I started this nonfiction piece a long time ago and have plugged away at it, little by little, every now and then. However, having recently revisited the piece, I decided this story would never be finished. Instead, I’ll share it now, while it’s still messy—like real life. —Suzannah
This house is hollow without your voices to fill it. Outside the kitchen window the galahs and lorikeets are chattering, flying between the olive and lemon trees, gathering food and tending their young. I wish, like them, I could fly between here and there in an instant and hide you under my wings.
My two boys will never read the letters I will write to them. They will be written but never sent. One is too young to read, and the other is too old to bother missing me. They’re in Port Lincoln with my mother, who has travelled all the way from Canada to watch them while my husband and I are in Adelaide. Mom makes muffins and cookies and plays Go Fish—and that is enough to secure my sons’ happiness for the next month. These letters aren’t for them, really, but for me. Penance for leaving two of my children behind to give birth to two more of my children. Five years ago, when we left Canada for Australia, my husband’s home country, I never imagined this place I’d tried so hard to love would reject me before I could ultimately reject it. Who knew Port Lincoln would spew me eight hours’ drive west to the Big Smoke where I could be safely sliced in two. Where I could successfully bring forth twins.
I am thirty-three weeks pregnant—but nowhere near ready to give birth.
And now, we will wait.
I have to keep reminding myself of why I’m doing this, that one day I will love these babies as much as I love you both, and that they will mean just as much to me as you do. But hearing your voices over the phone and not being able to see or touch you would be torment for any mother.
The house we decide to stay in smells of spices and darkness. There is no phone line. There is a small kitchen with a gas stove I don’t know how to light, and a back yard swarming with ants, too hot in the afternoon with the direct sun. The loo is stifling and filled with the type of paraphernalia one might expect to find in an outhouse—a vintage poster of Archie Bunker, curled vinyl on the floor, a rake hanging off the wall. Showering feels something like prison, the bathroom with its exposed brick walls, bare lightbulb, concrete floors, too-high mirrored cabinet and frosted windows. We decide on this house because it is the only one we can afford.
It’s strange opening the fridge and cupboard, counting apples and potatoes and bananas in threes and fours instead of tens and twelves. A single bag of spaghetti. A small carton of milk. A miniature jar of unopened peanut butter. I’m not sure I can spread it on my toast without thinking of peanut butter smeared across your dimpled cheeks. My hands feel lost.
When we arrived, our temporary landlord stood in the foyer and said, “I’ve made up both the bedrooms for you because, well, you never know about couples.” His eyes widened at my large stomach, and we three chuckled there in the doorway, pretending to be amused. But in truth, he was spot on. At least lately.
It’s 40 degrees Celsius, and the bedrooms have no air conditioning. I am an extra fifty or sixty pounds of bulbous, sweating flesh. For exercise I can waddle only within the confines of one city block, one street corner to the next, before looking back lustily at the driveway that now seems miles away. I hold my hands under my belly as I walk, shuffle slowly. The neighbours must think I’m already in labour. In the afternoon I lie still to conserve my energy. My husband brings me frozen yoghurt on a stick. I consider sliding it between my now-expansive breasts. The landlord brings us a fan with a remote control and says, “So you don’t have to stand up to turn it on and off!” He is pleased with his own thoughtfulness.
I say home, but that brick house on the sunburnt South Australian coast isn’t really home. It isn’t the house on the edge of Lake Superior, surrounded by fragrant spruce heavy with rain, where I ran as a child and picked saskatoons and swam in frigid water. Instead, I’m trapped in this empty shell-house, in this enormous body, in this sunburnt country.
There are no clothes to pick up off the floor, no Lego pieces to bruise the soles of my feet. It’s seven o’clock—you should be waking up soon. But instead of getting you your breakfast, I’m quietly writing to you, waiting for your father to wake up. He’s sleeping much more soundly than I am, but then he stays up later working. Are you both OK? Is it very hot at home?
What do I do for an entire month, with no kids to care for and my husband working long hours in the other room with the door shut? It’s difficult to have any real conversation with the boys over Skype because the internet connection is too slow. They are not so interested in talking to our tired, pixelated faces through a computer. Instead, I watch an unhealthy number of episodes of BBC period dramas on DVD. I watch until my ear wells hurt from the earbuds I must plug into my laptop to avoid disturbing my husband with background noise. The last episode in the last series ends just halfway through our planned stay in Adelaide, and I cry because the characters have become more vivid to me than my own children. I gently lay the DVDs back into my suitcase, close the lid, and feel as if a friend has died. I try to remember the sound of my boys’ voices, but nothing comes.
During my first checkup at the hospital, the handsome obstetrician-gynaecologist with the bright blue eyes takes one look at me and says, “You. Are. Freaking. Huge!” He sees a lot of pregnant women, and I am the hugest among them. A dubious honour. He holds my hand and helps me to lie back on the table. I tell him hurry because I am suffocating under the weight of this mountain. “Sorry, Dahlin’,” he says. I wonder how many pregnant women have lain here in this desperate position and fallen in love with this physician. He shows me my babies on a black and white screen. They are entwined together in their amniotic sea, a boy and a girl. They are two-dimensional, surreal. It is as if they do not yet exist.
