The first birthday

Elodie turned one this week, and my nephew, Jay, will turn one next week, so at the weekend we had our family over, ate some cake and opened some presents. Rachel came. She’s been coming home for short visits on Saturdays for a few weeks, but this was the first time she’d been to our house. She was in good spirits, and it was wonderful to have her there.

And then on Elodie’s actual birthday, we drove up to Sheffield, where she spent her first couple of weeks of life in an intensive care unit. It was Paul’s idea, and as soon as he suggested it, it seemed like the right thing to do. On the drive up, Elodie slept and I asked Joseph what he was going to say to the nurses. ‘Thank you for looking after our Elodie,’ he said. He spotted car transporters and diggers out of the window, and I was overcome with memories. A year ago, Elodie made this journey in an ambulance in the middle of the night, a dedicated doctor and a nurse on hand to look after her. And then Paul followed a few hours later, and stayed in Sheffield until she was well enough to come back to Leicester. I made the trip several times, with my parents and with Paul’s. I couldn’t stay up there with her, because we had Joseph at home and because I had to start my chemo.

We parked in the tight multi-storey car park where we once spotted Jarvis Cocker and made our way to the neonatal unit. We saw a few nurses who remembered us, and we thanked them, our voices cracking. They made a fuss of Joseph and said how great Elodie was looking and asked whether I was well. A full year later, they remembered our story. But then they went back to their work. An impossibly small baby was wheeled by, and they had to go to it. It was a strange moment, as I realised that, though their impact on our lives has been huge, our impact on theirs was tiny. They saved our baby’s life. But it’s just what they do. Every single day. It’s what they were doing then, and how could we possibly keep them from it? We couldn’t. We wouldn’t.

On one of my visits to Sheffield last year, I saw a mother say goodbye to her baby. I was holding Elodie, mindful of the tubes that connected her to various machines, and I noticed this woman having a long talk with a man who I now presume was the chaplain. She wasn’t allowed to hold her baby; it was too ill. But that day, the nurses took the baby from the incubator and gave it to the mother to hold. They drew a curtain around its cot. Suddenly, I knew what was happening, and I told Paul that we had to leave the ward, had to give this family some privacy. When we went back later, the cot was empty, the mother gone. It’s haunted me ever since, that memory. How easily our places could have been reversed. How Elodie’s birthday could be something else entirely, for us. I wonder whether that mother had another child at home, or whether she’ll go on to have another. I wonder how she remembers to breathe.

We left the hospital and walked to the park where we took Elodie for her first walk outside. It was near the end of her time there. The hospital staff lent us a huge old-fashioned Silver Cross pram, and we wrapped our little girl in layer upon layer of clothes and blankets, despite the mild June weather. And then we took her to the park. Such an ordinary thing to do. Such a privilege. This time, we sat on a bench under some trees and looked at the ducks on the pond. Joseph took his Paw Patrol figures from his rucksack and played for a minute or two. Elodie sat in her pushchair, contentedly shaking a rattle. We took some photos of the four of us, went to a pub for some lunch, and set off for home.

Having heard me say it many times, Joseph likes to ask me whether I’m a lucky mummy. I tell him that I am, because I have him and I have Elodie. He says that Elodie’s lucky because she has him, that he is lucky because he has her. He knows nothing of the recent terrorist attacks or the Grenfell Tower fire in London. He knows nothing of how close we came to losing Elodie in those days after she was born. Lucky is just a word to him. Our family has been extraordinarily unlucky in some ways and overwhelmed with luck in others. I am godless, but I whisper something like prayers to no-one in particular, thankful for what we have.

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