Eighteen years ago, my beautiful daughter was born in a white-washed little village located just above the heel of the boot of Italy. She emerged on a blazing hot and sunny Tuesday around 4:30 PM. Everyone in Ostuni was still siesta-groggy.
In retrospect, I understand that I’d probably been in labor at least since the night before, but until my doctor peered at the state of my cervix, smacked the side of his head and said ‘ba fungul’ like a cliche, Italian cartoon character, I was in utter denial that my baby might be born 7 weeks ahead of schedule.
We’d already decided that she would not be born in Italy. The plan was, I’d travel in a few weeks to the flat we’d rented in Oxford, England, not far from where my husband was from. I’d spend my long summer days taking a Lamaze class where I’d learn correct breathing technique, indulge in fish-and-chips, wander in bookstores and libraries in search of a perfect girl’s name. And I’d read – spoiled by the abundance of books in English. And I’d wait. In England.
While welcome (no: celebrated!) my pregnancy was not easy. For most of it, I was in Croatia fighting bouts of nausea brought on by the insidious smell of vinegar and cabbage. The war that brought me to the Balkans 4 years earlier with UN Peacekeeping, saw some definitive battles that year, (1995) eventually ending the conflict with a bang. In late spring of 1995, shells were lobbed at Zagreb city, and each time, I lumbered down the 17 flights of stairs from my office to take cover in the building’s garage. A month earlier, I’d been catapulted through the sky on a particularly rocky helicopter ride that rode the crest of the famous “Bora” wind. So I welcomed the early maternity leave offered to me by UNICEF and the chance to join my husband at his new, plum job in Brindisi, Italy.
The villa he’d found in Ostuni was lovely, surrounded by fruit trees and roses and I was tempted to revamp plans and just have my baby there – but Chloe, the Oxford based midwife I hoped would deliver my baby, suggested that I might as well return to Sarajevo if I was going to consider giving birth in Southern Italy – that it wasn’t much better. A visit to the teeny, run-down looking Ostuni hospital cemented our decision to stick with our plan for me to go to England. Flat was rented and plane tickets purchased. My due date was August 1. I’d leave Italy at the end of June to leave enough time to settle in.
At first I ignored the bouts of cramping on Monday evening. When they continued through the night, I called Chloe in the morning. She suggested the baby’s head might be settling into position but I should certainly call my doctor. I would – later. I hated feeling like a moron when making phone calls in baby Italian. It was awkward trying to make myself understood and painful to follow someone blathering on at the end of the phone. My husband went to work in the morning – but called me every hour and finally, hurried home around lunchtime. By this time, I could barely get out of bed. I remember I was reading a very bleak novel set in the Eritrean war and had to constantly flatten the splayed paperback on the bed as yet another pounding cramp ripped through me.
My husband, much more confident about faking his way through languages he didn’t really speak, called the doctor who instructed us to come to his office in a few hours – after siesta. Traveling the 5 minutes to his office by car was excruciating. I couldn’t sit, but rather crawled into the back seat, dizzy watching the clouds spin by through the back window as we sped through the narrow streets of the town. In the waiting room, I stretched across the pleather seats, not caring about the other patients stares as I moaned. Quickly, we jumped the queue and quicker, were told by the doctor to drive to the nearby hospital.
In a salmon pink room that reeked of antiseptic, the pretty Italian nurses undressed me while giving me a crash course in breathing (in Italian) then, wheeling me into the small surgery room. After a two few intense pushes, my daughter was born. That’s it. That was the birth. Within minutes, she was being tapped and prodded on a table to my right.
I craned my neck to see her. The doctors and nurses had unsuccessfully tried to shoo my husband into another room, but he would not budge beyond the doorway and now gave me a blow by blow – telling me she was gorgeous, her legs were so long, she has my eyes. Beyond the doctor’s back – I could only catch a glimpse of her weirdly-moving limbs and tiny rib cage. Wrapping her up, the doctors told me they’d need to take her to the larger hospital in Brindisi. My husband told me he’d follow the ambulance. I was left with the nurses who pattered on in Italian while they stitched me up. All of this happened within 30 minutes.
It was night when I woke in a room with big iron beds that seemed plucked from an old movie set. The other beds were festooned with either pink or blue balloons celebrating the births of healthy babies. My bed in the corner by the window, had none. Most of the women appeared to be asleep but the young mother in the bed next to mine spoke some English. Pulling myself upright, I told her I needed to find out about my baby and she insisted I borrow her slippers – feather adorned, heeled slippers that were at least 2 sizes too small for me. Clutching the back of my hospital gown closed behind me, bleeding and achy, I waddled down the hall to find a telephone.
In my sorry Italian, I tried to explain to the nurse on duty that I needed to call Brindisi Hospital or my husband to find out about my bambina. The nurse put her hands in prayer position and cocked her head to one side to mime sleep. “Domani,” she repeated, ushering me gently back towards my room. I spotted a pay phone but remembered I had no change nor did I know what numbers to call – not even my own. My head low, I clip-clopped back down the hall, past the life size statue of the Virgin Mary, her light-bulb halo casting a strange glow against the ceiling.
Mumbling thanks to my neighbor, I stepped out of her silly slippers and she cooed sleepy reassurances. I stepped barefoot across the tiles to my bed by the window and crawled between the sheets, weeping silently, praying to the sky. A full moon emerging just over the tree tops sent a silver light shimmering through the warped glass windowpanes, bathing my face, my arms limp over the starched linens. As this mystical glow washed over me, so did peace. I knew my daughter would be fine.