Two posts on a Monday? Must be my birthday or something.
First, thank you for all the birthday wishes and messages. I wonder, at what point I have to stop referring to myself as being in my mid-forties and admit I’m now in my late forties. I reckon I have another year of mid-forties-ness left.
Now then. To business.
I’m not a fan of The X-Factor and shows of that ilk, partly because they tend to generate such bloody awful records, partly because they seem to serve no other function than to line Simon Cowell’s pockets even more than is really necessary, but also they seem to me to be exploitative. As an audience we are encouraged to laugh at those members of the public at the audition stage who have delusions of talent, whilst those who progress to later rounds are expected to have had some terrible personal tragedy befallen them prior to auditioning on the show, and which every ounce of emotion is wrung from this “back story”.
Having said that, I quite literally have a back story which I and my family are reminded of on my birthday every year, and this is it.
So here’s the thing. I wasn’t born under normal circumstances.
My mother suffers from high blood pressure. When she was pregnant with me, six weeks before her due date, she went for a check up and found that her blood pressure was off the scale. The experts (I know, we’re all sick of experts, right?) concluded that something was wrong and that I needed to be gotten out asap.
They were right. For when I was born, I was found to have a condition called myelomeningocele.
In case you don’t know what that is (and I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t looked it up), myelomeningocele is a defect of the backbone and spinal cord, where, before birth, the baby’s backbone, spinal cord and the structure they float in don’t form or close normally. It’s a form – the most serious form, so the internet tells me – of spina bifida.
In my case, the tissue which should have been around my spinal cord had not melded properly, and was sticking out of my back.
Now, obviously I don’t recall any of this, so I am going by my parents’ retelling of the story, and I have run this by them for accuracy.
My Dad tells me that, freshly plucked from the womb, he and I were bundled into an ambulance outside Kettering General Hospital, where I had been born, and which had absolutely no facilities to deal with my condition. Westminster Children’s Hospital in London was where I needed to be.
The ambulance driver got to the car park exit, stopped at the junction and called back to my Dad “Any idea which way it is to London?”. “Turn left”, Dad replied. And so we set off.
When we got to London (and apparently we had a police escort to get us through the traffic – beat that, James Corden and your “Call me Mr Green Light” nonsense!) a decision had to be made: operate or leave me as I was. My Dad had to decide what happened next.
Bear in mind this was 1969, when mobile phones, the internet, Skype and the like didn’t exist. He couldn’t consult with my Mum, who was in a completely different city, in quite a lot of discomfort herself and not exactly able to get to a phone to chat about it.
In layperson’s terms, the operation seemed straight-forward enough: sever the spinal tissue, and then stitch me back up again.
As far as I know, my Dad is not a gambling man. But here’s the decision he was faced with, laid out in brutal honesty.
a) Leave me as I was, and have a seriously disabled child to care for, for the rest of my life, or
b) Operate, but with no guarantee about the outcome of the operation.
Ah, the possible outcomes. It could go, Dad was advised, one of three ways, and the doctors had absolutely no idea which was the more likely:
- the spinal tissue is cut, with no repercussions;
- the spinal tissue is cut, but if it had any nerves in it – and the only way to find out was to cut it and see what happened – then I would have been paralysed from the neck down, permanently;
- I die.
It seems to me that my parents went through very different types of pain and mental anguish that day. My Dad had to make the decision, and wasn’t able to consult with my Mum. Mum, on the other hand, could have no part in the decision, and didn’t know what was going on down in That There London.
So decision time. Stick, or twist?
When I’ve talked to Dad about this he tells me that when the options and possible outcomes were put to him, his thought was “Well, we’ve come all this way, I suppose you’d better operate”, which makes it sound like he was on a gameshow and he’d just been asked whether or not he wanted to go for the Star Prize. That’s when he doesn’t try to tell me that he flipped a coin to decide, that is.
Because it was just hours since I’d been born, and because of the third possible outcome, the hospital’s resident priest was summoned to christen me. You know, just in case.
I got lucky.
As it happened, because I had been born six weeks prematurely, the nerves had not yet formed in the tissue.
I should stress that I’m fine now. Apart from a scar between my shoulder blades, you wouldn’t know about all of this. For this, I feel incredibly lucky.
I say you wouldn’t know about this, but many of my friends do, because I have often amused myself by telling this story to them when they were at their most susceptible: late at night, after a drink and maybe “a smoke”. Generally it would be met with disbelieving guffaws, at which point I would lift up my t-shirt to expose the scar, at which point the guffaws would change to exclamations of disbelief along the lines of “Whoa dude!”
This tune seems appropriate. Maybe I’ll sing it if I ever go on The X-Factor: