Monday, 28 May 2012

A knitted birth story

Two years ago in May I knitted a little vest for the baby that still kicked inside me, waiting to be born. It was perfect, not a stitch out of place, and I pictured myself pulling it over the head of my new born babe with such pride. It was the first time that I had ever cabled, and I ran my fingers along the braid, feeling the twisted stitches ripple beneath my hand. Buying the needles for the cabling had entailed a visit to a yarn shop a few suburbs away. I popped into the supermarket after stocking up on knitting supplies and it was while I was lugging the heavy bags back to the car that I felt the muscle fibres of my abdomen start to contract. I tried to ignore it, to breathe my way back to normality as I sat silent in the passenger seat. But the tightenings continued even after I got home and climbed on to the couch.

I finished knitting the vest that evening.  I was planning another home birth, but at only 35 weeks gestation that was going to be out of the question. Lewis had been born in hospital at 36 weeks with no dramas, and Darcy a few days shy of 36 weeks after a 55 minute labour at home. My babies are ready to be born a month before most, and we were not really sure why. But my midwife told me to lie down and hold him in until the 36 week mark if I wanted to stay home, and with the help of an army of friends and family I did.

I ordered more yarn online from my horizontal position on the couch and waited eagerly for the parcel to arrive at my door so that I could knit a Milo vest for Darcy and Lewis too. I crawled a track between the bed, couch and toilet. Even sitting up would bring on a contraction. My friends bustled around me; delivering a meal every evening; collecting Lewis each morning and walking him to school; cleaning my house; hanging out our washing; making sure that our household continued to function in a way that it just can't when its main caregiver is lying down all day.

Then my midwife visited and strapped a cuff around my arm to check my blood pressure. The house was full of laughter and children and I remember the silence as she unwrapped the cuff and announced quietly "I think this baby is ready to be born." My blood pressure had suddenly gone from rather low to very high - now we knew why my babies came early - and that same afternoon I had to pack my bag and head to hospital. "I don't think that you will be coming home until your baby is born," my midwife told me, and it was with a strange mix of emotions that I folded nighties and breast pads and baby clothes into my overnight bag. The perfect little vest sat on top with the massage oil and birthing snacks tucked in around it.

I spent the evening in the foetal assessment unit at the maternity hospital, foetal heartbeats galloping around me through the blue curtains. Darcy and his dad kicked around in the park across the road and roamed the corridors while I sat strapped to monitors and my midwife noted every detail for the obstetrician to assess. But somehow the numbers scraped through. "It is borderline, but you can go home if you come back in on Friday for another assessment," he told us. I walked out of there with an enormous smile on my face and a spring in my step. I had made it to 36 weeks, and if I my baby arrived before Friday we would be able to stay home after all.

It was Wednesday. All my boys had been born on Wednesdays. But he didn't come that night, or the next day. I cleaned the house like a woman possessed. I walked to every shop within a kilometre radius to stock up on essentials. I started to knit Darcy's Milo vest, standing upright or balanced on the fit ball to encourage optimal foetal positioning. I crawled into bed that night dreading the trip back to the hospital the next day. My midwife was coming to collect me at 8am.

But I couldn't sleep. There were these niggling little contractions - nothing major - and I thought, perhaps if I stood up, they might turn into something more. So I picked up my knitting and walked in circles around the lounge room. The contractions started to build and I lit the fire and the candles clustered on the mantelpiece which had been left by friends at my mother blessing. I turned every heater in the house on to full to ward off the midwinter chill. And I knitted, working my way through the increases at each stitch marker to finish the yoke while I did lunges and squats around the rug to help move the labour along. The house slept around me - the only sounds were the crackling of the open fire and the click of my needles.

I cast off the armholes and cast on the underarms. I knitted in circles for an hour or two and then I came to the start of the cable, and I knew I could knit no more. It was getting a little bit complicated. So I laid my knitting down and went back to the sheepskin, burying my toes in the thick wool as I breathed deeply. And like a switch had been flicked the contractions suddenly intensified. I sunk to the floor on my hands and knees, and thought vaguely about waking up Grant. Then Darcy appeared at the door, his blond head glowing white in the candlelight. I shepherded him into bed with Grant and whispered to him to get Darcy back to sleep and then get out of bed.

