“Remember me when I am gone away
Gone far away into the silent land”
In 1967 The Hollies released a record called King Midas In Reverse. Whilst critically acclaimed it was a drift from the band’s usual fare. The Hollies were a great band, originating in Manchester, and possibly overshadowed by their noisy neighbours 40-odd miles up the M62 to Liverpool. Penned by the talented Clarke, Hicks & Nash, it has interesting and clever lyrics – commercially it didn’t do well, little wonder that they followed up with Jennifer Eccles – the more familiar popcorn pap of its time.
He’s King Midas with a curse. He’s King Midas in Reverse…
I wish someone would find me and help me gain control, before I lose my reason
And my soul…
This is the story of my first-born child.
Leo Hooper-Lanning. Born on 31st March 1992. Died on 31st March 1992.
Just 14 months after the wedding-that-was-not-to-be, I was in New Cross Hospital, Wolverhampton giving birth to my first son. He was a poorly little mite, who survived against all the odds to make it to 32 weeks of pregnancy only to be born and breathe for 32 minutes, before succumbing to a mystery gestational anomaly that foxed just about every medic I was referred to up until the minute of his arrival.
I had discovered I was pregnant in the summer of 1991 after – what might be regarded – as a whirlwind relationship following an unsuccessful attempt to get married in January 1991.
Alan and I fell into a relationship almost accidentally. We had known each other for a few years, on friendly terms from the local pub scene and he was certainly one of the close group of allies after the wedding day debacle, so it was quite easy for me to immerse myself into a ‘safe’ relationship. I did say to a friend not long after we had become ‘official’, that it was reassuring to sit in the pub and have a pint with Alan and be surrounded by many of his mates, including 2 or 3 ex-girlfriends – there was nothing shady in his past – unlike my previous boyfriend, who clearly turned out to be living out his own version of tales of the unexpected.
It was quite a shock however to discover I was pregnant so soon after we had got together. I had just finished four years of part-time study to gain a law degree from Wolverhampton Polytechnic and at the time was contemplating pursuing a different career path so becoming pregnant was the last thing on my agenda.
I was 31 and Alan was going to be 40 that year and after a few days of thinking about all of the implications we made the decision without much difficulty at all: we really shouldn’t hang around: it was time to have a baby.
For the first three months I felt well other than the usual symptoms of early pregnancy. The morning sickness lingered and there was an underlying concern that I was continually tired and a little bit ‘puffy’. A woman at work, enquiring after my health just before Christmas of that year passed what appeared to be an innocuous (if not insensitive, but without malice) comment at the time: ‘no way is this baby going the full 9 months! You’re huge!’
When my left leg started to swell slightly a trip to the doctor brought about the usual platitudes; ‘oh you probably have an infection’, ‘I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about’, ‘we’ll send you for another scan next week if you don’t feel better’….
And the following week I did not feel better. We had no idea and nor did the medical team assigned to us, why I was suddenly ballooning.
A further scan revealed the baby was not well either. During the critical developmental stages of early pregnancy something had gone wrong. I was suffering from a medical term known as polyhydramnios. In layperson terms this condition is a pre-cursor; a sign that all is not well. The excess amniotic fluid puts pressure on the uterus and a full-term pregnancy is unlikely. Our baby was surviving in the womb – but only just. His heartbeat was strong, but his lungs were not. We were advised that if I managed to get through to a full-term pregnancy, the chances of him being able to breathe independently after birth were very slim indeed.
It was at this point an epic and tumultuous journey began to unfold.
The struggle both physically and emotionally to maintain hope for your unborn child. The attempt to nurture a life that in every way is making its present felt, but then simultaneously coming to terms with the realistic prognosis that we were not likely to have a future with our child created another challenging scenario for me. How was I going to get through this situation? Would I be able to cope with all that we were about to endure?
