Newborn In The Auld Sod
Lief proposed to me early on the final morning of our return scouting trip to Ireland. After he’d popped the question and I’d said yes, we set out to find a phone.
This was in the days before smart phones, before roaming cell phones, and before Skype. To make a call from one country where you were traveling to another, you either had to use someone’s land line (our B&B didn’t have one we could use) or find one of those things called a public payphone. We found one in central Dublin, off St. Stephen’s Green, and plugged in several pounds worth of change (this was also back before the euro, when Ireland had its own currency). I dialed my parents’ number.
It was very early in the morning for them, but even if they’d been long awake, I doubt my news would have elicited a more enthusiastic response. As it was, my pre-dawn Baltimore-time announcement was met with near-silence. They’d met Lief, but only once. And, older now, I can imagine better what they must have been thinking. They were still reeling from the idea that Kaitlin and I were planning a move to another country a thousand miles away. Now I was remarrying, too? I can imagine now what they must have been thinking, but I can’t tell you for sure, because they said little, not when I called to share my news and not over the coming few months as Lief and I engineered and then carried out the plans for both the marriage and the move.
Before we moved to Waterford, I’d lived my whole life in and around Baltimore, within a half-hour drive, more or less, of my parents and my sister. I saw them all at least once a week. Kaitlin saw them more often. A single working mom in those final few years before I left Baltimore, I counted heavily on my parents where Kaitlin was concerned. My dad, retired by that time, would race out the door on a moment’s notice to collect her from school or dance class or soccer. I always knew he was but a phone call away. And my mom, sister, and I spent many Saturday afternoons poking around antique shops and painting, wall papering, and otherwise improving each other’s houses.
My news that Kaitlin and I were not only moving out of town but also out of the country came as a shock, for my mother especially. My father quietly supported the idea, as he’d supported me my entire life to that point. But, to my mom, my relocation to Ireland was nothing more than a plan to separate her from her first grandchild. Kaitlin and I spent our final night in Baltimore at my parents’ house. The next morning, Kaitlin lay in bed sobbing while my mother sat alongside her, crying, too. I had to pry Kaitlin out of the bed and carry her to the car. It was an inauspicious beginning for what I kept assuring everyone would be a fun and adventure-filled phase of our lives.
From Baltimore, Kaitlin and I flew to Chicago to meet up with Lief. Lief and I were married that weekend, and, a week later, we three plus Lief’s mother boarded a plane for Istanbul, where we met up with Lief’s father. From Turkey (our honeymoon…spent, yes, with my daughter and my new in-laws), I flew to Ireland. Our new little family spent that first Christmas in Baltimore, but, otherwise, we didn’t see or, really, hear much from my parents until our next Baltimore visit the following Easter…when I discovered I was pregnant.
Lief and I hadn’t planned to have a baby straight of the gate of our marriage. We hadn’t planned not to have one either. The truth is, I don’t think that the question had occurred to either one of us, in the midst of the rush of the events of the time.
I was very sick when pregnant with Kaitlin. Pregnant with Jackson 10 years later, I was much sicker. I discovered I was expecting in Baltimore then returned to Ireland and to the office, where I was able to continue working for another few weeks. The six months following were spent on the sofa of our rental cottage on the banks of Waterford’s River Suir and in and out of Waterford Regional Hospital, where I became a regular patient, well known among the nursing staff of the maternity ward. The trouble was dehydration. I couldn’t keep down enough fluids to keep from becoming dehydrated, and I couldn’t be allowed to be dehydrated for any length of time for fear of consequences for the baby.
So every other week at least for six months, Lief was picking me up off the bathroom floor, where he found me often, and rushing me back to Waterford Regional, where I’d be hooked up to IV’s until the doctors were convinced I was stable enough to return home. Two times that meant stays of longer than a week.
Those were long, lonely days. Lief would come by twice each day, once in the morning and again each evening, with Kaitlin. Otherwise, I had no visitors, as we hadn’t been in Waterford long enough at this point to make any real friends. I wasn’t up for friendly chats anyway. I’d lie in bed feeling too sick to move and worrying about Kaitlin, now not only far from her father, her grandparents, and her friends, but, I had to face it, for all intents and purposes, motherless, as well.
