My wife is into the forty-first week of her pregnancy. We’ve tried everything to bring on labour: acupuncture, raspberry leaf tea, sex, a ridiculously hot vindaloo. Nothing yet.
The loud trill of the landline telephone wakes us at 3.30 a.m. I bolt down the corridor. I’ve had ninety minutes sleep.
It’s Mum. Dad is having chest pains and difficulty breathing. They’ve called the ambulance.
It’s a two-minute drive to their house through empty streets. I have to be careful of kangaroos, down from the mountain and enjoying their nightly invasion of suburbia. It’s a relief when my parents’ house – the home where I grew up – comes into sight with an illuminated ambulance in the driveway.
The paramedics are in the living room. Dad’s in a chair in his flannelette pyjamas. There’s a weight on his chest: he can’t breathe. Despite his ailments, Dad continues to raspily order Mum around. He tells her to bring him things, to take things away, and to shut up whenever he disagrees with what she’s said. He’s bitter and distrustful of the medical profession and yet has somehow made it to eighty-five. Dad blames his raging blood sugar for his mood swings and only recently started taking insulin.
The decision is made to go to the hospital. I follow in the car with Mum, who is eighty-four. We settle in beside Dad’s bed in emergency, listening to him complain about both immediate and past hardships. I try to turn his mind to more positive thoughts, like the impending birth of his first grandchild.
By 8 a.m., he’s still in pain and lashes out at me. He orders us to leave the hospital. I’m tired and emotional. I’m only trying to help. I drop Mum at her empty house and return to mine as my wife leaves for more acupuncture. I crawl into bed with ice cubes for feet, the blood having retreated from my extremities with the stress.
I sleep for two hours and am still cold when I wake. Mum and I return to the hospital. There’s talk of abnormal blood test results, the implant of a pacemaker, a possible infection. Despite my efforts to focus his attention on the future, Dad looks to the past. He repeats himself, forgets things. He spits the phlegm choking his lungs into a blue emesis bag. Mum and I leave Dad on only slightly better terms.
My wife and I order takeaway. We settle in for the evening, to unwind and get ready for sleep. We both need it.
The landline rings at 9 p.m. Mum again. Dad wants food delivered. He refuses to eat the hospital gruel and is weak with hunger. All he wants is a cheese sandwich, but a special one that Mum makes, toasted, with Vegemite and Greek feta cheese; one foot in each culture. The round trip is sixty minutes. I don’t argue but let Mum know my displeasure when I collect the sandwich. It’s a short but powerful rant. Mum says he was pleading; she couldn’t say no. I propose the idea of a taxi but Mum says she’s never caught a taxi during her sixty years in Australia and is too scared to start now.
Poor Mum. She cops it from Dad and from me. Old Greek ladies are the strongest humans on earth, because they’ve endured a lifetime of Greek men.
Dad is in the cardiac care unit. He’s lying in bed, his eyes closed, mouth half open. The outline of his body is barely visible beneath a white hospital blanket. He’s lost an excessive amount of weight in recent months, his body reduced to a skeleton. He chews without his false teeth, taking a long time to dissolve and swallow. He rewraps the sandwich in foil saying he’ll eat the rest tomorrow. I implore him to eat more. He says no but asks if I’ve brought a banana. I say no. He looks disappointed and says he would’ve eaten a banana.
I drive home. My wife meets me in the living room as I replace my keys in the bowl. She’s smiling gently and informs me I’d better get to bed – she’s feeling contractions. It’s 11 p.m.
I wake at 3.30 a.m. My wife is still in the living room. There are chairs everywhere, buckets, towels. She’s showered twice and vomited three times. She can’t hold out any longer. We call the midwife and grab our hospital bags.
The midwife meets us at the birth centre at 5 a.m. It’s the same hospital as Dad’s; he’s in the next building. My wife is wearing one of my long sleeve T-shirts. It’s one of the few items of clothing that still fit her beautifully round body. She rests between contractions and needs to lean against a vertical surface to see through each wave of pain. She showers to ease the sting and is regularly checked by the midwife, who finds her four centimetres dilated. The baby’s heart rate is fine. I see the sun rise over Red Hill. I text my mother-in-law and ask her to drive my mum in. Excitement all round. The baby is coming.
We settle in beside Dad’s bed in emergency, listening to him complain about both immediate and past hardships. I try to turn his mind to more positive thoughts, like the impending birth of his first grandchild.
By mid-morning, the pain is too great. My wife has vomited her jelly and sports drinks. She requests nitrous oxide. She huffs through every contraction as the gas takes away the height of the pain. I massage the base of her back where the strain is the worst. The midwife checks again: the cervix is slowly dilating. I go to the cardiac care unit to check on Dad and the two future grandmothers. I want my news to bring some joy but Dad remains focused on his own plight.
By 2 p.m., the pain has intensified. My wife requests morphine but it’s too late – the only option is an epidural, which could delay the birth several hours. She reluctantly agrees. The anaesthetist arrives. He paints my wife’s back purple and administers the anaesthetic through a series of careful injections in her lumbar spine.