We had to be mentally prepared for the likelihood that we would lose our son before he had a chance of life and with that mental anguish, I was again exhausting every inner fibre to remain positive. I had to try and be hopeful of a thinly veiled miracle. Surely this was a blip, recovery must be possible. What could I do? Maybe there was something I could take to make him better? Even worse were those quiet moments of agitated torment – what had I done or not done to make my baby poorly?
At this stage after the battery of tests, most of them unpleasant and in an environment of gloom and hopelessness, we had to share our depressing news with family and friends. I elected to try everything possible to support the ongoing pregnancy and I concluded that while there were signs of life, it was up to me to share our baby’s determined will to live – whatever the cost, both physically and mentally.
Many of those around me were expressing despair about our news. There was much talk about my propensity for bad luck, this voodoo like jinx that was hovering over me, particularly when the ‘odds of’ game was being banded about: what chance to be jilted on a wedding day and then just 12 months later, when seemingly happy times were ahead, only to discover the baby I was carrying was very sick indeed and had only a slim chance of survival?
As ever my coping mechanism started whirring into action, I remembered the song King Midas in Reverse and said to Mum and Dad this should be adopted as my anthem! Of course, I do not subscribe to any theory that purports to misfortune being dished out to certain individuals, although I have often joked of my previous life as an axe murderer (a flippant acknowledgement to the grim and unlikely occurrences of dodgy fate that has landed at my door). I confess I am a good subject for a tragic, wailing country and western ballad and I have played and sung along to Memphis Minnie and her bluesy I’m a bad luck woman on a few occasions. In later years I find myself in the luckless statistics game again: I am one of around 750 people diagnosed with MS in the UK every year.
But luck is not about bleating that much-loathed and self-pitying sentiment: ‘why me?’ The truism of such a facile statement should be ‘why NOT me?’ However, as philosophical as I have tried to be on so many occasions and as my Dad would’ve said in many a commentary: ‘she must have run over a 100 black cats’ it was hard to reconcile that I was in the 1% who suffer from polyhydramnios in early pregnancy – and that is a tough call to dismiss without feeling a tad hard done by.
We named our unborn son Leo. It was an obvious reference and nod toward the strength and determination of the lion and because my mother, never a greater tour de force, was Leona – and she was a real lioness. It seemed to be the perfect name and it suited him very well.
For three months I had extra special care from the medical team at New Cross Hospital, the obstetricians, the paediatricians – a galaxy of dedicated professionals who provided hope and support and unobtrusive counselling. We were referred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and I received unprecedented treatment from a consultant in fetal medicine. He advised a pioneering intervention treatment (at that time) to drain the excess amniotic fluid from the womb which was causing the pressure around the baby. There was a risk attached, I was conscious throughout the procedure and although heavily sedated I remember how uncomfortable and vulnerable I felt. This was unchartered territory and I felt hopelessly out of control and that is a situation that makes me very edgy indeed.
I have one very strong memory of waking, fitfully, in a quiet room after the treatment, probably talking a language akin to Esperanto, and in my bewildered and dopey state seeing Alan sitting at the side of the bed reading an ancient copy of the People’s Friend he had obviously found curled up and coffee-stained in a magazine rack close by.
In a flash of normality, he looked up, brought me the cup of water I was craving, and then typically (of Al) he read me an entry from the letter’s page: ‘Listen to this’ he said cheerfully, ‘someone has written in to say how miserable Sundays were as a child when Sing Something Simple came on the radio!’ I am sure I managed a weak smile, it has long been a feature of the ‘likes and dislikes’ of my colourful 59 years of life that I am likely to recoil in a pool of unpleasant vomit at the opening bars of Sing Something Simple. Those distant memories of grim, dark November afternoons, the fading aroma of a Sunday roast and the voice of Mum penetrating the dismal, dreary sound of ‘easy’ listening that ushers out the weekend: ‘have you got your school uniform ready?’
