Posts tagged: friends
Friday 30th July 2010
One year ago.
Suse still hasn’t got her period. Her breasts are still tender. She feels like shit; lethargic and irritable.
“The only thing that would make this okay, would be being pregnant,” she says.
She’s pre-menstrual, but more than that, she’s pre-pregnant.
That’s the bitch about all of this.
She doesn’t want to be waiting for another period.
She wants to be waiting for a baby.
* * * * *
Meantime, I head off to work. I’ve got a week working in the neonatal ICU before I start working for NETS, the Neonatal Emergency Transfer Service.
There are gluttons for punishment, and then there’s me.
As the final six months of my six years of Paediatric training, I’ve had this set up for a while. But the timing is just priceless. If I can’t have a baby, then I’ll surround myself in everything to do with them. I’ll work in a place where every single employee and every single visitor is totally devoted to the brand new babies that have just arrived into this world.
Still, all the same, it seems to work for me. I’m as busy as hell on the first day, and two hours in, my phone beeps. I check it, and find a text from Bel and Dan:
‘We are downstairs having a coffee. We’re sure you are flat out, but give us a call if you are on a break.’
I juggle the thought, before deciding to run downstairs. There I see them sitting in the café, staring off into nothingness, lost in thought.
“Hey guys, how’s it going?”
“Just had to come in to check on things. They’re a little worried about the heart rate. They say it’s sitting a bit high.”
I look at both of them. Given what they’ve been through in the last two years, this isn’t fair.
“Can’t this baby give you any piece of mind?”
“Clearly not,” says Dan. “He’s determined to give us grief right up until he’s born.”
“He’ll be right. He’s just trying to give you grey hairs.”
I look at both of them and smile. I can see both of their shoulders drop at the reassurance. “Seriously, this sort of thing is routine. Totally routine.”
I wouldn’t have a clue. I know nothing about what the CTG looked like, what they found on examination, or any of the medical staff’s concern.
But sometimes, it’s all people want. All they want to hear is that everything is going to be all right. Whether you’re a friend, or a doctor or both. Even when you can’t be sure.
That’s all they want to hear.
* * * * *
I rush back to work, having left them both with higher shoulders than before. I think of them all through the day, hoping they remain upbeat. It’s a battle when they’ve been beaten down so long. After four egg harvests and countless rounds of disappointment, your shoulders have trouble going up anymore. It’s barely worth raising them before you know they just have to go back down again. ‘But not this time,’ I say to myself, ‘not this time.’
The day flies by, and as I finish work, I dial Suse.
“Hey love,” she answers. It’s like there’s been a shower, and her voice has come out. “I got my period!”
The clouds have parted and the sun is out. There’s even a rainbow.
If you can’t have a baby, then sometimes, a period can be the next best thing.
It’s time to start a new month.
* * * * *
Wednesday 28th July 2010
One year ago.
I sit in the pub, looking across the table.
“Just get on with it, I reckon.” Dan finishes this declarative statement, in his Scottish lilt, and takes a swig of his beer. “We did a lot of farting around at the start. I mean, really, when it comes down to it, I wish we’d just had a crack at IVF from the start.”
“I thought you started IVF pretty early?”
“Nah. Fuck no.”
“What did you try before that?”
“All sorts of shit. Including turkey basters.”
“I never knew that.”
“You never asked.”
“I guess I didn’t.” I take a swig myself. “Well, I guess they didn’t really know what the problem was with you guys.”
“Exactly. Unlike you guys, where you know you’ve got a blocked tube, we didn’t have that sort of certainty. We lost our pregnancy, and no one could tell us why. So we had to sort of start at the start. We did a round of hormones, and then tried the dye test, and gave it a few more rounds, and fucked around some more. And eventually we got onto the IVF. Personally, I just wish we’d done it from the start. It took us four rounds, after all.”
“Four harvests? Really?”
“Where were you this last three years?” he jokes.
“Being a guy, I guess. I mean, I guess I had just lost count. I don’t think I realised it had taken you guys that long.”
“It seems to have flown by for you, doesn’t it?”
“Funny that,” he says, laughing. “You only know how shit it really is when you’re the one standing in it.”
I sigh, taking another sip.
“So how many weeks are you now?”
“Bel’s thirty-nine weeks today.”
“Bloody awesome. I swear, you’re the only pregnant couple in the last year that I’m not jealous about. You guys have put in the hard yards.”
“I know. And some of our mates don’t even know how many rounds we did!” he says, in mock disgust. “We were pregnant before anyone else,” he says, nudging Adam playfully on the arm.
