It was a dark and stormy night.
“Push, sunshine, push,” I hear the bright voice near my feet. She will never know that these words will for ever be etched in my memory.
I am in labour at 3am in late November, 1974, heeding urgings to push (“like you’re doing a pooh, girl…!”) a baby out into the world. I am being instructed to push a baby out into the world – so it could see the sunshine later, because right now there is a heavy thunderstorm going on outside.
No one is holding my hand. Mrs Botha, the kind matron of the Adoption Home had driven me in silence through the storm and the heavy rain to the Queen Victoria Hospital, to leave me in the delivery room. Mrs Botha has been so tolerant with me during the months in that hiding place, awaiting the hour of this predicament. I guess there is no reason for me not to like her.
“One more push, sunshine, you’re brilliant,” I hear the voice of the midwife again. She is holding my hand now. I cling to it. This pain is new. I feel like a virgin, new to this violation and I want to protest … yet my sensible self prompts to follow instructions obediently, so the job can get done.
Somewhere outside the pain I can hear another prompt. “We have to make a small cut, sweetheart, it’s a big head.” The pain is sharp; the hour is to become sad. “Yes sunshine, here it comes… come on, one more now!”
The ‘one more’ sharp pain is a searing flash around my abdomen, and then I am aware of hushed voices, still encouraging and “sunshine”, but the surge is over and it all feels goopy and soft between my tired thighs. And I am exhausted.
A nurse is gathering up pink flailing arms and torso and she is expressing her own wonderment of another miracle.
“Oh, it’s a boy, it’s a boy,” one of them coos. Then, “Well done sunshine!”
I hear the angel’s voice, the voice of persuasion, at the foot of the table.
“Please let me see him,” I croak uncertainly; suddenly shy, squeezing my eyes tight, just exhausted.
“Now you know, sunshine, we can’t do that.”
“You must not see him,” another voice follows, in a thick Afrikaans accent.
I crane my neck in the direction to where a feeble wail has begun … a child sound, the child that has been in my body, is making a sound. “Oh please, just one look… I’ll maybe never…,” my voice breaks, tears are building. I try to smile weakly, appealing to the “sunshine” angel woman.
The nurses look at each other, confused, nodding or shaking heads, now quiet.
“Ok sweetheart, just one quick look, see.”
I stare fixedly at the red-faced infant boy before my face, for five long seconds. He is held too far away to reach or touch. I take it all in to be imprinted as it is… on my mind, in my memory. In these five seconds – I try to register as much as possible
He writhes and wriggles a bit, his features are still flattened and crinkled from squeezing from his warm mother-world – out from the warm into the cold light of delivery room and loud female voices. His eyes are shut tight against the light and he whimpers. He looks like Duncan, his forehead is sloped back and his mouth is perfect. He has dark down on his tiny scalp. He pouts for a second. I see his skin has an orange tinge. His fingers stretch and reach out for a tiny moment. His hands are normal, all the fingers are there and I count them. Tiny. My hand moves feebly on the delivery bed. “You’re already two minutes old,” I whisper in my head. “I’ll never know you.” In my head, I hear that all-familiar voice of reason. Then the moment is gone – the swaddled face in a blue blanket removed from my senses.
He is gone. The nurse wraps him, takes him away to be weighed and measured. I will not be told how much he weighed and measured. The angelic midwife is pulling the thread between my thighs, like a tailor sewing a torn seam. ”These stitches are for the cut, sunshine,”
All the time, she calls me sunshine…my thoughts file it, forever.
“They will need to stay in for a few days, but now you can have a nice rest while you are here. Hey, you were an absolute star. Are you okay now, sunshine?”
“Yeah, I’m okay! Thanks.”
I wince at the darning of my vaginal flesh. “I’ll be okay.”
“Good girl. Now, how about a cup of tea? We will get you cleaned up and take you up to the ward, catch up on some sleep. That thunderstorm is really full on out there, hey! Baby born on a wild and stormy night… I’m sure he will be strong and…um… a tough one, ja!”
The ward is a single room. I am alone. There are no other mothers to share this room with me because I am an unmarried girl, giving her baby away for immediate adoption. No one comes or maybe a nurse comes, to check my temperature. Breakfast arrives on a tray. Dull sounds come from the nursery at the end of the corridor where the babies sleep between their feeds and cuddles
“My baby is in there …is he okay?” I ask. The nurse confesses he is under the lights for mild jaundice – but he is definitely okay – tells me not to be worried.
Mrs Botha comes in at eleven o’ clock with a bunch of flowers. She is wearing her blue uniform as usual, with the watch pinned above her left breast and speaks with her usual reserve. I realize now how many times she has been to visit young girls who have made The Decision.
