A Promise

Matthew sleeps

It’s taken me a long time to write this, Biscuit.

There are quite a few reasons for that yawning pause. Some of them have to do with the noisy, chaotic period of readjustment which followed your arrival – it wasn’t what I’d call the most conducive atmosphere in which to write an earnest heart-to-heart, addressed to your future self.

Nonetheless, that bumpy period in which our family adjusted to its’ new shape wasn’t the only factor. A big part of my delay was pressure, the kind a person puts on themselves to do the best they can, to make the most of a moment which will only happen once.

You see, some time ago, I made a promise.

The pressure of precedent

Back in 2011, some two years and four months before you made your entrance, I wrote an open letter to your older brother about the story of his birth. It was raw and immediate and it poured out of me just a few days after your mother and I brought him home.

Things were different, you see – even though I thought having a new baby was difficult and overwhelming, the truth is that they tend to sleep a fair bit. That leaves plenty of time to type, as you wait to make the next bottle or dispose of the next toxic nappy. In reality, a lot of the turmoil was inside me.

At any rate, I was unprepared for how that letter would be received when I published it here, on this blog. To cut a long story short, a lot of people visited to share in our happiness.

That was great… but I knew, even then, that your Mum and I would try for another child. The more I thought about things, the more I realised how important it was to me that my second baby didn’t ever feel second best. That’s a big emotional driver which cuts across all aspects of life, but as a writer, I fixated on one detail: I wanted you to have something, in the style of that first letter, that was yours.

I wanted there to be no doubt in your mind that I loved you as madly, as euphorically as I loved your brother. So I promised myself that when you arrived, whoever you might be, I’d write something special to you too.

Pressure, then paralysis

As time went on, Mum fell pregnant again. Our second baby wasn’t abstract anymore – he was you. Periodically, I would think about my promise – and every time I did, I’d put a little more pressure on myself.

Whatever I made for you, it would have to be good enough.

Eventually, when you arrived – and don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a moment – I had built a mountain of expectation for myself. I wanted more than ever to give you something that was authentically yours, but each time I tried to begin, I’d find myself making reference to something David had said, or done in the context.

That’s not right! a voice in my head would say. This is Matthew’s story. You need to make it just about him.

But of course, in the real world, our lives were so entwined that I couldn’t do it. For weeks, I simply couldn’t make progress.

It’s perhaps a dead giveaway, since you’re reading this now, that I finally found a way to reconcile things. Before we get to that epiphany, however, I think it’s high time we got on with the main business of the day.

Like clockwork

You, kiddo, were a clockwork baby.

That’s not a phrase you’ll hear very often – unless you’re into some pretty niche, retro science fiction – but it feels a terribly apt description. Firstly, you arrived via a scheduled Caesarian section; no surprise, no shaking ourselves awake in the early hours and scrabbling down to St John’s, but instead a neatly planned appointment at the end of which we’d have a new child.

How thoroughly modern, I thought to myself. What an age to be alive!

Secondly – and uncomfortably for your mother – you turned around and around during her pregnancy, like the hands of a clock. Nary a week passed when some gut-churning, late night sensation wouldn’t lead her to exclaim: “uuuuurrrggggggAAARRRGGGHhHhhh I think he’s turned again ooouuGGHHHH.”

This tendency manifested itself beautifully on the morning of 21 March 2014, when we arrived at the hospital for your procedure.

“Baby’s definitely in breach,” the student Midwife told us after examining Mum, a diagnosis which agreed with the last one we’d received from our Consultant the week before.

For the record, breach means that you were sitting with your head under your mother’s ribs, bum pointing down the way. This is not the way doctors like to do business when it comes to delivering babies!

A mere two hours later, the Registrar who would be performing your procedure came down to scan Mum’s tummy, so he could get a good look at exactly how things were before going to work.

“Your baby is head down,” he announced, “and fully engaged.”

In 120 minutes, you had successfully executed a complete turn, something close to unheard of in medical circles.