Adam has been quiet throughout this whole exchange. As the guy with a kid, he knows to lie low through the IVF talk.
I look back across at Dan.
“Where are you working at the moment?”
“The Women’s. In the neonatal intensive care.”
“Will you be there next week?”
“Really. What days?”
“Tomorrow until next Tuesday. Why?”
“Because Bel is being induced there next week. I might see you.”
“You don’t want to see me, mate. You don’t want to be coming to NICU if you can avoid it. Which you will.”
“Good point,” he says, nodding deeply. He takes another sip. “So you’ve done all of your tests?”
“Most of them, yeah.”
“But what about you. Have you done yours?”
“Wank into a cup?”
“Sure did.” He takes another sip.
“So what’d you get?”
“What was your score?” I look at him, suddenly understanding.
“What was my count?”
“Yeah,” he says, trying to sound casual.
“Ummm, I can’t remember exactly.” For as traumatic it was, I’ve forgotten very quickly. “Two hundred and something. Two hundred and twenty, two-thirty?”
“Bullshit,” he says quickly.
“No. No, I think it was.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have asked.”
“Why? What was yours?”
He takes another sip. We all do.
Nowadays, I can happily talk about wanking without getting embarrassed.
But, it seems, chats about sperm counts remain well out of bounds.
* * * * *
Sunday 18th April 2010
Gestation: 29 weeks, 2 days
One year ago.
“So how many weeks are you now, Bel?”
“Twenty-five,” she said, shifting uncomfortably in her chair.
“Wow,” I say, “a real live human in there. That’s awesome. Well done.”
“Thanks, mate,” she says.
I look across at Dan, and he gives me the exact same look that Bel just did.
It’s the ‘I get it’ look.
* * * * *
Dan and Belinda are twenty-five weeks pregnant.
Three years ago, they had a miscarriage, and four weeks later, Bel had to return to surgery for complications.
Ever since, they’ve been trying to get pregnant. Through multiple rounds of IVF, they scaled the ever-higher walls of probability, while all of those around them fell pregnant by accident.
They went through the ringer.
I’d been witness to that look in their eyes each time in those three years that one of their friends got pregnant while they didn’t. Everyone around them was pregnant but them.
Well, everyone but us, that is.
Now Suse and I share that look. Shit, we’ve taken out a patent on it.
Because while we haven’t been through quite the same thing, haven’t travelled quite that far down the same road – we’ve seen the signposts, and we’ve seen the distance to the destination.
And we feel the same urgency to fill the tank to the brim.
* * * * *
Bel and Dan continue to talk, one or other of them keeping their eye on Suse and me, aware of the cauldron of emotion brimming under the surface.
As their voices fade away, like an effect in a movie, I glance around the table. Lexi and Adam sit there, playing with their fifteen-month old girl, Sally.
They fell pregnant, just like that.
They don’t know the look.
I reflect on this. I sit back, and we are served our dinner, I run an inventory.
I scan a list in my head.
Of all the people that came to our wedding.
I list the couples off, one by one. As I do, I come to the striking realisation that at our wedding, there were only two married couples who didn’t have kids.
One of them recently lost a child at 23 weeks; the very definition of a tragedy. The others have labelled themselves as a ‘cautionary tale’. Molly and Jeff, our beautiful friends from Sydney, met later in life, and as such, left their run late. At forty-five years young, Molly took me aside one day, and said:
“Whatever you do, don’t leave it like we did. Please get in and have kids while you can. Let us be your cautionary tale.”
Every other wedded couple from our wedding day is either pregnant, or has kids.
Everyone, that is, except a tragedy, a cautionary tale, and us.
No wonder my life feels like a Shakespearian drama.
* * * * *
In fact, twenty-three of those couples have thirty-eight kids between them. And there are five more on the way. There were eight singles at our wedding, and two who were in stable relationships.
So to maths it up a bit: of those who are in relationships and can have kids – including those who don’t want them right now – eighty-three percent do. And this is just those of child bearing age. Add in our parents, those of their vintage, and the numbers rise even further.
We’re talking ninety-six percent.
Every single one of our married friends – one hundred percent of them – either have kids or want them.
And we’re in the three of twenty-eight couples who want them, and haven’t had them.
There’s the tragedy, the cautionary tale, and us.
We’re not quite sure what we are yet.
Sometimes, life’s a bitch.
* * * * *
With this thought in my head, we head to the Comedy Festival. Suse and I are in sore need for some laughter. And it works. It’s a fun time.
There’s nothing quite like laughing till you cry.
We don’t mind our friends talking about their kids. We get that this is now their life. But like I say, of our day-to-day friends, every one of them has kids now.
