SECTION EIGHT

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COLUMN SIXTY-EIGHT, FEBRUARY 1, 2002
(Copyright 2002 Al Aronowitz)

CATCH A FALLLING STAR. . . 
Z?E's PLACE

A few days ago I received an invitation from a Liverpool based baby
hospice to link to their website. I was happy to comply, not least
because I am flattered when anybody wants to associate
themselves with my offerings. I quickly received a letter of thanks
from the webmaster, a lady called Lyn, an exuberant young woman
who, without benefit of formal training, has mastered the arcane
mysteries of web design and is a highly successful businesswoman.
She does, of course, give her services to the hospice voluntarily.

Lyn also mentioned that out of 200 odd enquiries, only 19 site
owners had answered in the affirmative---a fact that I found
difficult to comprehend, until I remembered someone who once
declined my offer to link to his site because it might divert traffic
from his masterpiece. Yeah, right, Leonardo! I understand!

I was invited to drop in and have a coffee, meet the staff and see
the babies. My first impulse was to find a way to maintain my near
100% record of avoiding things I find difficult if not impossible to
cope with. However, after a few days of being conscious that I was
somehow dodging the column I asked Lyn if I could come over with
a view to writing a piece about the work that they do. She didn't
hesitate and so it was that I found myself alighting from a bus in
Knotty Ash with the intention of using a familiar short cut to find
my way to the hospice.

As it was I found myself staring in disbelief as all the old well
known landmarks had been swallowed up by new developments.
The swimming baths where I had learnt to swim with the help of
my uncle Michael had vanished and in its place was a weed infested
space which seemed far too small to have accommodated the huge
glass and concrete palace that was my childhood summer home.

In spite of my once being so familiar with the area that I could
have drawn a map of it in the dark, with invisible ink, I had to ask
the way to Leyfield Triangle. My Gran's pre-fab was gone and a
Bingo hall now squatted in its place. Of course, in retrospect, my
dashed expectations were all part of a piece because my visit to
Zoe's Place would quickly demolish many of my misplaced
preconceptions.

As I walked up the drive toward the health centre that housed the
hospice I noticed a young couple extricating two young children
from their car. One of the children, a baby of about twelve months
old had a tube attached to his nostril, while the other end was
located in a portable device which, as I later found out, was a
feeding pump. I couldn't help but notice that the young mother
looked drawn and tired and so I assumed, correctly as it turned
out, that we all had the same destination.

While I was sitting in the reception area, an arm's length from the
young couple, waiting for Ann, the hospice manager, to collect me,
I was acutely aware that I was dreading the


'. . .a tiny girl in a powder blue jump
suit energetically propelling
herself along the floor. . .'


prospect of being in the presence of those distressed babies. I
asked myself what was I doing there and I was tempted to leave
my small offering with the elderly receptionist, make an excuse and
flee. But just then Ann came down the stairs and shook my hand.

We mounted some stairs and I soon found myself in a brightly
decorated room, the ceilings of which were festooned with kites
depicting such childhood favourites as Bob the Builder and the
Tellytubbies. I sought refuge on one of the bright blue couches that
lined the walls of the homely looking room and watched a tiny girl
in a powder blue jump suit energetically propelling herself along
the floor. It wasn't until she turned to look at me that I realised she
had Down's syndrome. She was so pretty and bubbly that it was
almost impossible to believe that she was ill.

Just as Ann brought the coffee, the young couple entered the room
and while the oldest child stared fascinated at the kites they settled
down opposite me and adjusted their other baby's feeding tubes. It
was then that I became aware of a young nurse hovering close by,
whose demeanour betrayed her eagerness to hold the baby. The
father, who had been cradling the baby, smilingly offered her to the
nurse who clasped the infant to her as if he were a prize.

Ann, who had been observing the scene, said, in mock reproach: 

" You could hardly wait to pick him up could you?? 

The young nurse merely smiled. To have denied the charge would
have been absurd.

As the couple, who were there to arrange respite care, left to be
taken round the hospice, to see if it met with their approval, Ann
asked me to accompany her on my own guided tour.

