Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How My Veterinarian Grandfather Saved My Life

Here's the story as my mother tells it. I was born at home because my parents were, as she puts it, so romantic that they didn't want the event to happen in a sterile hospital. My father's friend, an obstetrician, was in attendance, as were a midwife and my paternal grandmother. After everything was cleaned up and I was dressed in hand-made laces and laid in my organdy-trimmed, beribonned cradle, they broke out a bottle of champagne and my father, exhausted and probably freaked-out by the proceedings, fell asleep in an arm chair, while my mother, fired up with oxytocin and champagne, chattered away the rest of the night.

The euphoria soon died down, however. In the following days my mother developed cracked nipples. They were so painful that she had to bite down on a lace-edged handkerchief in order to nurse me. I'm guessing that she was never able to relax enough to get a decent milk flow. In any case, it seems that I cried constantly.

To make matters worse, my mother had read the latest baby care books, which advised that babies should only be nursed every four hours. This applied to fat babies, thin babies, calm babies and fretful ones. Nor were parents allowed to pick up a baby for any reason except at the allotted four-hour intervals. As I writhed purple-faced amongst my embroidered sheets, my weeping mother would helplessly stroke my fists with one finger. When the four hours were up, the lace handkerchief would come out and the next torture session would begin.

My mother's father was a large-animal vet, just a little older than James Herriott, and like him the last of his kind to treat animals that worked the land. I was his first grandchild, and apparently he found the idea of being a grandfather appalling. Whereas my grandmother had rushed from their farm to Barcelona by train as soon as I was born, bearing baskets of eggs and garden produce, my grandfather stayed behind, mourning the passage of youth (he must have been in his fifties at the time).

Eventually, by the time I was a month old, my grandmother shamed him into coming to see me. He was let into the apartment by my hollow-eyed parents, and followed the sound of my cries into their bedroom. He picked me up, parted the lacy garments, took one look at my heaving ribs, my skinny legs, and announced "This child is starving!" A lifetime of looking at foals and calves had given him a sense of which young were thriving and which were not, and now his youngest descendant was in the latter category.

But what, and how, to feed me? Although the Spanish Civil War had been over for years, the country was still feeling its ravages, and items like infant formula were not available. Fortunately, my other grandfather had a friend who had a powdered milk factory, and this person was persuaded to let my parents buy some of this milk at reduced prices. With my veterinarian grandfather supervising, I was put on a diet of powdered milk thickened with cereal.

This was fed to me by spoonfuls and, as my mother tells it, required two people at each meal. I was so ravenous that in the time it took to refill the spoon I would go into a rage, choke and turn blue, so one of my maiden aunts was recruited to stick a full spoon in my mouth while my mother refilled hers.

I soon put on weight, and everybody got some sleep, and when my grandfather could no longer see my ribs poking through my skin, he got on the train and went back to birthing donkeys and vaccinating horses.

I have always liked this story with all its drama--the home birth, the champagne, the ribbons and embroideries, the pain (my mother's) and starvation (mine) and my vet grandfather rushing in to save the day. And I like the happy ending--not only my survival, but the transformation in my grandfather, who from the day he saved my life became a storybook grandfather, crouching in the dirt to build mud farmyards with me, taking me along to pick the ripest melons for dinner, making sure there was a lamb or a kid or a clutch of baby chicks ready for my arrival every year on summer vacation.

Do you have a birth story that is dramatic, funny, or amazing (and what birth story isn't)?

9 comments :

  1. Wow -- that sounds like a scene from a film or novel. My own birth was routine except that I was only 3 lb 9 oz and had to stay in the hospital for a month. My kids births were routine as well.

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  2. Dona, routine, with that low birth weight? You must be very young....

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  3. That's lovely. Really. Mine involves nothing so dramatic--just my mother's statement: "the first night you slept in a bassinet next to my bed. The second night you slept in the hallway. The third night you slept in the living room. I couldn't stand listening to you breathe."

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  4. Bridgett, that is exactly what I did when my first child was born. After two sleepless nights (is she choking? has she stopped breathing? what IS that funny noise?) I moved the crib into the hallway. You must have been a heavy breather, if she had to put you in the living room!

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  5. You must have saved this post for your grandson's birthday. What an amazing story!

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  6. Indigo, in fact, I just blurted it out since nothing much was going on in my life at the moment.

    Unlike you, I'm a terrible rememberer of birthdays. You just had yours, right? Feliz cumpleanos!

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  7. This is a wonderful, wondrous story.

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