I have a medical appointment this week and it happens to be in the very place where I was born. The Ottawa Civic Hospital opened in 1924 in part as a response to the Spanish Flu pandemic after the First World War that infected 500 million people and killed 50-100 million. My great-grandmother died of it, leaving behind a husband and five young children.
During the Second World War, Princess Juliana, one of the Dutch Royal family given refuge in Canada, gave birth to her daughter at the Civic. The maternity ward was temporarily declared an international territory so Princess Margriet would inherit only Dutch citizenship from her mother. And because of our hospitality, Ottawa has been awash with tulips every spring since.
In the very month I was born, March 1966, Canada’s first successful kidney transplant was performed there. I wonder if the recipient was given the gift of life during the same week as I was.
The first time I remember seeing the hospital was four and a half years later as I stood at the bus stop on Carling Avenue, looking for my mother’s wave from her hospital room where she cradled my new-born brother. I was holding my grandfather’s hand, my grandfather who was the youngest of the five children who lost their mother to the Spanish Flu more than fifty years earlier. I’m not sure he ever knew her.
More recently, I was there to look in on someone who was recovering after very nearly dying, on the same day a good friend of mine had given birth to her son. I walked from the ICU to the maternity ward and back again. It seemed perfectly symbolic of the circle of life.
As I think about the era in which I was born, it was literally a lifetime ago for me but the hospital itself has been an integral part of the city’s landscape for as long as anyone can remember. My grandfather, who died a few short years after we stood on Carling that day, wouldn’t recognize the world today.
But then on second thought, maybe he would see a few things that might look a little familiar.
Canada celebrating an important National birthday. A Trudeau in the seat of power. A Kennedy being spoken of as a potential presidential candidate. The word impeachment being bandied around in the press. Geo-political power struggles with Russia and China and war tensions in South East Asia. Instability in Africa and strongmen leaders in South and Central America. And still no peace in the Middle East.
The Leafs and Habs are still popular as are the Yankees and Red Sox. There’s a football team and a junior hockey team on Bank Street. Kids still take pictures with Santa Claus and still look forward to summer vacations. And in a month or two, we’ll all yearn for the spring.
Every day, children are born at the Civic Hospital as they have been for generations. And just like me, they haven’t any idea what kind of world they are being born into or what kind of life they might know fifty years down the road. I might not recognize much of the world when today’s newborns are middle-aged but I have a feeling I’d see as many similarities as differences.
And I very much like the idea that thinking back about a single old building, a building that might often be characterized by its sterility, can evoke some rich memories and encourage some hope for the future.