Within minutes, the dread I had felt was evaporating and by the
time I left Zoe's Place I felt oddly uplifted. This barely credible
transformation was the result of listening intently to a woman who
was so utterly besotted by her charges that the gloom which had
enveloped me all day began to lift as I became more and more
absorbed by both the ethos and the atmosphere of Zoe's Place. It is
difficult to feel anything else in the presence of people who
resolutely and joyfully celebrate life in defiance of death, even
when the latter appears to have all the high cards.

Ann took me to the chapel where the babies are not mourned as
being dead but where their lives and tiny, but nonetheless
measurable, achievements are celebrated. I caught sight of a
photograph of a casket, the size of which confused me into thinking
that there must have been children older than five years old who
had died in the hospice. I put this to her and she told me that
when Zoe's babies are buried they take with them all of their
favourite objects of love, such as cuddly toys, videos, cards etc,
and so the caskets were built almost twice the size of the infants.

I was reminded of the Pharaohs who were buried with all the signs
of their earthly might, and I couldn't help feeling that Zoe's babies
were far more powerful because they were interred with the
symbols of the love they had inspired.

In spite of Ann's strength of spirit the emotional strain was such
that I was glad when she led me into the "light room". This was
where babies were taken when they were overtired or in need of
relaxation. There were bubbling water filled tubes of coloured
beads, and a mirror ball splashed colours on the murals while
curtains of brightly glowing fibre optics hung in the door openings.

It was a glorious hybrid of Santa's Grotto and a Disco---a source of
obvious delight to the baby, who lay on the miniature waterbed
following the random patterns created by the slide projector. I
almost shouted "Bo selector!"
It was during this interlude that Ann told me about the role of
Mohamed Al Fayed in the maintenance of Zoe's Place. I was
astounded to learn that the millionaire owner of Harrod's, who for
years has been the object of vilification by certain members of
press, was not only a benefactor to Zoe's but also a visitor. When
she told me how she had seen the expensively dressed Al Fayed
down on his knees playing with the babies, his suit smeared with
the chocolate he had given them, I couldn't help thinking that he
ought to desist from trying to become a British citizen because as
far as Zoe's babies are concerned he already has a passport to a
better place.

The most poignant yet elevating moment of my visit came when I
was looking at the photo gallery of the children, most of whom
were dead. Every child was smiling, happily displaying their milk
teeth and I unsuccessfully attempted to console my myself with
the thought that while no tooth fairy would ever redeem them for a
bright coin, neither would they suffer the pain of toothache and its
attendant terrors. Then, as I looked at the smiling faces I recalled
my uncle Stan telling me, as we stood in the frosted orchard all
those years ago, that some of the stars we could see had died
millions of years ago but the light they had emitted still shone
across the universe. Amen.

In the confusion of emotions however, a thought struck me forcibly.
These babies, the objects of so much love, reinforced my belief in
the human spirit of compassion, a belief that had been kindled
years ago when I read of an archaeologist who had unearthed a
grave some six thousand years old. The grave had contained two
female bodies. One was a grown woman of some importance,
signified by the fact that she was shrouded in a woven blanket. The
other was a teenage girl, who had spent her life in pain because her
body was so malformed that it couldn't have been otherwise. The
beautiful thing was that the girl too was wrapped in an equally
expensive blanket.

During the intervening millennia there have been many callous and
crude attempts to deny such babies a place in life, but at Zoe's
Place there is living proof that the essential impulse of humans is a
loving one and it will survive. When I listened to Ann's irrepressible
fondness for her babies I found myself looking at the dark rings
around her eyes and I knew that just as we could date the age of a
tree by its rings, so we could pinpoint the time when her charges
passed away. However, her attitude can be summed up by the
lyrics of Graham Nash's song: 

"Rejoice! Rejoice! We have no choice, but to carry on!? 

Thank you Ann for the coffee, the optimism and the Teddy Bear. It
is already much loved.
##

                                  
                                                 http://www.zoes-place.org/

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