All of them but us.
So when Adam Hills gets on stage, we are ready for a topical joke. He’s not my favourite comedian, but the man is smart. And given my recent revelations, his choice of topic can not have been more apt:
“Having kids is a little bit like owning an Apple Mac. Once you get one, you never shut up about it.”
Suse and I look at each other, and fall apart.
It isn’t even his punch line.
But for us, it is.
* * * * *
Friday 12th March 2010
Gestation: 24 weeks
One year ago.
I visit my friends, while Suse goes on a girls’ night out. Libby and Jack have just moved out of their beloved flat in Richmond, and into a house in Blackburn, to be closer to Libby’s parents. They are – like every one of my friends – pregnant. They already have a 15-month-old tornado named Fletch. And on top of that, Libby is twenty-eight weeks gestation.
Fletch is a recent graduate from the short stay unit at the Children’s Hospital. He spent six hours in the waiting room, and then twenty-four hours with a tube down his nose rehydrating his way through a bout of gastro. The whole family subsequently got it last week, and it’s fair to say that Fletch is the only one who looks to have recovered.
It hasn’t slowed him one bit.
As I arrive, I walk through the door to find the three of them in the living area. Libby looks tired, twenty-eight-weeks-tired, while Jack just looks full-time-dad-tired. Fletch looks fine.
Fletch is a flurry of movement. He barrels around the house, always running, never walking. Since he learnt to balance, I have not seen him walk.
* * * * *
I’m given the guided tour through the house, in a state of repair, a builder friend of theirs helping with construction. As we enter one of the spare rooms, Libby turns to me.
“Fletch isn’t usually allowed in here. This is one of the special rooms.”
As if on cue, Fletch enters, looking around in awe.
“Fair enough,” I say, spotting four separate bare wires poking up from the edge of the carpet, at the back of the frame for a new set of robes. “Very kid-friendly.” I crouch down, recognising an ethernet cable, a phone line, a power line, and another unfamiliar cable. “An unidentified electrocution device.”
“Yeah,” Jack says, stooping, “I haven’t figured out what that one’s for.”
With that, there is a noise. We look around to see Fletch, his fingers gripping to a cupboard shelf, the whole thing angled precariously over him. Libby’s hand holds it, millimetres from his head.
“He just pulled it onto himself,” she says in disbelief. “He just reached out and pulled it.” Fletch grins, oblivious to injury that was about to befall him. “I can’t believe it,” she says.
“I can,” says Jack.
“I think we’ll lie that flat on the ground,” Libby says, her eyes still wide. “And I think it’s time to leave here, Fletch.”
Fletch lets out an unimpressed squeal as he is removed from the room and the door shut.
“Can he reach the handles yet?” I ask.
“Not quite yet,” Libby says, sighing.
“I can wait,” I whisper, repeating my new mantra to myself.
“Sorry?” Libby says.
There is no hurry, Mark.
Appreciate your freedom.
You can wait.
* * * * *
Jack and Fletch go off for a bath, while Libby and I re-enter the kitchen.
“How’s Suse going?”
“Yeah, ummm…” I pause. She sees the look on my face. “Up and down. The ectopic has been hard – it’s been really hard. And the hardest part is trying to stop it from become a project. Becoming pregnant, that is. It’s hard to not to let it become a big deal.”
“Yep,” Libby says, “I hear you. You stress so much the first time.” As if on cue, she takes a sip of wine. She lets out a laugh. “Second time around,” she says, waving the glass, “you chill out a whole lot more.” She rounds the word ‘whole’ in her mouth like a gospel singer.
“I believe it. It’s just that it’s been five months since the ectopic. Her cycle is usually clockwork, but it’s still all over the place. And she’s just worried about it.”
“Do you think I could get Nadine’s number from you?”
“Do you think she’d mind?”
“Hey, she’s a doctor. You’re a doctor. She lives for IVF. That’s her specialty. She’d love to help.”
“Not that I think we are going to need anything like that.”
“No,” Libby says, kindly agreeing.
“It’d just be good to have a chat to her.”
“Of course it would.”
“Just to know when I should start to worry.”
Libby looks at me, smiling in the way that only old friends can. “Because you haven’t started worrying yet?”
“Shut up.” She laughs heartily.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, when I was trying to get pregnant with Fletch, I used those ovulation tests to tell me when was the best time to have sex…”
“…Yes!” I burst in. Libby pauses, but I quickly continue, “Sorry, no… I’ve got a story, but, I want to hear this first…”
“Okay,” she says, winding up on a well-rehearsed tale, “well, I did those tests, religiously, day after day, trying to find out my peak days.” I nod excitedly, urging her on. “I get to the end of the seven days, and they’re all negative. I start moaning to Jack that I’ve gone into menopause. That I’m barren.”
