E was 11 on 6th January, while we were away skiing. She had a lovely day on the mountains and a fuss was made of her at supper with Happy Birthday banners and a cake and everyone sang. We opened a few presents in the morning before breakfast and the rest of them before supper. She put all her cards up in her room. This is the second year running we have been skiing on her birthday - and it sure beats a first-day-back-at-school birthday which is what it would have been this year. After all, it's not really a great time of year to have a birthday, is it?
I look at her closely as we celebrate the passing of each 12 months. The photos are usually taken in the dark, after school. There are pictures of her, chubby faced, in her green infant school uniform. There are pictures of her looking a little sharper of feature in pale blue ballet uniform. She is always smiling, a little shyly. There is always a cake with candles in front of her. I have always tried to make the birthday memorable, but it is often hard on a working day in the middle of winter - which is why the skiing thing is great for her for now. She is having fun, out in the open air, in beautiful surroundings, with her sisters, friends and both parents. I think it makes up a little for that Bad Time of Year curse.
You can never forget the birth of your children, the day they came into the world. I was lucky enough to have E, my first born, while we were living in Milan. Many of my friends asked if I would be coming home to have the baby. Why would I do that, I used to ask, quizically. I was in the land of baby worshipping, where motherhood was something to be celebrated, not scorned; where as a mother you felt a first class, not a second class, citizen. It was one of the happiest times of my life. I was being looked after by a Professor of Gynaecology (thanks to an earlier set of miscarriages) and his English wife and once I got over all the scary unknown bits, it was a breeze. I was going to give birth in a state maternity hospital, all geared up for any eventualities, and then be moved into a room on my own in its private wing. A perfect compromise.
E was due on 7th January. My brother and all the parents had been over for a memorable Christmas (our last one all together as it turned out as my father-in-law very sadly passed away shorty after E's christening in May). My mother-in-law still talks of how I came to meet them on my bicycle, 9 months pregnant, looming out of the Milan mist on a dark December night. I had been out and about again on the 5th, doing my jobs, going about my business, not quite sure of the exact moment when my life was going to change for ever. That's the worst thing about childbirth - will you be in the middle of the High Street when it suddenly all starts to happen? You can't exactly stop your life. Stay indoors. No, you have to carry on and hope and pray that when the moment comes it will be an acceptable one - but it remains an extraordinary thing to have to live with in those last days of carrying your unborn.
I have never been one for taking down the Christmas decorations early. I leave them till the last minute on the 6th. I hate having to admit that the fun is over, it's back to reality and the rest of the year - all those resolutions you know you'll never keep. So that night of the 5th, the tree was still up, the apartment still festive. It was quite late at night and suddenly the snow began to fall. I opened the door from the living room which led straight out onto a fabulous terrrace with 360 degree views of the city, the mountains and the street life below. I loved that place. But here, just now, for a moment, all was still as the soft white flakes fell from the blackened sky. It was a moment of peace, of solitude, of quiet contemplation.
At 7 o'clock the following morning I was in a hot bath, bent double and rendered speechless with increasing frequency from excruciating contractions. It had all happened so suddenly. I had not woken N, just quiety went to run a bath. But now I was calling out for him as best I could, saying I thought it was imminent. For reasons best known to himself that morning, he decided to shave. As he smoothed himself down, showered and pommaded, I struggled to make him understand that It Was Coming. He (not hastily enough) finished packing my bag for me and we went down from our sixth floor eerie to the ground floor in the tiny wrought iron lift. We hailed a taxi which, when told I was having a baby, proceeded at an unprecedented snail's pace (for an Italian driver) to the hospital. There was not a car on the road because it was a public holiday, yet still we stopped diligently at every traffic light. By now I was in the sort of agonies that cannot be described. Already I was losing my sense of dignity. It just didn't matter any more. And by the time we reached the hospital I had plumbed new depths of animal imitation. While N was engaged in the lengthy Italian red tape, I rolled helplessly around the empty reception, clutching my stomach and howling. With a hint of disdain on his face, I was finally called in to a small room by the registrar and asked to sit down and spread my legs. He peered in. His head shot out again fairly quickly, with a different expression now. I heard him say 'she's fully dilated' and suddenly I was being rushed along a corridor in a wheelchair to somewhere unknown where all I could hear was primaeval screaming (they don't do pain control in Italy - against their religion - a mother should suffer in childbirth). While I was joining in the cacophany in my delivery room, N was trapped filling in page after page of stupid questions like 'when was your wife's last period?' - you can imagine he knew the answer to that one! I really thought, that after all this, he was going to miss the birth of his first child trying to remember the date I last menstruated. The whole thing becomes a surreal memory at this point. There was a pretty auburn-haired young midwife called Francesca who suddenly appeared in the doorway like an angel and tried to help me push (I had no idea as I had barely had an anti-natal class). It was a disaster and, despite her being like a tiny little doll at just 2.5kg (5.5 pounds), it was a mess getting her out. My throat was scorching and I thought I'd never speak again (relief to some). I needed stitches, I needed a catheter to empty my bladder (probably almost worse than childbirth). I needed a drip but hey missed the vein so it swelled with liquid like a farmer's forearm. I stayed on a trolley in a corridor for hours, waiting to be transferred to my room. But you know what? None of this mattered. From the moment this tiny creature from an unknown world was placed, bloodily, on my belly, I felt complete. Nothing else mattered. We rang parents joyously. We were proud, We were parents.
And so here I am, eleven years on, watching that tiny baby grow into a beautiful young girl. She has poise, she has charm, she has a wisdom and sensitivity which was there from her earliest moments. My brother calls her Falling Leaf. She is that kind of a spirit. Kind, gentle, head in the clouds, blowing with the winds. She's my little hippy girl, the one with the pale blue eyes, the softest blond hair and the voice of an angel. She's Elena Carah Francesca, my first born, my beautiful growing girl.