I breathed through a few more contractions and Darcy appeared again. I took him back to bed and again told Grant to get him back to sleep and then come out and join me. I laboured on alone - checking the clock only when I started to hear the traffic pick up outside. It was 6am. Lewis would be waking up soon. I picked up the phone and called my midwife and my friend - a doula - who was coming to look after the boys. As light started to leak around the edges of the blinds Grant emerged from the bedroom wiping sleep from the corners of his eyes with Darcy on his hip. He seemed surprised to see me.

Grant took Darcy into the kitchen to fill up the birthing pool. Everyone moved around me with hushed voices, moving the candles to the kitchen bench as I prepared to hop into the pool. Lewis wandered out of bed as I walked into the corridor - and I smiled at him and told him the baby was on its way. I slipped into the pool and back into that timeless space as I floated and moaned and growled and roared through one contraction after another. Lewis and Grant rubbed my shoulders while Darcy helped to stoke the fire. Then my waters broke and with two more pushes Quinn came swimming into the world while his brothers ate their breakfast cereal by the birth pool.

It was 7.55am - I have always been good at meeting deadlines - and I realised it was now daylight outside.  The boys tried to give their favourite dinky cars to this tiny little wrinkled baby still covered with creamy vernix. He was more interested in gazing into my eyes while his rosebud lips snuffled at my breast. I climbed out of the pool and sat wrapped in blankets by the fire while Lewis got ready to go to school. Grant walked him there with Darcy and did a puzzle or two with them, picking up coffee and muffins for us all at the corner cafe on the way home.

And so the first four weeks of Quinn's life passed in this warm, cosy cocoon by the fire while the world stayed in the cold, bright distance outside the window. I held him wrapped in my arms while I finished knitting and then dressed all the boys in their new vests - catching the train to the city museum for our first outing into the world outside our suburb.

Whenever a friend has a baby now I knit them a little Milo of their own. I have one that I finished last week ready to post to my friend in Melbourne when her baby is born sometime in June. Quinn Henry will turn two next month. He now fits his brother Darcy's old vest - there are two and a half years between them but their clothes are the same size. I will dress him in the little green vest on his birthday, just like I did last year. How could I not? It has the story of his birth knitted into every stitch.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Picking olives

Every year, sometime in May, our friends Valda and Richard gather their friends and family to help harvest the olives on their organic farm.  People come and go throughout the day, staying for an hour or the whole weekend. They walk up the hill through the avocado trees, clip on their picking aprons and run their fingers along the heavily laden branches, stripping the fruit and a few leaves as the olives tumble into the open pouches. The trick is to empty the apron before the load becomes too heavy and the  velcro at the bottom opens of its own accord, empyting five kilos of olives onto your feet. The empty crates stacked against the tractor gradually fill as we move along the rows of trees.

Morning tea is a sumptuous spread of cakes laid out on a floral tablecloth on the tray of the ute. We all stop to soak up the view of rolling hills stretching away through the Scotsdale Valley, then return to picking, our fingers sticky with chocolate icing.

Lewis remembered exactly where the biggest, juiciest Kalamata olives were last year and insisted on picking those first.  The pride he took in the crate he managed to fill with the help of his Dad was beautiful to see. Last year I picked with Quinn on my back, but the walk up the hill was as far as I was prepared to carry him this year. We went for a drive down a bumpy gravel road instead and I parked the car - with sleeping child inside - between the olive trees so I could pick at least one apron full of olives before we walked back to the farmhouse for soup and sandwiches.

Richard takes the olives to a press in Frankland where the fruit is crushed and the oil siphoned into old wine bottles. There should be enough oil to see them through a year of cooking, and everyone who helped to pick gets a bottle for their kitchen. It is such a lovely way for us all to connect to our food, community and land. Every time I open that bottle of oil I am transported back to our day picking on that sunny, green hillside.


