Thursday, 22 January 2015

Good things

We have had our perfect month of summer. One filled with long, warm days at the beach and early evening swims riding the waves as the sun sinks over the hill and bedtime comes and goes while we play in the surf. Pink skies above the karri trees as we sprawl in bed and read Enid Blyton to the creak of the frogs in the garden. Afternoons paddling in the river and picnicking with friends on its banks.

January has more than made up for the ills of December. I have felt wrapped in a warm and fuzzy blanket of sunshine and salt water and community. Both from friends who are near enough to stop and offer a hug and an open ear as I process the events of Christmas, and those who have reached out from afar.

Old friends who made me stop and realise how lucky I am to have four healthy children, and to have stepped in and out of the hospital system so quickly (while we are not quite out of the woods, there are only a few more appointments left to keep).  Beautiful, green thumbed friends putting a passionfruit and a tamarillo into my hands at their shop counter and insisting they be accepted as a gift.

Blogging friends tucking unexpected parcels of goodness into the post for me to unwrap on the other side of the country and a little revolutionary dancing around the garden in delight after uncovering a special something just for her.

Presents from fairy godmothers and the lovely Annie, who helped replace Thea's doll and dress her in the right clothes. Thea's special Waldorf doll, Cinammon, which we gave her for her first birthday, went missing from her cot in hospital on Christmas Day. We'll never know where she went, but I hope she is giving another child a little bit of love now. Thea now sleeps squished between her two newest companions. All is well with her world.

Thank you, dear friends. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015


It is a ritual we stumbled upon by accident, but it feels just right for our family, to take a moment alone together to mark the milestone that their seventh birthday symbolises. We walk together through nature as a rite of passage from early childhood into the burgeoning independence of the older child. Taking a small section of the Bibbulmun Track, the long distance walking trail that winds between the city and the south coast, we shoulder our packs and wander through the wilderness together; mother and child.

I chose a shorter, easier section of track for Darcy's seven-year-old walk than I had for Lewis - taking into account the season and the length of his legs. An easy 8km walk seemed just right for summer, then a 4km stroll the next day to a swimming spot for a splash around before we headed home. That was what we planned anyway. And setting off into a drizzly, grey summer morning I was happy to go as slow as Darcy liked, although we did not like to linger around the shooting range near Muttonbird Island, where the crack of gunfire broke the still morning air.

Rain drops dripped from spiderwebs as we wound our way through the dunes dotted with gnarled hakeas and banksia trees. I let Darcy take the lead, and we stopped to marvel at the wonderful creatures his keen eyes spotted in the undergrowth. Beetles splashed with spots of colour like an Aboriginal dot painting; praying mantises with lumpy, amorphous abdomens; spiders nestled inside banksia flowers. After I spotted our first snake slithering away into the leaves I decided I had best lead the way - and three quite enormous tiger snakes and dugites later I was rather glad I had.

We sauntered into the shelter before lunch and were congratulating ourselves on our effort when I realised we were not at the shelter I had planned to spend the night at. No, a laminated sheet informed me that the shelter marked on our (brand new) map had been demolished some years earlier. We had only walked a few kilometres from the road and had another 13km to go before we would reach the next shelter, the other side of the wind farm. I did not know if Darcy's legs would be up to the challenge, but he assured me in the most eager of voices "I can do it - I will try my best."

So we ate a quick lunch, pulled our packs back on and headed back onto the track. Winding through peppermint groves and along windswept limestone outcrops, we counted the turbines and mentally ticked off each one as we passed by. Eighteen in all. We stopped to take long drinks of water and eat jelly snakes and dried apricots. I took the sleeping mat and bag out of Darcy's pack and stuffed them into the top of my pack, but after he lay down on the paragliding launch pad I was not sure I was going to be able to get him to keep going the last few kilometres. "I said I would do my best, and I have," he sighed. He found just a little more energy in his legs and we walked into camp at five in the afternoon. He climbed into the hammock some thoughtful hiker had left hanging there and basked in the warm glow of achievement, fatigue soaking through every muscle and bone, as I prepared dinner.

We played cards and read Enid Blyton and watched the stars come out from beneath the billowing folds of our mosquito net. In the morning we climbed the hill to the lookout and ate breakfast with the endless blue of the Southern Ocean stretching before us. Then it was a two kilometre scramble back down the track to Sandpatch, where we dumped our packs and scampered down the 500 steps to the sea. The waves surged onto the thin strip of sand and I washed away the dirt and sweat of the trail while Darcy hunted for crab carapaces on the rocks. 

