A Feverish Ball – 03/05/10
Clumsy oil pastel renderings of Mickey Mouse. An unfinished mural, a playroom with computers and a fishtank. The synthetic stench of baby cologne. An obese porter coos over Shamsie – ‘rubio’. A baby screams in unmasked agony down the hall, all the time.
The first room we are put in has peeling, pale blue and pink paintwork, a steel baby bathtub at the other end, a rusting wire grille over the third-floor windows, and a rickety metal bed whose remote control (to raise the head or foot) didn’t work. With the muggy sea air and the distant hellos of palm trees outside, I am taken back to Tanzania, to an imaginary hospital where children lie in dilapidated concrete block rooms, glazed-eyed with malaria, their mothers sitting patiently beside them the way Tanzanians have a near superhuman ability to do.
The first day we are there Rosa Nour trembles in a feverish ball in my arms, her cheeks smaller than when she was born, her eyes large and wild. Her fever was 39.1 degrees this morning. There’s nothing I can do for her except manoeuvre her carefully between changing table and bed, looping the drip tube around us like a slow-motion lasso.
My milk came in yesterday. I am a hormonal wreck, weeping constantly, the very sight of my newborn daughter in this alien machine room bringing home the minor horror of the situation. My breasts drip with milk, as though tears of compassion springing up to heal her. And then another wave of gratitute that it isn’t worse, that at least there is a hospital with doctors who are trained for this sort of thing. And they’re much better at it than I, having grown up on the idea that practically anything can be cured with rest, liquids and a hot water bottle.
The worst shock of being here, though, were the tests they ran this morning. In a cramped Sala de Curas, filled with three nurses, my midwife and myself, they folded over her miniature hand, a needle in its tiny purple vein, and massaged out a vial of blood, leaving the needle in to attach the drip to later. Meanwhile – and she’s working her lungs up in an outraged crescendo – another nurse sticks what looks like a hideously uncomfortable plastic bag over her bottom, telling me to let her know when she’s peed.
All this time I am stroking her hand and kissing her temple, trying to sing to her soothingly but the cool, certain movements of the nurses must be far more reassuring than my trembling voice.
When they start swabbing her back with brown disinfectant, they blandly inform me that they’re going to take a sample of spinal fluid and I should go sit next-door. I ask, numbly, if there are any risks associated with a lumbar puncture. The doctor – an icy cool, cynical type who seems to treat his job as a major role in a television hospital drama – shrugs, ‘Only that we don’t get anything.’ I leave, barely registering the route to the next room.
Sue brings her to me a few moments later. Rosa is quiet and calm, looking around her with those penetrating eyes that never seemed to have been blue, always dark as cool forest shade. A glucose-saline drip is taped to her hand like some creepy sort of proboscis, a metal box on a wheeled stand being pulled along behind her, a green light flashing intermittently like wing lights on a runway.
I realise I have a mild terror of hospitals, all its hard, plastic apparata, the grandfather clock ticking deceitfully from the drip feed machine plugged into Rosa Nour’s vein. She is no longer the tiny, portable creature she was. Now we are never alone, overshadowed by the robot on wheels with the immutable green LCD face.
I cradle her in my arms, stupefied, unable to believe we went from that magical, peaceful homebirth to this nightmare so suddenly. We’d raced down the stomach-churning mountain road to Motril in record time this morning, hair and teeth still unbrushed. Shamsie seems strong and unperturbed. He sits on the other bed with Sue watching a helicopter (‘helitotta’) touch down, receive a patient and fly off again. ‘She’ll be fine,’ Sue assures me, ‘They forget it it 5 minutes.’ But what about the lumbar puncture, the violence of it, the intrusiveness…? ‘As soon as she surrendered to it she calmed down,’ Sue replies.
At four days old, this girl is already teaching me something that 27 years haven’t managed to bash into my head.
This is the worst day; she has shrunken, lost that bouncy swell in her cheeks. Her eyes are peculiarly wide open, staring wildly. She trambles and clenches up her body in a slow rhythm, making little grunting noises, struggling with the heat and the shivers in her body.