At 3.30 p.m., the big push is underway. There’s concern when the baby’s heart rate plummets. Naked from the waist down, my wife now has a cheer squad of three: me and two midwives. Following the midwives’ instructions, my wife rolls onto her right side with her left leg held in the air. The position returns the baby’s heart rate to normal. I’m in front holding my wife’s hand as she crushes mine.
By 5 p.m., we’re close. There’s sighting of a head. The midwives are cheering on every push. I chime in when I can but without the same enthusiasm. My wife has done well to not insult me this entire time. Many friends had told me their wives had called them every name under the sun during labour, swearing like drunken sailors to manage the pain. Gotta blame someone.
I watch the head emerge: an alien being born into a strange, unfamiliar world with harsh lights and loud noises. Eventually, the head crowns and I see slicked-back hair, two ears, two tightly closed eyes, a nose, and a squashed-in face covered in shiny goo. From there, it is only two more pushes before a slippery, eel-like body emerges and is placed directly onto the new mum’s bare chest. My wife looks at the squealing miracle. I kiss her forehead on a job supremely done. It’s a boy.
We all take a breath. The midwives are overjoyed, I’m thankful, and my wife is exhausted. I snap photos. Preliminary checks are made. Ten fingers, ten toes. A midwife shines a torch to reveal a pair of sleepy eyes. But everything appears normal. He screams as he is weighed: four kilos; a big lad. Being cold and naked is not appreciated.
The third stage of labour is quick: the delivery of the placenta. The second midwife shows me the crimson pouch and thick umbilical cord in a stainless steel bowl. She lifts up the placenta; it is almost transparent. Whatever bloody leftovers remain in the sack showcase its strength.
I excuse myself to go deliver the news. This is the sweetest walk: my feet skip across the parquetry floor. An enormous weight – stemmed from a fear of my parents dying without seeing grandchildren – lifts from my shoulders. For years, I’d watched them dote on grandchildren of relatives, sometimes even of strangers. Finally, they have a grandson. Whatever extra time they get – a day, a month, a year, ten years – is a bonus. I hope Dad is all right. I walk faster.
In the cardiac care unit, my parents and mother-in-law are sitting quietly. They all look tired: it’s been a long day for them too. All three faces are expectant.
“What is it, Panagiotis?” My mum calls me by my Greek name. “Have we got a baby?”
I wait a second for added tension. “It’s a boy!”
Jubilation. Dad’s first smile in eons. Mum’s eyes fill with tears. My mother-in-law punches the air and starts working her phone. Heads turn in the otherwise calm cardiac unit. I show the baby’s first photos on the camera. Mum can’t stop kissing the digital screen.
I return to the birth centre, eyelids heavy. Sleep is calling. But before that, I strip to my waist, lie on the partners’ bunk bed in the corner, and have the crying newborn plonked on my chest. He soon quietens down and breathes steadily, calmed by the sound of my heartbeat. He cries again and I hand him back to his mum covered in my chest hair. She commences the long and painstaking task of feeding. Eventually, we all find sleep.
I visit Dad in the morning. He hasn’t eaten much and threw up most of what he swallowed. He tells me again he wants to go home. He’s also displeased with the pyjamas Mum’s brought him – they no longer fit because he’s lost so much weight.
In the afternoon, it’s time for a long-awaited introduction. I head for the cardiac care unit with my mum, wife and son. It’s a moment I thought might never happen.
Dad is unsure of what’s going on; he’s been taken by surprise. But his confusion is brief as he sees the bundle I’m holding. His gummy face smiles. I lean in and he asks for his glasses. Mum asks what he thinks.
“Oooh,” Dad says, “you done good.” His thin eyes are trying to focus on the new life hovering before them.
Mum and I leave the hospital. I kiss my wife and son goodbye. They’re getting to know each other with every passing hour. I only hope I’ll get my chance to do the same once things calm down.
We return to hospital the next morning. Dad’s grumpy and wants to leave. He vomited again, and had to fight off the nurses when they tried to give him a shower. Mum tries to restores calm. A nurse says a chest infection seems likely. He’s on antibiotics and antiemetics but can’t get a pacemaker until his infection clears. His blood test results are clear but the doctors are concerned about his weight loss. So am I.
My new family leaves the hospital. My son’s lungs inhale their first breath of outdoor air and his skin feels the harsh Australian sun for the first time.
Over the next week, I run a double marathon caring for young and old alike. Each has a head disproportionately large for his body. Each has unique needs, but both are equally helpless. Dad needs a dietary supplement; the baby needs formula milk. I prepare a framed photo of the baby to take to Dad in hospital but he sends it away, saying “he doesn’t belong in here with the sick people”.
Dad is eventually released, a discharge process that takes hours due to the number of new medications. He is impatient as I try to understand careful instructions from doctors. He tries to steal a walking frame from the hospital but they’re onto him.
I push Dad to the car in a wheelchair, out the same automatic doors as my newborn son.
Peter Papathanasiou was born in a small village in northern Greece and adopted as a baby to an Australian family. His writing has been published by Fairfax Media, News Corporation, The Pigeonhole, Caught by the River and 3:AM Magazine, and has been profiled as a feature writer in Neos Kosmos. He is represented by Rogers, Coleridge & White literary agency in London. He divides his time between Australia, London, and a small village in northern Greece.