by Yvonne Smith
I have a hard time referring to them by name. The combination of letters feels thick around my tongue, like I have to push them out through an opening that’s too small. It is easier, in my mind, to refer to them as “The Babies” or the “Big One” and the “Little One.” Even then, it seems like I have to cough it out. I smile, embarrassed, as I flounder the words around. My husband furrows his brow and asks, Are you OK? I reassure him, and everyone else who searches my face and asks, Is everything going to be OK? Like I have the answers. I’m fine . . . everything’s going to be fine. They smile and laugh and go get coffee. They hear what they want to hear—or maybe it’s what I want to hear.
I’ve been blessed with two babies, but both are gravely ill. They came too early; one too small and one in heart failure. I lie in the hospital room at night, in the cool darkness, where the enormity of the situation weighs down on me like a thick, wet blanket. Is this actually happening? I sleep in bits, exhausted, but not really wanting to sleep. The reality shock within moments of waking stuns me and I wish it were all a bad dream. I find myself gasping at the fear; the fear of one or both of them dying. Or . . . worse.
I roll in bed from side to side, the pain fresh in my belly where they’ve taken the babies out. Overwhelming in its severity, yet I persist, reaching for one side rail, then back over for the other. It sears, hot and sharp, flashing white spots blur my vision. But I press on, preferring the physical pain, the momentary relief it provides from the anguish that hovers all around me, like a veil.
On the third night, as I stare out at the city lights across the river, the door to my room slowly opens. I raise myself up on an elbow and watch as a nurse quietly approaches my bed. My heart gallops in my chest and I feel my hands begin to shake. I fear what she might say but also expect it at the same time. She leans down towards me, a clipboard in her hand. The light from the hallway illuminates her silhouette just enough to make out her features; a thin face, glasses, hair pulled back in a bun. She is smiling. I’m confused. I hold my breath, waiting for her to speak.
“NICU phoned,” she whispers, “your baby wants to nurse.”
What? Adrenalin shoots through me and I bolt upright to the side of the bed. A miracle! It’s a miracle! “Really?” I say, disbelieving. My hand is still shaking as I run it through my hair, but with exhilaration this time, not despair. “Should I go upstairs?” I ask, referring to the neonatal intensive care unit. I see her brow twitch as she glances at her clipboard and I know in an instant she’s made a mistake.
“Aren’t you . . . aren’t you Mrs. Thompson?” she asks as she holds the clipboard towards the light, examining it, running her pen up and down, looking for an explanation.
“No.” I lie back down, deflated.
“Oh, oh jeez, I’m so sorry,” she backs out of the room, “so sorry to disturb you.” She pulls the door shut and again I’m enveloped in darkness.
I can hear the faint cries of a baby somewhere on the unit. A healthy baby, able to room-in with her mother. I picture them—baby rooting for the mother’s breast, round head nestled in the crook of her arm. She gazes at her baby, runs a finger along the delicate silk of the infant’s cheek, in awe of her existence. Sobs balloon up inside me and escape in loud bursts. The brush of serenity, of hope, like a feather on my arm, ignites sorrow so raw, I feel like I may truly die. I turn my face into the pillow, pulling it tight against my head and scream and gag and ask, Why? I stay that way for I don’t know how long, until I’m zombie-like, lifeless, empty. When the door opens again a few hours later, the light streaming into the room, I don’t even turn over.
“Mrs. Thompson, your baby is wanting to eat again.”
Really? I lie still, silent. There is a moment’s hesitation before I hear her sharp intake of breath. “So sorry,” she murmurs, the wedge of light disappears as she closes the door.
I get up, click through the light settings to low, then hook myself up to the milking machine. I sit and stare at the putty white paint peeling off the wall where it meets the ceiling. The loud drone of the machine fills the room as it attempts to extract milk from me. I hate it; the whole mechanicalness of it, the lack of production. I feel like a failure, unable to provide the milk that the babies need. I stay that way for 20 minutes then check the collection bottles—nothing. I crawl back into bed, turn off the light and watch as the sun cracks the horizon.
11:00 am. I make my way up to the NICU for visiting hours that are about to begin and phone into the unit from the waiting room. I give my name and the babies’ names, ask if I can come in and see them.
“Not right now,” a rushed voice tells me, “it’s too busy. Give us half an hour. We’ll phone you.”
I wait for an hour. The phone rings and startles me as I’ve dozed off.
“You can come in now.”
I enter the unit and I’m hit with the sharp scent of antiseptic and a flurry of activity—alarms beeping, phones ringing, doctors and nurses moving swiftly. The unit is packed full of isolettes, rows and rows of them. I’ve learned that the babies get moved around depending on workload and how stable or unstable a baby is, so I’m not sure where to go. I stand there, trying to get my bearings, fighting to keep down the panic that is creeping into my throat. No one seems to see me. Then, straight ahead a name tag catches my eye. It’s strange to see her name in writing; it makes her real instead of just the Big One. I shudder. At three and a half pounds, she’s not very big.
I move toward her isolette. She is four days old and it’s the first time I’ve seen her show any signs of life. She is crying, her tiny fists clenched, her eyes squeezed tight but she makes no sound—the ventilator tube through her vocal cords silences her cries. I stand there afraid, unsure of what to do. Stranger in a strange land.
Then a voice over my shoulder says, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” The smiling face of a nurse is looking at me. She has long brown hair pulled back into a tight pony-tail and a splash of freckles across her cheeks. I nod and tears burn my eyes.
“You can touch her you know, it’s OK, come.” She gently takes my arm. “Just put your hands firm on her; don’t rub.”
I reach into the port hole, first one hand then the other, and place them on her rhubarb-red body. I can feel the heat from her through the palms of my hands and to my amazement, she stops crying. Right before my eyes. I can feel it now—the bond.
I am your mother and you are my child.
About the author
Yvonne Smith writes from a small Canadian city where she lives with her husband, their two daughters, and a Rottweiler named Maggie. Her work has appeared in the Society and Beer and Butter Tarts. She is currently working on her first novel.