By Joke Debaere
As my pregnancy was coming to an end, I often googled “water, breaks, signs”. Facing the Big Moment, Google was my refuge. Just like it had been the first couple of weeks. I had found a Dutch website that compared the growth of my fetus week by week with a piece of food. In one of those first weeks they said she was as big as a chia seed. We referred to her, of whom we didn’t know the gender yet, as ‘our chia seed’. But apart from the laughter I also remember having my oats for breakfast and being stupefied, thinking of all those times that I had eaten oats with chia seeds. The simple thought that I swallowed many things the size of something that would turn out into a human being.
How can a being with a definite character, appearance, tendencies, limits sprout from something that small, that you can swallow so thoughtlessly? A very common universal process, yet mindboggling. Not to speak of how such an extremely tiny thing can change so many things in one’s body. I knew I was pregnant when I woke up one morning with the feeling that someone had switched on the light in me. I have a selfie that we took that day with Francois and his brother, my eyes are unusually big. I still had some doubts though, how could I be so sure? But as I fell asleep that evening after eating a big meal, fantasizing about munching a huge piece of meat, I knew: “yes, I am pregnant” – since eating big pieces of meat, since I was little, has never ever been a fantasy or real longing of me. So something the size of a chia seed turned my body upside down, made me literally feel seasick for four and a half months, twenty four hours a day. Something the size of a chia seed was now a full grown baby, about to be delivered.
I had a strong feeling she would come early. Not prematurely. Just ready and eager to come into this world. I shared this thought on a Sunday afternoon with my sister in Belgium, probably checked websites once more on how to recognize water that breaks. And around eight o’clock that evening it all started. I was standing in the kitchen and big streams of water were pouring out of me. No contractions yet, but pools of water. As if someone had turned the tap open. Ironically, all the websites I had checked said the same thing: please don’t expect a Hollywood type of dramatic and sudden outpouring of water. Some women even don’t notice anything at all. So there I was in the kitchen, fully prepared to experience for the hundredth time how life is not a Hollywood movie. Yet experiencing exactly that. Just without the panic and hysteria that always accompanies such moments in romantic comedies.
The midwife came, from Hamburg, about 2.5 hours of driving away. She checked my heartbeat, the baby’s heartbeat, we chatted a bit, all very easy, and then she went to bed in one of the beautiful rondavels on the property. She assured us a couple of times we could call her anytime, for whatever reason, but I only asked for her help around seven o’clock in the morning. I had been awake the whole night, experiencing firm and regular contractions. Painful, for sure, every four or five minutes, but also much more bearable than I had imagined them to be. It was like strong period pains, but with this big advantage that the pain, always steadily and loyally, so it felt, each time came to a full rest. It felt like contractions were designed by nature for that reason, to give women that zero point, that absolute and very regular point of rest. Our midwife was surprised we had waited so long to call her, as the pain now was getting very strong and came every one or two minutes. But I had had Francois all along, who was there to embrace and support me, whenever I needed that.
And so the three of us went into some magic hours, in the very same homely space where Mira was conceived. Mira, the little girl that I was about to see with my own eyes. I am a bit surprised I must say that I call those hours magic, looking back on it, writing this down on my phone, while having Mira in my arms, lying on the same bed where it all happened. Was it magic as in falling in love and flying high? No of course not. Those last hours, she was born at 14h, were harsh, building up to some sensations that I can compare to nothing else I have ever experienced. They say the body creates a certain type of hormone right after giving birth so that you as a woman forget the pain, just to ensure you would in fact want to do it again. I can imagine it really works that way. Feeling and feeding Mira’s beauty so many times a day, for over eight weeks, definitely puts those painful hours in a very soft and tender perspective.
The last few hours of labor were the most difficult ones for me. Every sensation was almost unreal, yet at the same time as real as never before. Mira wanted to move, to get out of me. The first moment I felt it I cried. I felt my whole inside changing. I felt this stable little home inside of me breaking open. “I don’t want anything to happen to her” I cried, imagining how huge the transition was going to be for her, coming soon,. From warm water to air. The world in which we breathe that air is not always that warm, we all know that. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the vulnerability of her having to make her way through that narrow passage. How come we are the only mammals for whome it is so painful to give birth? They say it is because we have not adapted well enough, evolutionary seen, from walking on four legs to standing up right.