As a second born child Darcy has always had to share my attention, but it felt so good to focus on him alone for just one day. He is the quietest of boys with a gentle, caring nature and he holds a very special place in all our hearts. I think his baby sister was as excited to see him as she was to see me after our first 24-hours apart. My breasts were heavy with milk and I sat and fed her while Darcy ran down and up one thousand steps with his brothers. After draining one side Thea was ready to join them. And it was back to the noise and chaos of life with four children again - feeling slightly unbalanced and lopsided after our time alone together. But I have learned by now that those moments of quiet and balance, those small sips of perfection, are always fleeting. Normal life is more of a see-saw as we lurch from one week to the next, and that is just fine.

Friday, 9 January 2015


Another year, another chocolate berry cake. We are having a birthday party free year, but that didn't stop the cake. Darcy still maintains it is his birth right for being a summer born babe, and I heartily agree.

I have friends who think their younger children grow up faster than their first borns. They have bigger expectations of them from a younger age. But I am finding the reverse to be true. When Lewis turned seven he seemed suddenly so much bigger. But my Darcy still seems so very young to me. He has lost five teeth but he slips into a size three with ease, and people are always mistaking him and his four-year-old brother for twins. He held high hopes that he would be allowed out of his car booster seat today, but I think he has a few inches to go yet.

But it is more the enduring innocence I sense in all my children than their physical size that has me thinking about the seven year old shift and what it means. Darcy is walking away from his infancy but it is a very gradual letting go. We will be marking the milestone with a night alone together out on the track, just like I did with his brother two years ago.

Those two and a half years have been full of baby for me, and it will be my first time out hiking since I fell pregnant with Thea. I hefted the pack onto my back to check its weight after packing it in the shed this afternoon and it didn't seem too bad, despite the 8kg of water stashed in its base. I think carrying a baby around is pretty good practice for long distance hiking. Leftover birthday cake could help too...

Sunday, 4 January 2015

So that was Christmas...

There was barely enough water in the bath to cover her face, but she lay beneath its surface with her eyes open. I thought she was playing. A second before she had been standing and stacking toys in her corner of the tub, her brothers squashed in around her. I had turned my attention to Darcy for the briefest of moments, responding to a request to fetch his clothes by the pool with a "no, I need to stay with Thea." And then I looked down and saw her, and scooped her out, expecting her to splutter and cry, and there was no response at all. It was Christmas Eve.

She was stiff, staring into space, and quickly turning blue. I shook her, but her arms and legs were locked, her gaze on something far away. Darcy asked what was wrong and I said I did not know as I ran into the hallway with a guttural cry tearing out of my chest, my daughter in my arms as I hit her on her back, trying to get the water out of her. My sister came running and then my mother was there and I handed her my baby girl and watched as she pounded three short, sharp blows between her shoulder blades then lay her limp, blue body on the floor and started breathing into her tiny chest. I slid down the wall beside them and time slowed down as I watched Thea's chest rise and fall with my mother's breath and waited for a cough, a splutter - anything to show she was still alive.

How many breaths? How many seconds, minutes, hours? It felt like an eternity but it was probably less than a minute. "What can I do?" I asked as I sat there grappling with the terrible reality that I was going to lose this child, my only daughter. I could see her three brothers clustered in the doorway of the bathroom. Then Darcy pulled the door shut and left us with the portraits from my own childhood hanging over us: my mother, my daughter and I in that dark hallway as I wailed that she was dead, oh God, she was dead.

The dog kept trying to get past me to Thea and I pushed him away again and again before my dad dragged him down the hallway and shut him outside. I could hear my sister on the phone, telling the operator that her 18-month-old niece was not breathing and thinking, "but she is 20-months-old now," and wondering whether that really made any difference. With the awful lucidity that accompanied each terror filled second I knew that I was somehow, impossibly, not going to get to keep this gorgeous, glowing child with her tousled blonde hair and her cheeky green eyes and her arms that clung tight around my neck as she cuddled me close in the night. And I thought, perhaps that was why the vasectomy did not work, but then how could we ever replace her?

My mum, a clinical nurse with a lifetime of training and practice resuscitating children in recovery at the children's hospital behind her, stopped to feel for a pulse. "She is not dead, she has got a good pulse." And then Thea was breathing again; short shallow breaths as she whimpered and returned to her body. "She is coming back." The boys tiptoed past and I heard Lewis reassuring his brothers as they dashed downstairs "Its okay, she's not dead."

Mum passed Thea to me as she gave the briefest of cries and said my name, "Mama," and I clutched her to my chest and sobbed, "Oh, my darling, oh my baby girl." But my mum said no, she needed to see her breathing, so I lay her across my legs and cradled her loosely in my arms as she slipped into sleep and my body was wracked with the deepest of sobs as I rocked against the wall and wailed and waited another small eternity for the ambulance to arrive.

