Friday, 11 August 2017

The Secret Stories of the Women around me

Every once in a while, it does us good to be reminded that the unexpected, whether in our public or private lives, can be something worth embracing. Today what I'd like to share is the result of an unexpected phenomenon I've experienced since carrying my young baby with me around town: spontaneous storytelling from unknown women in the community. As these women tell me their stories or make their statements, I often see the look of discomfort in the eyes of those around me. "Why is she speaking to a stranger?" 

These women are mostly age fifty or above.I get the impression as they speak that these are stories that create part of their life-engines; these are the memories that drive them, but are often not shared with others. Here's a glimpse at two of the beautiful stories I've been given the chance to hear.


I sit down in the thrumming cafe, my coffee in a take-away paper cup in front of me. I tend to choose take away cups because they are harder for my little boy to grab and spill. My son is excited to be out in public; he kicks his legs vigorously, a sign that he'd like to practice standing, and I lower him carefully to the ground, all the while trying to keep an eye on my coffee as his arms flail in excitement. 

At the table next to me, a young barista is setting down a tray with a carrot cake and a pot of tea. An older woman, probably in her seventies, deftly uses her walker to angle herself into the chair. She takes a bite of her cake, and as my son bounces, our eyes meet. Shes says "Now imagine doing that with two!" She gives me a cautious look to see how I'll handle this uninvited comment. I smile.

"I can't! I think one is enough for me, to be honest." Now I'm pulling out his formula, trying to balance him on my knee while prepping a bottle.

The woman says, "I couldn't breastfeed." She looks at me cautiously again, and I give her what I hope is a look of encouragement. She continues. "When I was young, I think younger than you...I had twins. I didn't know I was having twins. They couldn't tell back then; they didn't have those things you have..."

"Ultrasounds? No they didn't really use those until the 1980's did they?"

"Yes, no ultrasounds. And the midwife would listen to my belly with a big horn, but she could only hear one heartbeat, because the babies were lying on top of each other, you see. So I didn't know I'd be having two. I don't remember much of the labour, just that one came out, and then the midwife looked surprised and then there was another one, and I just kept pushing."

"I suppose you didn't remember well because of twilight sleep? Is that what they were using at the time?"

"Oh I don't know, I don't know the name. I just can't remember it so well, because of what they gave me. And I was in shock--two instead of one! Well I thought I'd never manage, but I did. Everyone thought I wouldn't manage. But I did." She pulls out a wallet, and takes out two photos of two men, both of whom look very different from each other. "And here they are. My babies. Imagine, doing that with two!"


I am sitting at a table with my partner and my son. I'm trying to give my son a bottle, and he's screaming in protest. He's hungry, but is fighting due to a food aversion. I press the teat to his mouth and he howls in frustration. The woman behind the counter says, "Oh dear, do you suppose that he's teething?"

My partner, sensing my stress, rushes in. "No, he has a food aversion. He's allergic to dairy and intolerant to lactose. He doesn't like his new milk."

I give up on trying to get my son to take the bottle, in favour of soothing him. I'll try again later. My partner tells me he's going to take our son and change his nappy, and use the loo. I stay at the table. The woman says "Can he not have goat's milk?"

This is a common misconception. I clarify, "He doesn't just have a diary allergy. He also has lactose intolerance, so he can't digest the sugars found in all types of milk. It's very rare in babies." I look to her and she's listening, so I continue and explain how I've struggled to get doctors to take us seriously, how everything escalated one day when we had to go to the hospital because he'd aspirated fluid, and the paramedic was the first person to listen. 

The woman says, "Oh, yes. That sort of thing happened with me and my daughter. We have appendicitis in our family. My daughter was having a pain in her stomach and a fever. I just knew, I just knew it was appendicitis. I took her to the doctor. He said it was a stomach bug or bad gas. But I knew better than that. I knew what it was and I told him so, and that she should be at the hospital. He didn't ever believe me, but I didn't give up, so I said, 'Well I'm taking her to the hospital anyway.' He gave me a letter to take with me and give to them when I went.

Well maybe I shouldn't have opened that letter, I don't suppose I should have, but I wanted to see what he'd said. And sure enough, this letter said that I was overprotective and doting. That I was insisting it was her appendix but that it surely wasn't. Well I went to the hospital and I didn't give them that letter, I just told them what the doctor had said at the office and what I thought. They ended up doing an operation, and it was her appendix! And they had set up this cot next to her bed for me to stay in, because they thought I was this doting mother, you know. But I was exhausted and I knew she was safe at that point, so I told them, 'Nope, you take care of her, I'm going home to rest!' And they were all shocked. Because they thought that I was this doting mother. But I wasn't. I just knew that something was wrong with her appendix. And as I made my way out this one nurse looked at me and said, 'You were right, you know.' And I was right. And I went home and got some sleep. But I'll never forget that letter from the doctor. Calling me crazy. I wasn't crazy. I know my child."


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