The pushing was for me – forgive me the upcoming comparison – simply like that, as if she was going to come out of me through my ass. “Yes. As if you would be the first person ever on this earth to whom this happens.” so a friend of Francois joked recently as I shared this. All pressure of Mira coming down was building exactly there. No one had every told me that. I had heard it feels like dying, like splitting open, like something you will never succeed in doing. But not that it felt like being constipated and pushing hard to get it out. Karen, the midwife, assured me this was perfectly normal but it made me think and wonder. Maybe I was thinking and wondering too much. Maybe I gave my thoughts, my brain too much space because I struggled to relax into the new sensations. Maybe it is an unrealistic aspiration not to feel so completely strange and unreal when going through those last hours for the first time. But pain in my life always felt like it is a certain type of pain. They kind of come in groups, categories of sensations. I could always cluster pains, compare them, talk about them. “Is it like a needle? No, more like something burning.” Conversations like that. Yet now I experienced something I could and cannot compare to anything else. I have read so little about it in female literature. I got so hungry for it as my pregnancy came towards its final end and I remember thinking, in those last hours: “Remember this all very well, Joke. Then write it down, as detaildly as possible, so that you can give other women the details you are so hungry for yourself.” But now I understand better why this big moment is surrounded with so much mystery. Maybe the hormones did their job. I don’t recall deadly pain. Just sensations different, so very different from all other sensations I had ever had. Francois shouted along with me, like a supporter for self expression. “Yes, baby, yes!!!”
So then. Our chia seed arrived. Silently. Well. I screamed like never before. But she felt so serene and calm. I can’t remember everything that was being said or done those very first moments. Just the other day Francois referred to some things that I can absolutely not remember. I do recall that I said quite a number of times, looking at her wet body: “She’s so big, she’s so big, she’s so big.” Not the most catchy, romantic Hollywood type of thing to say. I was just astounded that this, in my eyes huge being, could have been in my stomach all those months. We cried. Laughed. Admired. Embraced. I fed her for about two hours, on my chest.
I will save you the graphic details, but I lost unusually much blood. The midwife gave me a strong injection to stop the bleeding and started sewing a tear while I kept breastfeeding. I didn’t feel any pain, just pure bliss, with Francois holding me and her so closely, so tight. Around seven o’clock, the midwife went to the local hospital hoping to able to fetch something there. Silence entered our space. I thought it was a good moment to call my parents. As I was with my father on the phone, sharing the good news, I felt an excruciating pain, almost more painful than giving birth. I told him I had to put the phone down. We called Karen and asked her to come back as soon as possible. From here on the account turns into a different story, with much more rush, tension, action and adventure.
Turned out that the pain had been evoked by pressure building up from blood spilling from an open internal artery. The blood could not escape due to the stitches that sealed the tear. Karen then undid the stitches to relieve the pressure. Now the continuous spilling of the blood could be clearly seen. Karen tried to block the artery, but did not succeed. The blood kept coming. When I then saw the expression on Karen’s and Francois’ face, beholding this, I knew we were hitting a very serious situation. We needed a hospital. Karen was also concerned that there could be more internal sources of the bleeding that she was not able to establish and check..
I am going to skip some graphic details, but it all led to one of the most dramatic moments: at about seven o’clock in the evening, I was being carried to our van by two strong men on the muddy grounds of our property, having prpbably lost about a litre and a half of blood already and still bleeding, five hours after giving birth to Mira. It had rained dramatically hard for so many weeks that the mud was too thick to reach our cottage with our van. I had sometimes wondered in advance: “What if something urgent happens during the homebirth and our van is not nearby?” So it did. I slipped through their arms on the ground twice, as the men had to carry me in a very uncomfortable position so that I could keep pressing a thick cloth on the wound. Our midwife appeared from the big entrance hall, shouting in the dark: “Hurry! We don’t have any second to lose!” That moment I realized something. What exactly did I realize? That I was in the middle of a life and death story. Though everyone around me assured me that I was not going to die, this was my biggest fear and I had expressed it, as I had seen the expression on the midwife’s and on Francois’ face some time earlier, when they saw what exactly was going on with my bleeding body and realized we urgently needed to get me to a good hospital.
