Happy Birthday, Big Boy

My beautiful big boy Jacob is eight today. He’s smart and funny and often interesting. This is what happened eight years ago, from my and Greg’s perspective. jacob birthday

The Crumbling Castle

‘You feel this?’

Some guy is down there, fiddling around with my vagina, putting a catheter in. I’ve never met him before. Above his surgical mask, I see only his eyes, blue and watery.

‘It’s cold.’

A hand appears in front of me and there’s a blur of colours. ‘Hey, what do you think?’ The anaesthetist has hauled out a slim volume of photographs from somewhere – perhaps his pocket, his briefcase, or a corner of the operating theatre, kept always at the ready. I’m paralysed and naked from the waist down, yet I treat his photos with great politeness, even feigned interest. ‘She’s cute,’ I tell him. His little girl has curly blonde hair – certainly pretty, like a doll.

‘Here’s another one.’

I suppose he’s bored. He’s done his bit: jackhammered my back with a chemical cocktail, leaving me limp and warm, spread out against the coldness of the steel operating table. Except I don’t feel the cold, just a druggy warmth – a slackness. It’s the morphine. Now he’s thrust a photo of his son in front of my face: the boy is dressed in a Superman outfit, the bright blue cloak flowing behind him. For a moment I’m him – a flying Superman, staring at my white half-naked form, my pale blue hospital gown flapping behind me.

I know they are going to cut me open now. The morphine is strong; it stands guard in my brain, a burly bouncer blocking the fear, letting just the good stuff through – blissful.

‘You’re going to feel some tugging.’

‘My God!’

I don’t panic. I locate the voice, taking my time. It’s Greg.

‘All that stuff is coming out of her.’

I want to tell him that it’s called amniotic fluid, but it’s too much of an effort. I know he has picked up nothing from the antenatal classes. He’s clearly struck by my flooding uterus – I wonder, idly, if he’s disgusted, or whether the thrill of anticipation bites into him knowing he’s about to meet his son for the first time.

The gynaecologist and his assistant play rugby with my belly. They heave it this way and that until finally my ball-shaped uterus releases its treasure. They hold him high.

‘He’s beautiful,’ says Greg, his voice catching.

Then: ‘He’s weeing.’

That’s the story that will be passed down. Jacob, we’ll say, you came out making a wee, or, as he gets older, we might say pissing, a man-sized word. It could be taken to mean anything: he’s comfortable with his body, he has no decorum, he’s free-spirited. The interpretation will come later, when Jacob’s personality is known.

I’m calm, as if it’s a painting or a pot that I’m about to view. In fact, I’m still not convinced that there was a baby in there. If they held up a lovely kelim rug, rich and velvet-red, I’d be pleased and probably not too surprised. These drugs are amazing, I think.

They hold Jacob above the screen and, true enough, it’s a baby. Yet it is just that – a baby. Not specifically my baby, or our baby, but a kind of generic baby. One that has dark hair, and is really tiny. The first discernible feeling that trucks through the morphine – one that isn’t only simple serenity – is pride that the baby doesn’t look like me; his hair is dark like Greg’s. I’ve always coveted dark skin and easy tans, being so pink and pale myself, and now finally here’s a part of me with this capacity. Behind the pride is a sigh of relief: he looks normal, his fingers and toes are all there, and he has what he’s meant to on his face – a nose, a mouth, that kind of thing. Despite the scans, despite the reassurances of the doctor, a part of me had always believed I’d produce something deformed, monstrous.

The morphine chugs cheerily through my intravenous drip; my family and Greg’s come to visit. Every now and again a nurse wheels a baby into my room – the baby is in a transparent crib, heaped high with blankets, even though it’s very hot outside. They attempt to latch the baby onto my breast. Nothing much happens. They wheel him away. I have a cup of tea. Greg’s mother, Arlene, grips my arm and tells me I’m wonderful. I shrug, not agreeing, but not disagreeing either.

‘Yes, it’s a beautiful baby,’ I hear myself say throughout the day.

