I sleep on my left side, and avoid lifting heavy equipment or furniture at the school where I teach.
We read storybooks to the baby growing inside me, every day. I steer clear of stressful conversations, rest on the sofa every day after work, and choose organic produce to make healthy salads each evening. We purchase a seatbelt attachment for the car, to make sure the belt sits under the swell of my belly. Using a small inheritance sum, we purchase a white wicker set of baby furniture. I read all about attachment parenting, and the value of breastfeeding and baby-carriers concerning bonding.
On a warm sunny morning in September, at 10.48am, our baby son is born, just three days after his due date. He is beautiful and perfect, and we are besotted.
At 15:25 pm, my husband returns from making another call about our wonderful news. Re-entering the room, and the love-bubble of surreal that the three of us remain suspended in, he lifts our baby out of the clear bassinette by my hospital bed. As he speaks, something in his voice reflects alarm now; “Why is he doing that?…. Why is he doing that with his arm?….” Our baby’s tiny left arm is jerking upwards at the elbow, rhythmically, his blue eyes now dark, fixated and unblinking. The endorphins in my bloodstream are instantly replaced with adrenaline. Instinctively, I press the emergency button above the bed. The midwives come running in, take one look at the baby and dash with him in their arms, to the phone to summons a doctor. A moment later, they decide not to wait. The senior midwife makes a “crash call,” an emergency code which pages every pediatrician in the hospital. That’s the running, those footsteps which I can still hear now, drowning out every other sound in the hospital.
Time elapses in a vacuum – 10 or more minutes. I don’t know. Finally, someone comes to my bedside. “He’s had a seizure. They’ve stabilized him, but we need to move him to the neonatal intensive care unit now. You can come and say goodbye to him.”
Goodbye? I just met him……I carried him for nine months, and I just met him, this morning. Goodbye?….. Bewildered and frozen, I can’t ask the question. Months later, in counseling, I will reveal that at that moment, I thought I’d never see my baby alive again. But still, I do not dare ask. We are taken to see him in a medical room – he is now only clad in a nappy, and he has wires taped on his chest, and an oxygen mask over his small face, a face which was safe inside my body just a few short hours ago, he is surrounded by doctors. Is this it? Everything feels sick and dreamlike.
A short while later, we sit on my hospital bed together, in numb silence, oblivious to the steady stream of tears spilling onto my nightie. Then, a group of doctors enters the room, handing us a Polaroid photograph of the baby in the intensive care unit. “We brought you this,” someone says, gently. He looks dead, his little body covered in a frightening tangle of wires and machinery. What is happening? I feel nauseous and shove the photograph towards my husband. I barely glanced at it; later I will tell him to bury the photo somewhere in our house, where I never have to see it again.
One of the doctors crouches by the bed and introduces himself. Speaking gravely and sombrely, “I know it is a difficult time…. but we need to ask you a few questions about your pregnancy.” He continues, “We are running tests, trying to find out why your baby is having seizures….Did you ever take drugs – substances during the pregnancy?…. Can you think back – anything?… Any parties in the early stages?…Even just once?….”
Oh my GOD! Drugs? Hell, no! What is he implying? That I did this somehow? I dumped my child on death’s doorstep?…. My brain is swirling. Aghast, I reply, emphatically, and I am fleetingly grateful to be believed. But it’s too late; the seed has been planted in my mind now. Of course. I should have realized it myself. I carried this baby from its first day of conception; now his life hangs in the balance, it must be as a direct result of something I have done, or not done. I am to blame. My body has let me down before, putting me in harm’s way; now it has failed me again. It has failed the infant we created, the infant I lovingly carried. He has been taken as punishment – punishing me, punishing my body. Suddenly, all the organic fruit juice and the folic acid supplements I’ve taken feel worthless. I have harmed my child. I don’t even know how, but it is my fault. I mean, who else’s could it be?
Hours pass, perhaps three. Finally, we’re taken to another area of the hospital, the ward where the youngest human beings, those next to death, are clinging to life, with the help of machines, medication, and oxygen taps on the walls. There, in a covered incubator (to keep sensory stimulation down, avoiding triggering another seizure), is our son. “He seized again when we got him up here; he’s stabilized now.”
They begin to explain what they have done so far, the medication being pumped into his system, the machines helping his body. I hear their voices, but none of their words.
Standing, staring at this baby I waited so long to meet, watching his body – his tiny leg jerks. Twice. Three times. I interrupt the doctor’s flow, “He’s doing it again!” A nurse nearby tries comforting me, explaining it’s just my anxiety making me imagine it. But, now they see it, too. We are rushed from the room as the team begins to work on our baby.
How is this happening? I search my memories of the past nine months. I had a bad cough the week I got pregnant….I was in the office at work when someone spilled photocopier toner on the carpet…..maybe a child in my class had given me a virus….I had a stressful dental procedure….What? Which could it be? How have I done this to my baby?
For eight days and eight nights, I live inside the hospital walls, sharing the roof with my child, as my world becomes a stagnant blur, with little memory of life before his birth. My husband stays with me from dawn each day, until the midwives eventually send him home to sleep each night. I race from my room to the special care baby unit, spending most of my time by my babies bed where he is watched over by specialist nurses 24 hours a day.
For eight days and eight nights, I am utterly distraught, and my body refuses to sleep and food. On the third day, on my way to see my baby, I collapse in the hospital corridor; the midwives concerned, arrange tests. Then, a kind but firm senior midwife comes to speak to me.
“I’m canceling the blood-tests. There is nothing wrong. You just have to eat,” she said, “Sugar, a piece of chocolate – something.” I promised her I would try, though I couldn’t face the thought. Trays of food arrive three times a day, only to be returned to the hospital kitchen untouched.
Tests on the baby – blood tests, urine tests, two lumbar punctures, MRI scan – perplexingly reveal nothing, convincing me even more that his struggle to survive is all my fault. On the seventh day, he is well enough to spend the night on the ward with me; his bassinette wheeled next to my hospital bed. Sleep evades us both; I am anxious, tearful and fretful, the baby is the same. Eventually, concerned midwives take the baby to settle him so I can sleep. I try to resist, not wanting to be apart from him a moment more, but they insist on taking him, encouraging me to rest. For a few moments, exhaustion pulls me into a fear-drenched doze, but I have jolted awake again, now screaming into the darkness, after a terrible nightmare about a woman drowning in a black lake. I start sobbing, so they give my baby back to me.
On his ninth day, we take him home to begin life as a family. He is rushed back in by ambulance six days later, and many other times subsequently in the first six months of life. The cause of his seizures remains unsolved. They stop, but he develops breathing issues, he stops breathing in his sleep, a form of apnea. By four months he is diagnosed with anaphylaxis and by 20 months, asthma.
He is now a thriving fourteen-year-old; he learned to read at the age of three, excels at school, is a talented contemporary tap dancer, enjoys 10km runs with his Dad at weekends, blogs about his love of tap, and adores studying films. He is a beautiful, caring older brother to his sisters. He is still under pediatric teams at two hospitals to monitor his health and carries epinephrine injections and asthma inhalers everywhere he goes.
I no longer blame myself or my body for what happened to him those first hours, days and months. I am striving to empty the buckets full of self-blame that I had collected over the years, about many things I had weathered – buckets which I lugged around even when they felt too heavy, even when they sloshed onto my clothes, even though others told me the buckets were not mine to carry.
Sometimes now, I know it actually isn’t “all my fault,” entirely. Sometimes, it is not my fault at all.