I’d worry about the business, too. We were barely established in our sublet offices, relying on new local staff with, still, no idea who we were or what we were doing, now all under the direction of Lief. Who else was going to keep the lights on and the magazine going out each month?
By this time, Lief had more or less abandoned his own plans. He’d focused, our first couple of months in Waterford, on pulling together the pieces to purchase Pouldrew House, the property he’d identified for his corporate retreat idea. But the volatile owner kept changing the terms of the sale, including the price (which he increased three times during the course of the negotiations), arbitrarily, and my new husband, I began to see, had little patience for unexpected change, especially in business dealings.
Finally, Lief’s discussions with the owner of Pouldrew House’s broke off entirely. About this time, coincidentally, we discovered I was pregnant and then, shortly thereafter, I became a regular resident of Waterford Regional Hospital. Suddenly, overnight, with no warning and no way or chance to prepare, Lief found himself the CEO of our emerging publishing operation. He’d ask me questions each time he came by to see me in the hospital, or, when I was back home, we’d review the day’s events each evening over dinner, then Lief would return to the office to do his best to follow my instructions. Meantime, again, I was left with too much time to lie alone in bed thinking about everything I wasn’t doing and how our lives seemed to have spun out of any orbit.
The public health care system in Ireland today is reputed to be a shambles. Friends in Waterford tell me about months-, even year-long waits to see doctors or to be scheduled for procedures. Emergency rooms are overwhelmed. I can only tell you about my experience, all those years ago, which was nothing like things are reported to be today.
My experience was limited to having a baby in Ireland, which I think may be akin to what it must have been like to have a baby in the United States in the 1950s. Fathers were hardly part of the picture, and I saw few men in the maternity ward other than the doctors. Visitors were mothers, sisters, girlfriends, not husbands. There were few private rooms and no birthing rooms. You had the baby in a delivery room and then were taken either to a private room if you’d reserved one or the open ward. Most of the women, pregnant, nursing, smoked. Everyone in Ireland smoked back then, including both the women in maternity and their visitors.
We patients in the big, open maternity ward, perhaps 12 or 14 of us at a time, were separated by curtains. Early each morning, the nurses would come through, greeting us formally and pulling back each curtain with an efficient swish. Then they’d serve us each a tray of tea and toast. The Irish believe with confidence, and, in fact, had persuaded me, by the time we left the island, to believe as well, that tea and toast can cure whatever ails you, from the stomach flu to a broken heart or a bad day in the office. Certainly, the nurses at Waterford Regional were convinced of the healing powers of their trays of tea and toast, which were served not only at 6 a.m. each day but also on demand around the clock and whenever the nurses felt like a cuppa’ (which was shorthand for the tea, the tray, and the toast) was called for.
These nurses were caring but all business. Doctor’s orders were followed strictly, working in bed was frowned upon (Lief tried a few times to bring me my laptop or some papers for my review, but the nurses intervened), and little time was wasted discussing how any of us was feeling. The Irish are a hearty lot, including their nurses and their women in the various stages of carrying and delivering babies. The Waterford Regional maternity ward was long on tea but short on sympathy.
This was just as well in my case, as I was feeling sorry enough for myself and, as the weeks passed, more than a little panicked. Finally, after my second hospital admission, I asked Lief to call my parents. We needed help. My mother arrived a week later, just after I’d been re-admitted to the hospital for the third time. She walked into the hospital ward as the nurses were serving lunch. On the menu that afternoon was roasted chicken and mash (as the Irish call mashed potatoes). My mother approached my bed as the nurse approached, as well, holding out my tray of chicken and potatoes.
The smell of the food sent my stomach reeling, as it nearly always did those days. My mother was quicker than the nurse. She grabbed the basin on my bedside side and held it in place for me while pushing the nurse and the offending roasted lunch as far away from my bed as possible. From that moment on, the focus was on managing this new life in Ireland, me, Lief, Kaitlin, and the coming dual-national baby, rather than questioning or resenting it.
My parents were on board…
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