“Yeah,” I say, still excited, “and… you just didn’t ovulate that month, right? And it didn’t matter, because you got pregnant next month?” I can’t help but try to finish.
“Nup,” she says, relishing the suspense, “even better.”
“I got pregnant that month.”
“I got pregnant the month it was negative.”
“The test was wrong!”
“That fucking test!” I yell out. “False negatives!”
“Fucking false negatives!” she yells back.
“Ninety-eight percent accuracy, my arse!” I yell.
“Both our arses,” she laughs. “The fucking thing was totally wrong! It tells me I don’t ovulate, I freak out, and I get pregnant. All in the same month.”
“I hate those fucking tests,” I say, venom in my voice.
We both laugh again, taking a swig. “Thank you,” I say. “That is the best story I’ve heard all week. We both get so caught up in it. It’s hard not to.”
“How do you not? It’s impossible.”
We go quiet.
“Did the packet have a purple woman on the side, smiling at a kid?”
“I hate that fucking woman,” she says.
I slap my leg, laughing so hard that I spill my beer.
* * * * *
Tuesday 2nd March 2010
Gestation: 22 weeks, 4 days
One year ago.
Suse doesn’t sleep much. She’s fallen back into a deep hole. That distant place she retreats to; where her thoughts swirl around in eddies of childlessness and lack of hope.
I get up. I try to stay light. I try not to get caught up in it. I remind myself not to try to change it. And I remind myself not to feel responsible.
Sometimes, I’m good at it. But other times, I suck.
Today, I suck.
Sensitivity and consideration have been there for the last few days.
But I’m running low on stock.
I need a new compassion cartridge.
“How are you today?” I ask.
“How do you think I am?” Suse replies tartly.
“Not good,” I say, answering blindly. I feel myself winding up. “You remember how you got out of it the other day? How you reminded yourself how lucky we are? And that we just have to be grateful for every thing we’ve got, and appreciate this time we have with each other right now?” I stop for a second. She chews on toast, looking at me.
“If I could just ‘turn those thoughts off’, do you not think, would have done it by now?”
I shrug stupidly. “I don’t know.” I check myself, trying to recall. “The other day, you told me how suddenly you just realised that things were not as bad as they seemed. I just thought you might try doing that again.”
“You can’t just stop someone from going through what they’re going through, Mark. You can’t just try and change it. You can’t control what I’m thinking, or how I’m thinking it. You just can’t.”
I pause, listening; trying to hear.
Realising that I’m just trying to resolve my own tension.
“Just trying to help,” I say.
Yep. That’s it. Just trying to help myself feel more comfortable.
Clearly, I’m far less comfortable with Suse experiencing pain than she is herself.
* * * * *
I head to work. It’s a busy shift in Emergency, where – thankfully – there are screaming children and wild mothers, all of whom remind me on a minutely basis that I can wait to have kids.
The structure and busyness also keep me sane. It’s nice to not have time to overthink. Intermittently, I wondering how Suse is doing. I text her, but get no reply. By the time I get home, she’ll already be in bed.
I unlock the door on arrival, and there I find her sitting in front of the TV, with her best friend, Ella, watching some trash. They both beam back happily.
“Hello, love!” Suse yells out, throwing her arms out in caricature, without moving from her slumped position on the sofa.
“Hello, love!” Ella chimes in. And then, they giggle like school girls.
“Hi,” I say, adjusting to the scene.
“How was your day?” Suse asks.
“Good. How was yours?”
“Shit before. Better now.”
We chat away, Suse happy and content. Anyone would swear they were on drugs. But they’re not. They’re just content in each other’s company.
They’re having a friggin’ blast.
I hop into the shower, thankful that Suse has swung back on the pendulum, with the help of a friend. Help I couldn’t give. It was something Ella managed to give: by offering friendship, not proffering advice.
There are some things friends can give that I can’t.
And that’s okay.
I’ve got a lot to learn.
* * * * *
Thursday 4th February 2010
Gestation: 18 weeks, 6 days
One year ago.
My wife is falling apart.
First there was the left shoulder reconstruction. Then the ectopic pregnancy. After that, the right shoulder tendinopathy. And now, the development of peripheral neuropathy.
All in the last six months.
All since we got married.
She’s actually, properly, falling apart.
* * * * *
On waking, we snuggle.
“How are you today?” I ask, still half-asleep.
“The tingling has moved to my chest.”