Time loses its usual rhythm. Many hours seem to go by though it’s still light outside, but then everyone leaves, so I know that night is approaching. I desperately want them to stay. They tell me I need my rest. I ask for pills to help me come down, to sleep. I crave a shield between myself and what has just happened – if it’s not to be people, then chemicals will do.

Suddenly, I’m standing, looking out the window. The scene is like something from a Brontë novel: windswept, desolate, wintery. A howling wind flattens the grass; the sky is black, no moon or stars. In the distance stands a castle, roofless, with stone walls that are crumbling from age or neglect. My drugged-out brain asks something; the question ebbs and flows. I can’t quite catch it, but I know it’s imperative that I find the answer. Slowly, it comes together: Have I had a baby? Now it thumps in my head, over and over. I mightily hope I didn’t have one; I remember being pregnant. Like a deranged accountant, I struggle to reconcile these two entries. It seems ludicrous that I could have had a baby, and yet …

‘Too much anaesthetic,’ says the doctor the next morning. He says it like he would say ‘It’s a sunny day’, bright and upbeat.

‘I was hallucinating. I didn’t know I’d had the baby.’

‘Really.’

His interest is more invested in the external, in my caesarean wound, positioned just above my pubic mound and stretching its length, than in my internal flights of fancy.

‘You must have overdosed on the morphine.’

I shift in the stiff clean sheets of the hospital bed, feeling foolish, embarrassed by my desire not to have a baby. My unconscious is clearly too stupid to hide my wishes in something more impenetrable.

It reminds me of the times I’d take a child to my lap when pregnant. I’d hold the little one close and parody being a mother. I’d stroke the infant’s soft hair and say baby-friendly things about animals or colours. It was an act of deception, designed to show myself and others that motherhood came naturally, and that the tremor of disgust, sparked perhaps by a snotty nose or a gummy eye, didn’t exist.

The baby doesn’t care about my hallucinations. How I wish that he didn’t exist. Instead, he craves existence – it pulses through him in the sharp outrage of his piercing cries. Existence requires food, which requires me.

It’s very early in the morning, three or four o’clock; the nurse stands beside my bed like an evil demon there to extract her pound of blood.

‘Baby can’t feed without a proper latch.’

You think I’m doing it on purpose? My nipple, plump and full, taunts the three of us. Impatient, or tired, the nurse has had enough of this masquerade. She grabs my offending body part, letting it rest for a moment between thumb and forefinger before roughly squashing and palpitating it like it’s a lump of Plasticine, into a more appropriate shape. Now she stuffs the nipple back into Jacob’s mouth. He spits it out, not satisfied. For just a moment I feel a spark of empathy: he seems as out of place outside me, in the frightening hospital surroundings, as I feel beside him. His world is as terrifying as mine.

The nurse sighs loudly and tries again, a yanking, twisting motion: again failure. Tired of turning my nipple into a straw, she uses her fingers to milk my breast – it’s agony. The nipples are forced to release their thick yellow colostrum.

‘What are you doing?’

‘It’s late, Mommy, and your baby needs this now.’

Drop by drop, the yellow goo fills a teaspoon. It reaches the rim and she crams it into the baby’s mouth. Not caring about its artificial presentation, he sucks greedily.

With what rationality remains, I come to realise that my mindset is wrong: against my baby’s needs, mine are insignificant. The three-hourly torture – the sharp, agonising pain of breastfeeding – is there to teach me self-sacrifice. My body’s priority is not to look sexy or to get aroused; its only function is to serve my offspring. I’m a disciple of motherhood now.

On the second day the paediatrician comes to visit. ‘I’m ready to leave,’ I tell him. My thinking goes like this: if I can get out of this place and go home, then things will go back to how they were, magically reversed. ‘I’m feeling much better,’ I say. This is not true, but the painkillers are devious – they return my body in snatches. I reach for a glass, sip some water: see, I’m okay. Now let me out of here.

‘It’s not you I’m worried about – it’s your baby. He’s losing weight. There are two of you now, remember. There’s absolutely no way you can leave the hospital today.’ Shame floods through me – of course, it’s not just about me: there are two of us now. And one of us is shrinking even if the other one is still as large as ever (the birth has done nothing to shift the beach ball of my belly).

