In Memory of Mary

After a disastrous wartime marriage, ending in desertion for my small son and myself and finally divorce, I met and married Peter, a hard-working young builder.

Our marriage got off to a good start. We were fortunate enough to be able to rent a small cottage from my father, consisting of two up and two down with a small garden and distinct possibilities of building on a bathroom in the near future.

Those were halcyon days. Johnnie, my small son was soon settled in the school nearby and Peter found work in the town for a reliable building firm.

I enjoyed my days in my own first house, improving on my cooking, cleaning the small rooms and polishing the new furniture. Tucked away in our hearts was the thought of later on, a baby to share it all with us.

This was then our position when eighteen months later I found I was indeed pregnant. My pregnancy was a happy one and quietly exciting as I collected together the layette and pram. Peter enjoyed making what we considered a splendid cot – with much advice from Johnnie.

I was fortunate in having my parents near enough for my Mother to visit me weekly. At long last the day arrived for my entrance to the Maternity Home. As is often the case at these times, the baby decided to hang about once I was safely in the hospital. So I spent quite a pleasant first day wondering if it was a false alarm and making friends with the nursing sisters. Now the baby decided to get moving again and I was soon in the delivery room being attended to by my faithful doctor and a nursing sister.

I was given gas and air during the birth and I found this a tremendous relief. At last the baby was born. I was told I had done well – I had a baby girl, but could not see her at present as she was rather tired by the birth. I was very soon made comfortable and wheeled into a ward where I was joined by my delighted young husband.

There was one other girl in my ward, due to go out in a few days. During the evening the other girl’s lovely baby girl was brought in for feeding. My baby was not brought in, and I was told she was still resting and it was too early to offer the breast as no milk would be present. Also I was told my baby weighed 8 ½ pounds. I spent a fairly comfortable night feeling safe and secure and comfortably trusting the nursing staff.

In the morning, all the babies were brought in. This was my first glimpse of my baby. She looked adorable, she was very tightly swaddled but a wisp of auburn hair stuck straight up from her head and her face was so like my husband I wanted to laugh. The nurse who brought her in stayed with me, warning me that she had only brought her in for a cuddle, and I was not to offer her the breast as it was still too early for milk to be present and if she was thirsty they could give her a drink of sugar water from a bottle in the nursery. I felt vaguely uneasy about this but felt quite happy when assured that my milk would probably start coming in during the day.

Later that morning I had my first intimation that something was wrong. A very kindly sister came and sat by my bed and speaking very confidently said they were just a little worried as so far my baby had not wet her nappy. I began to get rather agitated where upon the sister said I was not to worry as this sometimes happens.

Soon after this my doctor visited me. I had worried myself into rather a state by this time, and almost fell on the poor man with all my fears and fancies. However, he quietened me somewhat saying that the baby had had rather rough time at the birth. Furthermore he had the baby fetched. I examined her face for any signs of illness. Did he think her eyes were slanting? He actually laughed at me saying, what would I imagine next! The baby had just been tired I must be content to let her rest a little longer.

That evening they brought the baby to me, but she couldn’t feed. I was not allowed to persuade her. They explained it would be less tiring for her to have a bottle in the nursery, meanwhile, I was to have my milk expressed. This was done that evening and during the next day. I’m afraid my fears that evening began to infect my husband, but there was worse to come.

Next morning when the babies were brought in a sister came with mine and stayed with me while I tried to persuade her to suck. Suddenly the baby’s face started to go dark red. The sister snatched her up and turned away from me, holding the baby up the blanket slipped back a little from her head and I could see it was blue. I was terribly worried. The sister tried hard to calm me, ‘don’t worry, she has had a few turns like this in the nursery, it will be alright she just can’t get her breath.’ They carried her away.