"She was rigid," I told my mum, for this seemed one of the most terrifying things of all. And why was she asleep? "I think she has had a seizure," my mum said, "She is normally so strong." I carried Thea to the ambulance and was strapped to the stretcher with her asleep in my arms. She woke up as we pulled into the emergency bay at PMH and was the picture of health for the rest of the night, although Grant was vomiting into a bucket beside us when my mum brought him in to visit. Thea slept snuggled beside me in the observation ward while I watched Clint Eastwood silently chipping his way out of Alcatraz and the clock ticked past midnight. "Happy Christmas my love," I whispered, as I kissed her sweaty head.

We were discharged at 4.30am so I could be there when the boys opened their presents. My mum collected us as the birds started their dawn chorus in the gum trees across the road and we drove down the empty freeway towards home. Jingle Bell Rock was playing on the radio as we drove across the Narrows and I felt like crying with relief.

We drank tea and said goodbye to Mum and the boys woke up and had just opened their last present when Thea fell into a box. I scooped her up and she was stiff, her arms and legs locked, her lips turning blue. I screamed for Grant, who had mercifully stopped vomiting and just stepped into the shower. While he called for the ambulance I turned around and saw that Quinn was frozen to the spot, standing on the couch with his hands over his ears while Darcy observed "This is the worst Christmas ever." Thea fell back into the eerie sleep that I now know comes after each seizure, while the boys huddled on the bottom bunk in the next room.

The croissants were just ready to come out of the oven when we left and the roads still empty as we headed back to the hospital. Thea lay alone on the stretcher, leads attached to the growing collection of ambulance dots on her chest. There had been a shift change in the emergency department since we had left but the doctor who had discharged us quickly found us, her face full of concern. Grant and the boys arrived with my croissant and then my Mum and sister took the kids back to their house.

Our team of doctors arrived and, after examining Thea and watching her running happily around the Christmas tree by the main desk, advised us to start her on anti-convulsant medication and return after the Christmas holiday was over for more testing. We walked out into the sunshine of Christmas Day, feeling a little shaky on our feet by now, and headed back to the house where we were staying near Fremantle.

I made it into the shower and Grant was just passing Thea to me to bathe when she slipped into another seizure. I jumped out and called the ambulance, my hands still wet as I tapped at the phone, my voice shaking as I called out each of my daughter's shallow breaths to the operator on the line. She left the house on the stretcher, the cluster of dots now covering her chest attached to machines monitoring each precious heartbeat. I carried bags packed for a longer stay than we had originally planned. We travelled up the beach road, the Indian Ocean shining turquoise under a brilliant blue sky as people frolicked in the waves.

Father Christmas came through the emergency department and give Thea a purple teddy bear. Christmas lunch was a dry egg sandwich eaten with no appetite on the pavement outside at two in the afternoon. I stepped into the bathroom to brush my teeth and came back to the bay to find Thea had slipped away from us again. Grant had been holding her up to see a star hanging from the ceiling when the seizure took hold. The nurses were changing the sheets on her stretcher, soaked with blood after a failed attempt at inserting an IV line into her hand.

Grant left to be with the boys and I curled up on the end of Thea's stretcher and watched the drug dripping into my daughter's vein. She was still wearing nothing but a nappy. I walked beside her as she was wheeled to the elevator and taken to the infant ward where we would spend the next four days. She bashed into the cot and camp bed like a drunk when she woke up and tried to stagger around the room. She learned to eat with her left hand while her right was bandaged and splinted to hold her IV line in place. We ate our meals on the floor together and and looked at the babies through the window of the nursery. After two days she was crawling the walls with boredom and we left the hospital and walked the streets of the surrounding suburbs to kill the hours between doctors' rounds and medication doses and nurses' observations.

Monday finally arrived and Thea's brain trace was clear and we were allowed to go home. First to my parents' house, where the flashbacks to Christmas Eve played in a constant loop in my head, and then back to the south coast. Mostly we have been hunkering down at home, but every time I leave the house and stop to tell this story to a friend in the street I relive those moments when I thought I had lost my little girl and am left shaking. I hope that by writing it down I can start to put it behind me.

Tomorrow will be Thea's first day off the anti-seizure drugs and I expect she will be fine. The gastro virus which had felled us all in the days before Christmas can cause seizures in a small number of infants. In all likelihood she will never have another one. But we don't know that for sure.

We just feel incredibly lucky and grateful that we were in the city when it happened. That my mum was there to save our little girl. That the hospital was a short ambulance ride away. That we got to bring Thea home. I am so grateful for each normal day holding my family close. I will take that over Christmas any day.