Wednesday, February 23, 2011

But what about the others? - Part 2. Hope

Hope was the eldest of the babies on the ward. By the time Amy and I arrived she was curled up in a cot and her mother, Hyacinth, was propped against her pillows, half dozing and half flicking through a copy of  "Hello.".

As we were wheeled in, Hyacinth raised a hand and smiled. I smiled back, but neither of us spoke. A nurse settled me into the room. I was shown the baby changing station, how to operate the emergency button and where to put my things. Hyacinth concentrated on her magazine and pretended she couldn't overhear every single word being said.

My husband went off to the canteen. I was starving after such an active day, and I needed chocolate. NOW.

Once we were alone, it seemed impolite not to speak, so Hyacinth and I introduced ourselves.
"Boy or girl?" She asked after we had exchanged names.
"Girl. Amy. You?"
"Girl. Hope. She's My fourth."
"Fourth baby?"
"Fourth girl."
"Any boys?"
She shook her head. "Just girls." She touched the bundle lying in cot at her side and we both returned to our thoughts.

There is an etiquette to sharing a room with a stranger. It's like sitting next to someone on a 'plane. Just because you are going to be in close proximity for an extended period of time doesn't mean you have to become best friends. Polite but distant is a good way to start. Get the measure of a person before you strike up conversation or you could be in for a very long ride. I could see that this woman shared my approach and I liked her just for that.

The door to the ward opened and a man came tiptoeing in. His coat was damp across the shoulders and his face was dark and shiny from the rain. He was carrying a plastic bag in one hand and in the other, a great bouquet of flowers.
"For my girls." He whispered, bending to kiss his wife. He let his coat fall from his shoulders and rubbed and blew on his hands. When he was satisfied that they were warm, he reached to scoop his daughter from her cot.
"I've only just put her down," Hyacinth whispered, reaching out and touching him on the arm. "Let her settle. Just a few more minutes and she'll be good and asleep. You can hold her then."
"O.K" The man sat down. He noticed me for the first time.
"Hello". He was still whispering, but he made sure I could hear. "Congratulations."
"Thank you."
"Boy or girl?"
He turned to the bouquet, pulled a pink carnation free and came across the room. With a little bow he placed the flower across the end of Amy's cot. "She's beautiful" He whispered. "Just like her mother."
Hyacinth laughed and shook her head.
"What?" he asked, looking innocent.
"You're in maternity ward. Stop flirting, you old dog." She looked at me and smiled. "I apologize." She said.

"Can I get her out now?" Hyacinth's husband hovered over Hope's cot. Hyacinth nodded. He gently lifted the baby into his lap and stroked her bouncy, black hair. He curled her fingers round his own.  I  wondered if, after three other girls, he wished Hope had been a boy. But judging from they way he held and rocked her, kissed her cheeks and whispered in her ear,  he truly did not care.

The next day when he visited, three girls followed him into the room. They were dressed identically in green and red plaid skirts and navy tights. Their hair was immaculately twisted into neat and even cornrows, the ends of which were adorned with tiny bows.

The girls crowded round the cot, taking turns to kiss their sister. Then they removed their shoes and climbed onto the bed. Hyacinth took them into her arms. They whispered and giggled together, telling stories or news from outside. And all the time, Hope's dad held her, gazing into her velvety eyes and kissing her fingers and toes.

Each time he visited, he sat in the chair holding Hope, his youngest daughter, as if he couldn't bear to put her down. Her sisters brought her cards they had made, and pictures they had drawn.

The older girls, Grace, Faith and Joy, were always quiet and well behaved. They read books with their mother, played cats cradle and noughts and crosses. They said "Hello" when they came in and waved goodbye to us all when it was time for them to leave.

When we were moved to the new room to make way for wounded soldiers, they were full of questions and concern. They asked questions about the war, asked when it would be over and would their daddy have to fight.

Before evening visiting time on the day of the afternoon bomb scare, Hyacinth made a request. Could we please not talk about the incident while her daughters were in the room. She didn't want them to worry or to be afraid. Nothing had happened. We were all safe. There was no need for them to ever know.

  I didn't see Hyacinth or Hope once we had gone our separate ways. But in those brief few days, I felt I'd had a glimpse of how they lived their lives. It was easy to see how much they all loved and cared about each other. They were a strong family.

When I think about Hope, I am certain she is doing fine.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

But what about the others? Part one.