I feel my breath escape.
“Should I be worried?”
“Not yet,” I say.
But I don’t really mean it.
We get up. All through breakfast, mundane morning thoughts are repeatedly dislodged by less comforting ones.
“I’m going to contact one of the Neurologists I was taught by in Med School,” I say finally, chewing on Weeties. “He’s not going to ask you how you’re feeling, and he definitely won’t give you a hug on the way out. But he knows his stuff. He’s like an Encyclopaedia.”
“Thank you, honey.”
Suse heads off to work, while I head to my study to try to work. For the first few minutes I pretend that life is normal, and that there aren’t more important things going on. I keep the act going for about five minutes, before the thoughts start flooding in. Soon enough, everything is wet with fear.
And so, again, work takes a back seat. My presentation is taken hostage; tied and gagged, and thrown in the boot.
And I’m on the road to Neuroville.
* * * * *
I ring my training hospital. I haven’t spoken to anyone there for ten years. And even if it is a Receptionist I’m waiting for, it feels like I’m returning to the Principal’s office at Primary School.
After seven minutes of being on hold, I am put through to the Outpatient Department, only to be given a ghost number for a Neurologist in Richmond. Luckily, though, they gave me a clue. They let slip that his rooms are at in Erin Street.
The Epworth Hospital backs on to Erin Street.
For the next eight minutes, I ring and re-ring the Epworth, failing with one Receptionist, and getting the next. Each time, they answer with irritation, swatting at me like that mosquito that won’t disappear.
That same damn mosquito.
“Hello there,” I say on my third attempt, “I was just wondering…”
“…Listen, are you still looking for that doctor?”
“Well, I’ve never heard of him.”
“But I haven’t even told you his name yet.”
“What was it again?”
“That’s supposed to be a name?”
“Yes, he’s a Professor of Neurology.”
“Not here he’s not.”
“Well, he has been in the past.”
“Not since I’ve been here. And I’ve been here a long time.”
“We’ve got a Robert Samuels. He’s an Oncologist. Do you want him?”
I wait to see if she’s joking.
I’m still waiting.
“I was kind of looking for Enoch Samuels. The Professor of Neurology?”
“Well, I don’t care if he’s a Professor of Neurology, if I haven’t heard of him, then…”
I cut her off before she can end the sentence. I know how it goes. The other two already filled me in.
I ring back the Outpatient Department, again waiting to chat to my Primary School Principal. Instead, I’m transferred back to the front desk, and then finally onto the Department of Neurology.
“Enoch Samuels? Yes, we’ve heard of him.”
“Great. No one else seems to think he exists.”
“Well, he does.” I can hear the face she’s pulling. “He runs our department.”
“I know. I know exactly who he is. He taught me as a student. I certainly haven’t forgotten.”
I run the story, as quickly as I can. “Does he have private rooms?”
“These days, unless a patient has a complex genetic or degenerative pattern, they’re not his cup of tea.”
“Bog-standard peripheral neuropathy is something he leaves for mere mortals, is it?”
“Something like that,” she says, laughing.
She gives me the names of a few mere mortals. They have about a century’s experience between them. I ring each and every one of them, only to find that there is a waiting period of months for every one of them. The earliest possible appointment – with someone I’ve never even heard of – is in five weeks’ time.
I hang up.
I’m a little boy in the centre of a system; people rushing all around.
* * * * *
And so, once again, I phone a friend.
This time, the friend is a Professor of Neuroscience at the Children’s Hospital. Arnold is a kind man, a very kind man, who I know through my training in Paediatrics. He took me for practice exam cases, before becoming my actual examiner, in my final exam, in another state of Australia.
Flown there, just for the surprise.
“Hi there,” I say to his receptionist, trying to sound light, “I was wondering whether Arnold was around?”
“Not right at the moment. Can I help?”
“Arnold knows me from training. I need to speak to him about a certain issue,” I say deliberately. “I need to pick his brain. And I’d really appreciate it if he could call me back.”
“He’ll ring you back,” she says. “Don’t worry. He always does.”
* * * * *
True to word, within an hour, I get a call.
“I hear that you want to pick my brain.”
“Don’t know that there’s much there to pick anymore.”
“Yes, well, there’s more to pick than I have,” I say, again trying to sound light. “Arnold, my wife has had seven days of pins and needles in her arms and legs.”
I tell him the story, from beginning to end, rationalising and derationalising as I speak, still unsure whether I’m over-reacting.
After about two minutes, he cuts me off.
“Who have you tried so far?”
I give him the list.
“What about any of the peripheral neurology gurus?”
“Do you care where you’re seen?”