Karen had been very soft and gentle all the time. My labor took 16 hours in total. 16 magical hours, on our very own bed, the bed where we had created this little amazing being that was now in the arms of Francois, as I was absolutely too weak to lift any weight. On an emotional level, that was so much harder for me than the birth itself. Not being able to hold my daughter in my arms. I could only observe the way Francois held her so tight, with his face so close to her, she, still naked, unwashed, there was no time for that, in a little thick yellow blanket. He was amazingly good at comforting her. When I asked Karen, who was at first bent over the open artery, trying to fix it: “Am I going to die?”, she replied something like: “Only if we don’t do anything about this right now.” With this very same calm voice that I got to know so well of her. Francois also assured me this was no life or death situation. But falling twice on the muddy grounds, feeling the blood slipping out of me, realizing this was all happening somewhere on the remote African countryside, totally unsure of how the state hospital would receive us – knowing some hectic stories about state hospitals – I was just trying not to think too hard about all of this. No. There was actually not even really time to think. We just had to act. Quickly. I shouted as loud as I could: “Francois!! Come help them carry me! Fran-cois!!!” Our landlady, Hester, who was in the main building with him and Mira said that she trusted that I was not doing too critically bad all in all, if I could still shout like that.
I was put on the back seat of Karen’s car, Francois would follow us with another car. Karen drove to the state hospital, checking on my wellbeing regularly, saying: “I don’t know what you do in situations like this, but I pray.” She took my hand, firmly, and prayed out loud, all the way – for the open artery to close itself well, for the hospital to come with a good solution, and mainly for me to remain calm. Those minutes were not appropriate obviously for starting an intellectual discussion on my disposition regards on religion, on my relationship to God. I just squeezed her hand, very grateful for her presence, her voice, feeling how I got this strange calmness over me. It really felt like I could die with a smile on my face. “Ok, Joke, get that thought of dying out of your mind.” I told myself, yet I didn’t succeed in doing so. This was all so new to me. I had been blessed with a very healthy, physically disaster free life, so far. What the heck was waiting for me in the coming hours?
We arrived at the local hospital in Stutterheim. We had checked in advance what the state of this hospital was. We had seen it was a small, clean, well run hospital. They had a theatre, where they could do Caesarean cuts. For anything more complex we would have to be referred to the hospital in East London, one hour drive from here. We knew this risk, yet never imagined this scenario. Though I had often thought silently, driving past the hospital during my pregnancy: “Oh life, please don’t make me land up there.” Yet so it happened.
A very young doctor, the only one present, halfway her twenties I guess, looked at the situation and quickly came to the conclusion this was beyond her capacities, and beyond the technical capacities of the hospital. They had to call an ambulance, which had to come from East London. I must say I felt like shouting: “Why is this not like in the movies?!!!” You know, all those American action scenes where doctors take charge, ambulances are there right away, with heavy sounds and perfect equipment. But this was, this is, Africa. We made the choice to give birth here. Now I had to live with the consequences. This was an adventure. That is the least you could say. Yet still, what outcome would it bring us? While Hester helped me putting pressure on the wound, as my hand was getting sore from pressing as hard as I had ever pressed anything for so long in my life, and the midwife was talking in Xhosa to the nurses and doctor, I expressed my fear again. “I know it is not needed, but I do fear I am going to die. I just have to express it, otherwise it stays in my body.” I don’t know exactly what happened after that, but I do clearly remember it led to the moment that Francois also came to my bed, and the midwife saying: “I don’t believe in fate.” That moment, those very words, changed my life. Not to believe in fate. Not to believe that fatal events are waiting around the corner, ready to grab you, to smash you to the ground. Karen and Francois believe in taking action, in staying as calm and positive and possible. I do not regard myself as a neurotic believer of doom scenario’s regards my own future, yet we were touching on a deep undercurrent of fatal fears in me. Her words resonated in me and I thought with an inner sort of smile how funny it was in a certain way, to come to this almost philosophical discussion, while waiting for an ambulance in the middle of an emergency situation. I found a focus point there, on the hospital bed and surrendered myself to the waiting, with all the uncertainty that accompanies a situation like mine at that time. In the meantime, the bleeding had actually stopped! There was a blood cloth that formed a natural barrier for the blood to come out. I could hardly believe the words, but they said my situation was stable.
