When Heckle was about the same age as the baby inside me is, I started to fall apart. We were six weeks into life with an extreme premature baby and still hanging out in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Several of Heckle’s counterparts had progressed to the healthier and happier High Dependency Unit, while others had gone to other hospitals for surgery and bits and bobs. We were still there.
Every morning, I packed my lunch, caught the same ferry and bus, with my laptop and little cooler bag with my fresh batch of sample jars labelled, EBM (expressed breast milk), date and name. I had to walk quickly to make it in time for the doctors’ morning rounds. The rest of my day was timed around Heckle’s change times, ‘visiting the dairy’ (aka pumping milk) and working in between.
The days varied little. There was the time, I left my little cooler bag on the bus and had to collect it from the local bus depot. Nothing like having to collect sample jars of expressed breast milk from a jolly bus driver to break up the day. I tried to act like I was just collecting my lunch, but I knew from the quizzical look in his eye that he’d had a peek and was dying to ask. I smiled, snatched my cooler bag and high tailed it out the door before he plucked up the courage.
Our holding pattern was because the first course of steroids ended and Heckle went down hill, slowly. We decided to give him another course of steroids and yes, cranked up his risk of cerebral palsy another twenty percent. The lesser of two evils.
The second course of steroids kind of worked. It bought more time and gave Heckle enough time to recover enough to hold his ground. His little lung capacity still had him working away like a steam train, day and night.
I fantasised about stealing him, running off with him and an oxygen tank.
‘What would happen if I stole him?’ I asked one of the nurses, making sure I had a grin on my face to hide the truth of my feelings.
‘We’d have to call the police.’
‘Fair enough.’ I knew my fantasy was irrational. He was in the best place, and my role as his mother was of limited use.
I dreamed about running off to the South of France and changing my name. Instead, I plodded on.
People tried to distract me with things in the world outside, but my soul never really left the side of the humidicrib. My mother in law kindly gave us tickets to the theatre, but if you ask me what we saw I can’t tell you.
I do remember how a woman who knew us came up to see how I was doing and somewhere in the conversation said, ‘Oh, those little premature creatures, they’re not really human are they?’ I wish I could tell you that I snapped back, ‘Those little people have more heart and courage in one tiny finger than you’ll have in your entire life.’ Instead, I stood there and stared like a fish staring out its tank.
I always tried to be with Heckle through his medical procedures, as studies showed that babies feel less pain when their mother or father is around and I hated the idea of him going through all that alone.
On one particular day, Heckle needed another blood transfusion, which is pretty common for prem bubs, as their systems are still set up for getting all the goodness from the umbilical cord and not for producing their own red blood cells. The problem was that things were not going smoothly, because they were starting to run out of veins to use, making the micro-surgery a lot harder. I knew I was making the doctor feel uneasy by staying and staring, as the blood splattered everywhere, but I couldn’t leave. I knew what she was doing was unbelievably difficult, but I was angry that it had got to this. We had run out of veins and my baby had already suffered enough. How did it get to this? I was so angry.
This was not my life. I had never been to hospital. I was a good person, wasn’t I? Done good deeds, been kind and thought good thoughts. If this was ‘meant to be’, then fuck it all. He was just a little boy. What had started as a little, tiny nick in my placenta had got us here.
I stormed home, not knowing what to do with myself. All the things Heckle had suffered would not stop replaying in my brain.
I hated that he had to work so hard, I hated that they had to take blood samples from the heal of his foot so often, hated how the breathing equipment rubbed his nose raw, hated all the tubes that had been shoved down his throat and the list went on and on. Yes, yes, they were keeping him alive, but it didn’t stop the loathing.
The guilt of not being able to keep him safe in his nice, warm amniotic bath festered and belched below the surface of my thoughts. The feeling of uselessness made me want to punch something, hurt something, make something suffer too. No, instead of my boy. My precious boy. Why couldn’t I be the one suffering instead?
I walked in my front door and into my bathroom and collapsed to the floor, screaming. I pounded the floor with my fist and I shouted, ‘Enough.’ Over and over and over. I wish I could tell you that I had thrown countless bottles of wine at those white tiles, because the image of the broken glass and red wine seems to fit the feeling. Instead, I just punched and screamed, over and over.
‘Cybele, are you okay?’ my neighbour asked from outside the window.
‘Fuck off,’ I shouted.
‘Sorry,’ he said. I didn’t have the space in me to care.
My fists kept pounding the floor, but I could feel nothing. I pounded and pounded. Shouted and shouted.
‘Cybele, are you all right?’ my neighbour from the other side asked from outside the window.
‘Fuck off,’ I said and kept pounding and pounding. A sob spewed out of me. My chest heaved and eventually, the tears came and flowed, on and on.
A key clicked in the front door, followed by footsteps and Gordon wrapped me up in his arms and rocked me. I don’t know how long we stayed like that.
‘Shit happens, doesn’t it?’ I said.
‘Yes, yes it does,’ Gordon said.
The randomness soothed me. There was no rhyme or reason. Some things we can control and some things we can’t. Sometimes things just happen. All we can do is our best.
‘How did you know to come?’ I asked.
‘The neighbours called me.’
This episode started to shift my thinking, but it is what happened the following week that changed my life.
I’m doing these fortnightly Belly Reports to remind everyone who can donate blood to do so. Wherever you are, your country needs your blood!
Heckle and I would not be here today without the generosity of the people who donate blood and we are not alone. One in three people will need a blood product some time in their life.
This is the Australian blood bank link, but every country has one.