2009-03-19 00:00

It was February 1994. I know it was February because I can distinctly remember the summer heat radiating off the tar road. I know it was 1994 because that was the year I had my healthy, beautiful, perfect daughter.

I was five months pregnant and on my way to an antenatal appointment with my obstetrician who was part of a practice in Loop Street.

I was a first-time, 27-year-old mum-to-be and baby room colours, trendy baby names and disposable nappy stockpiling were the subjects of highest priority that occupied my mind and conversation.

I had a very easy pregnancy and all my previous visits to Dr Kearney had gone well with everything being normal.

Entering the old Victorian-style house that was now the obstetrician’s rooms was a relief.

I paged through a magazine while waiting, looking at pictures of adverts for deluxe prams and a picture spread of the latest baby wear.

I was quite flush in those departments as my parents were going to be first-time grandparents and my Mom was busy buying up baby wear at Woolies at a steady pace.

As expected, there were no problems. Baby’s heartbeat was strong and regular. As the doctor was going through my file he found that my blood results were back from the lab. I had forgotten I had had blood taken for the usual routine tests. Dr Kearney said that they were all normal. Of course they were. Why would they not be?

“So,”said Dr Kearney as part of our parting conversation. “You don’t have to worry about Down’s Syndrome or anything else as everything is hunky dory”.

It was stiflingly hot when I stepped out of the rooms. As I got near the car I noticed a man and a little girl standing a little way up the road. The man had a bag over his shoulder and was reading a note in one hand while the other tightly held one of the child’s hands. Every now and then he would look up as if trying to find something and then look back down at the note. All the while, the little girl stood patiently without complaint or fidgeting.

As I got to my car, the man called out to me. I had my key poised to open the door and looked over my shoulder as I answered, “yes?”

He started to walk towards me, shifting the weight of the bag on his shoulder and gently pulling the little girl along. As he got closer I could see he was a coloured man in his thirties. One shoulder drooped from the weight of the bag and the red flush and beads of sweat on his face told me he had been in the heat for a while.

The child I judged to be about four years old. I distinctly remember her wearing pink trousers and pink sandals. Her curly hair was in little pigtails with wispy bits escaping and framing her face.

She stared me straight in the eye with no fear or shyness. I smiled at her and she turned the corners of her mouth up ever so slightly in response.

I immediately recognised that she had distinct features all indicating she had Down’s Syndrome. The subject had come up twice in the last 15 minutes. Wasn’t that strange?

The man thrust the piece of paper at me and asked if I knew the address written on it. I didn’t recognise the name of the building but did see that it was in Loop Street but at the other end.

“You’re in the right street but at the wrong end.”

I hesitated for a bit while I analysed the situation. The man did not look dangerous. He had a heavy bag and a child with him. How dangerous could he be? It was too hot to expect a child to walk the whole length of Loop Street. I decided he was of no threat to me.

“Look, this is my car; let me drop you off there.”

“I would appreciate that ma’am. I have to get Millie settled and still find a taxi home.”

So, the pretty little girl was called Millie. Millie would not let go of the man’s hand so they both got into the back of my car. Millie sat very still. The man on the other hand seemed a bit on edge and anxious.

Over the 15 minutes I got to learn a bit more about Millie and the man. I had guessed that the man was Millie’s father but I never did get his name. They were from Ladysmith and had just arrived in a minibus taxi. Millie was in fact six years old but small for her age. Millie’s dad had had to take a day off work to come to Pietermaritzburg with her. He explained that Millie had this “Down’s sickness” and the doctor had told him she couldn’t go to a school for normal children. With pride he told me Millie was very clever despite her “Down’s sickness” and the doctor had encouraged him to send her to a special school where she could learn as much as she could.

Arrangements had been made for Millie to go to a special school in Pietermaritzburg. Accommodation had been arranged through the Catholic Church and the purpose of the trip to the address in Loop Street was to hand Millie over to her new caregivers.

“I am going to miss her but I have to let her go to school and learn”. I nodded to show that I understood. Is it not every parent’s wish that their children reach their full potential?

We fell into silence for a while. I understood that he did not want to talk anymore. Millie gazed out the window.

We drove into the driveway at the address and I parked close to the door-way. It was a very old building and looked like a school. Millie’s dad thanked me profusely as he gathered the bag up and helped Millie out of the car. “Bye Millie,” I said to her and once again got a full eye-to-eye stare with a hint of a smile.

They made off towards the entrance and as I put the car it into gear to move off, a nun came out of the door. I sat in my car, poised to go and watched as she shook hands with Millie’s dad and then dropped to her haunches to be level with Millie as she greeted her. The nun also got the full eyeball stare and slight smile.

She then stood up and moved away a bit so dad could say goodbye. I watched as Millie’s dad dropped to his knees and cupped her little face in his hands while he spoke to her. I could lip-read him saying she must be a good girl and that he loved her. He pulled her into a hug that totally engulfed Millie. Then he started to shake as he started to sob. I sat watching this man’s heart breaking as he touched her face once more before standing up.

Millie’s face was changing as the aura of contentment and trust started to fade and was replaced by confusion and fear. She too started to cry as the realisation set in that her dad was leaving her here with this strange lady. The crying became sobs and then screams as she was picked up by the nun and carried inside. The last I saw of Millie was her reaching over the nun’s shoulders towards the gate, her face contorted with grief and confusion.

I turned to look at dad but he was gone.

I sat for a while with my car running before I could compose myself enough to drive off. I was full of different emotions. I felt for Millie and instinctively wanted to comfort her and make it all better. Her whole world must have changed in that instant. I felt for dad who was trying to do the best he could for Millie while his heart was breaking. What must it feel like to have to say goodbye to your child like that.

I drove home and spent a quiet afternoon thinking about the 20 or so minutes that had made such an impact.

When my husband came home in the evening I told him all the positive things Dr Kearney had said. The relief on his face showed he had obviously given the health of our baby more thought than I had. I didn’t tell him or anyone about Millie and her dad for a long time until way after our daughter was born. That night, I wondered why I hadn’t told my husband and I realised it was because of the deep shame I felt for how much I had taken for granted. I assumed my baby would be born healthy and well. I assumed she would always be healthy and well. I assumed that, if something should be wrong one day, I would have the means to deal with it and I assumed I would not have to ever part with her while she was a child for any lengthy period.

A few months later my daughter was born. She was, as expected, perfect. Fourteen years on and my thoughts often turn to Millie and her dad. I always simultaneously give a silent prayer of thanks for my perfect child who, at 14 years of age, continues to take my breath away.

I also wonder at the lesson I learnt that day. I wish I could tell Millie and her dad how that 20-minute encounter changed the way I look at so many aspects of my life.

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