“Hello dear, are you okay? The nurses tell me it went very well. Quick and easy.” Her thick Afrikaans accent seems comforting; her thick glasses are smeared.
“Yeah, thank you for coming, Mrs B.” I try to sound cheerful and then, as an afterthought, “How are the girls?”
I want to know what they are saying back at the Home, after the night’s storm. All the other girls, who still wait to deliver their babies. There’s Viv, Antoinette and Jolly and that strange older Jewish woman with her hair all over the place. She’s already 28, and arrived at the home two days ago, to have a baby and to give it up. Strange, anyhow…!
“I brought a card from the girls – they all say congrats.” Mrs B. passes an envelope to me. I open it, keen to see the messages. Mrs B. continues, ”Even Brenda, our cook says to tell you, well done! She says now that its’ over, you can be happy with your life – go on, you know.”
“Brenda, ah!” I am embarrassed. She and I have never seen eye to eye. We have had real screaming matches. “Okay! Tell her I say no hard feelings hey?”
“Maar goed, I’ll do that. Are you sore?” She arranges the flowers in a water jar on the night stand. “I wonder if I can do this? There’s no vases here.”
“What happens now, Mrs B?” I try my best to look cheerful. I can still hear the babies’ crying from the ward nursery. Through my open door, I clearly see contented mothers in their pretty gowns with matching slippers, walking up and down the corridor.
“You will stay here for about three days. I believe you had to be stitched?”
“Ja maar, does it feel okay?”
“When you are released from the hospital, I will collect you and take you to the courts to sign the papers.”
I have been primed on the procedure; all the girls at the Home know that after the hours of giving birth, we are required to make our final decision, to release our baby for adoption as organised by the Child Welfare Society of SA.
I get up to close the ward door so I don’t have to listen to the babies crying in the nursery. Once, I gingerly set off to walk down the passage to a room set aside for smokers. It’s lonely and stuffy in there and I resolve not to go there again. Should be giving up smoking anyway.
On my second day, the door of my room opens and Tommy walks in. Tommy! He grins above the pink flowers he proffers, looking discreetly at the olive green walls, while I sort out the sheets over my nether regions – I had had an infra-red lamp turned on to help heal the stitches.
“Wow, Tom, what a surprise.”
“Hey, this is my favourite girl who just had a baby. I must come and see you. Here, for you.”
He puts the flowers into a water glass next to the bunch from Mrs Botha and props a card next to it. It has balloons and ribbons on the front. His blue eyes sparkle as always. Tommy, who is always so sure of himself, and whom I like so much. I’ve wished for so long he would be my boyfriend.
I lean over and take the card to read it. It says: Congrats and hang in there Gracie, you know you will always be special to me.”
“Tom,” I start.
“Hey no Gracie, it’s good to see you. How was the … you know, labour? Nurses told me it’s a boy?”
“Ok I guess; I’m a bit sore, they had to cut me…’cos I wasn’t stretched enough.”
“Did you get to look at the baby… boy?”
“Well, I did, and….”
“Hey, you sure that was good, Gracie? I mean… aw’ well anyway, it’s what you needed to do maybe, huh?”
We are both quiet for a while,
“Hey Tom, it’s good to see you. My first real visitor. How’s the hockey?”
“Yeah! Always good – going on a tour soon.”
“And how is…Linda?” I look away quickly to avoid the sparkling blue eyes.
“Linda, yeah, she is still in Switzerland, on her training course.”
“I bet you’re missing her…” I start.
“Ag, it’s never easy. Relationships – gee who needs them,” he quips and takes my hand to squeeze it.
I wince as I move up on the pillows. Tommy smiles again and dazzles me.
He asks “So where do you go from the hospital?”
“I have to go to the courts and sign the papers, after I finally decide to give him up, you know…”
I falter, don’t know how to continue. Then I say, “To my folks I guess, for a few weeks and then I will decide. Haven’t thought about it much yet.”
Tommy looks at me quizzically.
“Have you got to give the baby a name, you know, before you sign the paper?”
“Um, I don’t know really, if I have to name him, my mom reckons I should call him Christopher, that’s almost like my dead brother’s name Kristoff – his birthday was three days before this baby’s.”
Tommy asks wide-eyed,” Did your mother come and see you then – here?”
I shake my head and try to look nonchalant, a “so what” kind of look.
“No, she hasn’t. I phoned her from the tickey-box. Matron had phoned her after he was born…Christopher, um, was born, um, yesterday in the early morning, like five a.m. or so.”
I begin to feel weepy, can’t hold the tears much longer. My head tells me to try and be bigger and braver.
Tommy leans over and hugs me with both wonderful arms.
“Hey, hey Gracie, there’s my girl. You are always such a toughie, who can cope with anything, hey! Well done. You will go on… and think about those lucky parents who will have him, hey. Happiness for them.”
