Thirty-one years ago, the world I lived in was a different place. There was no internet. Computers were the size of small houses, and telephones were all stuck to the wall.
I lived in a small town in the South Island of New Zealand when The Girl came along. Thirty-one years ago withdrawing money from a bank account from any distance required a phone call to your local branch during which the teller would describe, yes describe! your signature. Hilarious but true. Anything other than a local phone call was hideously expensive and going anywhere by plane was a luxury. It was a world away from my family in the North Island.
The Girl made her debut on June 30th 1981 at Dunedin Hospital – a two-hour drive from our home. You’d think such a tiny parcel at 3lb would be a doddle. You’d think she’d pop right into this world like a cork. Not so. When she emerged, The Girl had been packed so tightly for the past nine months, her tiny feet were folded up and pressed so hard into her shins, she had indents where her toes had been.
From the second she arrived, the buzz and the smiles and the flurries of congratulations from the nursing staff were ominously absent. There was no flood of relief, and baby cuddles; no excited phone calls with good news or cigars handed around.
They were replaced by muffled conversations and the chill of concern, and before I even got to see her, The Girl was whisked away and spirited off to an incubator. All they would tell me was that she was tiny and she was going straight to the Special Care Unit. I wanted to see her, to touch her, hold her; to make sure she was okay. I wanted reassurance, an explanation. It never came. Because right then, there wasn’t one.
The first time I saw The Girl, it was through the glass of the incubator. I wish I could say that I loved her immediately, that I saw straight past her differences and that I accepted her along with all her problems.
What I saw was a strange little person fighting for her life – skinny little limbs, long thin strands of hair, low-set ears, a broad nose. She was missing the bones in the bases of both thumbs; the left one left dangling by only a thread of skin.
Day after day I sat there in front of that incubator, staring at her, willing her to be beautiful, willing her to be the perfect child I’d been expecting. I thought maybe, just maybe if I stared long enough, compared her to the other babies, examined her closely enough; that if I asked the right questions, made the right noises, then eventually, I would see what I hadn’t been seeing; that everything would be okay and that I was worrying for nothing.
I stayed in the hospital for a week. I had two visitors. Well, three if you include the young intern who drew the short straw to give me the pep talk. Let me tell you, if he was the designated Cheer Squad, somebody on the admin staff really needed to revisit their job description or maybe just check the roster. He came into my hospital room, introduced himself, then sat on the end of the bed, and after about six of the longest, most silent minutes of my life, he said, “Have you got any questions?”
Any Questions? Are you kidding?
I had sixteen zillion questions. I had questions that he probably wouldn’t have thought of. I wanted to know, What the hell is wrong with my baby? I wanted to ask, Why did this happen! How it happened? Whose fault was this? Did I do something wrong? And that was only the warm up lap!
Once my mind got off the Ferris Wheel of confusion and slid back into gear, I said, “So what’s going to happen?”
He looked mournfully across at me, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know,” then went back to looking like he wanted to vanish in a puff of smoke. Looking back, I often wonder whether I didn’t ask the obvious questions at the time because I didn’t want to know the answers, or because I did know the answers and didn’t want to hear them.
Eventually, he got up and said, “If you’ve got any more questions, just call.” And he left like his heels were on fire.
So that was it. That was the counselling session. But it was free!
For the whole of the following week I was exhausted. My nerves felt like I’d been electrified because a constant buzz ran through me like a radio channel that wasn’t quite on the station. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. The whole time, I felt as though something had become lodged in my chest and I could barely breathe.
But through all the hopelessness and the disappointment and the horror, was a driving, overwhelming need to stay with this girl, to make a place for this tiny person – to make everything okay. I didn’t know how, or what it would take. Nature is a wonderful thing. You only have to be a parent to understand that.
I eventually got past the sizzled nerves and the brick in the chest, just in time to slide into the Anger stage of the cycle. I’ll go into more of that later.
Finding acceptance and happiness took the best part of twenty-two years. Could I have shortcut the process? I’m absolutely sure I could have. But, that’s what this blog is about.
But for now, do me a favour. If you know someone out there whose life had been turned upside down by the birth of a child less perfect; or whose life has been frighteningly and irreparably changed through accident or illness or any of the traumatic events that can touch and change the course of our lives in an instant, here’s my advice – don’t tell them it could be worse. Don’t tell them God chose them for this burden. Don’t tell them you understand how they feel and it’ll get better. And please don’t try to convince them this is some kind of master plan – even if that’s what you believe.
Tell them you’re there for them. Hold them close and tell them they’re not alone – that there’s a world of wonderful people out there who really do care, and even though you cannot imagine what they’re going through, tell them it’s okay to be angry; it’s okay to be frightened, it’s okay to grieve. Tell them that, yes, life is friggin’ unfair sometimes and no, it shouldn’t be this way.
Then tell them you know of at least one person who has stood in their shoes, who felt that despair, who knows that pain.
And tell them I got through it.