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The River

Now those memories come back to haunt me,
they haunt me like a curse,
is a dream a lie if it don't come true
or is it something worse?

(from The River by Bruce Springsteen)

I can hear those words in the back of my mind sometimes, and wonder about the answer. What are dreams that don't come true - are they lies or are they truly something worse? Where do these hopes and desires go, when they are no longer possible? Do they just disappear, fade into the distant past, or do they stay with us, haunting us with thoughts of what could have been?

I ask these questions because what time in a parent's life is filled more with hopes, wishes and desires than when a baby is expected. When do we indulge in dreaming more? We can't go into a department store without heading over to the baby wear section, even if only for a peak. How many other women do we see there, looking at tiny clothes and wondering, hoping and dreaming?

Not only do we think about what the baby will look like, feel like, smell like, we also try to imagine what we will like be as parents. We talk about cots and cradles, change tables and rockers; we look at decorating books and try to decide between Pooh Bear and Peter Rabbit. We wait to outgrow our favourite tracksuit and complain about the limitations of maternity wear. We wait with breathless anticipation for this baby, for the fulfilment of all these hopes, these wishes and dreams.

I too had such dreams when I was pregnant with my first child. At night, I'd lie in bed and wonder what my baby would be like, would the last few months of this pregnancy be as uncomfortable as I'd heard? I thought about the birth, the first cuddle, hearing that first cry, the first breastfeed, first bath, all of these things and more. And then in the space of a day, my dreams, my hopes and desires for this precious birth were lost forever.

There was no celebratory champagne, no moments of rapture as we gazed upon this wondrous child snuggled at my breast, marvelling at what we'd created, no quiet kisses, no tears of joy, no laughter, no counting of toes and fingers ... There was instead pain and fear, tears and confusion, anger and shame, dread and heartache, emptiness and terror.

Instead of trying to grapple with nappy pins and grow suits, night feeds and burping, I learned quickly about ventilators and oxygen, CPAP and IVs. Questions about NEC, ROP and IVH, blood transfusions and lung damage replaced those normal newborn thoughts. Instead of wondering who he looked like, I wondered if he would live.

Of course mere words, on clean white paper, can never convey the absolute hopelessness of that day. Nor could words ever accurately describe the feeling of being wheeled into an operating theatre, to have your baby ripped from you, months before he should be, begging the staff surrounding you to save him and seeing the look of pity in their eyes as you realise that it might already be too late. There is no way to explain the feeling of having a mask placed over your face and feeling your baby move and wondering if that might be the last time you felt him alive.

My dream became a nightmare and there was nothing that I could do.

Part of me wanted to run, run far, far away and keep on running until it didn't hurt anymore, and then another part of me demanded that I stay by this scrap of humanity, this tiny, bruised boy that my body had failed to keep safe. I wanted to scream but what could I say?

Suddenly I was no longer pregnant and yet I was far from being a mother. Where did this all fit in that glowing dream of motherhood, where did I fit in? What could I do for my baby but look at his tiny body, covered in wires and tubes and tell him over and over that I was sorry?

Our boy did remarkably well, yet day in and day out I watched over this child, hovering, always frightened, always waiting for something to go wrong, always wondering what the next day would bring, always just two steps in front of exhaustion, hoping that today would be the day that I would feel like a mother. Waiting to be able to do more for my son, waiting to feel like I was worth something more in this baby's life than just a jar or two of breast milk, waiting to feel something other than desperation.

At night I'd dream that I was pregnant and wake up full of hope and then remember that I wasn't. I'd lie in bed at night and wonder if my baby was peaceful, if he was calm, was he agitated, did he need his mummy and instead of peeping in his bassinet I'd have to ring a nurse and ask. I wasn't a mother.

I didn't know what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to feel or even what I felt. I wanted to hide, to run away and yet I couldn't, I wanted to cry and scream and keen, yet the tears wouldn't come. I wanted to mourn and grieve, but no one had died, nothing was gone except my dreams and how could I sob for lost dreams when my baby was fighting for life. I was lost and alone.

Each evening I'd blow my child a kiss through his plastic walls and walk away, every nerve ending screaming that this was wrong, every fibre of my being wanting to hold that child close and never let go, and yet night after night I left. How could I do this one more day, there was no more hope, there were no more dreams, it hurt too much to dream.

That baby is now a five year old. A happy, healthy child no different from his peers, and yet memories of that time still linger, the hurts are still there, the pain still remains, perhaps forever.

I know the answer now. After 5 years the answer is all too clear. Dreams never leave us, hopes and wishes don't just fade away. They hide in the dark and come out to play when we sleep. Dreams that don't come true are worse than lies. They leave a hole in your heart and slowly eat away at your soul. These lost dreams defy all explanation, they draw their source not from logic or reason but from emotion and feeling, they crowd your thoughts until at times there is room for nothing else. They remain as a silent whisper of what should have been.

©2000 Leanne Uwland

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