The ambulance arrived. I was driven to the vehicle in an old wheelchair. About to experience my first emergency ride. Francois was walking along with me. He and Mira were going to accompany me, through the dark African countryside. He was still able to comfort Mira. I observed it with a feeling of deep wonder, bliss, gratefulness and tenderness. The driver decided to take a short cut, which turned out to be an unhappy decision as the heavy rains had carved out deep potholes in the road. The ambulance had to stop every two minutes, hardly able to cross the holes. As my body went up and down so often due to the bumps on the road, I got concerned that the blood cloth might detach itself. I had no idea whether something like that was possible, but I asked the nurse if the ambulance could stop for a second so that she could check the situation. She talked to the driver in Xhosa and then I heard her voice in the distance (it felt like it came from very far), saying: “We wait until we find a safe spot. It is not safe to stop here.” I couldn’t stand the idea of driving through unsafe territory and simply decided to deafen my feelings. I literary told myself: “I cannot use these fears, I just won’t feel them.” It helped. I heard her remark, I knew it evoked panic, but I didn’t feel it at all. I just looked at Francois sitting next to the bed on which I lay, still holding Mira so closely in his arms. She was sleeping all the way. We are going to travel a lot with Mira, going from performance to performance. Only 8 hours into this world, she was already experiencing her first road trip of more than an hour.
We arrived in a six months old state hospital. Top of the bill equipment, new floors, new paint on the walls. Seeing this outer look simply made me feel good. I cannot put it otherwise. It reminded me of home. Yes, that first world – world, where I had never experienced anything like this, therefore a world where I can still imagine all emergencies to be handled fast and efficiently. My mind linked shiny new equipment and paint with efficiency. An irrational link but it helped, for now. The Beatles have a song that goes like: “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right.”
We were told to wait on a chair. A nurse wrote down our details. Francois was sitting next to me, still holding our naked beautiful baby girl, as I could hardly lift the glass of water I had asked for to ease my burning throat. After a while, a nurse walked up to us: “There are no beds available right now. All doctors are busy. Yes. That is how hard it is.” She looked me straight into the eyes and walked away. What did she mean with those last words? Did she mean: “Yes, you whites, you are now dependent on this state hospital, you are now just one of us, not in your economic bubble anymore. Welcome to our culture. Having no free bed in an emergency like this is only peanuts, compared to the violent wounds experienced on a daily basis in the many, way too many, townships.” Did she mean that? Or did I read too much into her words? I will never know, but it felt like life giving me a hard knock. Two more patients before me, which looked much better than me. I observed it bitterly. Two female doctors were running up and down, clearly in a rush indeed. I saw one blond young female doctor. It would be the only white employee I would see the coming days. It is hard to describe exactly what it does to me, and to many more people, to be the only white person in a South African environment. I never thought in terms of blacks and whites in Belgium. I mostly forgot the topic of skin color, I didn’t think or talk in those terms. Yet as history in this country is filled with so much division the distinction between us is still so often present. So there we were, two, no I have to say three, white people, waiting for a free bed.
A female doctor examined me a while later. I will spare you all the technical details, but she asserted the problem quite quickly, with a sincerity and professionalism that immediately made me feel at peace. This woman was experienced, grounded. I could relax into the waiting. “You are going to be helped before tomorrow morning, we just cannot tell you when.”
Around 5 o clock in the morning, they drove me to the theatre. I gave Mira a last breastfeed. We all laughed hard as we saw how firmly Mira grabbed my hospital clothes when I had to unleash her from my breast. She was clearly not ready to leave me, but I could give her to the warm and loving arms of Francois, with whom she had clearly connected on a deep level already. Something I am so grateful for.
The theatre was well run, extremely clean and a team of about eight people took very good care of me. They still talked about the possible scenario of having to put me to sleep if there would be unexpected complications – now I only had two epidurals – but as my body was ready to undergo the operation, I knew things were going to be fine. Or so it felt and so it turned out to be. The operation team was in a good mood. It was their last operation after a long and busy night. The anesthetist in charge shared information of how much money one could earn these days by doing emergency Ceasareans over the week-end. Everyone was amazed hearing the amount, which I forget right now but it did sound like a lot. She also told in a joking way the story of how the main female doctor in charge, who was doing the operation, saved a baby and a mother’s life by cutting something open that no one else, according to her, would have dared to cut. Again I can’t remember what it exactly was, it was too late for a Ceasarean but the doctor’s bold action saved the baby who was stuck and could not find its way out. They all had to laugh at how the anesthetist shared the story, as if it was a good action movie. I had my eyes closed and listened to their chats, happy for the joyful sounds as it was drowning out the soft, technical talking of the two female doctors doing the surgery. I was prepared to lay there for some hours and was surprised when someone told me: “Open your eyes. We are done.” Done, done!!!! Oh yes. Fate, go out of the way. It is done, done!!!!
