In 1949 my parents had a premature baby boy. Born early at twenty- eight weeks and weighing two pounds seven ounces, he should have been transported to the hospital and placed in an incubator.
Falmouth was a remote sea coast town without many modern amenities. There was a local hospital, electricity and piped running water, visiting doctors from the big City of Kingston on a rotating basis, and one principal doctor who was in charge of running the hospital in a fashion that was supposed to model best standards and practices. This doctor actually lived in Falmouth and had a private practice in the town as well as being the hospital’s administrator.
My mother had a home delivery as was customary at the time and there was no shortage of trained mid-wives to go round. The hospital itself did not have an established maternity wing. There were a few beds allotted for Obstetrical emergencies should the need arise. This was in the year nineteen hundred and forty nine, when life was still unfurling in some parts of the developing world. The baby was early, and while it wasn’t unusual to have a delivery at twenty- eight weeks, this baby had a very low birth weight and needed the expertise of a pediatrician. The baby, named Phillip, urgently needed to be placed in an incubator, with heat and oxygen, and to be nourished intravenously if there was to be any hope for his survival.
The doctor was summoned very quickly to the home on Newton Street, and after he examined the very delicate hours- old child, he declared, what was obvious, that the baby needed an incubator and intravenous line put in. He also informed the mid-wife, in the presence of the new mother, that the Falmouth Hospital did not have an incubator, the hospital did not have neonatal equipment, and the town did not have an ambulance available to take the child the many, many miles into the city of Kingston where these things were available. He also said that the baby’s chance of surviving such a trip was nonexistent, and that the child would not live for very many days.
This Caucasian doctor did not offer a single positive or comforting word of advice to my mother and did not appear to be concerned that his patient could be remotely interested in the survival of her son. When she heard the doctor’s casual dismissal of her infant struggling son, my mother became angry, “Aren’t you even going to try?” my mother screamed. A fierce row ensued between them, the outraged midwife retrieved the doctor’s bag from the bedside table and chucked it at him and in a very loud, but stern voice, asked him to leave immediately. She too was consumed with rage, and had a very good idea where his inhuman behavior lay. Nurse Sands composed herself and put her focus back on the struggling baby and distraught mother. Doctor Marshall would get his due, she vowed.
When the doctor left, my parents and the mid-wife decided that they would not let the baby die unless it was to be the will of God. They had no clothing that would fit a child this small, so they wrapped him in lots of sterile cotton which came in rolls of eight –by-four to keep him as warm as was possible and placed him in my mother’s bosom. They wrapped his head and covered his eyes with soft muslin. The frail body of the baby and his paper-thin skin drawn over his little body like a translucent veil, his organs almost visible while his determined heart beat fast like a humming birds wings. Because he could not pull to suckle, my parents hand-expressed my mother’s milk and used a pipette to feed the baby. They watched him continuously night and day to make sure that he was always pink and warm.
Both parents took turns with the kangaroo pouch method to keep him warm for six months and not once did they refer to the doctor, nor did he come round to enquire about a death certificate. Eventually my parents flesh became weary and one night my father came home in the nick of time to find my exhausted mother sleeping like a dead woman and saw that the baby had pulled the blanket they had cut in four pieces over his little face and his little fingers were blue gray.
Wordlessly he sprang into action and started to toss the baby in the air, up and down, up and down, until he heard the faintest of cries and noted that Phillip was pink again. During the commotion my mother came awake to the sound of my father’s voice in a sing-song, “Come on baby, come on baby, you can do this boy, show your father, come on show your daddy”.
My parents were so overcome with the emotions of past six months that they cried for a long period about everything that had happened since the birth of their son. They each rested a hand on the baby and spooned him on the bed between them. After that awful night they enlisted the mid-wife to spend a few nights with them so that they could sleep for at least four hours per day. When the baby was around nine months old, the doctor did a house call after he heard through the grapevine that the child did not fall prey to his dire predictions. He was to discover a thriving child maintaining his milestones and actually crawling.
The doctor was stupefied at what he saw. My father was stretched out on the floor on two blankets and my drooling brother kept crawling toward a ball my father rolled out of his reach every time he touched it. The cooing toothless baby was enjoying the game. Contrasted against my father at five foot nine, Phillip was a mere grasshopper. Doctor Marshall did not understand that love and determination can overcome a mountain of obstacles when love becomes a verb.
He never visited the family again and only came in contact with my father when he brought his car to the shop to be repaired. My father was the mechanic in the town. George, my father, was a very emotional man and spoke freely without filter, the very opposite of my mother. He knew that doctor Marshall was a snob and had heard that often times he referred to him as a grease monkey, even though he had never seen him grease bound or anything less than impeccably groomed. He also saw the hunger in the doctor’s eyes when he looked at my mother. My father was a body builder, quite an Adonis and popular at the local boxing gym and quite the opposite of doctor Marshall who could pass as the physically and emotionally absurd Don Quixote.
Three weeks after the doctor’s house call, the doctor had occasion to send his car to the garage for an oil change and to check on a suspected slow leak in one of the tires. When he returned to retrieve the vehicle, it was my father who handed him the keys and without flinching said, “The leak is fixed, the oil has been changed, but you are still a son of a bitch, there are other garages in the next town”. That was that.
In nineteen sixty- four The United States of America engaged itself with the war in Vietnam. In nineteen seventy, twenty-one- year old Phillip, by then an American citizen, was living in the United States with my parents who had moved from the West Indies ten years prior carrying their young children with them. Phillip enlisted in the United States Army Corp of Engineers.
