Friday, January 13, 2017

Thirty years ago at St Vincent's Hospital

It's Wendy Junior's 30th birthday today so here are some old photos:
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Wendy Ratawa Isa, little Wendy was born in the heart ward of St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne as her mother prepared for heart valve surgery. A little prem baby and she did very well and grew to be a lovely girl and woman.
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Ratawa Sarah Happy birthday wendy
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Wendy Ratawa Watimeli’s Baby

I am enjoying cotton-wool lazy days as my Fijian husband is overseas. Our three teenage sons are surfing at Torquay. It's 1987. The phone buzzes: a reverse charge call, international. ‘I’m coming back Tuesday. I’m bringing visitors.’
This isn’t unusual. Extras in the household are common; in the Shenton manse in Ryrie Street, Geelong, where we live, there is always room for the extended family or homeless people. The house which is a cheerful mess will have to be cleaned up.
On the Tuesday evening there is a call from Melbourne. ‘We’ve arrived safely. We’ve taken a sick girl to St. Vincents. I’m bringing her father, Bameti, home. He's from Wailevu. Dr. Schramm asked me to help this family. The sick girl had to be brought to Labasa hospital by boat in the middle of the cyclone. Heart surgery in Australia is the only way to save the girl’s life, the doctor said.'
Three nights later, a phone call at 1 a.m. comes from the hospital. Watimeli has gone into labour.
I am amazed. ‘I didn’t know she was pregnant!’
Peceli wakes Bameti to dress up immediately. They drive to Melbourne to comfort Watimeli during the birth process. The premature baby girl – born three months early- and in the Heart Ward of St Vincents is shunted immediately to the Mercy Hospital.
When I meet the patient, gaunt like a long distance runner drained after a marathon, I ask if the baby has been named yet
‘Yes,’ says the girl, who is about twenty years. ‘She’s named after you. Wendy!’
The naming gives a sense of alarm of an on-going relationship. I walk to the Mercy hospital a few blocks away. Though the nurse encourages me to touch the baby's arms and legs, I cannot.
A week later Watimeli comes down to Geelong to gain strength before the operation for a heart valve replacement. Now 100 K separate her from little Wendy. In visits to Melbourne, both Watimeli and I feel uncomfortable with the prem. baby attached to tubes.
A month later the baby is transferred to the Geelong Hospital. Her limbs are strong and she is going well. She is nearly five pounds in weight so soon is allowed to go ‘home’. Baby paraphernalia is given to me from friends or bought in op. Shops. Our sons complain about the crying - until they start to talk and play with the newcomer. The church folk make a tremendous fuss over the tiny brown baby with the strong dark eyes, lying happily in a basket.

The operation for heart valve replacement proceeds and Watimeli becomes well enough to join the household. Now bonded with the infant, I am unwilling to give the baby up but I obtain a birth certificate, a passport photo, then a Fijian passport from the Fiji Embassy in Canberra. The baby is not allowed to be an Australian citizen as the mother had come on an emergency medical visa. When Wendy Junior is twenty-one, maybe then she can.
Several hospital bills come our way even though we had been promised free treatment. Some are waived, some we have to pay.
Watimeli tells us about her boyfriend, a Part-European youth who lives in Nadi. Her parents would not allow them marry. She already has a son to him, staying with Bameti's family. I wonder what her future will be as a single mother, but with the Fijian extended family there will always be someone to help.
At Tullamarine airport, Watimeli looks so well and little Wendy, now strong but still small, is swaddled in a blanket. There’s a massive amount of overweight luggage and there are no concessions and no allowance for the baby paraphernalia. We have to pay up heaps.
I let them go, return to Geelong to my routine of easy-going family care but I miss little Wendy very much and cannot concentrate when I go back to Deakin studies. I am still soft, and floppy and maternal-minded, not in the mood for academic study at all.

Eight months later there’s a phone call from Labasa, Fiji. ‘Watimeli’s very ill. She’s bleeding and in Labasa hospital.’
‘What happened?’
‘She was playing volleyball. Something in her chest just fell down.’
I feel breathless but can only say, ‘Keep in touch.’
Next day there is another phone call. Watimeli has died at the Labasa hospital. There is no sophicated heart machines there. This is terrible news.
‘Who’ll look after her baby?’
‘Her grandparents. Bameti and his wife in Mataniwai village.’

A year later Peceli and I are in Fiji: partly for an assessment of the situation after the 1987 coups. We visit Mataniwai village during a drenching dowpour and present a whale’s tooth to Bameti in respect of Watimeli’s death. I want to meet the little girl. As the family push the little girl forward, her dark eyes fill with tears when confronted with me, the beige-coloured Australian woman who is now a stranger to her. Tentatively she sits on my knee, just for a minute. She has sores on her arms but she is surviving.
I walk alone in the rain to visit Watimeli’s grave near a stand of mango trees. The mound is covered by a colourless tapa cloth. I am distraught by the waste of a young life.
A week later we are back on the Ratawa sugar-cane farm. Bameti’s family arrive with the little girl and boxes of her clothes. They want to give her to the Ratawa family for an informal adoption. I whisper to Peceli, ‘We can’t take her to Australia – the trauma would be too much. She’s had too many care-givers and mothers.’
He suggests, ‘My sister Suliana can take her.’ In her household there are already four informally adopted children including a little girl of one. Evia, my other sister-in-law has had eight children so far so gives a little girl, Pinky, to Suliana.
Suliana agrees and Ateca will help care for the little girl.

That was a long time ago.
Small Wendy knows she has an Australian family though I was not courageous enough to take that child on full-time again. Suliana became her grandmother and Ateca her new mother. So that makes her our grand-daughter.
I email Wendy Junior these days. She has left the Friendly North sugar-cane community to study and now works in tourism in Nadi and has a delightful little girl. Mili. Wendy is a beautiful young woman, tall, smart and her eyes are bright and black like the eyes of her mother, Watimeli.

When I see young mothers today fussing over their babies, putting them on their backs to sleep - because of SIDS, I think of Wendy when she was a baby, and how she slept on her tummy, and looked like a turtle, and the song Peceli sang to her. Wedi na yalewa re, na yalewa duadua e vale. It was about a baby girl who lay down like a turtle.
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