“What do you mean?”
“Does it have to be close by?”
“To get this sorted, Arnold, we’d fly to India.”
“Give me five minutes. I’ll call you back.”
Four minutes, fifty-six seconds later, the phone rings.
“Be at Suite 53, Private Rooms, Corpus Christi Hospital, at 5pm tonight. And just call ahead, to let the secretary know you’re coming.”
“Can do.” I feel my shoulders drop.
For a moment, I feel like my voice is going to crack. “Thank you so much, Arnold.”
“You’re welcome,” he says kindly. “Just get your wife sorted out.”
* * * * *
to be continued…
Wednesday 3rd February 2010
Gestation: 18 weeks, 5 days
One year ago.
So, I phone a friend.
I get onto a mate of mine who I went through medical school with. She, like me, travelled after our intern year. In fact, we travelled together through South East Asia, and then onto Britain and the continent, up to Scandanavia, and eventually from Turkey down to Cairo.
But after this, she got serious and finished her Adult Physician Training, while I continued to prevaricate, hanging out with kids instead.
“Hey mate,” she says.
“How are you, mate?” I reply, remembering that travelling forever breeds a familiarity that transcends names.
I give her the low down. I tell her the story. I fill her in on Suse’s symptoms and signs. I give it to her as straight as I can, trying not to let my emotional overlay seep through. She considers it; curiously, in that detached, disaffected way that you can when it’s not your own wife.
I know. I’ve done it many times before.
“Has she been on any drugs?”
“Well,” I say, almost defensively, “since the ectopic, there’s been a whole spray of meds that she’s been put on by her GP. And there’s a place that she’s been going to, since the ectopic,” I repeat, “that helps with acupuncture and Chinese herbs, and…naturopathy.”
There is a pause. “Dude,” she says, shucking, “you’ve got to get a hold on your woman.” It’s half in jest. But only half. “What’s in them?”
“Well, the Chinese herbs are many and varied. There’s the genus and species of a whole bunch of roots you and I have never heard of. Like, twenty in each.
“And the naturopathic stuff?”
“It’s unlabelled,” I say, holding it up and peering through it. “Other than saying that it’s ‘detox drops’.”
She says nothing. She doesn’t have to.
“Well, I mean, I’m used to working with oldies, not fit, healthy, 35-year-old women. But the principles stand. Whenever any of them come in with weird and wonderful symptoms, the first thing I look for is the drugs. Get them off everything that could be causing the problem.” She pauses. “Get her off the wacky juice, mate.”
“I already have. She stopped taking her last detox drops this morning when we twigged. She hasn’t had any since then. And she only started them a week ago.
“Well…that’s where I’d start.”
I gulp, taking a breath.
“Nah. Doesn’t present like this. It comes as a patch here or there. Not both sides.”
“Because that’s what Suse is freaking out about.”
“I don’t think there’s a woman in the country who hasn’t had hysterical hemiplegia for a few minutes thinking they had MS. We all think that for anything from a headache to a bumped funny bone.”
I cogitate some more, feeling the pressure ease a little. The MS mosquito buzzes away, continuing to circle, but not threatening to land. Not just now, anyway.
“And other causes? I’m picking your adult-trained brain, mate. We don’t do peripheral neuropathy in kids that much.”
“Yeah, yeah. Well, you go back to basics. Diabetes, alcohol, vitamin deficiencies…”
“DAM IT BITCH?”
“The mnemonic.” Pause. “For peripheral neuropathy?”
“There is one is there?” she says, laughing slightly. “Yeah, I vaguely remember it.”
“You’d remember it less vaguely if your wife had it.”
“Mmmm,” she says, pondering. She pauses a while again, before taking a breath in; a newly developed, end-of-consultation queue. “Get her off the whacky juice,” she ends.
I walk out of the study.
There is see Suse, furiously cleaning, scrubbing the pots that were left for me. She’s watered the garden, cleaned up, and now she’s washing the pots.
She looks up.
“Get off the poison, she reckons.”
“She doesn’t think it’s MS.”
“Weird presentation. This is not how it comes.” The mozzie buzzes close again.
“Really,” I say, with borrowed confidence.
“I was thinking while you were on the phone – could it be the Ant Rid? Could I have swallowed some? From before?
“I mean, I know we cleaned it up, but…”
“…Honey. You’ve been knowingly ingesting poison for a week. Let’s not lay it on the Ant Rid right now.”
“Okay,” she says. She keeps scrubbing at a pot.
The mozzie flies off and out of earshot.
* * * * *
Saturday 9th January 2010
Gestation: 15 weeks, 1 day
One year ago.
