UNICEF’s mission is to protect children and their mothers so when bombs began falling on Zagreb in May 1995, my employers insisted I take an early maternity leave from my job as a Program Officer. I gladly exited the bitter Balkan war zone where I’d spent almost 4 years and joined my husband in Italy. He’d left a month earlier for a new job, renting an extravagant villa in the picturesque town of Ostuni – about 40 minutes away from his office in Brindisi.
Behind the villa, a narrow staircase led to a hidden lemon and lime grove. Cherry trees full of ripe fruit and a magnificent rose garden filled the grounds. I would while away the hot June days in this fantasy location before traveling to Oxford England where my friend Chloe, a breastfeeding specialist and midwife I’d worked with at UNICEF, would deliver our baby girl who was due August 1. That was our plan.
I spent my days waddling across the cool tile floors, napping in various rooms in the too-big house, picking fruit and deadheading flowers in the garden, reading Willa Cather, cooking delicious dinners — imagining that some how, all of this was practice for my imminent new life as mother. Those pregnant, sweaty days, strangely alone in Southern Italy, far from friends and family, I washed and folded the soft, tiny baby gear and imagined my baby, trying out different names aloud to no one but the cats.
On the roof, I wrestled our sheets over the laundry line where they dried within minutes in the hot wind whipping up the coast. Beyond the golden fields of sunflowers stretching out towards the horizon, shimmered a sliver of the Adriatic. Just across the sea from my little paradise, war still raged and I felt guilty about my own escape. Meanwhile my baby elbowed, shoved and squirmed within me, insisting I pay attention to her.
My maternal hankerings had survived 4 years of life in a war zone, even as I witnessed the worst in humans. There was nothing I wanted more than this baby although I had no idea how to care for an infant. Far from friends and my own mother, whose advice I might have disdained anyway, there were no baby showers, no chance for baby tips from my peers. I looked forward to traveling to England at the end of June where I could easily make friends in my own language with other new mothers-to-be in a birthing class I’d sign up for.
Instead, just after siesta time on June 13th, in a frantic fifteen minutes, my baby girl was delivered in a tiny hospital in Ostuni almost 2 months early. From there, they whisked her away by ambulance to Brindisi Hospital’s neonatology unit.
I woke from my drug induced sleep, in a dark hospital room that felt like a 1930’s movie set. Other new mothers slept in the other 7 old fashioned, heavy metal framed beds. A full moon shone in warped rays through the glass of the casement window, a weird spotlight on only my bed. I clutched the hospital gown closed behind me, while dodging balloons bobbing from the other beds, celebrating the babies safely swaddled just down the hall. Where was my baby? Hobbling barefoot past the life-size statue of Virgin Mary whose lightbulb halo lit the hall, my physical pain was indistinguishable from the psychic pain tearing through me. Was my daughter alive? With remembered prayers from my Catholic upbringing, I begged Mary for her intervention and continued down the hall where I was met by a nurse.
With a smattering of Italian words, I begged the sleepy woman to help me call my husband or the hospital to find out news of my baby. I knew no phone numbers, there were no cell phones. The nurse insisted everyone was asleep and I would need to wait until morning. She steered me back to the maternity ward where I sunk into my still moonlit mattress and wept.
When morning finally arrived, my husband came barreling into an impossibly bright room, he was grinning. She was alive! He rushed to my bedside and told me his story of the day before: how he sped after the ambulance, about the sweet care and expertise of the doctors, of their assurance our baby would be fine, how he tried to call to tell me but the hospital insisted I was sleeping and was it okay that he had gone ahead and named our daughter, choosing our current favorite womb-name because they wanted a name at the hospital. Yes, yes, I said while trying, through tears to see my daughter in the photograph he’d brought. It was another 2 days until the hospital released me to go to her, and during that time I joyfully clutched that sad little image of my baby poked full of tubes, tiny limbs akimbo, and thought: she is perfect.