Zagreb and Puglia, Italy – Spring & Summer 1995
I imagined a blissful pregnancy but instead my body ached and even at a few months, I had the sensation my baby might slip out of me. I walked like an old lady, one hand supporting my back and the other holding my middle, already heavy. We were having a girl! As the months passed, she seemed to be shoving aside my parts to make more room for her own.
Getting on and off airplanes and helicopters and driving on potholed streets was certainly more stress and bumps than recommended for a mother-to-be. My work with UNICEF-Croatia was mostly travel on lousy roads. I visited isolated villages to deliver vaccines and school supplies and met with local authorities to discuss their community children’s education and health needs. Mostly men, they badgered me to celebrate the impending birth with toasts of their homemade brew, slivovitz. I declined, instead lifting glasses of sok – a neon-orange soda they called ‘juice’ that was probably as lethal.
Alone in dreary hotel rooms, I listened to the sounds of fighting and explosions that no longer felt far enough away and wondered what the hell I was doing there. I should be living near my girlfriends who might advise me on my pregnancy and throw me baby showers. I should be home – although now I was beginning to wonder where home might be. At least I should be safely in Zagreb with my husband who pampered me with hot baths, delicious meals, propping me up with pillows. As my belly swelled, so did my sense of being in uncharted territory without a map and on these field trips, I felt really lost.
Six months into my pregnancy, Neil came home from work manic with excitement.
“They offered me a post in Italy! They’re setting up a new UN logistics base in Brindisi – right on the sea, sweetheart! I’d being doing what I do here — manage all the local vehicles and civilian transportation – only in ITALY. What do you think? Of course we’ll go, right? Italy, darling – Italy! We get to live in Italy!”
“Wow,” I rubbed my stomach as the baby shifted inside of me. “That’s fantastic,”
Living in Italy was one of our favorite fantasies and we often drove the 2-hours from Zagreb to Trieste just to eat lunch and absorb the joy and light of the country we’d come to love. But since becoming pregnant, I longed to return to the States to be near my sister and friends. I didn’t want to be lonely no matter how charming my surroundings were.
“I guess that means we won’t being going to the States.” I tried not to sound disappointed.
“We can always go there, sweetheart. But how often do we get a chance like this? We’ll be right at the port of Brindisi, we’ll have the sea, Italian food! What a great place for the baby. What do you say?”
“I agree, it sounds great – it’s an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up.” I tried not to sound disappointed. And he was right. “When do they want you?”
“That’s the thing – I’d leave in about ten days time. I hate to leave you…”
I cut him off. “Don’t be silly. I’ll be fine. You can get everything set up. I know you’ll find us a great place. I’ve still got two more months until my maternity leave kicks in so I won’t be able to leave until then.”
In fact I liked the idea of some time alone to contemplate my imminent new life.
“I’ll try and come back on most weekends. Are you sure about this honey?”
“Yes! I’m sure. I’ll call Chloe and see what she knows about the hospitals around there.”
Chloe was a UNICEF consultant and midwife based in England and we’d become friends on her last trip conducting breastfeeding seminars in the UNPAs. I liked her no-nonsense personality tempered by warmth and she’d agreed to deliver our baby at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where she was based. I’d move there about two months before my due date, take Lamaze classes, shop for baby clothes and start nesting. Should I now change my plan to be in Italy? I called Chloe to update her and ask advice.
“What do you think about me staying in Italy to have the baby rather than travel to England? I mean I know that I don’t want to give birth in Zagreb; I’ve been in that hospital, but what about Brindisi? Do you know what it’s like there?” I asked.
“Yes. And honestly, if you are really thinking of giving birth in Southern Italy, you might as well go back to Sarajevo. The Italians are not very modern thinking when it comes to women and Southern Italy is poor – they don’t have the best facilities. I wouldn’t if I were you,” she said.
“That bad, eh?” I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or disappointed.
“It’s really not the best,” she said diplomatically.
We decided to stick with our original plan: I would go to Italy for a few weeks in July before traveling to England where, as planned, Chloe would deliver our baby. Maybe I’d be lucky enough to get one of the birthing rooms with a Jacuzzi we’d peeked in at during our visit to the hospital a few months earlier.
Zagreb’s relative peace unraveled a few weeks after Neil’s departure. Word around UNPROFOR was that the Croatians were fed up with the UN-maintained status quo and were going to take back the Serb populated areas (UNPAs) once and for all. As a last-ditch effort to keep the Croatians at bay, the Serbs retrieved the heavy guns and artillery supposedly under UN lock and key, and began lobbing shells into the center of Zagreb. This provocation was just what the Croatians needed to begin their counterattack. The war, only simmering in this capital city for the past few years, began to boil.
With each wail of the emergency siren, the elevator in my office building shut down and I lumbered behind my colleagues, climbing down 17 flights to the garage to wait for the shelling to stop. International staff, mostly veterans from Sarajevo and other battlegrounds, took these bombardments in stride, matter-of-factly speculating on the launching and landing points of mortars crashing into the city. Our Croatian staff members with homes and families in Zagreb were not so nonchalant. In fact, during these attacks, six people were killed and about 200 wounded.