Nonetheless, we pressed ahead with the C-Section for various reasons… not least of which was that if you could flip once, you could do it again. If you end up a contrary young man, frequently changing his mind about anything and everything, I shall not be surprised.

Escorted downstairs, your Mum and I waited for the surgeons to call her in for surgical prep.

In all honesty, this wasn’t a serene time; a C-Section is a major operation and Mum was, at points, scared and tearful. I tell you this because I want you to understand something about the way your mother loves you: she will walk headfirst into situations which terrify her, if she believes that doing so will keep you safe. Never forget this.

Eventually, the midwife on duty arrived to take Mum into theatre. I got changed into OR scrubs (I love using this kind of jargon, it makes me feel like I’m part of a TV medical drama) and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The surgical team maintained that I was only hanging around for 10 minutes, but it certainly didn’t feel that way. I was eventually collected and shown into a room where your mother, by now ensconced on an operating table, was unwell and upset, asking repeatedly where I was – a horrifying realisation when one has simply been sitting around twiddling one’s thumbs.

The anaesthetist, sensing my worry, explained that your Mum’s extreme nausea was a reaction to her spinal block (a treatment which protected her from pain during the operation, but allowed her to remain awake) and would pass as her blood pressure rose once more. He was right, but it was cold comfort for a few minutes while I tried to reassure her through her obvious distress.

At first sight

Don’t worry, pal – this is where it starts to get a bit more upbeat.

Once some colour returned to your Mum’s cheeks (and some clarity to her thoughts), we waited behind the green curtain which hid the mechanics of the operation. It was a bit more like a sheet, to be honest, but I like the theatrical connotations of curtain. You were the biggest show in town.

Echoing our previous experience, I reminded your Mum that our lives were changing behind the green fabric once again. She managed a smile.

To Mum’s horror, however, the medical team kept discussing details of the surgery. Making the incision, they would say, or take care to avoid the bowel. Since the last thing a person wants to think about when they are being operated on is the nitty-gritty details of how they’re being sliced up, she would repeatedly croak: “Tell them to shut up!”

I was then left with the diplomatic challenge of policing conversations between Doctors and Nurses during a live operation. I’m not sure how much success I had, but I do know that after a few minutes, it was a snippet of conversation that alerted me to your imminent arrival. The talk behind the curtain turned to pulling you out and, filled with a rising euphoria, I glimpsed over its raised edge.

Having believed that I knew what to expect, you immediately made me feel very silly. Your face popped into view and you were nothing, nothing like I imagined: too real and detailed and fragile – not to mention sporting a striking and unexpected familial resemblance.

“Can you see him?” asked Mum.

“Yes,” I nodded, smile cracking my face, “and he looks exactly like your Dad!”

We had a wee cry together, then, as the midwife brought you around for us to meet.

Matthew and Mum

After that emotional introduction, I followed you excitedly into the anteroom, where you were weighed and measured before being wrapped into a woolly ball. It was a very different experience the second time around; I felt calm and happy, rather than adrift in an emotional storm. I may have congratulated myself (somewhat too soon) on how well I was holding myself together… but mostly I was just peppering you with idle, welcoming chit-chat, trying to use your name as often as possible so that we could both get used to it.

“Hello, Matthew,” I grinned at you with shiny eyes. “I’m Daddy. I’m so happy to finally meet you.”

Brothers

Of everything that followed, I remember best the recovery room into which they wheeled us. You lay cuddled into Mum, eating for the first time in your life – an incredible thing to think about, in retrospect – and we contacted our families to announce your safe arrival.

Of those conversations, I recall most vividly the one I had with your Uncle Graeme, my younger brother.

Throughout my life, I have loved my brother in a way unlike any of my other relationships. As I shared the news with him and heard his congratulations, I felt a great groundswell of emotion: you would have a chance to build the same kind of bond with David. I cannot conceive of a greater gift.