In the ambulance, observing Francois and Mira, I had to think of my twin sister so strongly. It felt like I needed her. I simply needed her presence. I thought: “If this is all over, then I will ask her to fly over. I will tell her exactly this, that I simply needed her.” I thought of that when they put me in the recovery room, but I concluded it was an unrealistic idea, as she has a busy job, a family of three children to take care of and is by no means that well-off to be able to fly over on a wim. I couldn’t move my legs yet and could do nothing but observe how all the employees of the nightshift joyfully said goodbye to each other, greeting the day shift people as they entered the building. I was brought breakfast, but couldn’t lift myself to eat it. Someone put it next to me, where it would eventually turn cold and neglected.
A strict nurse came to my bed. With a firm voice, she said: “Your husband is not taking good care of your child. She is too cold. She is not wearing any clothes and he is in a cold room. We took her away from him. We will do some tests on her and she can only come to you when we know that her temperature is ok. She needs to be with you. Not with him.” Her words upset me. Accusing Francois, who had been comforting Mira throughout these hectic hours in such a good way, of not being a good father, how did she dare! I wanted to reply as firmly, but still under the influence of all the medication, hardly recovered from the operation, I simply couldn’t. I agreed, as it didn’t sound like they were going to do majorly hectic things with her. And of course, so I thought, Mira would be warm enough. No reason to panic, no more fate knocking on the doors of my imagination.
A group of about ten nurses, dressed in white, came to my bed. The strict nurse gave, in the same hard tone, a resume of what had happened to me. “Homebirth. Midwife not able to sew the open artery. Etc. etc.” Nothing unusual, until she also blamed Francois for not taking good care of Mira. “Her husband. Only a blanket. So we took her away. They are now doing some tests. Etc. Etc.” At that time, I could only think of the moment when Mira would come back to me, back into my arms. That was the only thing I was focusing on. Until Francois unexpectedly came to my bed. He was not supposed to come here, as this space was – so they explained to me – a hygienic recovering room. He cried as he told me the story of how they had treated him. The nurse explained again what they were doing to Mira and how he was not allowed to come with me to my room. Francois and I didn’t understand. Francois argued, loud and emotionally, still crying. Saying “I hate your rules.” I hated their rules too, but could not express that feeling.
In the end we surrendered. I was being carried on the bed on wheels to my private room. Yes. A private room to my big surprise, as all other rooms where communal rooms of four to five beds. Did they do this to separate me from the Xhosa women? Did they assume that that would be best for all of us, or was I the only one at that moment who had such serious injuries to recover from? Again a question I won’t be able to answer. My room was in front of the reception desk. I could see the nurses there through the open window. The door was also open. No one came to me to explain to me what was going to happen that day. I was still bleeding, just the normal type of after – birth – bleeding that every woman experiences and I was wearing this typical hospital gown, yet open in front and not at the back. I was attached to two plastic bags, of which I didn’t know their functions. The gown was flashy pink, a funny bright color. The closets in my room and in the hallway were also painted in bright, happy yellow and orange. I was only going to discover many hours later there was even an active and brand new television attached to the ceiling. They brought Mira to me. Never in my whole life will I find the adequate to describe that feeling. They told me they put her for some minutes in some sort of hot thing and that her temperature was fine. “Of course” I thought “Of course.” She came to me in a little bed on wheels. Disbelief. Wonder. Magic. Amazement. Gratefulness. Overwhelmed. These are just a few attempts to describe that moment of having her in the room, next to me. I could lift her out of the bed as I wanted. I could hold her, feed her. The worst was over. Forever over.
Francois arrived at the given visiting time. When I had seen him earlier, he told me that he had received a text message from my twin sister that said something like: “I am coming as soon as possible. I ordered a visum.” What? So is it true after all that we are connected with some sort of invisible deep thread, some sort of channel of communication, that made her think and feel the exact same things as me? Or is this just coincidence, or a logical consequence of being an identical twin? She was coming, she was coming, without me having to conquer my reluctance to ask her that.