Sunday, 20 May 2012

Hill folk

We had a little street party this morning. Homebaked on the hill, we call it. Everyone bakes something to share and we take over the street and let the kids draw all over the kerb and road. We brewed fresh coffee, ate warm fruity sourdough bread and homemade croissants and talked about surfing, moving house, and the flu that has hit half the town. Then all the kids piled onto the back of Illya's truck and went for a joyride around the hill before everyone disappeared back into the trees again.

I am going to miss this special street of ours, with its surfers and boardshapers, artists and yogis. We have felt so welcomed and embraced by the community here. Our kids have run between each others' houses and help was always near at hand should we ever need it. But the locals have promised to invite us again next year, even though we will be calling a different hill home.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Coming down the mountain

We came out from under the canopy of leaves and drove north to the mountains on the weekend. It had been three years since we last visited and climbed the tallest peak with a child on each of our backs. This time I had Quinn strapped to me but Grant's backpack stayed empty. Darcy managed the climb and descent unassisted - although his method of coming down the mountain was less one foot in front of another and more of a whole body roll atop the rocky shale.

Talyuberlup Peak is one of the smaller peaks in the Stirling Range, but certainly one of the prettiest. There is even a cave at the top - although I wish I hadn't told the boys that, as they were bitterly disappointed when we reached the ragged tunnel. I think they had imagined a giant cavern to run around in. Instead we played in the sunshine under the she-oaks and fed fragments of our afternoon tea to a friendly lizard while the eagles rode the thermals in the valley below.

Lewis was so very excited to be climbing a mountain and laid his 'mountaineering equipment' out on his bedroom floor the day before. Gloves, beanie, scarf, thermal underwear, warm tracksuit pants and a fleece jumper. He lay on top of them before he went to bed and could speak of nothing else but the adventure before us when he awoke. "Darcy, we're climbing the mountain today," I heard from their room before the sun had begun to lighten the horizon. He assigned himself the role of mountain guide and led the way up the path, warning us of any prickly plants and stopping to point out the beautiful view every minute or so.

Of course the sun shone brilliantly the whole time we were up there and we arrived at the peak dripping with sweat - none more so than me as I was imprisoned inside my fleece by the baby strapped securely on top of it.

Mothers' Day yesterday marked eleven years since I drove to visit Grant and climb a peak with him in those very same mountains. I planted a kiss on him while I was there and from it grew our family. We used to drive through the pass between the eastern and western range every week as we traveled between our two towns, the sun coming up sickly pale through the winter fog as I drove back to work at dawn on Monday.

It was a golden and warm sun that shone on us this time, the clouds casting patchwork shadows on the bush and fields below. The Great Southern is such a different land away from the coast. The woodlands open and sunny, the earth still parched and cracked from summer, and the farmland stretching away forever.  But what I noticed more than anything else was the light - so pure and intense after the gloom of the forest. It was good to get back

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Putting down roots

Now that we know exactly how much longer we will be living here in the forest I have put the brakes on our productive food efforts in the garden. We harvested the last of the cherry tomatoes and have pulled up our Jerusalem artichokes and a red onion or two. After 18 months observing light and rain and shadow fall on this hillside garden I have accepted that there is no one perfect spot with sufficient sunlight to grow very much in the way of vegetables here. Instead I have dragged my raised vegetable bed up to the lawn - the sunniest spot there is - and planted lettuce, silverbeet and rocket so that we might at least enjoy some homegrown winter salads before we move to our new home.

The garden that I will be able to call mine in two months' time is open to the northern light and has  rows of vegetable beds waiting to be planted and fruit trees in need of love and care. I am poring over my seed catalogue and dreaming of banks of raspberry canes and boysenberries bursting with summer sweetness. We have fruit trees in wine barrels dug from our garden in Fremantle which will soon be sending down roots into the rich Denmark earth. We will be putting down a few roots of our own too.

The rain and cold are here at last and we are retreating indoors, spending days drawing and sewing and baking. We really should bring in some more firewood to get us through the dark days ahead, but for now we are burning candles to bring at least the visual warmth of a flame. Sunny days still draw us outside for wet walks in the winter forest. And we are eyeing off the oranges - the last of the trees to bear fruit - and wondering whether they will be sweet enough to harvest before we leave.  Our new home has a trap door in the kitchen which leads to a cellar beneath the house. Perhaps some marmalade will be called for to fill the bare midwinter shelves.

