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My son turned 19 recently and, as on all his other birthdays, I thought of another young man who would be celebrating his birthday about the same time.

It was 4am and I was in the nursery of the old Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne. My newborn son was in an incubator, being treated for jaundice. Soft cloth goggles protected his eyes. They were held on by a little mesh cap that kept slipping off.

She'd come into the nursery in the darkest and loneliest hours of the night, an intruder at her own child's bedside 

He had to stay in the incubator, so I fed him with a bottle. The warm light and the jaundice made him sleepy and he'd suck sluggishly. I moved the teat up and down in his mouth. "Come on, drink up," I murmured.

The nursery was brightly lit, too bright. Light clattered off the chrome and perspex cribs and bounced off the white walls and shiny floor. The windows were black mirrors.

There was only one other baby in the nursery. A big, blond, healthy-looking baby in an ordinary crib. I'd wondered why this baby was in the nursery; the others slept next to their mothers' beds in the wards most nights.

This night there was a fair woman standing next to the crib, her hand gently patting the sleeping hump. She looked too thin to be the mother. I hadn't seen her before.

"Does he cry much?" she asked. At first I thought she was asking about my baby, part of the usual conversation between mothers of newborns. Then I realised she was asking about the baby she was patting. She was asking me, a stranger, about how her own baby was learning to deal with the world, how he was learning to wake and sleep with the turning of the earth, exchanging the warm amniotic ocean for thin cold air.

"I haven't heard him crying at all," I said.

"I've heard that babies of methadone mums are born addicted, and cry a lot," she said.

There was a separate ward for the "methadone mums". Not that there was a sign on the door; I'd spoken to a woman in the communal bathroom. She told me about going on methadone when pregnant, as you couldn't just stop the heroin completely.

I could hear our voices in the still air of the nursery, and feel the bright space contracting to just the two of us. I knew I would always remember this conversation.

"I've put him up for adoption," she said. "I didn't want to get fond of him, so my sister's been looking after him." I remembered that I'd seen a stocky, brown-haired woman bustling in and out of the nursery during the day. I'd noticed her, not only because she was dressed in smart street clothes, but because she lacked the fragile movements of a new mother.

"I just wanted to see him," said the thin woman. So she'd come into the nursery in the darkest and loneliest hours of the night, an intruder at her child's bedside.

"Don't you feel you can keep him?" I said, wondering at my nerve and yet knowing I could ask. We were strangers but shared the bond of women who'd just given birth.

"I haven't got the sort of life where he'd fit in," she said. No tears or apologies, but no defiance, either. I didn't ask what sort of life she had - maybe my mind was already jumping ahead to addiction, prostitution, a brutal boyfriend.

She hardly looked at me while she was speaking but kept stroking the baby. She needed to tell someone; who it was wasn't so important. "I wanted to get rid of him," she said, "but I was too far gone." I thought back to my careful pregnancy with its measured days. "Then I tried to get rid of him myself." The spaces between her words raised images of drugs, alcohol and violence, of whatever passes for gin and hot baths these days.

"I nearly lost him when he was being born and I thought I was being punished. I felt so guilty for trying to get rid of him."

I wanted to comfort her but didn't know what to say. "He looks very healthy and happy to me," I said. "I haven't heard him crying at all. He's a beautiful baby."

A nurse came in with a pack of disposable nappies and the fair woman took the baby out of his bed to change him. The cloth nappies had run out, said the nurse, and emergency supplies were coming from another hospital.

I had an image of a truck barrelling through the dark night, stacked to the top with fluffy, fleecy nappies for needy babies, with a police escort and sirens wailing. Maybe the fair woman had the same thought; we both smiled.

I don't remember how our conversation ended. She changed him, then sat holding him quietly. I went back to my bed in the ward, leaving her to share the only time she would have with her son. When I came back later, just as the dawn was breaking, she was gone.

At all of the big milestones of my son's life - learning to walk, losing his first tooth, starting school, finishing year 12 - I've thought of that big fair baby and wondered whether he thinks about his mother.

He almost certainly knows he's adopted. He might feels rejected. I just wish I could tell him about the night his mother visited him and held him in her arms.

This article first appeared in Sunday Life.