I was born in mid-winter, and by all accounts an exceptionally cold winter. Most babies in the Netherlands, were and still are born at home. Only pregnancies designated as high risk were birthed in hospital. By virtue (we’ll let my mother debate whether it qualifies as virtuous) of being post mature, and because in that tenth month I had decided to come forth in reverse my mother was given consent to have me at the hospital, Het Wilhelmina Gasthuis in Amsterdam. All efforts to cajole me into a somersault to face round had failed. It was cold, can you blame me wanting to stay inside?
On my own terms, as always, I arrived without the doctor being present. I’ve been thumbing my nose at doctors for as long as I can recall. Must be genetic. Central heating was not something there was lot of back then, and the Netherlands normally has an unvaryingly temperate climate. I developed my first case of pneumonia before leaving the hospital. No doubt terrified my parents. None of my childhood housing had central heating, there were several more bouts of pneumonia and dreadful respiratory infections. In the fifties this had but one outcome, the tonsils and adenoids would have to come out. Happened to almost everyone, a rite of passage usually before the first grade. I was four.
My father had one set notion about doctors, they were all useless charlatans, not to be trusted. His parents were dead in their early fifties and although it most likely had more to do with the lack of medications during the war, he blamed doctors who were impotent to stop his parents dying. My grandmother died of stomach cancer and my grandfather died several months later from Parkinson’s. My father was their youngest of five children, he had never seen his father healthy and his mother around whom his world revolved became ill when he was about eight. My mother had been their private nurse, this must have had something to do with his utter devotion to her, he could forgive her everything.
My parents had a naturopath but after no dietary changes and potions had kept me falling ill again and again a pediatrician was consulted and of course, the predictable outcome. Even at age four I knew something was terribly wrong for my father to be acting that way. He was silent, not funny, his eyes were vacant, my mother just the opposite, she was trying too hard to be entertaining. Parents did not confide much in their children. I was told “it” would hurt only a little, I would go to sleep and on waking would get ice cream. I’d only had ice cream only once before, and I very much like it. Still, it felt wrong, this was much more serious than they were letting on.
It was a very noisy and confusing place. There were very few colours, everything was white or grey or sickly green, save for some red crosses here and there. My father had one of those on his army gear. The hallways were very long, the floors were slippery and nurses were walking by crisp skirts making starched crinkly sounds. The sisters did not have an elegant gait like other women in their street pumps, these sisters walked with angry resoluteness. My father always stumbled when he was stressed, he was bumping into every wall and gurney. My mother finally gave him a task to fetch a snack and he was happy to be able to leave the hospital for the store. Whatever I was there for was taking a very long time and we had to stand in queue to boot.
Our name was called at last and we were ushered into a darker room, people were piled against the walls, children in mother’s arms, stony faced fathers looking as though they’d rather be shot than spend one more moment. Periodically a rather mannish nurse came in and picked from the crowd the next child to come in. I did not like the look of this. The chosen child was draped in a white sheet with nothing on but panties. I dreaded the cold. Each one was taken alone without their mom into? Some children screamed, others cried. My parents told me it would be alright and I should not be afraid, be brave. Yeah, like they were going in!
Eventually that horrid woman took me with her. The operating room was small, dark with one light glaring above a single chair, I was handed to a smaller nurse sitting in that lone chair. The big one picked up a cone shaped thing which was coming towards my face. I was told to take very deep breath. I saw no point arguing, clearly I was outnumbered. There was one psychedelic swirl and that was all.
That was all not just for that moment but for several days. The magic potion was ether and I had been allergic to it. They were unable to do the procedure and I awoke with all parts intact some days later. It took many days to be able to walk again. As devastating as all that was, finding that I had not even been given any ice cream after all that was even worse. When the error was pointed out my very relieved parents forked out the funds to fetch some ice cream right away.
Of course there were no options to the ether unless my parents could afford the high price for a private procedure with a general anesthetic. Trust my dad to find an alternative. One of his school chums had been dabbling in the art of hypnosis, largely as a parlor entertainment. As a favour he’d managed to arrange to hypnotize me at the hospital and without any other medications both tonsils and adenoids were removed without any fuss at all. There was almost no recovery time and my dad’s friend even sprung for celebratory ice creams for all of us afterward.