I shouldn’t hold her too closely, the nurse advises, lest my body heat stops her from cooling down. The antibiotics take 24 hours or so to kick in, as Sue, my midwife, tells me by phone after she leaves. I am on my own now; we came in such a hurry this morning, even bringing Shamsie because there was no time to drop him off at preschool, and now Tom has taken him home for a nap and some lunch and to collect clothes and things for my as-yet undefined stay here.
Tonight is the worst night, too. Once Tom, Shamsie and Sue leave I am alone with her, without even a book or notepad to write in. Even my phone battery is ‘critically low’. There is another new mother in the room next door; I can see her through the window watching a screaming catfight on a Mexican soap opera, silently, with an earphone in one ear.
The possible distractions from the horrifying reality of being impotent with your sick baby become hideously neon-lit. I try praying for Rosa but I feel so hopeless I can’t even find much solace in that. The worst test I could face spiritually is this: being rendered numb, feeling like a glazed tile on the wall at a time when strength and hope surely should prevail. I curl up on the bed with her and wait for the paracetamol they are giving her to kick in.
Strawberries – 04/05/10
The room they move me to this morning is much less reminiscent of the third world. The paint is unscuffed, the bed is new and the buttons work – and there’s even an en suite so I don’t have to worry about leaving my baby to nip across the hall and pee.
The room also comes with a lugubrious Romanian roommate, the girl from next-door, who seems to enjoy bossing me about – ‘Don’t hold her so much, you’ll spoil her’ – ‘Put her the other way around in case she spits up’ – You’re walking around barefoot! Have you seen how dirty your feet are?’
She is 23. She also has a 16-month-old son. Her Ecuadorian husband’s family name is Medina.
She asks me to keep an eye on her 9-day old son a couple of times a day while she nips downstairs to have a cigarette, telling me to put his dummy back in if he cries, which he does – pitifully – right when I am feeding Rosa Nour and the proboscis drip tube won’t reach far enough.
He was born by ventouse, a suction cup applied to the top of the head. It’s given him a cone-shaped head, exactly like the jadeite Aztec sculptures I was looking at in my Phaidon book a few nights ago. A half-Ecuadorian, half-Romanian ancient, with slanted almond eyes shot with blood (the reason they haven’t left hospital) and thick, straight black hair standing up in shock.
I wonder if Rosa Nour can feel all the prayers being made for her around the world right now by people whose hearts are dilated with concern for her. I imagine I can see them – skeptic though I may be – alighting with a fluster of wings as though at a dovecote.
She’s doing well now – regained her birth weight already, her skin a good peachy colour, and feeding like a Fraser, so famous for their historical consumption of oats; the clan swelled its numbers and thus its army by handing out sacks of said cereal as a welcome gift.
Rosa clearly has their warrior genes, and perhaps also their taste for strawberries, passed on from the original Norman ‘fraisiers’ – strawberry-pickers. In Ecuador, according to my roommate’s visitor, new mothers are given strawberries to help them produce good milk. (Today the nurses brought me strawberries with my lunch, and Cavedad brought me some too – they must be in season. Caveboy succeeded in daubing yesterday’s sheets with their ruby juices. It is his birthday today; luckily he doesn’t have any perception of calendrical time.)
This morning brought another reminder of why new mothers need to be nesting with their babies. Tom had left my nursing bra in the car. I wanted to buy a notepad anyway and thought it might be a nice idea to stretch my legs. I also wanted to have a little adventure with Shamsie, who I had barely seen in two days – too long. ‘He’ll walk’, Tom assured me as he settled down on the bed with a sleeping Rosa Nour.
The boy knew the route out of the hospital better than me. I followed him in a stupor. We started up the hill, two rights as Caveman had instructed me – what could be easier? – but already it was feeling too complicated, too much pressure to get it right, too much potential danger if I didn’t. We stopped and admired some apricot-coloured hibiscus flowers bursting out of the hedge, and the exquisite purple orchid-like blooms of the Judas trees lining the pavement.