Hospitals, like schools, like prisons, have a rhythm that is quickly learnt by their inhabitants. Jacob and the catering woman, Brenda, dictate my rhythm – their beat is food. Brenda doesn’t speak, at least not in the conventional sense, using words and sentences. Her communication consists of a list, which she thrusts into my hand: chicken with salad, roasted chicken, chicken sandwich, chicken schnitzel – a common denominator of chicken.

Jacob visits with an equal and regular determination. He is wheeled in periodically, yowling, in his plastic box. Because it’s day two, no one stays to help me.

‘He’s hungry, Mommy,’ says the nurse, and then she’s gone. I hate being called ‘Mommy’. It’s just him and me. His body is terrifying to touch, limp and soft and helpless. I don’t know what to do with him; his mouth slips away when I put him to my breast and his howl quickens alarmingly. My throat tightens. I, too, want to cry.

I ring reception: ‘I need someone immediately. The baby won’t latch.’

There’s a pause, an inward sigh: another rich white woman completely incapable of breastfeeding her child.

‘Don’t worry, Mommy. Someone will come and help you.’

A momentary sense of reassurance; someone will help me. The baby won’t die; they’ll get him to eat. It will be okay.

A tap-tap on the door.

‘Come in.’

It’s Brenda. Above the baby’s cries, her eyes make their habitual request – the list is thrust at me. I’m not hungry; I’ve hardly eaten since the birth, which makes her presence even more superfluous.

‘Can you get some help? Please. I can’t feed the baby.’

I feel desperate. She seems to notice the crying for the first time, but her task supersedes any human suffering.

‘I’ll have a cheese sandwich and a salad. Please call someone …’ I plead to her retreating back.

Jacob’s cry does not sound human to me. It’s more like a small, desperate animal clawing to life. It creates the most intense feeling of anxiety I have ever known. Months later, I’ll read about the relationship between the release of anxiety hormones and a baby’s cry. Right now it feels like a giant hand is squeezing my belly, releasing toxic acid that rises to my throat.

Another knock and a big, bulky woman enters. She cranks up my bed with a lever.

‘Support his head with your right hand and bring him cross-length to your body.’

I’m a useless dancer and this feels like a dance: Jacob is my partner and I’m meant to lead.

‘Perhaps the football grip would work better for you.’

The football grip! Male words in this most womanly of pursuits stress the craziness of this new world I’m in. She tucks the baby to my side as though I’m about to run for touch with Jacob bobbing beside me. It’s no better: he howls desperately. She does the twisting thing with my nipple again (later, a black bruise spreads outwards from those heavy fingers; it takes days to disappear) and Jacob finally latches. His anxiety diminishes instantly; his tiny cheeks inflate and deflate.

With the baby latched, my attention shifts to the door, which appears to be edging open. A tray makes its way in, behind which stands Brenda. She deposits her offerings by my bed: a piece of roasted chicken and some potatoes. No cheese sandwich.

I say nothing; it seems fitting. Each time Brenda appears she presents a meal, always including chicken, not of my choosing. Sometimes it’s tasty, sometimes it’s not. In my freaked-out mind, I wonder if the chicken lady has been sent to teach me a life lesson. You thought you wanted a cheese sandwich, or a baby, but actually you don’t know what you want. Here’s what you’re getting, now make the best of it – and while you’re at it, surrender yourself to something larger out there that isn’t about you or your comfort. I eat what she gives me and don’t complain. I’m learning to be a mother, I think, as I persevere through some soggy bread pudding or a meagre square of salad that tastes of crunch and water.

I visit Jacob in the nursery because I remember being told that I must watch how they bath and change him. My back has collapsed under the strain of the additional twenty kilograms I carried in the last few weeks of pregnancy, the ligaments and tendons stretched paper-thin. I hug the walls as I limp through the hospital, unable to walk without support. People look at me in a vaguely interested way – like what the hell’s wrong with her? – until their features settle into a bland, compassionate stare. In the nursery I’m not sure which baby is Jacob; luckily, they all come with labels. I try not to make it obvious that I’m reading them. I watch as he is bathed, which seems so arduous a process for no clear upside. His pink little body is scrubbed clean – of what? I wonder.

