And so it was that, much like your Father, you favoured the dramatic entrance: at 23:07 on 27 November 2011, you were born by emergency caesarean section.
In the moments before you arrived, I sat at the head of the operating table with the head of your Mother, the rest of her obscured behind a green screen which had been erected to block the doubtless gruesome sight beyond.
“You know,” I told her, jerking my head toward the unseen surgical playground, “our lives are changing behind that screen.” She smiled and continued rocking to the sound of the radio, evidently enjoying her anaesthetic.
But anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
This story doesn’t really start at 23:07. It starts at 05:55, in our bed, when your Mother jerks awake and exclaims, “Babe! My waters have broken.”
Now let’s be clear, sunshine – waters don’t break like they do in the movies. There’s no quick splash which alerts your parents, then allows them to carry on and smoothly execute their birth strategy. Instead, there is a moving of fluid like unto the breaking of a dam, litres of the stuff emerging with the confident pace of streaming tap-water. When your Mother asked me for a towel and I returned with a hand-cloth, she laughed at me; there would be two sodden bath sheets already in play before we were ready to progress with anything.
Once we could move freely, our next stop was the hospital. We weren’t really in labour yet, but they wanted – laughably – to ‘confirm’ that your Mother’s waters had actually broken. Still, procedure is procedure, and we arrived to be examined shortly after 08:00.
The tone of our visit was set from our first encounter with a midwife at St Johns. Good-humoured, unflustered and professional, she reassured us from the moment we entered her care until the moment we left it. She began examining your Mother, involving colleagues where appropriate and by about 10:00 it was clear that, although things seemed generally fine, your heartbeat was difficult to track consistently. This meant that, in order to keep a close eye on you, they would need to attach a ‘clip’ to your scalp while you were still in the womb – and to do that, they would need to break your Mother’s fore-waters (yes, a pregnant lady has more than one set of waters. Every day’s a school day), committing us to delivering you in short order rather than returning home to lazily await your arrival.
Once the clip was attached – an uncomfortable procedure which Mum handled with her customary stoicism – we were able to reassure ourselves of your rude health. In addition, your Mother’s contractions began to intensify and despite the fact that she was only one centimetre dilated (ten is the benchmark for an actual delivery), the sense emerged that you would be with us within a few hours. I was, needless to say, thrilled. A quick labour, supervised throughout by medical experts – the perfect scenario.
You, however, were not going to entertain such a banal debut.
So, over the next few hours the contractions slowed down, despite several walking tours of St John’s hospital. We were despatched upstairs to the ante-natal ward, the doctors deciding that we were no longer an urgent case and that labour could be left to progress for a time at a more leisurely pace.
Thus began what was arguably the most worrying part of the whole affair. You see, during the hours we spent in the ante-natal ward, your heartbeat was still being measured… and it had a troubling habit of dipping sharply around the time of Mum’s contractions. Mixed in with this worry, we faced a growing exhaustion on the part of your Mother, who by this time must have walked a marathon around the hospital corridors with me trying to nudge the process along.
Eventually, as we sat behind the curtain in her ward bed, another expectant mother screaming in agony opposite and a very ill young woman vomiting loudly and uncontrollably in the adjacent bed, Mum started to become very upset indeed. Your pulse was still soaring and dipping like a rollercoaster and I was concerned about both of you. A few conversations with the ante-natal team later, we were heading back downstairs to Labour ward for closer monitoring.
Once there, we were encamped in Room 9, which we expected to be our home for the duration. However, despite contractions of increasing frequency and discomfort for your Mother, an examination at around 22:00 revealed what I had thought impossible: 16 hours in, she was still only one centimetre dilated.
The Registrar (a Doctor to you and me, kid, but they have all kinds of crazy ranks) chose this moment to speak to us about the possibility of a section. It’s pretty tough to take a man with Commissioner Gordon’s glasses, a Bay City Rollers haircut and the voice of Frank Rijkaard seriously; still, when he explained that your heart rate was dropping because you didn’t like the early contractions and they were only going to get tougher as time went on, I found a way.
It took us very little time to agree to an emergency section, a remarkable fact when we consider how set against the procedure your Mum had been just a few days earlier. The fact that your life was in danger, no matter how slight, brought us perfect clarity. We were getting you out, before things got tense or panicked further down the road.
Your Mother was wheeled away to theatre, while I was taken to a room to change into scrubs (more jargon – think of them as ‘Doctor’s pajamas’) so I could join her. I caught my own eyes in the mirror as I changed and admonished myself: “This is it, Dave – your last few minutes as a kid.” I felt a very definite sense that all the growing up I had been doing for 31 years was in order to prepare me for you. That sense has not left me since.
So, now we’re getting back to where we started. I joined Mum in theatre, held her hand as her spinal anaesthetic was administered, then sat behind that green screen with her as the medical team set about their work.
A brief interlude before continuing: I’m not sure whether we’ll have an NHS to speak of by the time you read this, baby boy. But let me be absolutely clear: the care afforded to us by the team at St Johns was in every respect world class. Only as I sat behind that screen, with a squadron of top professionals flowing around us, making a major operation seem like a slick dance routine, did I truly appreciate the value of our greatest national achievement. If you don’t have an NHS by the time you’re my age, it sure as hell won’t be because your Dad didn’t fight for it.
Where were we? Oh yes, the moment was approaching.
We were listening to the radio that was situated near the back of the theatre, speculating as to which song would accompany your arrival. For a horrible moment, it seemed like the accolade might go to Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, but you hung on long enough to let the next tune fill the room: All Night Long, by Lionel Ritchie. Your Mother and I smiled at each other – this was a ditty worthy of heralding your birth.
Mum had asked that I be the one to tell her if you were a boy or a girl, so seconds after I had uttered the fateful line with which our story began, one of the surgeons invited me to stand up and break the news. As I rose, you started to cry, sparing me the long moments of worry friends have described to me as they waited for their children to draw breath. Thank you for that.
There you were, at once both realer than anything I had ever seen, yet stranger than any dream.
You were like a special effect, son, like a beautifully observed clay model with each tiny wrinkle of skin brought out in perfect relief. Your skin was a blushed purple, highlighted with rosy strokes where the light caught you. You were nothing like I had imagined you would be; you made my imaginings seem half-formed and silly. As I looked at you – and trust me, this is no joke, no exaggeration – I felt myself change.
I went with the midwives into a side room, where they had various procedures to perform. If you’re curious about those, I’m afraid you’ll have to remain so: I was oblivious to everything but you. As you lay in the little bed which had been waiting for you, crying, I hovered and fussed over you. Stroking your cheek with the lightest touch I have ever shown, placing my finger in your tiny hand, I huskily promised you that things were OK, that they would be OK because Daddy was here. I hope, by the time that you read this, that I have always kept my word.
Holding you swaddled in my arms, weeping and smiling, I took you back into the theatre to meet your mother, who was similarly delighted with you. She wasn’t able to hold you for a few minutes as her surgery was still being completed, but I feel humbled that I was able to cradle you throughout your earliest moments.
A few minutes later, I joined both of your in the recovery room. You were lying on your Mum’s chest, a tiny woollen hat pulled tight over your head. We called your grandparents to let them know (Mum’s folks first, because she won the flip) and, as you can probably guess from your dealings with them thereafter, they were very, very happy.
I’ll end this tale with our very first family portrait. It’s not your best picture, pal, but it’s the original: Mum, Dad and David Alexander Shedden. If you’re wondering how I’m feeling as I lean awkwardly over the metal side-bars and look down at you… well, read this letter again. You’ll work it out.