Suse picks up the Melways, flicking to the index page.
“So where is the Basin?”
“Near the foot of Mount Dandenong.”
“And that’s a place?”
“It is, love. It’s a suburb.”
I glance across at her, momentarily caught by the sarcasm. There hasn’t been much room for humour over the last couple of days.
Funerals have never made me laugh like they do others.
There’s something wrong with me.
I drive along, heading vaguely east, in the general direction of our friend’s farewell party; a celebration of a move north to greener and sweatier pastures. I await further instruction on directions, but no better than to push Suse when she is holding a map. She begins to flip, back and forth, between pages, sighing at shorter and shorter intervals.
“Is there anything I help with, love?”
“Not unless you can tell me why the pages aren’t consecutive.”
I look across.
“Well…” I pause, thinking carefully. “They won’t be vertically. But they’re in order horizontally.”
“Yes. I know that,” she says sharply, “I’m not thick.” She waits for a response. I don’t breathe. “And yes, horizontally, most of them are consecutive. That is, until you get to the Basin on Map 65. And then, Map 65 and 66 join Map 122 and 123, which joins Map 307 and 308.” She throws her hands up. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Because back in 1966 Melbourne only went out as far as page 66. Only since then have the outskirts kept growing.”
“But why can’t they just re-number it? Make it all neat again?”
“Because that would change the map numbers.”
“What do you mean?”
She’s gone from frustrated to intrigued; no mean feat with a map in her hand.
“Well, if people want to look at Glen Iris, they look up Map 59. No matter which edition. It’s always fifty-nine.”
Suse frowns, looking suspicious.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Who can remember that?”
“A lot of people.”
“A lot of people remember all of the maps in the Melways.”
“No, they don’t.”
“The CBD is on Map 43 and 44,” I say. “It has been since 1966.”
Suse flips to page 43.
“You’re so weird.”
* * * * *
We pull up smack in the centre of Map 65. Over the fence of middle suburbia, we can already hear the screams of happy children.
Both of us know that through the gate there will be dozens of kids, all running between parents, by now mostly oblivious to their miracles bestowed; only now aware of what they have not. It’s a wonderful trait we humans have.
I look across at Suse. She practices her brave face.
We exit the car, hold our breath, and enter. And sure enough, there they are – squillions of children. They’re strewn all over the place. Some are on the dance floor, in front of two huge speakers, bopping away to the music. Others are running around on the grass, playing tiggy. Several continue to pull at their parents’ hands, having not yet gathered the courage to mingle.
It’s like a pro-parenting television commercial.
Suse grips my hand tight. We take another breath, and then we walk around, catching up with friends. Everyone of them seems to have a kid. Or if not, they’ve found one for the evening. Again, we chat lightly, skipping from conversation to conversation, avoiding discussions of the places we’ve been, both physically and metaphorically.
And we steer clear of the vowels. We never mention the ‘A’ word. Or the ‘E’ word. Or, for that matter, the ‘I’ word. It’s all to avoid the ‘O’ and the ‘You’.
Abortion. Ectopic. Infertile?
Oh, my god. You poor thing.
* * * * *
The night grows dark, and with it, the children’s moods. Somewhere, at an unseen table, little paper bags are dealt to the kids. Their moods escalate in response, hitting an invincible high, before plummeting back to earth. Refined sugar is the smack of the pre-schooler.
Bodies are pushed, knees are grazed, lolly bags dropped, and tantrums ensue.
And that’s the adults.
Suse and I sit, having found our safe ground: watching the kids on the dance floor. A group of girls, spanning across ages, spin freely in a circle by the speakers. Next to them is an adorable African boy, his hair a frizzy mess, grooving effortlessly to the music. And then to his left, is a skinny white kid. He remains slightly behind, his eyes fixed in concentration, valiantly attempting to copy the older boy’s easy moves. He is earnestly, hopelessly, utterly uncoordinated.
Suse looks on wistfully, smiling frequently, lost to the conversation.
And then she suddenly rises, and heads towards the kids.
I sit there, talking to my friend, and I begin to watch my wife. Instantly, she is enveloped by the group; the tall kid, the free spirit, the Mary Poppins. The energy of the group re-doubles, delighted by the appearance of this grown-up with a child’s heart.
One of the girls takes her by the hand, and they begin to dance in a spin. After a few moments, Suse pulls her across towards the skinny kid, jack hammering on the fringe. Graciously, she rolls out her delicate hand, offering it to the un-co boy.
He goes still, his mouth open. He looks like he’s just been picked by the Prom Queen.