And then it is time to leave.

I’m still unable to breastfeed, but this doesn’t seem to worry the nursing staff. Nobody, in truth, seems to notice. I request a flask of formula. They keep forgetting to make it up for me. Even asking for the stuff seems tantamount to killing the baby slowly. Breast is best; it’s been hammered into me. Breastfeeding is natural: ‘I loved it,’ says my mother, whose memory of it dates back a third of a century. I have no idea how to make up the thin, pale liquid I finally extract from the nurses. All I know about feeding the baby I’ve learnt from the antenatal teacher: ‘Take the baby,’ she whined, holding up a plastic doll whose head she had twisted backwards (it stared at us, unblinking, with its inscrutable face), ‘then take your breast.’ She pinched hers for those of us unsure of its whereabouts. ‘Tjoeps.’ As she said it, plastic baby and breast met, a forever-happy union.

Clutching the still-warm poison food, I hobble out the ward and down to the parking lot. Greg’s there – and Jacob. There’s also a nurse, Winnie, who has carried the baby to the car and is now meant to strap him in. She has no idea how to place the baby in the car seat. Surely she’s done this a hundred times before? Greg’s sweating, like he did at our wedding, and Winnie’s fat presence is not comforting. Jacob responds with his single solution to life’s problems: a plaintive, shrill bleat. It does nothing to reduce our sense of utter helplessness.

Eventually we drive off. A feeling of dread cloaks itself around me – perhaps Jacob too. My life as I know it is over.

Cut the Cord

It’s five in the morning and I’m wheeling Lisa’s blue suitcase through the empty hospital lobby. The wheels of the suitcase go tlicket between each tile. On the left we pass a cafeteria with a display of chocolates on the counter and You magazines stuffed into a wire rack. A cleaner sits at one of the tables, eating a packet of orange Chipniks, her mop thrust into the bucket of grey water next to her chair.

When we get to room fourteen, a dormitory with no one else in it, I take a picture of Lisa lying in her bed. A blanket covers her gigantic bump. Soon the sun will rise; now she stares ahead, frightened into silence. In a distant, toneless way she says that they are going to cut her open. A fat, smiling nurse comes to take some information, and slowly records it on her pad with a stubby pencil, an act punctuated by my repeated thanks. Then Lisa turns to me. ‘I’m scared of what I’ve made. I’m so slapdash. It’s ridiculous to think I can make a baby. What if he’s blind?’

So far I have avoided thinking about our lives after the birth, and I’m not prepared to consider whatever features the baby might or might not have. ‘He’s not blind,’ I say firmly.

‘How do you know?’ she asks. I sit next to the looming Lisa mountain, speechless. It occurs to me that I will have to give a lecture on fictional characters to my philosophy class tomorrow, and I wonder what I will say. I take out a notebook and begin to write, but I feel too distracted to think about philosophy as Lisa lies in misery, so I sit quietly with my notebook in my hand.

A male nurse comes to wheel her in. I give him a toothy smile. Why am I being so wheedling? Maybe I’m embarrassed by my giant wife, as if she’s done something stupid and I need some goodwill to fix things up.

I walk along the passage next to her trolley, and then she is pushed into the operating room while I am led into the changing room. A cheerful doctor gives me two rosy shoe coverings that look like Lisa’s shower caps, and a thin pink raincoat. Standing there dressed like a big salmon, I miss her terribly. Why am I in a locker room while she is being prepared for slicing? I feel a nausea of desperation, but when I look at the doctor I am silent. My fear of institutions conquers me. He leads me into the operating theatre, and there is Lisa sitting at the edge of the bed, surrounded by her gynaecologist, who greets me in his keen, boyish way (‘Good to see you again on this special day!’), the anaesthetist and a nurse.

I bustle over to Lisa in my rosy shower-cap shoes. I hold her hands with a dizzy wash of love and dearness and need. ‘I’m here for you,’ I say, but I am clinging on for dear life myself.

‘Ag, nothing to worry about,’ says the anaesthetist. He is wearing a martial-arts sweatband with a motif of cartoon turtles. The pattern goes all around the sweatband. No matter where he turns, some turtles are always visible.