When my husband came that evening I was almost demented. Something would have to be done. He phoned my doctor after leaving me, saying I was certain something was wrong with the baby. The doctor thought I was over-imaginative, but there did seem to be something wrong. He would get in touch with a child specialist and have the child examined. My husband begged him to do it as soon as possible, to put our minds at rest. The doctor must have phoned the specialist who was at a hospital nearby because I was told soon after that a specialist was coming that same evening to examine my baby.

After an agony of waiting I heard the specialist arrive, then a long silence, then I heard the sister seeing him off. Finally he was gone and the sister came in to me, bringing some pills and an extraordinary sort of tight bodice. She gave it to me as straight as she could. I would have to be brave, she said. The baby had a deformed heart. A valve in the heart which should have been working was not. The baby might die at any time or she might live for years. She would always be subject to heart attacks, and would need extreme care taken of her. No operation was possible until she was a little girl and then it would be an extremely difficult one.

I was to be bound up tightly and given pills to make my milk go away. All the feeding would have to be by bottle. I was given sleeping pills but I still cried myself to sleep. Why did this have to happen to us? I wondered if I was being punished for misdeeds in my past.

Next day the baby seemed even worse if possible. She was passing a little water now, but she had become terribly jaundiced her little face was yellow, pinched and old looking. Arrangements were made for a parson to come and christen her. My husband and I were utterly wretched, we tried to comfort each other but visiting times were short and miserable.

Meanwhile I was encouraged to get out of bed and walk about. I was allowed to go into the nursery to look at the baby. The parson who came to christen the baby was extremely nice. We had decided on the name of Mary. A table with a white cloth and flowers was provided by the kindly sisters. My Mother and Father came to the Christening. Mother and I wept together when they arrived. But we got through the simple little ceremony somehow, but everything seemed hopeless.

As my parents left, my father looked back from the door. He looked straight at me, and significantly pushed up his chin with his fingers. I wonder if he remembers that little gesture, he certainly can’t know the bracing effect it had upon me. Yes, I would keep my chin up, or at least I would try.

After this I was encouraged to go to the nursery at feeding times and get used to giving Mary her little bottle as I would have to at home. This was a very slow process sometimes a whole hour would go by and she had taken almost nothing. If she took an ounce I was elated. The nursing staff seemed to expect her to die at any time.

One day one of the sisters asked me if I would like her to take a photograph of Mary as it would be nice to keep.  She did this, and very kindly sent it to me when I had returned home. At about this time I felt a change occurring in my whole attitude to the problem.

As I lifted the baby in my arms I experienced a feeling which I can only describe as a surge of joy. From then on I always felt this feeling, each time I lifted her. I was so thankful to have her and I was determined to keep her alive if there was anything I could do about it. When we left the hospital, Mary was recovering from her jaundice and although she was only gaining very little, her little face and body looked plump and round. She was a lovely baby in every way.

Of course it was lovely to be home again and we very soon settled to a routine of sorts. From now on housework had to take a back seat. Mary never cried for her food. But every feed time at least an hour had to be spent coaxing her to take just a little milk, and then of course helping her to bring up her wind was a very slow process. This had to be done very gently as any jolting was likely to bring up even the little she had taken. But we managed it each time somehow. Very soon too, Peter would take over this job in the evenings for me, and Mary evidently got pleasure from this. In spite of being such a quiet baby, she began to show signs of feeling pleasure at a very early age. She thoroughly enjoyed her bath and moved her hands in the water. She appeared to recognize us all too and would follow our movements about the room with evident interest.

She rarely cried and never very loudly. But of course owing to her condition we would hurry to her at any sign of distress.Progress was slow but extremely satisfying to realise it was progress and not just standing still, and wonderful to tell, her heart attacks grew fewer.

When Mary was three months old, Peter had a weeks’ holiday due. Before the baby was born we had planned to spend this in a caravan at a nearby seaside town. Now the question was, dared we take a baby with a weak heart to a caravan. We decided to do it, and it did us all good. Mary was very comfortable in a large carry cot and we hired a pram during the day. Several people remarked on the ’good’ baby, and she seemed happy and contented.

