In the run up to Christmas, the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency will be posting an entry from one of our authors each day, offering anything from writing tips and their inspiration, to Christmas memories and their wishes for the year to come.
Twenty-Six Weeks and Five Days: Christmas at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, 2001
I heard him cry. A nurse showed me a flash of his face, smiled, then rushed away.
‘Congratulations,’ the consultant said.
I suppose there’s not much else he could have said, under the circumstances, but I thought it bizarre. I felt terror instead of joy. I didn’t want this tiny, sick baby.
But he had decided to live, to breathe, so that was that. I had no choice, I had a son.
After a few hours, I was in better physical shape and ready to see him. I was wheeled up to the special care baby unit.
He lay on his back, lobster red in the dim light, covered in bubble wrap, his face hidden by the brutal blue pipe of the ventilator taped across his cheeks. His head was the size of a peach. His eyes had not opened because the eyelids were still fused shut. The cartilage in his body had not yet formed and his ears rolled into themselves like seashells.
He weighed less than two pounds.
My son was supposed to have been born on 16 March 2002, but instead he arrived a little over three months early, on 13 December 2001. On the day of my three-month ultrasound scan, I had sat in a waiting room, in shock, watching planes crash into the Twin Towers. The doctor had reassured me everything was fine.
That first time I saw him, I leant over his incubator but I was too scared to touch him. The nurse said I had to pick him up, to hold him.
Most of all I hated the wires. They poked through the backs of his hands, into his little ankles and his legs and his miniature feet. I was scared when I lifted him up, that the wires would catch and pull and hurt him. For three months, the thing I wanted most was to hold him, without any wires, just a baby, skin to skin.
Every day they would stick more needles into the back of his hands, or his feet, to collect a few drops of blood. He still has the scars. He had too little energy to protest or even to cry.
After five days the blue pipe was removed and he breathed mostly on his own.
The parents of the baby in the next incubator were teenagers whose baby was born even earlier, at twenty-one weeks. ‘Hello my little princess,’ the father said each day.
Some babies around us were allowed home after a day or two, others were rushed to surgery, two died. We were long-stay residents.
I sat for hours on end, in the armchair next to his incubator, while he slept tucked inside my shirt, wires and all. Every day I hoped he would not have a brain bleed, or pick up an infection. In the evenings, I would leave the hospital and nobody could see there was a part of me missing, nobody knew I was a mother.
The nurses walked softly on white-soled shoes. They worked twelve-hour shifts. I remember a perfect Filipino nurse with her hair in a long, sleek ponytail that hung impeccably down her back. She was my favourite, young and precise and gentle. When she was on duty overnight, I went home and I slept. I also slept when Amanda from New Zealand was on duty. There were others, though, who were careless, who dressed him roughly and laughed harshly over him. There were times where we would wake up in the night and drive all the way back to the hospital to check on him.
My son slept and he grew, in his own quiet, determined way.
One of the other mothers called him a handsome brute.
Although his forehead began to bulge from the pressure on his still-soft skull, he did not get ill. He did not have a brain bleed. His eyes were not destroyed from the time he was on the ventilator.
I could feed him, through a tube at first, which passed from his nose down into his stomach. I pushed my milk down, using a small plastic syringe.
When he grew a little bigger, they dressed him in doll’s clothes. They have a cupboard full. I bought him a pair of newborn socks from The Gap but they came all the way up to his thigh.
This year he started secondary school.
During the three months we spent in neo-natal intensive care, there were many small acts of kindness that meant the world. On Christmas morning, the nurses put up decorations and placed a small, wrapped gift next to each of the babies.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who performs miracles at the Winnicott Baby Unit, and courage to all parents spending Christmas in special care baby units.