Perhaps it’s why I often feel guilty.
It has to be a good thing that we humans are born premature, so that, as well as complete incompetence around motor skills, we have no memory of those first moments beyond the womb. I know little of my birth, beyond one large fact. Popped on a set of 1950s NHS scales in Redhill hospital, I stopped the weights at ten pounds and eight ounces. Four point seven six kilos.
That is an awful lot of me.
Down the years, if asked about my birth, my mother would recount the weight and… that was it. It said it all. Was the labour quick or prolonged? Any distress? Interventions?
No, just those two huge and hugely accusatory figures.
If pressed Mum would add, “they thought he was going to be twins.” This was a reference to some antenatal check-up when the pediatrician heard two heart beats, a function of medical incompetence as much as the huge swimming pool my mother provided for me, creating room for an echo. Who knew she was going to give birth to sonar?
Photos of me as a baby indicate a sparsity of hair, a round chubby face and a rather confused, or stunned gaze. There is little obvious animation. Did I realise what I had done? How bloody painful that must have been?
Of course mum didn’t complain about that. She moaned about the fact that, after me, her teeth were rubbish, suggesting I had taken all the calcium for my own teeth. I think that medically that isn’t how it works, but mum did like a little simple cause and effect metaphor. It helped with the ingraining of the guilt.
It was twelve years later I heard one other fact around my gestation. I had started secondary school in 1968, aged eleven, at a tough grammar school – Purley Grammar School – a 1930s red brick mausoleum of an institution perched on the top of Downs at Old Coulsdon in North Surrey (and nowhere close to Purley, naturally). When I moved into the second form – year eight these days – in September 1969, a boy joined the first form who stood out because of his leg calipers and lack of full length arms. His mother had taken Thalidomide as a treatment against morning sickness, long before the consequential birth defects were known. I’d never met anyone with such disabilities, beyond some adults injured during the war and certainly no one so young. Mentioning this to mum, no doubt expressing both my fascination and horror, mum told me she had been prescribed thalidomide, because she too had had debilitating morning sickness but didn’t take it. Even at twelve I could do the maths as they say. Why didn’t she take it? How close had I come to being that boy? She never elaborated and I never pursued the list of questions. Maybe I didn’t want to know.
I didn’t dwell on it but I couldn’t think about him without a private shudder at what might have been. Guilt? Later, certainly, in that odd way that a believer in fate might indulge; why wasn’t it me?
I learnt soon enough that guilt is a pernicious and rather useless response to situations. I try to avoid it now. But it is also a good health check on my actions. It encourages empathy.
Birth is a pretty major event in anyone’s life, yet we are reliant on others to tell us what happened, how it went, how they felt. It’s so big, in fact that the next few years are a blur of generalized anecdotes, stippled with the occasional precisely recorded story. A random selection might comprise:
- ‘You were a bottom shuffler; your brother walked earlier than you did’.’ That he did everything earlier than me was repeated so often, I almost believe it.
- ‘Your first word was butter’, again spoken rather later than my older comparator, my brother; an early indication of my love of rich food, perhaps. I wonder what his first word was. Interplanetary or holistic or something equally pretentious.
- ‘You tried to kill yourself by sticking a butter knife into a plug socket’. Interesting this one; never was it suggested that the parenting that allowed me to crawl around clutching a flat metal object near exposed plugs was at fault.
The fact is, of course, that I both survived and thrived. Mum pushed me around in a pram and a buggy. She changed my terry nappies and fed me. I have the impression that I sat and watched a lot. My dad no doubt picked me up and tickled me to make me smile. I smiled a lot and not just because I am blessed with a generous ability to create wind. I think I was content and remained pretty healthy.
My parents had one worry about my physical well-being, of which I have no memory and that was I had something of an overlarge penis. I was taken to Great Ormond Street to see a specialist so it must have been quite something. Whatever the worry was, it was over before I have any memories of it. Mum only told me about this many many years later and the details remained sketchy. I suppose I grew into it, though I recall mentioning this to a friend – what is it with some of we males that we share such snigger-worthy stories with ‘friends’? He considered the facts and finally opined, “You peaked too soon”.
As I think we will see this wasn’t my usual approach to life’s challenges, being preternaturally inclined to leaving things late and then having to run to catch up.