As I leaned against a UNICEF Land Cruiser waiting for the okay to go back upstairs to my office, the director of personnel joined me.
“How are you feeling, Tricia?”
“Well, I am getting my exercise,” I gestured towards the stairwell.
“I was speaking with New York about the situation here and they agreed it would be best for you to take an early maternity leave. Starting next week. Do you agree?”
Feigning concern about my work, I tried not to let on happy I was for this get-out-of-town pass. Since the escalation in fighting, it was impossible to deliver vaccines and supplies or attend meetings with my Serb counterparts so I spent most days stuck in my office trying not to fall asleep at my desk. Besides, I was ready to be done – done with the war, done with the shameless-hatred between these cousins – all of them: Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. No longer did I have any illusion that I might be a vehicle for change. When I moved to UNICEF and began doing humanitarian work, I thought I would feel like I was contributing more. But in the end, I felt like an international social worker, providing band-aids to gaping wounds. Only changes at a political level would change anything. Disillusioned by my work, I was ready to focus on my life, my baby, constantly pushing and kicking inside me, she seemed to be urging me on as if to say, “let’s get out of here!”
Neil rented a large villa in Ostuni, a small town perched on a hill about 40 minutes up the coast from Brindisi. In one of our evening telephone calls he described it in detail.
“When you walk in, there’s a big, heavy wooden table that will be perfect for dinner parties. The floor is red tiled – just gorgeous and it helps to keep the place cool. The one bad thing is the kitchen was not designed for tall people. The ceiling is so low I can’t stand up straight in there so you’ll have to do the cooking and washing up!” he laughed. “Just joking, darling! I’ll help. But honestly, the ceiling is barely 6 feet. The rest of the villa is perfect. On the second floor there’s a big sitting room that has a fireplace and French doors opening onto the veranda. I’m sitting here now and the scent of the rose gardens is wafting in with a gorgeous breeze! I wish you were here now, darling! And we can eat out on the veranda. And the food is delicious – think about it: no more gristly meat and cabbage!”
I worried about the extravagance, but a week later, when Neil drove me through the automatic gates to the stucco villa, I was enchanted. I spent my days wandering from corner-to-corner of the house and puttering in the gardens filled with fruit trees including a hidden garden with a small grove of lemon and lime trees. In the front of the property were blooming rose bushes. I had landed in heaven.
After Neil left for work, the day stretched before me like a big question mark. For the first time in a decade I had no job to go to. My purpose was simply to wait, to hatch my girl. I passed the hours cleaning, furiously washing dishes, sweeping the tile floor of the kitchen and doing laundry. The clothesline was on the roof so I lugged the basket up the steps, dropping it at my feet. The heat was so intense, the black tar of the roof oozed up between gravel. A strange wind whistled in my ears. The Scirroco blowing in from the Sahara bringing heat and sand across the Mediterranean amplified the scorching summer heat of Southern Italy. My dress wrapped around my legs as I pulled a sheet out of my basket, gathering the damp fabric to spread over the clothesline as a fierce gust whipped the sheet out of my hand flapping into the sky towards the edge of the roof like a sail. I just managed to grab it, wrestling with the wind as I flung the sheet across the line and quickly clipped on half a dozen pegs to keep it fast, my hair flapping around my face.
The house echoed when I pulled the door shut behind me. Usually, I preferred light filled rooms, eschewing curtains or shades. Not here. Like my Italian neighbors, I drew the shutters closed against the heat and scorching wind. I crawled into bed and immediately fell asleep. My dreams were intense, fanned by the bizarre winds and woke sticky with sweat and anxiety about giving birth. I had barely thought about the details of what my body needed to do to deliver this baby. I longed to talk to friends, to have someone to compare notes with. Soon I’d be in England and without a language barrier, imagined bonding with other mothers-to-be in a Lamaze class. And I’d finally get around to reading those last frightening chapters of my pregnancy books.
The baby always felt like she was sitting very low on my pelvis, but these days I felt even more uncomfortable and the slightest exertion exhausted me. I passed hours prone on the veranda, gazing at the golden fields and the Adriatic sometimes visible, as a hazy ribbon gleaming between sky and land. But mostly I focused within, imagining my future child. What kind of person would she be? Would she look more like her father or me? We would show her the world! She would know she was loved and that her parents loved each other. If only we could agree on a name. One evening I looked up from the book I was reading and said to Neil, watching television beside me, “What do you think about ‘Willa’?”
“Naw. Sounds like a bloody tree.”
He dismissed these suggestions. Katie and Claire and Molly, were his current favorites. Molly Fiona was the only name we agreed upon.
A week later, almost 2 months before her due date, I gave birth in Ostuni’s little hospital. With no facility to handle premature babies, my baby girl was swept away for the 30-minute ambulance ride to Brindisi hospital. I’d barely gotten a glimpse of her. Craning my neck from the table where the nurses stitched me up, I watched the doctor examining my baby – her body still pink with blood, stretched out for the first time on a counter to my right. “Is she okay? Is my baby all right?” Neil had refused to budge from the doorway, when the nurses tried to chase him away, and called to me reassuringly, “She looks perfect! Look at her long legs. She’s gorgeous.” He followed the ambulance and when they arrived to the intensive care unit for premature babies and asked for her name, he named her: Molly Fiona.