“Yeah, crazy. Hey, Tommy thanks for the surprise…”
All too soon he has left – after more small talk.
I am alone again. Alone in this situation and alone in this moment when I can still make a different decision.
I have been deliberating for so long, the moment of knowing this child, now alive, who has my genes and shares Duncan’s. Duncan is gone. He was there two weeks ago when he found me at the Home. He phoned first, “Can I come and see you, we must talk.” Matron had said it was all right but she was sceptical. But hey! It’s my life. I was not in prison.
Duncan arrived looking sheepish. He hugged and kissed me. We sat on the porch. The lions roared into the night sky – the caged lions in the Zoo below. We held hands. He explained, “I had to run off, disappear. I’m sorry. There was so much mess to sort out. My ex (yes, we are divorced now!) and you, no, everyone – all making demands on me like I am some kind of ice cream machine to decide on the right thing. So I ran and I lost myself in Cape Town – somewhere.” Vague, always vague Duncan. Yet here he was, come to rescue me…I had hoped.
We talked, about how I had coped through the months, working in the bank, about the friends who stood by me. About my folks, who decreed the final ultimatum and placed me in the Home do the right thing. Only 19…! Band on the Run – Paul McCartney and Wings – the number one hit album right now!
Duncan asked to walk through the Home’s nursery and we held hands. We stood by the cribs and looked at the older baby born with Down’s syndrome – no parents had come for him yet. He was so beautiful. We stood beside the cribs and we cried together, tears rolling and plopping in unison.
“You can’t go through with this, Gracie. This is our child. We are parents here. We need to do the right thing. Let’s get married now, and keep it.”
We stood there, hearts already broken because so many things were already in place.
I was not sure about his pleas. I had no courage left to face my parents and the matron. The next day, I phoned my mom and confessed that Duncan had come back for me, for us, and we wanted to be a family. Of course. she cut me short, called dad to the phone for reinforcement and the ultimatum was reiterated, “You marry him and we are dead to you! (the punch lines as usual) After all we have always done for you. This will be your biggest mistake and he’s let you down before.”
“I love him.” I tried.
I tried to convince myself. Matron telephoned the Welfare counsellors. We discussed the possibility of my leaving with the father of the baby and the what-ifs. Duncan would be summoned for a consultation about the matter. I saw a glimmer of light around my dread and hopelessness.
This was my last phone call to Duncan, “Hey, it’s me! It’s not good. Mom and Dad don’t want it… me to marry you. And they, the committee want to see you here at the office, to talk… I’m confused… I don’t know what to do.”
Duncan remained cool, was mainly silent and conceded. Just gave in. Did not argue but swore softly. Put the phone down. Now he is gone.
I am seated on a green leather chair in the office at the courts – a man or woman – I can’t really recall, is reading a document with a final question to me, “You have decided finally and irrevocably to place this male child born to you on 28th November 1974, into the care of the South African Child Welfare Society for adoption?”
“Yes,” I am barely audible.
Mrs Botha nudges me gently. “You must speak clearly, please,” she says.
“Um… yes,” my voice is a little louder, cracked.
“Then, please read the following paragraph aloud and sign at the bottom, please.”
I remember reading out the official wording woodenly. When I come to the part where the name, the name I give my baby child, now born and alive, is printed before my eyes. Christopher Jenkins! As I say this name, my heart breaks and I need to let it out. I bury my face deep into my neck and fumble for a hankie. Mrs Botha has her strong arm around me. My tears fall onto the paper I am signing. It’s done! She escorts me from the room, still holding onto my arm. She really is kind.
“You have been a brave girl and now all is well. You can go on with your life… and be more careful of course. You learned a lesson. And the boy, he will have a loving family. He will have a better life than you can really imagine. Think of it like that. En mag God ook vir jou sorg (and may God look after you also).” Her accent is as thick as ever and that is all I will ever remember of her.
She takes me outside, onto the steps of the courts in Jeppe Street, where on the pavement, I see my mother and stepfather waiting. I get into their car, bury myself in the back seat. I don’t want to look at the world out there. I am entering a new world.
of a secret lullaby
for the next 20 000 days or more:
Child, dear child,
cradled in the moments,
the so many but too few hours,
by the hands on my belly,
though I know I’ll never touch you
or kiss your eyes…
Dear little boy,
all my pain will be a joy
for another! A fortunate mother.
May you feel her strongest love.
May she who chose you,
touch your lashes with wonder.
feel your skin and laugh easy.
May the father who choses you,
to run and laugh easy; and to fish.
May your heart beat strong and well
and may you know,
that in secret,
I will love you in a lifetime’s absence.
I hope the gift of you is perfect.