I have discovered since – over the years – that Cliff Adams and his anodyne singers trilling She wears red feathers and a hula hula skirt, she lives on fresh coconuts and fish from the sea – is enough to send great swathes of the population into noise pollution meltdown…hands clapped to the head, desperately seeking something sharp or pointed to involuntarily perforate the eardrums…
For a few days after the attempts to drain fluid from Leo’s tiny body – via the womb – I felt a little better. It didn’t last. The enormous pressure of water retention, wobbling around, literally – uncomfortable in every position to say the least.
I did try to move about as much as possible and waddling around to West Park in Wolverhampton with my dog Pepper offered some respite during those difficult days. I unashamedly spent a lot of time talking to Leo as he moved around – able to kick and flail his limbs with plenty of room in what can only be imagined as a small spa bath in this very large and watery waiting room. I was monitored almost every day as I recall. We shared a form of instructions with both hospitals managing my care. I would give birth at the QE in Birmingham, but if the delivery became an emergency then I would go to New Cross, which is in fact what happened.
As had been anticipated, the sheer weight and pressure on the uterus prompted an early onset of labour and on the evening of 30th March 1992 I was rushed into the delivery suite with a set of notes for the night staff to absorb speedily.
We were introduced to a wonderful paediatrician who after assimilating the information and notes he was handed with lightning speed, said gently to Alan and I, ‘Can I just check with you both first. Are we looking for life and not just for survival for your baby?’ He was immediately aware of the gravity of the situation. He must have been reassured that both Alan and I agreed, and he was not facing hysterical parents, clinging to false hope, seeking a machine that would keep our baby’s heart and lungs going – despite the knowledge that this was never likely to be a viable solution to sustain his life.
He was a lovely man – my memory believes he was called Dr Ross – and he stayed with us throughout the birth, not without further trauma as Leo was breach, but he arrived in the very early hours of the 31st March. The strenuous attempts by the crash medical team on hand to help him breathe independently was in vain. He never uttered a sound. There was a chilling silence in the delivery room as the doctor wrapped him in a small blanket and handed him to me. ‘I think we should let him die peacefully in your arms, with dignity’ he said in a hushed tone, ‘we have tried everything’.
Leo was born at 32 weeks and weighed a little over 5lbs. Had he gone full term he would’ve been a whopper. He looked angelic. Arms and legs, fingers and toes. He just couldn’t breathe. I looked in disbelief at the tiny, perfectly formed baby in my arms, this wonder of nature given to us and then striking its cruellest blow to snatch it away so soon.
The day that followed was surreal in so many ways. I was unsurprisingly exhausted, my head was floating – veering from an odd relief that our ordeal – at least in the physical sense – was over, but then caught in an overwhelming sadness that swept over as I looked across at our baby, the hospital had sympathetically allowed us to have him for as long as we needed, in recognition of our need to say goodbye in our own time to our first born son.
Alan cradled his son in his arms and took him to the window of the private room we had been allowed. It was a glorious spring morning and the sun shone through the window. He pointed out the daffodils, the buds and the blossom, the surrounds of the emerging life of the season to our lifeless son – it was a poignant and heart-rending moment. The nurse and midwife who had been present for the birth were in tears – I was in a state of quiet numbness, a shell of battered emptiness. I honestly felt there was not a further grain of emotion I could expend.
A hospital chaplain called into see us. He asked if we would like our baby blessed. He was a kind man but even in my state of helpless exhaustion I was still able to protest at the faintest hint of any form of religion creeping into our space.
Save me from the words ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ I pleaded to Al. Thankfully we are both completely irreligious and no amount of sympathetic blessing would’ve changed my thinking then – or forever since it should be noted.
Leo was buried in a quiet ceremony at Bushbury crematorium in Wolverhampton. It was the day after the General Election of April 1992. Labour had lost by a significant margin and the result seemed to be a marker of my all-encompassing gloom and despondency.