The handsome obstetrician-gynaecologist writes on my file: Patient is depressed away from home. Away from family. Recommend bringing other children to Adelaide for a visit.
But, I say, the money isn’t there. We are paying him most of our savings to ensure the safe, uneventful delivery of our twins.
The specialist drives a very nice Mercedes. He says, “I’ll pay to bring your kids over for a visit.”
I burst into tears because I’m not sure if he’s serious or joking.
A week before my scheduled C-section, we receive a call. Pa, my husband’s grandfather has died—oddly, not of old age, but hit by a driver in a parking lot. He managed to console the distraught driver. He refused an ambulance. He pulled himself, broken hip and all, into his car and drove 40 minutes to reach the little country hospital near his home, rather than go to the one that was two blocks away from the accident. Later, he was airlifted to Adelaide and died on the operating table.
The funeral is two days before my delivery and will be held in Port Lincoln. I want to go, just to spend the day with my boys, then fly back again. But enormous pregnant women are not allowed to fly in airplanes so close to their due dates. My husband will have to go alone.
Your father is has left now. The pains are starting. I remember them well from when you both came. Frequent, unnerving. Desperate. I can’t sleep. I’ve chewed half a dozen antacid tablets, drank some water, but they will not stop. I’m listening to the sparse traffic outside on the weary suburban street. I am alone with no phone line, no air conditioning, no car.
“Knock on the landlord’s door if anything happens,” my husband has suggested. The landlord lives right behind the place where we’re staying. “He said he’d be happy to give you a lift to the hospital anytime.”
In the night I listen to the ABC for news of fires. Catastrophic fire danger, hot winds. These are the things you think of in Australia during the summer. I can’t sleep for fear my boys will burn in their beds. I drift in and out to the vision of flames licking the sky and felling my husband’s plane. I worry I will be ushered to the hospital by a complete stranger to give birth. Or worse: I will give birth by myself in a stifling, outhouse-like loo with a faded poster of Archie Bunker and his cigar smirking back at me.
My husband returns from the funeral. No one else has died. I am not really in labour. Which is a small miracle in itself.
That night, we choose names, a task we have been putting off for months. Over a cup of tea, we talk about Pa, about what a stubborn old bugger he was to have driven himself home while he was dying. We decide on middle names: Stanley for the boy twin, after Pa, and Jane for the girl twin, after my great grandmother. Their names still feel foreign and two-dimensional in our mouths, like they too are merely pictures on a screen, waiting to be born.
Here I am once again, flat on my back.
The mountain is pressing down on me hard, and the handsome, Mercedes-driving obstetrician sinks his hands deep inside my abdomen. This delivery is entirely different from the screaming, sweaty, vacuum-assisted deliveries of my boys. All I feel now is the fear that I can’t breathe. I say to the anesthetist in the calmest voice I can manage: “Is there an elephant on my chest?”
In no time at all, my body is splayed open on the operating table, and over the crest of the dropsheet appears my new son, and a minute later my new daughter. My babies. My children. Two shrinkled prunes with no trace of fat on them. Stanley and Jane. A little old man and a little old lady.
Dear boys, you have a new little brother and your first little sister. You wouldn’t believe how small they are—like two skinny, naked squirrels. I can’t wait to bring them home to you. I can’t wait for you to hold them. Is Nonni taking good care of you? Are you drinking enough on hot days? Are you wearing hats outside?
There is a full week of embarrassing double-breast pumping and wound-tending and feverishly recording milk inputs and urine and feces outputs and baby weights on a chart. Then, one Friday morning, the doctor says we can go home. And even though all I’ve ever wanted is to go home—real home—leaving this hospital room is now the most frightening thing I’ve ever had to do.
I will be a mother of four.
When we stop outside with our week-old twins nestled in a rolling cart, the air is cool and dried-up leaves are scattered on the paving stones. Autumn has come suddenly in the week since I last breathed fresh air. Autumn in South Australia is so much more palatable, so much more welcome. I need my husband’s help to ease myself into the low car as I grip my tender incision. People walk past and smile at me, as if perhaps I am a first-time mother with all the joys and excitements of a new life ahead.
The babies are nestled safely in their seats, a pink one and a blue one. I ask my husband to check them one last time, to be sure they can breathe. “Ready?” he says, pulling shut the car door. A vaguely frightened semblance of a smile on his face. He hasn’t shaved since the day of delivery.
“Not a bit,” I say.
We have a long way to go: eight hours of gum tree–lined highway, of red dirt and small towns just like the one we’re heading to. Eight hours’ drive along the lonely coast with two, tiny, newly beating hearts in the back seat. I think of Pa hauling himself into his little Toyota, his hip broken, his heart failing, and yet that unstoppable determination to get himself home, no matter the pain.
I slip off my shoes, recline my seat, close my eyes.
I take a deep breath for the road ahead.