Seven years ago today I gave birth to Liljana O’Connor. The only time I’ve managed to slip in the remotest inkling of Slavic heritage in to any of my children’s names. The Gaelic side soon took over, stomped their feet and it was all I could do to keep the rest from being called niamff, ruadhri or shiovion. All lovely names but they look funny (and I still can't spell them).
She came out, pink and screaming, aims flailing about like she was about to feel pretty pissed about being being yanked out like that. Except that she wasn't yanked. Nor was she supposed to be screaming and pink.
She was born at 23 weeks 6 days. That one day makes a difference. The tipping point of revive-or-not on our Australian shores is generally regarded to be 24 weeks. I went in to labour at 23 weeks and 3 days. I tried my damndest to keep her in but my cervix was having none of it. So out she came. I remember it, totally. I remember it all, despite the shock.
She was 550g and perfect in her form. The weight of a tub of butter, but I didn’t see that. All I saw was perfect eyes, a head of hair the Kardashians would be proud of, ten fingers and ten toes. She was angelic. It is not what many would expect. I had no preconceived ideas. But I know it is not what many would expect.
She sounded like she had a mighty fine set up lungs on her too. But truth was she didn’t. Lungs are the main reason our premmie babies struggle so much to stay alive…
I went in to labour not many days before. We were camping.
I’m not a camper. I’m a wrap-myself-in-a-doona-in-a-comfy-bed kinda chick. But it was hubby’s birthday and he was keen. At 12 weeks I'd climbed Uluru, at 22 weeks I’d completed the Milford trek in New Zealand. For someone with a bun cooking I was looking and feeling pretty healthy. I refused to eat anything that hadn’t been washed and re-washed 32 times and I’d drunk one Breezer in 5 months. I was serious about doing all I could for the baby on the inside but on the outside, life carried on relatively normally.
And then I felt some pain. An inkling. My back was a little sore. I was at work and I was feeling strange. Something was wrong. I called the hospital. I went in. The midwife checked me over. She didn’t check my cervix. But all was fine. She was careful. She was thorough. But she didn’t check my cervix. The doctor came in to have a chat. Looks like all ok she said. But she didn’t check my cervix either.
That night I got everything ready for my trip and went to bed. I woke up with a cramp. Damn constipation I thought. It comes with the preggers. A few cramps overnight and I was proud that I managed to just ride them out. Damn Serbian stoicness.
We hit the camping ground that we were sharing with friends. I wondered off on my own a lot. Damn constipation I thought again. I spent too much time hunched over on a stool by myself. I complained very very little. All part of being preggers right? Right through to the next day. The pain came and went. Right through til about midday when I walked in to the water and the pain subsided. Strange I thought. I called the hospital again. You should come in they said. My stoicness, my stubbornness nearly held me back. My stupid Balkan stubbornness. But the pain was still there - except for when I was in the water. I couldn’t spend the next 14 hours sitting in the sea. So we packed everything up and got to the car. I lay my head in my partners lap as someone else drove. The car clock was directly in my line of sight. 40 minutes in the car. 40 minutes of watching the clock as I felt that stabbing pain, on the dot, every 5 minutes.
Wholly fuck I thought. I’m in fucking labour. I’m in fucking labour. I couldn’t talk.
Liljana spent 2 months in neo-natal intensive care. I can’t put in to words what it’s like. I could try and say it's a mix of sterile metal, warm bodies and fairy dust. A magical place where magic things happen, and wonderful people come and go. Where babies come and go. And sometimes babies die.
It is the place where Liljana was cared for, prodded, watched, nudged along, prodded again, held, nurtured, loved. Loved oh so very very much. I have no words to do justice to the compassion and commitment the nurses, the doctors, the other parents showed.
It was my haven. It was where I retreated to every day. Where Liljana and I got to hang with each other. Where I got to watch and hold her. As long as I washed my hands every 13 steps and almost always with the confines of a humidicrib between us. I could spend the whole day there. The whole night there. It was all I wanted to do. Friends were caring, compassionate. But I didn’t want them. I was harsh towards many of them. I wanted my Liljana and I wanted her to grow and get better. She was strong as an Ox. She grew, boosted along by my breast milk which I was expressing around the clock. A regular little mechanical cow I was. Proudly I pumped and pumped and pumped. She was taking the steroids and I felt like I was on them. One foot in front of the other. Not flailing once. She passed scans, tests. No brain bleeds. No apparent eye damage. She overcame and came through a stef infection that was supposed to take her in hours. An infection that drew her grandparents from across the country to come and say goodbye. But she defied them and beat that stef infection off with pure tenacity. Balkan stubbornness. Her lungs , her weakest point, were being helped along with steroids.