Three days later I was released and would finally get to meet and touch my daughter. Driving to Brindisi to see her, I felt like I was going on a blind date – freshly showered and dressed up, excited but full of trepidation. Neil held my hand as he led me through the hospital halls to the Neonatology wing. Neonatology – a word I had never used in English and now I knew in Italian. He was already friends with all of the doctors and nurses and now gallantly introduced me as “the mama”. He showed me where to don a green gown and how to scrub my hands with the special soap, then led me into a small room full of beeping equipment attached to one open-air incubator. My baby. I had no idea what to do. The wires and tubes attached to every limb and the oxygen flowing into her nose made it impossible to embrace her – and besides, she was so teeny. Neil’s two daughters in England were now adults, but he remembered. Confidently, lovingly, he touched our little girl, one of his big hands large enough to cover her body. He held her head, gently whispering to her, “Your mum’s here, Molly! And Dadda’s here too.” He turned to me, “Go on, you can touch her – she’s yours! She’s your baby.” Stepping back from the incubator he drew me into his spot next to Molly.
I stroked the translucent, yellow skin of her cheek. I wanted to see her eyes but a gauze mask shielded her from the glaring lights for counteracting jaundice. Tubes came out of her ankles and her head and strapped to her foot was a small monitor that Neil told me was measuring her heart rate. I thought I might crack in two from the ache I felt looking at her. Why wasn’t she still inside of me where she belonged? I touched her miniature hand with nails like a little animal. She gripped my finger.
Over the next weeks, I remained in a dreamlike state spending every day at the hospital sitting next to and touching Molly. I joined the other mother’s diligently pumping our breast milk determined to do what we could to make our babies strong. After a week some of the tubes were removed from her ankles and I was able to hold her in my arms while the nurses changed her bedding. I gazed into her startling blue eyes and fell more deeply in love than I had ever been in my life.
I lived in a bubble – a surreal mix of trauma, new love and obsession, I rarely left the hospital. One day I took a short walk around Brindisi, an old port city and gateway to Greece, but soon turned and retraced my steps quickly back to the ward as if drawn by a magnet. My world and I had changed forever – I barely noticed my surroundings or other people. I only cared about getting my girl healthy. Neil went to work each day and came to pick me up in the evening, entering the ward like a tornado, showering us both with kisses. He flirted with the nurses, practicing the new, usually rude Italian words he’d learned and they laughed uproariously, charmed.
Evenings, Neil took me to a tiny restaurant near the ferry dock to sit outside in the evening breezes. The owner Roberto, had become our friend and like a doting uncle, personally chose and prepared my meals and then as he set plates of scrumptious grilled fish and garlicky greens and fresh salads, listed all the important amino acids and rich nutrients in each dish and explained how important they were for me to eat post-birth. Neil showered me with trinkets he’d bought during the day; a new dress, a gold heart engraved with ‘Molly’, a turquoise bracelet. At home he filled vases with fresh flowers, sat me in the cool breeze on the veranda and served me milky tea, kissing me as he set the tray in front of me. We fell more in love with each other during those hot June nights, newly alert to the preciousness of life. Climbing into bed I ached with longing for my baby, heartbroken at the thought of her swaddled alone in a hospital bassinet in Brindisi.
The neonatology unit was separated into three units, each marked the progress of our baby as she graduated from one to the next, determined primarily by the baby’s weight. Molly still looked like an undernourished child from a war-zone with limbs that looked strangely adult without the dimpled knees or knuckles I associated with babies. After 2 long weeks she made it into the last room. Meanwhile, newly admitted babies with mothers looking as shell-shocked as I once felt, made me feel like an old-timer. As the summer heat kicked into full throttle, the nurses rattled down the metal shades in our room early in the morning, and the windows stayed covered till evening. “Fa caldo!” we greeted each other by 8 AM, ready for our day’s work united by our focus and complaints about the heat.
Each day the other mothers and I waited anxiously for the doctor’s visit, standing like guards beside the plastic bassinets as the nurses brought our babies to the examination table at the center of the room. The doctor listened to lungs, poked and flipped our tiny babies as we all watched, hoping for him to say, “La bambina si puo portare a casa domani.” The doctor turned to me with a smile and I hear those words: that Molly was ready – tomorrow, she could go home! On July 4, after more than three weeks in the hospital, it was our turn. I called Neil excitedly, “Neil! It’s Molly’s independence day! She can come home!”
For the first few years of Molly’s life, as the heat of June cranked up and my little girl’s birthday neared, I flashed-back to those frightening first days when I wondered whether my child would survive. It seemed to me those steamy weeks in Southern Italy when she lay alone in her cot stuck with needles and attached to tubes, should have absolved her from any further childhood suffering.