After we returned home our routine continued the same as before. Although she still had the occasional heart attacks they were less frightening to witness. The baby did not turn blue now, but became very pale, almost like wax. The worse part of them now was the little gasping sounds she would make as she struggled for breath, and there was nothing I could do to help her except hold her up, as I had been shown in the nursing home.

I was now in the habit of putting Mary in the garden in her pram on fine days for a while each morning and afternoon. She seemed to enjoy this. I would put the pram in the sun taking care to keep the baby shaded herself. Very often she would be laying awake and like this received many visitors who would tiptoe up to the pram which was so quiet and be charmed to find her sweet little face gazing up at them.

Then came a Sunday afternoon I will never forget. She was in her pram as usual but when I went to fetch in the pram I was horrified to find her making a sort of gasping sound. I was certain she must have had a slight heart attack since I last looked at her although apart from the gasping she didn’t seem to look different in any way. That evening and night was a nightmare. The baby seemed unable to take any milk from her bottle and only dozed fitfully awaking each time with this fearful gasping sound. On the Monday my doctor came to visit her.

He was not at all happy with the condition the baby was in and asked if I would like her moved to hospital. Quite candidly he said the hospital could do no more for her than I could. However, he suggested the hospital as it would relieve the strain on me and my husband. Any mother will know what my answer was. If loving and cuddling might keep her alive, I felt capable of keeping her awake indefinitely. He left me with his promise to return next day. So we gave her all our love and at intervals we tried to persuade her to take just a little warm milk and that evening our patience was rewarded and she did take some. Only to return in a terrifying gush as soon as I laid her gently down.

Then I stopped trying to persuade her, I was tormented with worrying if persuading her to drink might be making her weaker still. So passed another dreadful night. She didn’t seem to sleep at all and if I dozed I seemed to hear her painful gasping even in my sleep.

Somehow next morning I got my husband off to work and my little boy to school. I knew in my heart my baby was terribly ill and I felt almost afraid to take my eyes off her. The baby was so weak I dared not try to dress her. So I just changed her nappies and alternated holding her in my arms and laying her in her pram and rocking her very gently hoping she might doze if only for a few minutes. Later on in the morning my doctor called again. He examined Mary gently but thoroughly and his eyes were wretched as he told me things were looking very black he really could offer me very little hope. After he had gone I held her in my arms and wept. At this moment I knew, my baby was going to die. I didn’t want her to suffer but how could I bear to let her go?

Then my little boy came in for his midday meal. I tried to pull myself together but it is hard to hide ones feelings at such times and even now I can remember him saying “don’t cry Mummy, please! It will be alright.” Poor child, he was only nine. I have often wondered since what he may have suffered at that time. I was so wrapped up in the baby and her fate, yet his attitude was never anything but that of loving sympathy.

For a while I cradled her in my arms. I know I murmured endearments, I don’t remember what, or know if she even heard me. Then once again I laid her in her pram. I tucked her up with a warm hot water bottle and sat beside her just moving the pram very slightly that she might feel my presence and praying with all my heart that she might sleep a little while. My eyes never left her face, and suddenly she stopped gasping and sighed, she opened her eyes very wide with a look of true wonderment. I actually said “what can you see darling?” and then she was gone.

I’m ashamed to say I begged her to come back. How could I when she needed her rest so badly. I thought I couldn’t bear it. I thought this can’t be happening to me. I was quite selfish in my grief, until my husband came home from work where he was summoned. Then I saw his grief was as deep as mine.

So somehow we comforted each other, and when my doctor tried to plant in my mind the idea of having another baby, I thought he was the cruellest man I knew. But he was right and now we have two more beautiful healthy daughters. So in that knowledge, I hope anyone suffering the loss of a baby such as we did, will take heart. Life does goes on, but this story is just ‘In Memory of Mary.’