During Phillip’s high school years in Manhattan, the family discovered that he was dyslexic and not actually lazy. He just took longer to read books, but he was remarkably intuitive with numbers and mechanics, and particularly good at mathematics. That revelation answered a lot of questions within the family, soothed many nerves and gave Phillip all the confidence he needed. Light bulbs were turned on for some, such as myself, who learned about dyslexia, and for others it was an instructive moment. They finally understood his non-compliance toward certain things, and his rage when my uncle called him an idiot because he was taking too long to read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Phillip had borrowed the textbook from one of his cousins and failed to return it in the agreed time. Benjie gave that as an excuse to Uncle Harry as the reason he failed his literature quiz. The Sunday, just before dinner when Uncle Harry asked Phillip for the book he calmly told him that he was not done with it. Perhaps Harry had been tippling extra white rum on that day, when he shrieked, “Bloody idiot”, at the top of his voice. The entire family of eight who were congregated in the kitchen popped up into the living room like startled prairie dogs. The barking began, battle lines were drawn. My father’s voice made it up to the ceiling and every mouth shut as nice as plum pudding.
After the near brawl, the next day on my way home from the hospital after a harrowing day in the operating room with disgruntled doctors battling for use of the over booked operating rooms, all the while in the back of my mind the scene with Uncle Harry and Phillip punctuated everything that I did. The line of gleaming instruments, the assortment of surgical blades and clips were some of the things that assured me that the situation before me could be mended by cutting, carving, and reconnecting carefully.
What could I do to help my brother’s affliction? There was nothing to cut or reconnect. It was difficult to focus that day and the end of my shift seemed years away, but it did come to an end and on my way home I stopped in the used book store across the street from Fordham University and bought a copy of the book. Starting that night, I eventually read the play to him doing all the parts. He had completely dismissed the altercation with Harry and said he was going to try out for a part in the play at school. My mother did not forget.
I began my employment at the St. Barnabas Hospital as an RN in the Operating Room with the Cardiac Care unit. I was trained specifically for most Cardiac Surgery procedures and primarily Open Heart procedures. I was also an ICU nurse. I was living my best life, and doing what I was skilled at. It was a very stressful occupation with extremely long hours, because in this hospital, as in the rest of New York City, there was, at the time, a shortage of trained registered nurses.
After a particularly long day, I returned home to find my mother crying. She held a letter on her lap while her tears just ran quietly down her ebony skin. My mother had striking chiseled features, and I stood quietly watching her from the entrance of the doorway. Her painted red lips quivered ever so lightly as she seemed to be trying to control her grief. Mama was always groomed. It is difficult to recall a moment of my childhood that I can remember her looking ordinary. Only in her later years she would laugh at herself and make reference to the “old lady” in her mirror.
I shut the door with extra strength and took my time entering the living room because I wanted to give her time to compose herself. She didn’t seem to care, instead she looked up in my direction and held out her hand with the letter. It was from the United States Government informing her that her son will be shipping out to Germany and from there to the battle front. Despite the dyslexia, Phillip rose to the challenges he encountered I while in Germany.
The letter my mother received from the army about her son’s dispatch opened a Pandora’s Box of, in her case, tender mercies, anguish, and a personal pain surrounding his birth and survival. The letter could be the signal that she was about to lose her son to a cause that she did not support and frankly, it was also a cause that Phillip did not subscribe to, it was the lot that he had drawn as a soldier, and his duty to serve and protect.
Tea is a staple in our household, we drink tea for every remedy, malady, rhyme or reason, and we drink tea for comfort. She took the cup I poured for her and started talking. It was here for the first time I heard the full story of her traumatic delivery on March 9th, 1949, in Falmouth Jamaica. All I ever knew before was that Phillip was born premature. I was transfixed as she spoke. I felt as if she finally found someone to pour herself out to. Someone she knew would listen and understand her tears; someone who perhaps would somehow vindicate her, or so she thought.
The years went by and carried us to nineteen eighty- six and found the family in a flurry of activities planning the wedding of my youngest sibling, Stephanie. It was going to be a splendid fall affair at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Not without drama, the limousine carrying the bridal party could not park before the cathedral as was planned because Fifth Avenue, without prior notice, was closed off to traffic to accommodate a huge parade that was in full swing when we arrived, therefore we had to park on fiftieth street and the entire wedding party would make its way to the front of St. Paddy’s, the bridesmaids holding the bridal train aloft while balancing bouquets. Stephanie led the party hyperventilating as we were followed by a throng who kept shouting, “It’s a movie, it’s a movie” and that they would somehow be seen in it.
Phillip greeted us at the entrance of the cathedral resplendent in military attire. He immediately recognized the horror unfolding, took command and did his best to dissuade the throng from entering the church. It was hopeless. They streamed in with all their tourist accoutrements, cameras, knapsacks, balloons and Lady Liberty head gears. All he could do was to ask them not to go beyond certain pews. Having charged “the extras” he forbad them to speak, then took his place beside my father who along with the bride was already at the altar. He stood beside his father and towered over him at six feet two inches. From my bridesmaid position I looked outward into the congregation and saw hundreds of people looking on and taking photographs of my sister as she exchanged vows with my brother-in-law.
Once again I saw my mother crying and witnessed the gentle way in which Phillip attended her as he offered her his handkerchief. I never found out what brought so much of my mother’s tear on this occasion. I suspected that it was much more than the divine occasion of her daughter’s wedding. I did not plan to ask her, because I sensed that she was vindicated, and doctor Marshall would have been quite shocked with this outcome. For my part, my tears were tears of joy that the more than five hundred wedding crashers, some of whom sang heartily during the communion, had no idea where the wedding reception was to be held. I was the person responsible for the guest list and invitations and knew without doubt that there were only seats and food for one hundred and fifty guests. I was smiling as I looked directly at the bride during the homily and she mouthed, “What the heck?”