‘I’m going to dope you up,’ he says to Lisa, touching her upper arm. I feel a sad tenderness for her. She seems alone among all these steely cutters, nattily dressed under their coats, and while the rest of them will finish their operations and then have lunch, my poor wife is going to be scissored and bleeding. As for the baby, I don’t want to think about it. All my worries are for Lisa, and there is nothing left to spare.

The Ninja Turtle anaesthetist puts up a screen, with Lisa and me on one side and her belly on the other. For a few moments we are secluded, my wife and I. We are both the youngest in our families. As toddlers we each sat under the table at mealtimes, warm and safe with a forest of legs around us. Now we lace our fingers together, with a screen for shelter.

There are vigorous movements behind the screen.

‘We can see the head! Take a look, now, Dad,’ says our gynaecologist heartily, ‘if you want to see him coming out.’

I rise. I see a knife, and a great gush of red fluid pours over all the sheets. ‘Dear God,’ I say. Then the gynaecologist’s hands pull out a bloody baby with black hair and closed eyes.

‘What does he look like?’ says Lisa. Although her voice is weak, I can’t believe she is talking at all after this enormous thing has been taken out.

‘He’s beautiful,’ I say, and I am crying. ‘He’s beautiful.’ The baby pees, his tiny penis sending a fine, clear stream straight into the air. The doctor holds him over Lisa.

‘He’s beautiful,’ she says too, in a voice like someone calling out from miles away.

‘Do you want to cut the cord?’ asks the gynaecologist. The baby is carried over to a side table, where he pees again. They hand me a pair of scissors, and I make for the gleaming blue-white cord snaking out of the baby’s stomach. I am about to snip when the doctor says, ‘Just a sec,’ and puts a clip over the cord on the baby’s navel. I’ve nearly killed him, I think, and he’s just one minute old. I imagine cutting that cord before the clip goes on, and a hose of fluids juddering out of my child. I cut. Snip, two snips, and it is done. With my scissors I make him ours. Then the baby is taken away and I am left with Lisa.

‘How do you feel?’ I ask.

‘Good,’ she says. I wonder whether everything will be fine after all, and if having a baby isn’t, in fact, quite simple.

Already the baby is back, now in a plastic box on wheels, ready for his trip to the nursery. ‘You’ll need to provide a nappy for him,’ says a nurse.

‘But didn’t you give us nappies when we signed in?’ I ask wildly.

‘No.’

‘Where do I get them?’

‘The pharmacy.’

Running to the hospital dispensary, I pass my parents and my parents-in-law. ‘He’s beautiful,’ I shout. My mother manages to kiss me as I run past. At the pharmacy, the computer system has frozen, and the clerk and I spend half a minute staring at a throbbing cursor on the screen.

‘I’ll pay later,’ I say, and hump a bag of one hundred nappies up to the nursery. A nurse tells me that she must measure the baby, who is still in his plastic box, now with his eyes open and confused to the depths of his being. I press my finger on the top of his box. His hand reaches blindly towards my finger. It is heart-rending.

The nurse is the same genial round person with the stubby pencil we encountered before the birth. She begins some futile task – moving a file, I think, from one cabinet to another – while my baby lies, alone in the world and stuck in a plastic box.

‘Sister,’ I say. ‘Sister, I want to hold him.’ I have been taught to say this by the midwife in her antenatal classes. I may not have listened much during those classes; I may have dozed off a lot, but I do recall her insistence that we shouldn’t let the nurses push us around. The baby has to go on the father’s chest straight after birth to experience the warmth and the heartbeat, and now I am letting the nurse stall me. I become frantic and outraged. No more wheedling.

‘Nurse,’ I finally say, as she is telling me that she needs to weigh the baby, ‘I want to hold him, on my chest, now.’ She looks into my mad eyes, opens the box and gives him to me. I unbutton my shirt and open his blanket so that we are skin to skin. Holding my baby is heavenly. His eyes are closed, and he lies damp and warm on me. I drowse into a kind of sleep, a primal swoon where it is just him and me.

