by NATASHA LESTER
Every week, when my daughter was four months’ old we would go to Coles and buy ten packets of Stayfree Maternity pads – not for me but for her. She was being treated for hip dysplasia and was in a cast that extended from her chest down to the ends of her toes.
Between her knees was, quite literally, a broom handle strapped to the plaster to keep her legs apart – the distance from one foot to the other was fifty five centimetres, approximately the same as her height.
It would be like someone fixing and strapping my legs 165cm apart – given that I am not all that flexible, I doubt that it could even be down.
So there we were at Coles every week, me and a baby wrapped up like a Christmas gift in a bright red fibreglass cast. Because of the cast, she couldn’t fit in a trolley seat so she was perched and strapped right to the very edge of the pram, propped and supported by a number of old towels.
We would fill the pram with our ten packets of pads and there would be no room left for the groceries. So we would go through the checkout and buy our pads, always being careful to avoid the eyes of the operator who would look at me as if I was about to begin bleeding all over the aisle, and we would unload the pads into the car. Then we would go back and buy our groceries, making sure we chose a different checkout operator for our return visit.
The pads were meant to be stuffed into an opening that the surgeons had left in the nappy area of the cast. Over the top of the pad, we were told to wrap the biggest nappy we could find.
Nappy changing, as we all know, is something you do a lot with a four month old baby. Nappy change for my daughter took about half an hour. Because with a cast that only gets changed every six weeks, things can get pretty smelly if you’re not super careful. My daughter became used to us aiming the hairdryer (on a cool setting of course!) under the cast at every nappy change to dry out the skin left wet from wee and from our attempts to clean everything off.
‘She’ll be able to bring her knees back together by the time she’s eighteen,’ the surgeon joked with us on one of our many visits. My husband laughed. I did not. Because going through this with my daughter changed the way I viewed motherhood.
Everyone says that babies are dependent on their mothers. But even a baby is capable of some independent movement. They can roll over. By six months, many can sit. Then they begin to crawl. Not if you’re stuck in a cast.
The experience I had with my daughter was one of total dependence. ‘I don’t think I could do it,’ some people said to me. To which I always wanted to reply – but never did – ‘it’s not as if I have a choice.’
My little baby, roasting in her cast in her cot at night like the chicken inside the duck inside the turkey, cannot turn herself. I’m not going to wait until she is cooked through before I turn her. So I get up several times a night and do it.
‘At least it’s not cancer.’ Or, ‘At least it’s not her heart.’ This is also what people said to me. And of course I was always grateful that what she had could be fixed and that it was in no way life-threatening. Every week we had to walk past the palliative care unit at the children’s hospital on our way to have my daughter’s cast checked and every week I was thankful that our path did not stop there.
But those platitudes hurt. Because a platitude is an almost thoughtless response to a situation that no one likes to think about. No one wants to imagine what it is like to hold the hand of their baby while they have the anesthetic for yet another operation; no one wants to imagine what it is like to kiss the forehead of their howling baby while a nurse takes forty-five minutes with a loud and vibrating saw to cut the plaster off the baby’s skin; no one wants to think of the rage they would feel when they see that the nurse has cut their baby’s skin with the plaster saw in five different places.
But to be told, when I’m holding a baby who stinks like a public toilet because of all the poo and wee stuck to the lining of the cast, that I’m doing a good job is not what I want to hear. Because I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job. I am simply surviving until the cast is gone. Ask me instead, how I am, really ask me and really listen and I will tell you and I will be so grateful that somebody took the time to move beyond platitude and into true empathy.
Natasha divides her time between writing novels and playing make-believe with her three children. Her daughter is now out of her cast – hopefully for good! Natasha’s latest novel, If I Should Lose You, is – unsurprisingly – about motherhood but also – more surprisingly – about organ donation.
Have you ever had someone offer meaningless platitudes when your life has been affected by illness or death? How did it make you feel?