Eighty-three years – almost to the hour – after the guns stopped roaring, the gas stopped seeping and the great curtain of mud and steel that had bisected Europe from Switzerland to the sea had ceased to seethe, Leo, my last-born, made his appearance.
I have an Armistice Day baby. He was not born on ‘Remembrance Sunday’ – the closest Sunday to November 11 – when the Queen bends her knee before the Cenotaph to honour her fallen soldiers; nor on Veterans Day – the nearest Monday – when the Americans take a day off for barbeques and Super Sales to remember their veterans, living and dead. No, Leo arrived on The Day itself: a day that for as long as I can remember, I have marked with a silence at eleven o’clock. When I was little, the ranks of the red-coated Chelsea Pensioners still included veterans of the trenches, but now that Harry Patch has passed on and the Great War – in England at least – has passed from living memory to history, their ranks are filled with other men and women, but the number of families touched by continuing conflicts is continuing to grow by the day.
But there was no two minutes of silence for me in 2002 – not at eleven, anyway.
For the last few weeks of my pregnancy, Leo had been breech presentation (feet down), or lying sideways. On November 10, Best Beloved had left for London and the World Travel Market, and Doctor Michalis, my ob-gyn had warned me “Any pains and you come straight in. I’ll do a breech delivery with you because this is not your first baby and we know each other well, but a baby lying transverse cannot be born and will require a Caesarian.”
Fortunately, on the morning of the eleventh, I felt Leo turn around, and was in the English Butcher, half-way up the Mesoyi hill, when the first dragging pain told me that today would be the day. “Looks like you’ll be having your baby soon,” Rose smiled at me from behind the counter. “Actually,” I gasped. “He’s on his way now!”
It wasn’t the first time that I had driven myself while in labour, but I hope it was the last… Kay was at home with Zenon, then two. She called Lise who picked up Alex and Sophia from school and contacted Barbara, a friend who was going to help Kay look after Lise’s and my combined children because Lise was coming with me to take care of Sophia who wanted to be at her brother’s birth. Kay also called Jude, a midwife friend who had agreed to act as my ‘doula’ or birthing assistant (something unknown in Cyprus) throughout the delivery.
All these ‘additional extras’ to Leo’s birth are testament to Doc Michalis’ unusual temperament. Not only was he willing to deliver a breech presentation with me, he agreed to letting Jude be present, as well as Lise (though he knew them both well – Jude in her capacity as a midwife and Lise as a patient), and he sanctioned Sophia’s presence, although he insisted on a letter from a child psychologist saying that in her professional opinion, Sophia’s witnessing the normal delivery of a sibling would not cause her harm. He also allowed me to dispense with a shave, an enema, and a drip – all normal birth procedures in Cyprus.
Everyone duly arrived and the house began to bustle with eight children, two baby-sitters, and two carers. Jude dosed me with Rescue Remedy “To reduce trauma” and massaged me with essential oils of clary sage and frankincense “The first one to totally bliss you out and the second to induce stronger contractions”, she said.
Lise drove us to the hospital where our arrival, just as labour was beginning to accelerate, caused quite a stir at the Well Woman reception. The nurse showed us to our room, Doc Michalis checked me out (“Not long now”), someone thought to call Best Beloved (“I thought it wasn’t ‘til next week!”), and within an hour or so, I was moved upstairs to the delivery room.
“If you want to watch, Sophia,” Doc Michalis said. “Come and stand behind me.” So Sophia, one little hand in Lise’s, took up station at his shoulder, her eyes growing wider and wider as the top of Leo’s head began to appear. “Is that his brains?” she whispered. “No,” Lise whispered back. “That’s his dark curly hair… Look… the rest of him’s coming now!” And with a slippery wriggle, the rest of him arrived. Doc Michalis caught him with the ease of a thousand other births, and after cutting the cord and wrapping him in a cloth, handed him to his six-year-old sister.
“Well, that was easy,” the doctor said, putting a stitch into a small tear (99% of births in Cyprus include routine episiotomy – a cut to enlarge the vagina and make delivery ‘easier’ – Doc Michalis had promised me that he would avoid cutting me, and he did). “We’ll do the next one at home, shall we?”
“No next one, Doc,” I answered. “I know where these little buggers come from now!” Smiles all round. Home births do not happen here, yet.
We had Leo’s seventh birthday party on the Sunday before the eleventh – ‘Remembrance Sunday’. Fifteen children came and played traditional games like Pass the Parcel, Musical Chairs, and Pin the Tail on the Horse. We ate sandwiches and cake, jelly and pies, and when the last cars pulled away began the clean-up: dishes in the machine, paper in the bin, toys downstairs to the bedroom. A little boy went to sleep tired but happy that night.
Yesterday, the eleventh, I taught my second Organic Principals for the Backyard Gardener workshop at Lise’s Turtle and Moon studio in Trimithousa. At eleven, I was in full spate, explaining the workings of compost and mulch.
But at one, eleven GMT, I was on the road home. I pulled over for my two minutes of silence and wondered why I hadn’t said something during the class. Was I being Politically Correct? (“Don’t mention the War!”) My (two) students were, after all, English – brought up in the same tradition that I had been. Britain is now losing soldiers at an ever-increasing rate in Afghanistan, and thirty years ago, when we were all children, not pausing for the silence at eleven would have been inconceivable.
That’s something to think about for next year.