During that first visiting hour, Francois and I admired Mira, could hardly keep our eyes off her but we also had to discuss so many practical things, with this upcoming arrival of Marieke. I couldn’t make any international calls or send any international text messages from my phone for some sort of strange reason, so all communications had to be done by Francois. We had to get our act together, communicate with her and also give my parents an update as soon as possible. (As I had to end the call to my father abruptly, when I experienced that excruciating pain from the internal hematoma – the name was mentioned later on, they only knew somewhat later that I had to be transferred to a hospital and were obviously waiting for updates). When the visiting hour was over, a female guard, dressed in a black uniform, knocked on our door, looking Francois into the eyes. There was no way for us to negotiate for more time. Francois visited me once more in the afternoon and then got a lift home from Hester, our landlady. I was going to spend the night alone there. No not alone. From now on. I would never be alone anymore. She was there as well. She. She. She.
That day I learned once more that we human beings gather secret supplies of strength in our bodies that we can access at times when we need it the most. Times when we surprise ourselves with that supply. Because there I was. There was in my eyes no logic in the approach of nurses nor doctors. No one gave me an update of the operation, I had no single clue what was going to happen next. Twice a nurse came to check Mira’s blood sugar. Those results were perfect as well. I was going to spend the night in an unfamiliar African hospital, for the first time ever responsible for a little human being. No one had taught me how to breastfeed. I didn’t take any classes what so ever. But there I was. Just doing it. There she was. Just doing it. It was teamwork at its best. By which I mean: nature at work. Something beyond us. Mira cried (and still cries) when she needed me. I was there. Listening to every little sound she made.
Every now and then strict nurses entered the room. Saying things like: “She is not supposed to fall asleep on your arm. You are going to spoil her.” But I was unwilling to discipline this one day old little being, after all we had been through. It felt very counter intuitive not to hold her, not to feel her warm body, her breath and not to give her the opportunity to feel mine. As I didn’t want to get much more comments and didn’t feel comfortable with all the people walking passed my open window and open door, able to see my half naked an bleeding body, I closed the shutters and the door. Then the strict nurses started to question that. “Why do you do that? Do you want to be alone?” Each time I explained everything very calmly. I told them I was unable to wear my pink hospital gown as it was attached to two catheters. This made it impossible for me to reach to Mira’s little bed and lift her when she needed me. I needed to have the ability to move freely, and could not do that with the catheters in those sleeves, etc etc. One nurse told me she understood, the others nodded wearily. As the fifth or sixth nurse commented on this, I started negotiating with one. I showed her my table tray full of the fruits Francois had brought and a big jar of water. I told her she could put me off the external feeding, in that way I could at least wear the sleeves. She looked at me, critically but in the end I could convince her. The catheter was removed, I slipped into the pink thing and opened the shutters. From then on, things started to change. Suddenly, the more playful, social nurses started popping in just to say hi or check on me. It started daunting on me: I had experienced a cultural difference. Me closing the door must have been a ‘no go’ in their culture. My sense of privacy, so I realized, my experience of nurses knocking on doors before they entered the room, was very culturally colored. I started liking my stay in this hospital. It was rough to be there without Francois, but at least I was going through an interesting cultural exchange.
Other small things happened. I changed Mira’s first nappy, the typical green type. As she started crying so loud and as I was so not used to that sound, I wanted to comfort her as quickly as possible. I couldn’t find any garbage bin in my room and put the open nappy on the food tray, in between my bananas and grapes. As I was feeding Mira another nurse entered the room. “What are you doing? This room is so dirty! You are not supposed to put the nappy there, look, right next to your food!” Another nurse entered the room to see what was happening. My room looked very messy indeed. The clothes we had brought with us were lying loosely on the ground, we had also brought nappies, toilet paper and big blankets, unsure in what state this unknown hospital would be. Every time I stood up, some blood fell on the ground, which I was unable to remove because I could not bend over at all after the operation. I tried a couple of times but then gave in. Somehow, because the nurses were so strict to me and the illogic of their irregular visits and comments, made me too reluctant to ring the bell and ask them to clean the ground for me. I hoped they would notice and then do it. But this nurse simply looked at it with disgust and blamed me. So much for being a vulnerable patient. She pointed at the two cardboard boxes, one in my room, one in the bathroom. “What do you think this is for?!” she almost shouted at me. How could I explain to her that I had seen the boxes, but that I had assumed they were filled with hospital supplies that still needed to find their proper place. This was Africa, after all. I had seen messy papers, messy boxes in the most formal places. Up to the office where we married. My assumption didn’t seem so illogical to me and I had considered it inappropriate to check what was in those boxes. I did try to explain I didn’t have the physical capacity to bend over and clean the room but she didn’t want to listen to that and just left the room, leaving the mess exactly at it was. So I started doing some footwork, moving a piece of wet paper over the dirty spots with my foot. Making everything more messy in the end.
