I was up unusually early on the morning of 21 June, 2012. About 04:30, to be precise. Outside, it was deeply dark and deeply cold.
At 05:50 I was driving through the glossy streets of Sandton with my four-year-old son strapped firmly into his child seat in the back – just me and him; Frank was at home taking care of our seven-year-old. Matthew and I were on our way to hospital so Matthew could have a minor ear operation (grommets) to clear the nasty build-up of fluid in his middle ear, which, if left unattended, would lead to further ongoing infections and ultimately some degree of deafness. It was a road we had been down before and which we’d hoped wouldn’t have to be repeated. No parent likes to face the prospect of their child having a general anaesthetic.
As I drove past Sandton Cityand looked through the darkness into its bright, well-lit main entrance – completely deserted where normally I see it full of busy Sandtonites – it all felt very surreal.
It was the morning of the southern hemisphere’s shortest day and longest night: not only midwinter, but the winter solstice – always a significant time in my personal calendar.
I always try to take time, on my birthday, to reflect back on what I have achieved since this turning of the earth around the sun from the previous year; what I want to do differently going forward; what I am grateful for.
It was, I thought, as I buzzed the Panda through the deserted streets of one of Joburg’s most glamorous areas, a very odd start to a birthday.
Later, at about 08:30, I was waiting for Matthew to come around from the mercifully short operation. Before the op began, he’d been – most endearingly – slightly ‘plastered’ from the pre-anaesthetic. He’d amused himself by inventing symphonies of sound in the form of farting noises with his mouth, as well as carrying out lots of shouting to hear the echoes in the long hospital corridor where his mobile bed was parked while we waited for our turn to go into the operating theatre. The ‘conversation’ went a bit like this:
Matthew: “Tttthhhhhbbbbbbbbbbbzzzzzzzzzzzzzzttttttttttttt! Hahahahahahahahaha!”
Mom: “Matthew…. Sshhhhhhhhhh! Teeheehee!”
Matthew: “Hello! HELLO! Echo! ECHO! Hahahaha!”
Mom: “Matthew…. Quiet, little man! Teeheehee!”
Matthew: “Tttthhhhhhhhhhbbbbbbbzzzzzzzzzzzzzzttttttttttttt! Hahahahahahahahaha!”
Mom: “Matthew…. Sshhh now! Teeheehee!”
It was actually quite funny – and at least the little man wasn’t tearful when he was finally wheeled in and I sat beside him as the anaesthetic took hold. Then I was politely booted out, of course, to wait in the designated place while the doctor and his team carried out the procedure.
So there I was, waiting for my child to regain consciousness when my mobile phone started beeping intermittently: my birthday good wishes arriving from dear friends and family. As it so happened, all of them were completely oblivious of where I was and why I was there.
It had all been a huge rush. Matthew had been booked in for the operation by the ear, nose and throat specialist only the day before, late in the afternoon. What with sorting out those inevitable medical aid pre-admission issues, and dealing with a small amount of office necessities back at work, we hadn’t had time to alert most people about the grommets.
So as my phone beeped, and beeped, and beeped again, it all started feeling very surreal once more. I was very grateful and happy for all the phone messages and birthday wishes, but not surprisingly, my main wish at that point was for my child to safely and quickly regain consciousness. Which he did, thankfully, and – despite a short post-op vomiting session a little later – all was well.
Matthew and I eventually drove back through the now-busy day-lit streets of Sandton about 11:00 or so and by lunch time were both settled in my bed for my next birthday wish: a really good nap. Again, birthday wish accomplished.
When we both awoke, much later, Matthew was perky and cheerful – aren’t children remarkably resilient sometimes? – and it was time to go and fetch Liam and have some fun. I decided to take my boys and myself for some sushi. They are both quite good with chopsticks and it usually attracts a bit of attention in the restaurant from smiling fellow patrons as my children sit at the little moving conveyer belt, picking out their pretty gift-wrapped bundles of fishy treats.
Once settled, I allowed myself a glass of dry white wine – it was my birthday, after all! – and I reflected that I was happy.
I remembered a birthday many years before when I’d been living in England as a young adult. On my birthday that year (a Sunday, I recall), I’d done a shift in the busy pub that was my weekend job, to earn extra money for my eventual travels around Europe, and had then gone home on the train to an empty house. My two flatmates were both out and none of my new English friends had remembered that it was my birthday.
That evening, I thought of previous years with my wonderful friends back home in South Africa, who’d always fussed over me and made me feel special, and I felt very alone. I confess I even cried a bit – all I’d wished for, at that stage, was a bit of congenial company and some friendly acknowledgement.
Fast forward to 21 June 2012 and it was a very different story: the boys and I ate satisfying quantities of sushi and I watched their two bright faces and heard their animated chatter. Matthew was fine, Liam was fine and all was well with my world. Very well.
Although slightly strange, it really was a happy birthday, in the end. I counted my blessings and was grateful, and there were no more wishes to be made.