In the summer of 1969 I danced barefoot on the grass at the Toronto Varsity Rock and Roll Revival, hugely pregnant, a crown of white daisies on my long red hair, excitedly cheering John Lennon, Little Richard, Alice Cooper, and Louis, my baby’s father, up on the stage. Thousands screamed, danced and sang; the air was fragrant with burning weed.
I spent six weeks in New York City that summer, while the band recorded an album. Alone, eyes wide, cradling my growing belly in my arms, I explored the streets, bookstores and cafes. Astronauts walked on the moon and I turned nineteen that last summer of my youth.
My family was thousands of miles away and had no idea where I had run off to. My new family was a band of rock musicians, drifters and hippies. They helped me decorate a sunroom in our house, as a nursery. Joan made butter yellow curtains, Dave found a crib at the curbside and scrubbed and painted it with rainbows and flowers. We washed and air-dried diapers, sleepers, and receiving blankets carefully sorted from the thrift shop. There was a brand new baby carriage, a gift from the record company. I crocheted a blanket of multi-coloured squares. A beaded macramé pot of frothy asparagus fern hung in the nursery window.
One dark October morning when the contractions were strong and regular, I crept out of bed and called a cab. I didn’t wake anyone. Louis loathed hospitals and grimaced whenever I tried to tell him about childbirth. We’d been together three years so I was used to his strange ways; I was dependent on him and loved him impossibly. I let him sleep. I could do this alone.
In my room at the hospital, I tried to breathe with the pain but it was too strong. The nurse gave me something and I slept. I woke in a wave of contractions. Gasping, I asked, “How long?”
“A few more hours” she said.
I phoned Louis. He was still asleep.
“The baby’s coming, I’m at the hospital.”
Siobhain was born and she was beautiful. A tiny pink mouth, wisps of dark hair and seashells of curled up fingers. She made soft mewing sounds as I snuggled her in my arms, then the nurses whisked her away. I wasrolled out of the birthing room on a stretcher into a circus of friends with Louis in the forefront, beaming. Wesley’s big bushy hair and purple headband loomed above the rest; he wore bells on his ankles and was dancing and singing; everyone cheered. They even announced her birth on CHUM radio. I felt like a movie star.
It was dark the next morning when a kindly Scottish nurse brought Siobhain for a feeding. My babycould not suck hard enough to draw milk. Soon I was sore, frustrated, and she was howling with hunger. The nurse produced a bottle and Siobhain took it greedily, but the milk came down her nose. The nurse took her away.
She returned a while laterand told me gently, “The baby has a wee cleft palate and won’t be able to breast feed.”
I panicked.“Why… what is that?”
They showed me how to hold her upright and allow the milk to bypass the hole in her palate. Still, milk poured down her nose; it made her squirm and gasp as though she were drowning, making me frantic. They explained the hole was at the back of her palate, small but enough to let the milk through her nose.
“It’s not uncommon,” the nurse said kindly.
I did not believe her. The eldest of five children I knew about babies but not this.
The next day the nurse brought the baby and showed me how to startle her if she should turn blue. “Just flick her feet a little, like this,” she said.
“Why would she turn blue?” I felt dread.
“The doctor will explain,” she said.
Later,three doctors stood around my bed to describe my baby’s problems: a heart murmur, an umbilical hernia, cleft palate, and a turned-in foot. All repairable, they assured me. They were taking her to the Hospital for Sick Children for further tests and observation. When they discharged me in a few days, I would be ablepick her up.
The nurse came in later to bind my painful breasts tightly and give me pills to stop the milk. I cried in her arms. “It’s my fault,” I sobbed.
“You’ll need to be strong for her,” said the nurse.
They brought Siobhain so I could say good-bye. Alone on the bed behind the curtain, I undid her blankets and touched her tiny toes. Her foot looked okay. I checked her tummy and the softly protruding bump of her belly button, a bit of drying umbilicus clinging. I put my fingers gently against her chest and felt the steady beat, bump thump. Reassured, I re-wrapped her gently, all her parts known to me now, and held her, kissed her nose, eyes, cheeks, the corners of her sweet mouth, her fingers. I breathed in the delicious scent of her and held her softly against my bound chest. She gazed up at me with the little face I would grow to love more than anything I had ever known.
That evening the night nurse found me shaking and fevered with a serious infection and for the next three weeks, they confined me to bed. A few friends came at first, and stood awkwardly, not knowing what to say. Louis came, but only stayed a few minutes. I was worried, sad, asking constantly for news of my baby, for reassurance. It made them uncomfortable.
One day the head nurse arrived to discharge me. Small, sharp, and impeccably starched, she gave me my orders. She scolded me for being so thin. “You must take care of yourself, your baby is going to need a strong healthy mother.”
I left the ward and the hospital alone, on wobbly legs, not quite one hundred pounds on my five foot nine inch frame.
I couldn’t wait to see her. Outside the air was crisp and cold but the maple trees glowed golden in the brilliant fall sunshine. A cab took me to Sick Kids.
Now three weeks old, Siobhain was wiggly, active, and heavier. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes blue and bright. “She’s a good eater,” said the nurse,smiling, “and she’s very alert.”
Proudly I dressed her in a pretty gown and jacket, and a soft pink bunting bag. They gave me formula, physio instructions for the little foot, some bottles of milk and an appointment to come back in two weeks’ time.
I would return to that hospital with Siobhain hundreds of times over the years; each time I would be more knowledgeable and more resilient, andeach time she would be healthier and stronger than the last.
But on that beautiful sunny autumn day,I held her in my arms and walked out into the world, where we would grow up together. Just the two of us.
I count your tiny perfect toes
And fingers, yes.
Your heart beats against my breast
With an odd rhythm
So now I know.
I must love you to wholeness.