Friday, 4 May 2012

birds of a feather

Hardly a week goes by in this tree house of ours that we do not hear a familiar thud on the window. If we run quickly enough the feathers are still drifting to the ground when we get outside.  The little bird whose flight path was rudely interrupted by a pane of glass will be lying on its back with its legs in the air, its chest beating frantically, its eyes' glazed. A couple we have had to bury but more have been nursed back to health in the loving hands of Darcy, who would like more than anything to have a little bird who would stay with him forever.

The spotted pardalote is his favourite, and the one which seems drawn most often to our windows that stretch up into the forest canopy. It is tiny and beautiful, its wings patterned with spots as intricate as an Aboriginal dot painting. Darcy cradles them carefully in his hands while he wanders around the house and garden. I encourage him to find a safe spot for them outside where they can recover from their shock and fly away. But he seems to know when they are ready, and they are calm and content in his hands, fluffing their feathers out to guard against the cold once I insist that he places them on a flat rock out of reach of Quinn's inquisitive grasp.

The bigger birds of the forest canopy are attracted to our house for entirely different reasons. They know that our balcony is a reliable feeding ground and the magpies and parrots come to feast on toast crusts and crumbs scattered by our boys across the decking. Once or twice we have left the balcony door open and a particularly bold bird has ventured inside to feed at the dining table. We have had magpies perched on the dining chairs and parrots flapping around the rafters in the kitchen. We have learned to keep the door closed.

We were told this week that an offer we made on a house has been accepted and we will be saying goodbye to the forest to move to our new home out in the sunshine in two months. As the sun dips to the north and the shadows come to reclaim their wintery resting place I am happy to be leaving. But I will miss the peace and privacy of life amongst the trees. I suspect that there will be no more spotted pardalotes stopping by to knock on the window at breakfast time.

One flew into the big picture glass window that frames our glimpse of the inlet through the trees as we sat and ate our lunch today. We peered down into the bushes to see where it had landed and spotted the grey underbelly of a bird hanging by one foot upside down in the camellia. As we watched it swung itself upright, its spots striking in the diffused light of a cloudy noontime. Darcy sang to it through the glass and it flew away into the branches of the pine tree on the driveway. My little bird whisperer. It is a gift.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Silent reading

"Luka is a really good reader. He can read chapter books longer than any of the year threes'," Lewis observed to me as I hung out the washing at the line. "You will be reading them by the end of the year," I reassured him. He is the youngest in his class, there is no hurry, he will get there. "I won't," he retorted. "Yes, you will," I answered back as he wandered off into the garden.

His class was reading Roald Dahl's The Twits that week and I had just finished reading it to Darcy, a chapter at a time, as Quinn slept in the middle of the day. Lewis picked the book up and took it to bed with him that night, snuggling beneath the covers with a torch while his brothers drifted off to sleep in the bunk below. The next morning Quinn and Darcy climbed the ladder and sat either side of him on the pillow as he read a chapter out loud. The book came to the breakfast table, and he dived to pick it up and keep reading as soon as he dropped his school bag by the steps that afternoon. By the next day he was ahead of the rest of the class, and by the end of the week he had moved on to the rest of Roald Dahl's collected works.

A whole new world has opened up to him now that he can read with confidence. And for me too. He can pull off an impromptu storytime for me when the house is getting hectic and I have dinner to put on. Quinn will sit happily on his lap as he patiently reads the same story, over and over. Darcy stands silently listening and watching on. Lewis sat quietly in the back seat and read a book from cover to cover while we drove home from Margaret River last week. I counted our blessings that he does not get carsick.

Of all the gifts my mother gave me as a child, our shared love of reading is perhaps the one I hold most dear. It is so beautiful to see that simple joy being passed on to the next generation as well. Nana posted down her favourite book from her childhood for me to read with Lewis this week. That moment at the end of each day when dinner is done and we can curl up on the couch together and read is one which I hold sacred.

The boys camped out in their teepee in our games room last night. Lewis made up their bed on the sheepskins and made sure there was a book and a teddy bear on everyone's pillow. What more does a boy need?