This is the first photograph of Clea. She was just a few minutes old. You can hardly see her, she was so small when she was born (barely two kilos). The somewhat impolite doctor who examined her after birth asked me if the mother smoked. As if. Observing my puzzled look, he proceeded to make the superfluous, silly gesture of moving his hand to his mouth as if dragging smoke from a cigarette. Perhaps he thought I had not understood his English. Who knows.
When she found out Clea was my first child, an immensely kind sister at the Calvary Hospital in Canberra insisted on taking this photograph with an old Polaroid she kept. I recall she mentioned the beaming smile in my lips. For my part, I remember feeling perhaps a little dazed, but mostly exultant, chuffed, joyful.
It was the photograph that inspired the opening poem of Lalomanu, the preamble. I have cropped it a little.
The Polaroid (3rd January 2003)
Against an aseptic maternity-ward background
He holds her tiny hand
While he looks up smiling at the flash;
The Polaroid slits his happy eyes and captures
The greying hairy blur around his mouth,
A paling purple polo shirt – his wife’s birthday present from a few years back –
And the early January tan that the ruthless Australian sun
Gives those who grow beans, carrots or tomatoes
In a backyard garden.
He looks a happy man despite his many struggles,
Despite the long hours of driving and the stress.
He holds her minuscule body wrapped in a white hospital cotton blanket,
And knows those tiny hands are a cherished treasure for him:
They’re a promise of lasting love and laughter,
They’re a pledge of long days and nights, of songs, of fun-making by the swing.
They hold a future he can look forward to:
A giggling girl who will laugh at his tongue-twisting wordplay,
A devoted daughter who he will walk on his back while he tells her the stories
Of faraway lands, of placenames like Morella, San Pedro de Atacama or Nam,
Of so many people she will never get to meet.
It was only recently that I realised I was actually wearing a red and white patterned shirt, not the faded purple polo sweater I thought. I suppose I could blame PTSD for that.
I was enormously privileged to have Clea with me as soon as she left her mother’s womb. Trudie had to go into theatre and so I was left with my newborn daughter, a tiny bub, so fragile a child in the hands of an inexperienced father. Nothing had prepared me for that moment. I felt clumsy and insecure, but the exhilaration of having my daughter in my arms was beyond all words. I am sure there will be many fathers out there who will relate to the feeling I describe.
While we waited for Mum to come out of theatre so we all could start the learning process of becoming parents and child, I was sort of whispering secrets into Clea's ears. Among many things, I told her she need not be afraid of anything, because Papá was there with her and would always, always protect her.
I was unable to keep that promise. The love of the parents cannot stop a tsunami; it cannot ensure your child can fight and survive a mountain of water suddenly coming out of the ocean. Nothing prepares you for breaking that sort of promise, just as a parent can never get over the loss of their child.