But Shamsie didn’t want to hold my hand, or even for me to hold his hood. I found a green bouncy ball in my bag, which he threw into the oncoming traffic. I bought him a ridiculously inappropriate Spiderman comic with a plastic gun on the front to placate him. He still didn’t want to walk, at one point actually giving me the cold shoulder.
Eventually we got to the ramp to the carpark, where I realised I didn’t know on what floor the car was parked on. And Tom’s phone was off. (I later discovered the car was parked right by the entrance.)
By now shaking, in tears and feeling like I was about to pass out, I somehow got Shamsie back up to the playground opposite the hospital where a few men who looked like they’d spent the night there were drinking cheap, own-brand booze on the benches. I prayed to the Great Air Traffic Controller in the sky for a kind passing helicopter to airlift me back to the hospital bed. Caveboy still wouldn’t budge.
I ended up carrying him on one hip (by God, he’d grown six inches and doubled in weight!) and racing back as fast as my panic-weakened knees could carry us. Articulated lorries bringing soft drinks to the canteen thundered by. Testosterone-fuelled Seats, lurid orange and green, revved hard up the ramps and screamed past. By the time we got back I was a gibbering wreck, fit for the Mental Health Day Clinic signposted on the ground floor.
Back in the ward, at my safe, electronically raisable, hygienically vinyl-wrapped hospital bed, I waved the proof – as if I needed it! – in my own stubborn, doubting face: giving birth opens all your windows, peels away an outer layer of your being, blasts clean through your protective shell. Don’t rattle your own cage to test the theory; for once, just accept the gift with gratitude.
The Lugubrious G 06/05/10
I don’t know why I’m torturing myself with the revolting instant decaf coffee they offer every breakfast and teatime here. Maybe it’s tapping into a ‘Spanish normality’ neurone. It’s certainly very Spanish here – from the obsession with hygiene (scrubbing newborns with soapy Brillo pads and dousing them in cologne) to the ‘mesón’ style cuisine they serve us – fish, potatoes, olive oil, more fish.
It seems my Spanish is deteriorating, too, whether from living in the ex-pat outpost that is Órgiva or the head-mangling experience of giving birth, or the shock of being in hospital for 5 days longer than in my whole life. Nurses keep asking me where I’m from – Holland?
Motrileños are known to be a species unto themselves. The town lies in the tropical belt of the Costa del Sol, where the muggy air, wind-tousled palm trees and preponderance of octopus have given rise to a new branch of Hispanic strangeness.
Rosa Nour has been fever-free for 24 hours now, and even put on 100 grams since yesterday. They’ll do a scan on her kidneys soon and – if her blood test comes back clean – we should be able to go home tomorrow.
If so I will have to take back my vast collection of goodies, brought by my ever biscuit-conscientious visitors (mostly Caveman). Beside my bed I have a bag of almonds, grapes, nísperos (loquats – delicious indigenous fruit like a peelable peach, with a flavour like mild Granny Smith). This morning I discovered my mobile ringing underneath half a cabbage. Not a strange health fad, but a peculiar request of mine to alleviate the hot breast pain of mastitis. No wonder the nurses see me as a foreign weirdo; I have half a grocery store beside my bed.
Then again, I’m not the only one doing strange things with food around here. At the end of the hall there is a card table shrine, bearing a massive cross to which are pinned dozens of paper flowers. Beside it is a small plastic plant pot containing a tropical flowering palm, and a green apple with a pair of blue-handled scissors stuck into it.
The whole ensemble, lit from behind by the net-curtained window, looks like the work of a deranged, Barbie-inspired voodoo cult. We ask a nurse what the apple is for, and we’re told it’s a Granadan tradition, meant to dispel ‘peros’ – buts. The shrine was put up the morning we arrived, which was Día de la Cruz. Whoever said science and religion couldn’t mix?