The carpet of bluebells and plethora of flowers on the graves at the children’s cemetery gave off such a glorious scent, this prompted more emotion: I felt extremely raw once again. Al and I chose to keep the burial private for just the two of us and we asked our mothers to be with us. We had 2 roses for the coffin and asked others who wanted to send flowers to donate the money instead to SANDS (the Stillborn and Neo-Natal Death Society. In my befuddled and very weak state I recall Mum casting her sad eyes across so many children’s graves, bedecked with flowers, small toys and cuddly bears. Gravestones with heartfelt messages of loss and despair – the words of unimaginable pain, symbolising the loss of young lives, messages of hope and aspiration that had been ripped from the hearts of those they left behind.
‘this must have been what it looked like at Aberfan’* she said quietly. Never was there a more dark and sombre moment.
I have not been a regular visitor to Leo’s grave over the years – partly because I am not a fan of mawkish lingering and, certainly in the case of the past 10 years, disability has prevented me from walking to the site, which is situated in a small grassy area on a slightly uphill position. Alan still lives in Wolverhampton and on the anniversary of his birthday, he takes flowers and materials to clean up the headstone. In recent years the children we went onto have join their father to pay their respects to their older brother.
In the weeks and months that followed we learned after a post mortem that the reason for Leo’s death was ‘inconclusive’. We received genetic counselling and were advised that although both the obstetrician and paediatrician who had observed our case believed the cause was likely idiopathic**, there was nevertheless a possibility that a genetic abnormality was at the root of the problem. If this was the case, we had to be aware of this for future pregnancies. The 1 in 4 risk of us carrying a faulty gene was another knife wound to deal with – to hear once again, we could be up against it if we wanted another baby. However, the scary sounding 1-in-4 does not sound so horrifying when it comes to the game of chance and that figure converted becomes the less frightening sound of 25% risk for anyone interested in studying the odds.
As a happy corollary to Leo’s story, we did go onto to have two strong and healthy babies. Al and I have not lived together for 18 years, but we have remained married and have shared the unbridled joy, and the ensuing trials and tribulations of the son and daughter we have been the proud parents of for the past 25 years.
I sometimes wonder how I did manage to have 3 babies in the space of four years – Alex was born in October 1993, again not an easy passage into life for this bonny boy either, an emergency caesarean for all his 10Ibs and 5 ounces. Our daughter Elizabeth, arrived quietly in July 1996, sucking her thumb, gazing around in wonderment. An elective caesarean this time to alleviate any emergency at the last minute, because she too weighed in at a healthy 10Ibs. I do think she might have been quite happy to remain where she was for an indefinite amount of time, had she not been poked with a very large stick (or needle in this case).
We have two photographs of Leo – the son we will never forget. Alongside framed pictures of Alex and Elizabeth as day old babies, we kept the photos in our bedroom for a while, placed altogether on a dressing table. They were only on show in our bedroom. I thought it was just a tad macabre to display him in the more ‘public’ rooms of the house. On the day of his birth, the hospital had found a small moses basket and even dressed him. He was wrapped in a cellular blanket and one of the nurses had placed a knitted Peter rabbit and colourful woolly bird to place alongside him, she had obviously found on a baby ward nearby – it was a warm gesture from a lovely medical team who wanted to help us come to terms with our loss but in the kindest and most compassionate way they could muster as we kept him with us for the best part of the day he was born.
I often found Alex, a lively toddler studying the photograph of his brother intently, on tiptoes staring at the small framed picture. One day he asked me (even then in a very studious tone)
‘Mummy. You know Leo?’
I braced myself for what I imagined might be coming. Perhaps a profound and searching question regarding the whereabouts of his older sibling.
‘Was Leo a yellow parrot?’
*The Aberfan disaster was the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip at around 9:15 am on 21 October 1966. The tip had been created on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil and overlaid a natural spring. A period of heavy rain led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill as a slurry, killing 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed the local junior school and other buildings. The tip was the responsibility of the National Coal Board (NCB), and the subsequent inquiry placed the blame for the disaster on the organisation and nine named employees. (source Wikipedia)
**relating to or denoting any disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown.