Fourteen. It’s a spectacular age: old enough to brood, young enough to want a unicycle and a Harry Potter quidditch game as a birthday gift. Semi-adults, free to pick and choose when to be grown up.
When it comes to the story of their birth, my 14-year-old twin daughters do not want to be grown up. Zero interest. Fingers in the ears: “La, la, la, don’t tell me, I can’t hear you.”
I get it. Really, I do. So, I sneak the photo album off the shelf each year and tell myself the story of their arrival. Pore over the photos. And, even more these days, reflect on the sure hands of the obstetrician in the pictures.
The hands that delivered my children.
He died nearly two years ago, and even now when I think of him – not just on my kids’ birthdays – the pain is like a fresh bruise.
At just 58, his death was so unexpected, so unfair. At the funeral, in the ornate gloom of the Greek Orthodox church, his medical colleagues seemed dazed with disbelief.
On the street, young women clad in stretchy black fabrics gathered, cuddling babies and rocking prams, looking desolate.
Their doctor – my doctor – brought our four children into the world, unicycling twins included. He dealt with my various childbirth-related mini-crises just as he dealt with the disasters and despair that shadow obstetrics, that mirror its joy with unspeakable sorrow.
His photo must be in hundreds of albums. Poorly lit, flash-struck, cradling newborns with the ease of someone nursing their morning coffee. He always looked tired: maybe he was just relieved.
I loved him for handing me those babies. But it was after all that – after the flowers, teddy bears and post-natal visits – that Stan truly showed his mettle and we built what I now see was one of my life’s great partnerships.
On the messy battlefield of four kids under five, I thought: what now? While caring for them, how do I care for me?
Having lost my own mother early, I needed a strategy to give myself the best chance of being at my children’s 18th birthdays, so Stan and I made a plan. Every second spring, I’d book an appointment. Too busy? Too bad.
His quiet authority and our shared history made me feel invincible. Over 18 years, he built a phone book file on me, surely more my authentic story than any memoir I’ll ever write.
The visits followed a comforting ritual. I teased him about his posh office with its meaningless art prints. He told me I had bad taste. He checked on the lives of the kids he’d delivered, we express-shared stresses and sorrows before getting down to business.
Just once , this routine varied. I walked in and he asked: “How’s Michael?” In fact, my husband had just been diagnosed with stage-four cancer. Our children were in primary school, we were renovating and the sky was falling.
I pummelled his desk: “I can’t die. Please help me not to die.”
If random malevolence could descend once – on my husband – why not twice? What if we both died? It was my deepest fear, and I had nobody else to tell it to.
Stan put down his test-ordering pen and looked at me for what felt like the longest time, and I wondered: does he think I’m losing it, that I’m a pessimistic flake?
But he picked up his pen. “Alright”, he said seriously, emotion ruffling his unflappable exterior. “Let’s order some tests.”
He knew that a handful of tests wouldn’t be a suit of armour, but they were, at least, a smack in the mouth to random malevolence. And, they were what I needed.
After what turned out to be the last visit – routine restored, cancer beaten – I reflected on what a wonderful doctor he was. Experienced. The consummate professional yet easy with people. Calm, funny and respected.
And then, he was gone.
At his funeral, I ran a finger lightly along the casket and thanked him for giving so much – too much? – of himself. With shaking hands, I wrote a cheque, in lieu of flowers, to the hospital that tried to save his life.
When they’re ready – and someday they will be – I’ll tell the teenagers lurching down the hallway on a unicycle the story of their birth, and about the sure hands that passed them to us.