Lugubrious Romanian Girl is still bossing me about. I offer her a níspero and she declines, telling me the nurse will see than I’ve put the skins and pips on a baby sheet and tell me off for dirtying it. (They have, and didn’t.) Everything I do she questions, calling my natural birth stories, my post-birth herbal tinctures, my advice on massaging the breast to ease the pain, ‘tonterías’ – stuff and nonsense. She is clearly my Sufi test, a much-needed magnifying mirror exposing my own smugness.
Most of all, what irritates me is the way she complains endlessly about her baby son’s ‘gases’, lingering over the ‘g’ in a particularly self-pitying way which I shall christen ‘The Lugubrious G’. I can see her out of the corner of my eye, watching me as I change nappies, waiting for something to catch me out on. I shouldn’t complain, really; she showed me how to use the breast pump, and how to position the drip so that blood didn’t seep out into the tube. The nurses were too busy with a screaming emergency to mention this to me.
Her mother was here yesterday. She was a tanned, handsome woman who nevertheless had a face that somehow looked well disposed to snarling. She’d wiped Shamsie’s strawberry sludge off his chin; it seemed the only Spanish she understood was ‘Gracias’. The potential snarl in her face, I realise, is nothing but a visible fear of not understanding. I see the way the nurses talk to LRG and her Ecuadorian husband – slowly, extra loudly – compared to the way they talk to me, a nice, pale-skinned, blonde Northern European who clearly isn’t scrounging off the state. Even the amiable nurses carry the same poison-tipped prejudice.
Apart from her wide, almond-shaped eyes, Rosa Nour looks more like myself as a baby than Shamsie. There’s a photo of me at a few days old, black and white, wrapped in the same white waffle-knit blanket as I use with her, frowning defiantly into the lens with my red V-shaped angel’s kiss flaring between my eyebrows. I feel suddenly like my own mother, gazing down at a newborn me.
The day after she was born Sue asked me if it felt different having a girl (she had had all girls). The answer that sprang out of that lucid, uninhibited post-birth glow was that you see yourself in your daughter, and you love yourself in a way that you never did before. A baby girl makes her mother fall in love with herself – not the way Narcissus did, infatuated with his own reflection, but an acceptance of things as they are, of yourself as you are,of the reason you were made the way you were. It means happiness with the way everything is Divinely rendered: it is all as it is, and for that it is worthy of being loved.
The Gitanos – 07/05/10
They moved Lugubrious G and her Aztec-headed baby into another room last night, since there weren’t many patients on the children’s ward. I flaunted my herbal medicines to the empty room, left the en suite door open victoriously, went to bed thinking I’d get a better night’s sleep.
I was woken at 1.40 am by the large – in corporeal as well as numerical terms – extended family of a 5 year old boy brought in about midnight, all yammering away in lisping, rasping, hysterical Spanish at his bedside. His young mother kneeled at the bedside with her hands clasped. The neon lamp above his bed casting an unforgiving light over him as though he was already on the mortician’s slab.
A nurse saw me nursing Rosa Nour, rubbing my eyes, and bluntly told the men to leave and the others to shut up. The night vigil party dispersed; granny and mum stayed up in the vinyl-covered chairs. I asked what he was in for. He’d fallen over backwards while playing football, hit his head and was bleeding from his ear. The young mother bowed her head tearfully over him, and in my sleepy state I saw plastic-sheathed candles spring up about him, smelled frankincense, saw the gloomy shadows of a high-ceilinged church in Holy Week appear behind the phantasm of her suffering child.
He wasn’t dying, but the appeal of melodrama seems to infuse Spanish culture in every sphere, from the eerie hoods of Semana Santa to the cheap daytime chatshows reuniting long lost relatives. Tears jump to eyes with minimal provocation, and voices rise in angry volume with similar ease. I wonder if the permeability of their defenses is a sign of hearts softened with poverty, hardship, the devastation inflicted by Franco, the Civil War, even the faint genetic memory of the Reconquista, stirred up with every reenactment of the Moros y Cristianos, in which Moorish roles are snapped up in seconds by teenage boys eager for a bit of borrowed exotic glamour.