David and Matthew

I remember also the uncertain but fascinated way David responded when he first saw you in my arms, running over to become part of our cuddle. I can tell you now that I had been plagued by fears that he might reject you, or try to hurt you; instead, his instinct was one of gentleness and protection.

The best example of this is one you are likely to have heard already, since I expect it to become one of my favourite stories, but I’ll retell it anyway: around a week after your birth, we ventured out as a family to the nearby South Gyle shopping centre, where we eventually settled in the M&S cafe for refreshments.

Your Mother elected to queue for lunch, leaving me to handle you and your brother. We were seated awkwardly at a booth, with your buggy parked alongside and partially blocking the way past. After a few minutes, a lady arrived with a wide, double-buggy containing her twins – and we were acting as a barricade to her progress.

“Don’t worry!” chimed in one of the cafe staff, who was standing nearby, “I’ll move him and bring him back.”

She could see the challenge David was presenting, clambering all over the booth in full ‘toddler-mode’, making it impossible for me to get up and wheel your buggy to a suitable passing-place – and I was grateful of the help. But as she took the buggy’s handles and clicked the foot-brake off, a remarkable thing happened.

David immediately stopped his demonic climbing, yelping and wriggling; his arm shot out like a javelin to point at her.

“NO, DADDY, MAFF-YOU, STOP LADY, DADDY, MAFF-YOU, GOT MAFF-YOU!” he cried in alarm. I tried to explain to him that it was OK, that you would be back in a moment, that the lady was helping… but nothing would quiet him until you were parked beside our table once more, foot-brake engaged. Then, crisis averted, he was free to go on the rampage again (which he duly did).

This is what lies at the heart of your relationship, before all the joshing, cajoling, bickering and banter of later life, before either of you learned the skills of pretense. At core, your brother is looking out for you like a hawk.

Again: never forget this.

It was this kind of realisation that, eventually, helped me to overcome my paralysis and write these words to you.

At some point, I awoke to the fact that your experiences would be irreversibly entwined with your brother’s – and that this was a positive, even precious quality. By trying to keep David out of your story, I wasn’t being ‘fair’: I was trying to turn your life into something it had never been.

I will never again confuse brotherhood with rivalry – or try to separate you, even as a storytelling device, from the most important person in your life.

Keeping my promise

The morning after you were born, I awoke at home and immediately prepared to depart for the Hospital where you and Mum had spent the night. David was still at your Granny’s house and I was alone in our home, which was just as well, really.

As I pulled on my shoes, thinking about you and trying to process what your arrival meant for our lives, it hit me: the wall of emotion, the tsunami I had imagined ‘under control’ the previous day.

One moment, I was tugging my laces in the most mundane way; the next I was emitting great, racking sobs, tears streaming down my face, features scrunched up into a wrinkly, red ball like the final, unappealing tomato in a late-night supermarket.

Some people cry in a way that appears dignified, or even beautiful, pal. I’m not one of those. I shook and snivelled on the edge of the bed, briefly regaining a veneer of composure several times before breaking down again when I tried to stand up.

For 15 minutes, all I could think about was the fact that you were here; that one day, I would be gone; and that in the intervening time, it was so very, very important that you understood the size and intensity of my love for you. Eventually, the tide fell, I walked to the front door and I set off for the hospital.

So here’s the last of my ‘never forgets‘: after only one day, I loved you so much it blotted out everything – even the ability to tie my shoelaces. Imagine how I must feel (or have felt) about you, with the passage of each day. I might have grown better at retaining my motor functions, but I hope you’ll recognise that the bond between us has grown as well.

Matthew Milk

This is just the start of our adventure, Matthew. If Mum and I have any say in the matter, you will have a happy childhood. We’ll help you fill it with laughter and exploration and challenge and wonderment – and we’ll always make time for you, to remind you that you are special, unique, treasured. I’ll try every day to make it the best ride I can, full enough of love and support that by the time you read this letter, nothing it contains will be a surprise to you.

That’s a promise.