And then they dance. My beautiful wife, the grinning girl, and the agitated boy.
Their mouths open in laughter, holding hands, bopping away, giving in to the spirit of the game. One with no rules; a pure connection of innocence.
I smile. At my wife. Bathing in her youthful energy; a woman ripe for her own children to nurture.
Just aching to nurture.
* * * * *
After a while, Suse returns.
“You looked like you were having fun, love.”
“I was,” she grins. “How has it been over here?”
“Great. I’ve been watching you have fun.”
She sits down, hugging herself tightly to me. As she does, a woman leans across the grass.
“You looked great out there,” she says.
“Oh, thanks,” Suse replies, slightly self-consciously.
“You’ve got such a beautiful energy about you. The kids adore you.”
I smile at the woman, noticing the deep rings beneath her eyes.
“Which are your kids?” I ask.
Proudly, tiredly, she points. “Those two there.”
“Awww. I danced with him,” Suse beams.
“And he loved you.” She grins even more. “Do you have kids?”
“No,” Suse replies, catching herself, her grin halving. “We were pregnant, but…” She pauses, stopping herself. “But, no.”
Suse looks back towards the dance floor. She follows the woman’s boy with her eyes.
“No,” she whispers once more, the smile having left her face.
* * * * *
Friday 8th January 2010
Gestation: 15 weeks
One year ago.
Terry walks down the aisle.
Under one arm, he holds a coffin. It is white, and about twice the size of a shoebox. It has polished silver handles, but there is little need for them. It fits snugly into the crook of his armpit, wrapped in place by his massive forearm.
He is dressed in a red shirt with gold stitching; celebration colours. For here, today, we are celebrating the life – the very short life – of Val.
Val is short for Valiant.
* * * * *
Val was born at twenty-three weeks gestation. He had a brief, but courageous life, lasting two hours in his parent’s arms. He should never have been born this early. And having been dealt this hand, should never have lived even more than a few minutes. At twenty-three weeks, a baby’s lungs are so underdeveloped that usually there is very little ability to breathe. There is just not enough lung tissue to stay alive.
Five days ago, I missed a call.
“Hello, Mark,” Terry whispered into my voicemail, his voice beginning to crack. “Kim went into labour, and… and they couldn’t stop it. Our little boy was born just now, and they said he is…” There is a pause. “But he’s still breathing, you know? Fighting. And… and… I just don’t know what to do.”
Terry took a big breath, a long silence ensuing.
“I just thought…” Another long pause. “I don’t know what I thought. I just… I don’t know what to do,” he repeats. “And I thought… that you… might be able… to do something,” he finished, his voice fading as he hung up.
I rang back as soon as I heard the message. It was nearly fifteen minutes later.
“Hey, Terry,” I said.
“Hello, mate,” he replied, his voice empty. “I don’t know why I called you.”
“I do, Terry. And I’m glad you did.”
Through the end of the phone, I heard Terry begin to cry. This 220-pound Goliath, an ex-Novocastrian, broke down. I sat there listening, my own lip beginning to quiver.
“I just… I don’t know what to do.”
“I know mate,” I said. “Well, not like this, I don’t,” I continued softly. “But I know what it is to feel helpless.”
* * * * *
Terry continues to walk down the aisle, the coffin tucked under his left arm. Kim walks just behind, her hand lightly touching the lid as they go. There is barely a bump to be seen in her belly, her other hand resting lightly over it; as if to ease the ache.
Her eyes are vacant. She’s retreated some place. To a place of strength and reserve; to make it through the service. But it is a place of separation, too. She is with us in body, but even now, she is in shadow.
Just minutes ago, Kim spoke with amazing courage and beauty, about her little boy who had left. As did Terry.
In this: undoubtedly, unequivocally, the most painfully moving funeral that I have ever attended.
I look across at Suse. Her eyes are fixed on the couple. On all three of them, really, as they continue their slow funeral procession. Tears stream freely down her cheeks, unnoticed.
I grip her hand tight, but she does not avert her gaze.
I turn back, and I take it in. With Terry in red, and the coffin in white, the scene merges from rich colour, to shade, and then into Kim’s translucent complexion. Almost invisible.
And then it happens.
Terry stops, and his face screws up in agony. His entire body bobs, his eyes clenching tight. He brings his free hand to his face. Kim stands there, her mask remaining flat, still, watching. Silently, this huge man begins to walk once again. In his celebration shirt, his face crumpled like paper, his own tears now spilling like everyone else in the chapel.
All the while, continuing to hold an impossibly beautiful coffin under his left arm.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
Nothing ever quite like it.
And I hope to never again.
* * * * *