I sound cynical. It must be all that English training, at schools and bus stops and dinner tables, to mistrust sudden outbursts of feeling. I have been programmed to believe that open displays of honest love must be phony or, at the very least, a litmus indicator of a lower level of rationality. Clever people don’t waste their emotions sharing them – they brew them up with sophisticated ideas until they can be distilled into something that looks disturbingly like a theory. Their highly evolved works of artistic originality can be appreciated by the upper echelons of the thinking class. Raw tears are brutish. Only simpletons feel, indulging in it like a sport, experiencing Aristotelian catharsis in prime-time waterworks fests.
What an unbearable emotional snob I am.
The Mexican soap opera level of pathos is a farce, it’s true. But the wretchedness of being in hospital with a sick newborn, stuck with needles in her vein, her spine, the horror of it magnified by the hormonal tsunami of the post-natal period, feels very, viscerally real. I have started bursting into tears on the phone with newly made friends. Rarely do I cry in the company of lifelong friends, or even my mum.
The truth is that I am skeptical and unsympathetic to other people’s pathos, while a relatively minor suffering such as this one can so quickly carve a hole in my cynicism, those defenses protecting the weak and fearful from being exposed as a soft-fleshed human being like anyone else. Recovery from illness is not so straightforward for most people on this planet, no state hospitals bringing them grilled fish and strawberries every lunch, little more than out-of-date drugs and empty hope keeping them alive.
The boy wakes up and is sick all over the floor. Someone mops it up with a plastic-backed sheet; it stays there, glued to the tiles with a thin layer of watery vomit. His mother sobs. They have been up all night, worrying he is having a brain haemmorhage, treasuring what every parent masochistically expects might be their injured child’s last moments.
More of the family of ‘Antuuuunio’ have arrived, babies and children in immaculate miniature adult outfits and pushchairs. Some of the 5 aunties are fair, with green eyes, Visigothic and slender, while the others are pudgy and dark with Cleopatra kohl. The great-aunt who hobbles in has the henna-auburn hair of the gitanas; the gold crucifixes distract from the Rajasthani in her.
The men – those who are still around – are lean and axe-nosed and copper-red, Cherokees with greasy curls and spotless jeans. The whole family are noisy and impassioned, affectionate, foul-mouthed – even the darling 3-year-old girl with blonde corkscrews, yelling ‘Maricona!’ (‘Bitch!’) at seemingly random intervals.
Every time I look up from my book another few members of the family have materialised. I lose count; probably thirty or more pass through in two days. One auntie is particularly ferocious, with three dummies on her keyring as testament to her tripartite maternity. She gabbles so fast and fearsomely it sounds a though she is rounding on her sister, guns blazing, but from the bits I catch it transpires she is merely telling a lively anecdote about how her daughter (called, incongruously, Heidi) once had a bit of a fever.
Another of the visitors, of indeterminate kinship, reveals she is pregnant. With twins. Does this family ever end? I am tempted to decamp to LRG’s room; it will serve me right for slagging her off.
Tonight will be our fifth and last night. Cavedad has been fending for Shamsie all by himself for what will have been six days; I have to go home and face the music. All my fears about coping with a potentially jealous – and abundantly affectionate – toddler as well as a newborn, a house, a husband, a writing career, and trying to keep my sanity and happiness intact, have been forcibly put on a back burner, and have caught up with me at last.
No more lunch brought to my bedside while I leisurely read Bruce Chatwin. No more scribbling in a diary for the first time since I was in training bras. But today as I spoke to Shamsie on the phone, the only thing he repeated back to me was ‘Mama come home’, and it made me weep with longing.
I feel like Dorothy, whirled by a typhoon in nurse’s uniform into some surreal alternate universe where people stab scissors into apples, gypsy families miraculously multiply and Aztec babies with bloodshot eyes compete with Mexican make-believe for their mothers’ attention. Kansas is not such a bad place; it’s where things are real, after all. Bring out the red sparkly shoes…