Neo-natal intenstive care. Fairy dust was sprinkled all around her.
And then she died.
Liljana was defying the trend of bubs born at her gestation (such a horrible word) right from the moment they pulled her out.
They told me at the delivery that they would lay her on my chest, and if she was took any breaths, at all, they would let her drift away on my chest. The expectation was that she would lay on me for the few minutes that she was likely to survive on her own.
But she defied them. She screamed, she turned pink, she flailed her pretty little chicken arms. “We’re sorry Di, we really want to give her a chance, she is remarkable – let us try and help her”. A combination of euphoria and panic all around me. For my part there was only euphoria. Help her, yes, yes! My baby. My baby was going to make it.
Two months in and they were tossing up whether to perform a tiny little operation. In her favour was that she had doubled in weight. Not in her favour was that she had taken a turn a few days before, where they had to revive her. No-one was sure why but she’d come through. We had said all along, if she was going to be kept alive for the sake of being kept alive we were against it. Support her own fight yes. But force it? No. If she was ready to go, she was ready to go.
They decided to perform the operation. They had been waiting for her to double her weight and she had. We waited in the waiting room.
The doctor walked in. It had only been 10 minutes. His eyes were red raw, his chest heaved and his sadness was palpable. It engulfed us. He didn’t need to talk. We knew. We went in to the theatre and watched our Liljana leave us. She had passed away during the anaesthetic and they kept her artificially breathing til we got there. Reacted? Too weak? Who knows. Cyndi Laupers True Colours played on the radio. Rory picked up Liljana and let out an almighty scream. He held her and cried a primal cry like I have never heard him cry before ..or since.
You with the sad eyes
don't be discouraged
oh I realize
it's hard to take courage
in a world full of people
you can lose sight of it all
and the darkness inside you
can make you fell so small
But I see your true colors
I see your true colors
and that's why I love you
so don't be afraid to let them show
your true colors
true colors are beautiful
like a rainbow
Show me a smile then
don't be unhappy, can't remember
when I last saw you laughing
if this world makes you crazy
and you've taken all you can bear
you call me up
because you know I'll be there
I sat in the corner and howled and howled like the weak incapable person I was. My baby. My beautiful baby. My beautiful Liljana was gone.
Fuck you god, fuck you universe, fuck you air and earth and sand and all that makes us who we are only to rip us apart bit by bit.
But not those amazing nurses and doctors in intensive care. You cried with us. You did everything with us. For the care and love you showed my little girl. My god. I have no words. NO. WORDS. I will never, ever, forget you. And I will never forget that each of you came to her funeral.
They might as well have shut down the hospital.
They might as well have shut down the hospital.
They say when you have a baby born too early that your friends will shy away. Won’t know what to say, whether to congratulate you or not. This was not our experience. Our phone did not stop ringing, the flowers did not stop arriving, the love for us and for Liljana came wrapped up at the hospital ward from the moment she was born. From all but one person. Just one out of what felt like hundreds of remarkable and wonderful well wishers. I won’t forget any of you either. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Today I caught up with some friends at the park with Isabella - my spunky little girl who I went into labour with exactly ten months later. 12 months to the day after I went in to labour with Liljana. Isabella, who turned 6 yesterday.
Liljana would have been 7 today I said. And then I started to cry. I rarely cry for Liljana these days.
I cried. And I cry. My little girl would have been seven.
Rory called me this morning. It’s Lily’s birthday today he says. I know I answer. He rarely mentions Lily either, except for when he has been drinking and he may let out that he thinks about her every day. Do you still do that I ask him. Every day he says. She will be my last thought before I die he says quietly. We don’t know what to say to each other. Each of us feels our pain on the inside. If he was there with me, I would embrace him. He’s not there. I embrace my Isabella who smiles her magical smile up at me.
How many children do you have people ask me. 3 I say out loud.
4, I say to myself.
But not today. Today I will say it out loud. I have 4.
I have Liljana, Isabella, Cormac and Hamish. They are all so very beautiful, amazing and wonderful.
Liljana isn’t here. But she is here with me. And with Rory. And with all those that remember her. And I know my dear beautiful friends that many of you do.
Today you would have been 7 Liljana. I miss you and I ache for you. I ache for you so very very much.
So very much.