And so things continued. Every now and then, when I was breastfeeding, a nurse entered the room and told me “No, no, you are doing it wrong!” Then she would come and stand behind me and squeeze my breast. Like milking a cow. She would do it for some minutes, leave me alone and when I would then stop doing it their way, another nurse or she would enter the room again. I do wonder what they thought of me, that white patient. Some of them didn’t seem to realize at all how little I could do. One nurse even bluntly told me: “Are you a sissy?” when I asked her whether what she was about to do with my body was going to hurt me.
But it was no hell, not at all. It was fascinating and yes, confusing. As the night shift started, the atmosphere amongst the nurses also changed quite clearly. Softer faces, softer smiles. And many curious questions about where my husband was and why he was not with me. They all seemed to be surprised he was not allowed to stay with me. The milking of my breasts continued, but I just underwent it with a smile and tried to make jokes about it. “Me, the silly white woman. Me, the inexperienced one.” I didn’t sleep at all that night. Mira slept for six hours in a row. I so hoped the nurses wouldn’t find out, because I know that classic theories say you should wake them every three hours to feed them, but I gathered she just needed proper sleep after that hectic first night of her life. I put the little bed on wheels as close as possible to my bed and held my hand on her chest the whole night, monitoring every little sound she made.
Only the next morning, around ten, one nurse listened at my explanation of the mess sympathetically and said: “No problem sissy, we will clean this for you.” She called in another nurse and together they tidied the clothes and the mess on the floor. When I thanked her, she winked playfully at me.
As the night shift ended and the daytime workers entered, they started singing Xhosa songs, most probably religious ones. I had experienced this before, in the clinic in Stutterheim, when we came there for a routine blood test during my pregnancy, right before it opened. It had moved me so much and did so now as well. The perfect harmonies. A bunch of nurses, yet they sounded like a proper choir. This continent is brimming with so much huge gifts. Until the nurse that lead the songs started shouting in such a loud, hard voice that it immediately woke Mira up from her deep and long sleep. It sounded like she was chasing the devil. All her shouts were answered by people answering “Amen! Amen!”
The next morning a doctor came by to explain to me what they had exactly done during the operation. He wanted me to stay another night, as my iron level was at an extremely low level. They wanted to give me strong iron pills and test the following morning whether I responded well to that. But I was determined to leave the hospital as soon as possible. All in all, I really didn’t hate it there. I started connecting better and better to some nurses, started understanding the “window closed / window open” policies better and better, but I just wanted to be with Francois, sleep with Mira and him in one bed, have my own meals. So in the end I could convince him to send me home. I promised to take the iron pills he would give me. Before he left the room, he told me my heartbeat was so high, for hours on end. Since it wouldn’t come down, they were concerned there might have been a failure during the operation. I just nodded, with a big sigh of relief that no one told me this before the operation. It would have made my heart jump through the roof.
And so we went home that afternoon. Fate flew out of the window, as Mira, Francois and I drove through the township, through the magnificent countryside to our small cottage. Where that very bed was waiting for us. Warm and alive.
Looking back on all of this, I realize that I have always respected fears a lot. By which I mean my own and others. I often pleaded for an approach of accepting and expressing them. Allowing them to breathe, as I had seen many people suffer unnecessarily from suppressing them. But that very moment on that hospital bed in Stutterheim, I killed fate. I destroyed that glass ceiling, that old friend, whispering disaster scenarios in my ears. Changing moments of happiness and content into bodily tensions. Yes. Especially when things go well, the idea of a certain dramatic fate visited me. The time has come to say goodbye to that. To welcome life, Mira, love, Francois, into my arms. This killing is not a one time event. They still visit me from time to time, those old feelings. But something has changed drastically and it all started with this beautiful being growing inside of me. With Francois and I deciding to take a chance on life. Accepting the vulnerability, the risks that come with it, whether you give birth on the African countryside or in a posh first world hospital. But also accepting, welcoming and celebrating the beauty beyond words. A beauty called Mira le Roux.