After a timeless period of drifting along with my son, a woman comes up and asks if I am mister something-or-other. I say yes. She sits down on a chair opposite me and gently says, ‘We have the results from your son’s test. There seems to be a hearing deficiency.’ She looks at me kindly.

I stare at her with bovine astonishment.

‘Hey?’ I ask. She begins to say her piece again, this time more slowly.

‘My son has just been born,’ I say.

‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘Wrong one,’ and she leaves.

Jacob and I continue, drifting unperturbed through space together in the corner of the nursery. I wonder briefly where Lisa is. I’m sure she is somewhere in the hospital, and that seems good enough. Then I notice a machine on the mantelpiece near my head. I watch it as Jacob lies on my chest. It appears to be a clot of iron tubes and glass pipes. A nurse passes. I ask her about it.

‘It’s old – we don’t use it any more,’ she says.

‘What’s it for?’

‘Breasts.’

The ancient breast pump begins intruding on my idyll with my son. It is too rigid to be placed near our warm, fleshy union. So I begin getting bored and uncomfortable, and after a while I ask the nurse to put the baby back in his box. Then I go to find Lisa.

Both families are gathered. My mother is talking to Lisa, bent over her great round body. Nothing seems to have changed; her belly looks as if she will keep having kids, rabbit-like, for a while. My father sits on a chair next to them, looking uneasy. Taking up most of the space in the room are the Lazaruses, my wife’s family, who have opened up Lisa’s gifts and are unwrapping her chocolates, chewing from the fruit basket and telling jokes. I jump up: I have suddenly remembered, as I look at my wife, that the first thing she wanted to eat after giving birth was sushi. She couldn’t have it during her pregnancy in case she poisoned the baby. So I leave the hospital and drive off for food.

At Woolworths, roaming the shelves – where is the sushi? – and buying other snacks as I go, I encounter a breezy colleague from my first and most disastrous job in information technology, when I lived in a flat in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, growing fat with misery and loneliness until I came home to Cape Town. I haven’t seen him in a few years. As I approach he jiggles his cellphone to show that he is on a call. Strangely, I feel obliged to wait by his side until he has finished. Then he asks how things are going. I reply that I am very well; my wife has given birth this morning. This seems implausible, something I’ve made up in the middle of the pasta aisle at Woolies.

‘That’s great,’ he says.

‘Yes.’

Then he says, ‘So what’s going on otherwise?’

I say goodbye and go back to the hospital. ‘Well done,’ says my father, sitting nervously on his chair but wishing to show his support for me when I arrive with my bag of goodies for Lisa, most of which – apart from the sushi – I eat.

That night I go home. I have to get some sleep before my lecture the next morning. In fact, I still have to prepare my lecture. Our two dogs are roaming the garden, restless without their dinner. I pour pellets and mash some chicken jelly into two bowls, then sit in the lounge, looking at the wooden floor. The schnauzer pads in, licking her lips. Before I go to bed I sit with her on my lap, thinking nothing. My hand strokes her grey-and-white hair again and again, strumming at her softly.

I have swirling, smudgy dreams. At three thirty the next morning I wake up to prepare my lecture. I read with total focus, my mind narrow and sharp. By seven I am exhausted. I call the hospital to speak to Lisa. She picks up the phone next to her hospital bed and slurs into it. It sounds like, ‘I can’t move the bed.’ Then I hear a clunk; I picture the phone falling from her hands and dangling.

‘Lisa, Lisa!’ I shout, but there is no time to worry. I have to drive to university. At eight I stumble down the steps of the lecture theatre to the blackboard, thinking how I must look: blue shirt, untidily tucked into my pants; an uncombed thicket of hair with a bald patch in the middle. I spread out my overhead projector sheets on the lectern. The black words printed on them look spiderish and alien.

‘Sorry if I’m a little spaced out,’ I say to the class. ‘My son was born yesterday.’ I start lecturing with the feeling of abruptness I always have, a jerk from a fluorescent room into an abstract world. Soon I am warmed by my philosophical lullaby about fictional characters.

‘What sort of thing is Sherlock Holmes?’ I say. ‘Not a fleshy creature like you or me, clearly. But not nothing either, because we can say many things about Holmes – that he lives in London, for instance.’

