Twenty-one years ago a new story was born. It is a classic story of birth and death, and the coming together of unexpected events.
It begins with the news report that Air France Concorde flight 4590 has crashed in Paris, killing all 109 people on board. Your husband is a newspaper photographer so a few days later he’s asked to travel to France to cover unfolding events. You are heavily pregnant but your baby isn’t due to arrive for another three weeks, so you both agree that he can work away for one last time.
The following morning your husband and a reporter board the car ferry to France, and that evening a tightening begins around your stomach. Braxton Hicks contractions, you tell yourself, your body practicing for the real event. But the contractions get tighter, your swollen belly as solid as a football. You try to sleep, dozing fitfully, woken at regular intervals by the band tightening and tightening and tightening, and you say no, this can’t be happening now, there are three weeks to go. But in the early hours you know you can’t deny the inevitable, so you call your mother and take a taxi to meet her at the hospital.
You call your husband to say the baby is coming. The midwife is convinced it will be quick so you tell him not to rush back, he won’t make it in time. The contractions continue and you squeeze your mother’s hand and still the baby doesn’t come. Every time your husband calls the midwife says it won’t be long now, don’t rush back, he won’t make it in time. Again and again this happens until he and the reporter abandon the assignment and drive to return on the ferry. Finally, at 7.35pm the baby is born, but his father is not there.
At midnight your husband arrives on the ward. All the nurses know the story of the father in France, so they quickly guide him to you so he can lift his son out of the plastic crib and hold him against his heart. Eventually he has to leave the ward of mothers to their sleep, and the following day he returns to fetch you both home where he lays out the gifts he bought while he waited in Paris. He tells you how he and the reporter went shopping to pass the time, and as he talks you imagine their excitement and the strangeness of the situation they’ve found themselves in, sent to report on death while a new life is born.
He bought gifts for the baby but you only remember the gifts for you: a striped jersey dress, a bottle of perfume, a Chanel lipstick.
Twenty-one years later and you tell this story again, as you often do at this time of year. Sometimes you forget to tell about the gifts, but you always remember the small piece of metal on the runway that punctured the aeroplane’s tyre, and how this caused a piece of rubber to fly up and rupture the fuel tank, which caught fire and melted the wing. You remember the people who died on the aeroplane and in the hotel it crashes into. You remember the crushing pain in your abdomen, and you remember calling your mother and your husband, the nurses saying over and again that it won’t be long now, don’t rush back.
You tell this story because you are amazed by the events that led from death to birth, and by the father who waited. You are amazed that the story of your son’s birth begins with a small piece of metal on a runway in another country. And twenty-one years later, you’re amazed by the son who is now making his own stories, sometimes expressed through words on a page or words with music, sometimes through paint on a canvas, but always born through a life thoroughly lived, and people thoroughly loved.
Happy 21st Birthday, my beautiful son.