On February 22nd 2011, my daughter will be twenty. She has grown into a confident, generous, smart and beautiful woman. I am sure she will reach her full potential and go on to lead a happy and meaningful life. She is everything I could have ever hoped for in a daughter, and I couldn't be more proud.

Amy was born in Kings College Hospital, London. We shared the room with six complete strangers. Three other mothers and their babies. The children had been born on the same day.
We were a mismatched group; different ethnic, cultural and socio economic backgrounds and the mothers ages ranged from 16 to 45. Me and Amy. Magda and Nicolas. Shelly and Francesca. Hyacinth and Hope. In normal circumstances our paths would never have crossed, but for a few intense days, we were thrown together and shared an eventful and intimate time.

It was warm inside and we felt cloistered. We could see the winter raging through the windows and smell the cold on the coats of visitors when they came in from outside. But we had no reason to care. If the pavements were slick with ice we did not have to walk along them and if the wind was bitingly cold, we did not know. We had our babies and our new routines. We were protected from the world. Or so we thought.

During our brief time together we shared more than just the experience of giving birth or being born.  Wars and conflicts did not stop just because the centers of our lives had shifted focus, and although newspapers and television held little interest when there was a baby to coo over, we could not avoid events unfolding in the world outside.

On February 22nd 1991, George Bush Sr. issued an ultimatum. Iraqi troops were to be withdrawn from Kuwait by midnight. If Iraq did not comply, he said,  the USA and its allies would step up military action. Iraq did not comply and so the ground assault in region began the very next day. As mothers we wondered what this would mean for the world our babies would grow up in. There was talk of escalating hostilities; attacks on our won shores. This was all speculation. We did not think it would affect us quite so soon.

On February 24th, when the babies were barely two days old, we were told to gather up our things and transfer to another room. Orderlies arrived to help. Nicolas and Hope had been delivered by c-section so Magda and Hyacinth were in great pain. The move seemed so unnecessary, as well as ill advised.

"What's going on?" we asked. It seemed ridiculous to expect new mothers - two of whom had had major surgery- to pack their suitcases and move.
"They want to paint these rooms." The orderlies told us. But the story didn't fit.

 We pressed for more information and soon learned that the upper floors of the hospital were being prepared for casualties of the ground war. It was happening all over the county. Seriously injured British troops would be flown from Iraq and travel, via airbases in Germany, to hospitals throughout the UK. We packed our things in silence.  It made the situation real.

At the same time, London, was still a target for the IRA. On February 18th they had exploded two bombs. The first, in Paddington Station, had caused damage but no casualties. The second, planted in Victoria Station, injured over fifty people and one of the victims died.

The day after we had settled into our new room, we were visited again. A doctor explained, in quiet but serious tones, that there was a bomb threat. The hospital was being evacuated. We were to put clothes and coats on over our pajamas and wrap our babies up in hats and as many blankets as we could manage. This time we were going outside.

Wheel chairs and staff arrived to ferry us downstairs. The lobby was full of  police wearing body armor and leading German Shepherds. Through the doors the car-park looked like the set for a disaster movie. It was full of people dragging drips, hopping on crutches, or nursing plastered limbs. The sky was leaden and grey. Flurries of snow swirled about in the frigid air.

 The eight occupants of our little room joined other mothers and new babies. We were moved to a cordoned off area that was also full of the very old and frail. We were to wait inside for as long as we could. The bitter cold was such a threat to the new borns and elderly that we were not to be taken outside until much closer to reported 'detonation time'. Shelly began to cry. We waited.

 Either there was no bomb or it was successfully defused. An announcement was made; we could all return to our rooms.  Magda and Hyacinth thanked the Lord and prayed. Shelly, who was just a child herself, shook uncontrollably and continued to weep. I made a mental note of events. I would write about all this one day.

The ground war ended on February 28th and there were no more IRA attacks in London until, (coincidentally), February 28th the following year. This time London Bridge Station was the target and twenty nine people were hurt. I remembered the bomb scare of Feb 25th 1991, but by then Amy was a happy and healthy one year old. She was already chatting up a storm. Our lives were full. There was no time for looking back.

But every year, when her birthday approaches, I think about them all.

Nicolas, Francesca and Hope will also turn twenty on Tuesday and I wonder how they are.

 I can only speculate based on what I saw during that long weekend two decades ago. I think one of them has probably done well. One is a question mark. The other, I fear may have become a victim of the circumstances into which she was born.

I am very glad that Amy has turned out so well. I m delighted that the bomb was non-existent or at least that it did not go off.

I just wish we could do something to stop this latest war....

(To be continued).