‘No he doesn’t,’ says a clever boy in the front. ‘You can go to London, but you won’t find him.’

‘He lives in a fictional London,’ says his girlfriend, who is sitting next to him.

I take refuge in the ensuing discussion of how, exactly, Sherlock Holmes exists. The jangling events of the previous day recede slightly.

But after my lecture, I drive to the hospital and run into Lisa’s ward, feeling panicky. I find her looking desperate and pathetic in her gown, sitting on a chair. A nurse is sitting on the other chair, speaking harshly.

‘We didn’t give you too much anaesthetic,’ says the nurse. ‘We gave you exactly what Doctor said.’

‘Hello,’ I say, with as much authority as I can, hoping that my word will bring order to this miserable scene.

‘She’s accused us of giving her too much anaesthetic,’ says the nurse. Lisa looks at me, clearly scarcely able to think.

‘Can’t you see she’s confused?’ I say. This nurse is treating Lisa callously because there is no one to stop her. ‘Thank you, Sister,’ I say. ‘I’m here now.’ The nurse leaves and I’m alone with my bewildered love. I crouch next to her and stroke her hand. She looks at me, frightened, and says how sore she is.

‘Where?’ I ask, expecting that her poor sliced abdomen will be on fire.

‘My ankles,’ she says. Ankles? And before I can say anything else, she looks at me with her head cocked and asks, ‘Are you real?’

I try to prove I am real by stroking her hair. I can see that she isn’t convinced. For a few minutes we say nothing and I stay crouched with my hand on her arm. Then the baby is wheeled in.

‘Time to feed your son, Mom,’ says a nurse, and plunks the baby onto Lisa’s lap. The two of them struggle to clamp the infant’s mouth onto the breast. The baby reddens and squawks. The nurse bunches Lisa’s breast and pinches her nipple, and my wife groans.

Advertisements

Not to be confused with an STD

We’re obsessed with counting things: years, money, children, marks, calories. Up until thirty, increasing age seems, if not desirable, than at least acceptable. My idea – and just remember, you heard it here first – is that after thirty we should stop counting the years altogether. Let’s just call it STBD (not to be confused with an STD): Some Time Before Death. If you’re Jewish and neurotic, you could add W-CHAT! (Which Could Happen at Any Time!).

By the time you reach my age, 42, two adults (21 times 2), the whole birthday thing has become a little tired. Having said that, I was touched by all my birthday greetings yesterday, and I’m not sentimentally inclined. I don’t know what that means, except that I’m becoming soft, and that it’s odd to have all those people, some from 25 years ago and others you’ve never met before, nestling together on a FB page. For people who like to compartmentalise their life, Facebook must be a nightmare.

But I like the STBD idea – just think of the parties. When I turned thirty, I had a big, noisy bash and my father ate a tray of dagga cookies* and someone – actually, I know exactly who did it – bashed a hole in my wooden floor from an activity that he might have referred to as dancing. But by the time I turned forty, my ‘Day of the Dead’  party was tamer:  things had calmed down. Greg says he remembers being dragged to an altar by three women who blessed a glass of tequila and then forced him to drink it. But it’s an implausible story. And my night wasn’t like that. My thinking was: I had kids. I had to get up early in the morning. Sure, you can be a little bit wild at forty. There’s a last reckoning with youth but the whole party idea feels slightly more desperate than it did at thirty. STBD takes away that desperation – it’s an equaliser.

At the gym this morning I saw M (not his real name). From gym gossip, I know he discovered a uranium mine when a young man. (Now that I think about it, are uranium mines ‘discovered’? Do you just stumble across one while out walking one day?) Anyway, he has knobbly skinny white legs, but still wears shorts. He walks with purpose; he retired in his early fifties with more money than he could ever hope to spend.  I was doing a series of impressive (in my mind’s eye) boxing manoeuvres. He stopped, caught my eye and mocked my upper cuts. He’s 90. But maybe I should stop counting – maybe we all should.  Maybe he’s just STBD and he doesn’t need a number at all.

*They had no effect on him whatsoever.