The neonatal intensive care unit isn’t as stainless steel as I’d imagined it would be. Bright yellow suns and quarter moons with super-sized smiles brighten the walls, and the antiseptic smell is softened by undertones of baby oil and talcum powder, smells that belong somewhere else: on the shelf of a changing table, in a day care center, next to jars of pureed spinach in the grocery store aisle. I’d expected something more like the bright lights and hard surfaces of the operating room where my son was born, more of the masked faces and sharp instruments and black ink mountains on white paper that rolled out of a machine above my head. That was not what I’d imagined either, though, not a pain the breathing lessons— hehh-ah, hehh-ah, hehhhh—could protect me from.
I’d put lotion on my chest so my baby’s first breath would be pleasant, the smell of freesia, soft naked skin to soft naked skin. I was prepared to laugh at his first angry cries, or to weep. I wasn’t prepared for this, though, for the commotion when the monitors started going haywire, for the running roll into the operating room, the C-section delivery and quick baby exit to neonatal intensive care. How did you prepare for this? But the C-section wasn’t optional. Nicholas was being strangled by his umbilical cord, wrapped twice around his neck. He’d come out purple, a little eggplant of a child. A mute Mr. Magoo eggplant. He hadn’t made a sound as they cut the cord from his neck and rushed him away from me.
Nicholas. My son.
Mac wheels my chair through the narrow door—barely wide enough for an infant gurney. Just inside the unit, a baby girl, a preemie, lies motionless in a plexiglass isolette. She can’t weigh three pounds. Her miniature hands and feet are much smaller than real hands and feet should ever be, but perfect. Perfect little curled fingers. Perfect little fingernails to match.
Not mine! Not mine! I nearly blurt out the thought. My baby is full-sized, purple but big. B-I-G! Just in need of a little shot of oxygen, that’s all.
The girl’s mother reaches through the portholes to touch her child. To kiss her baby, the mother kisses her own fingers, touches them to the child’s cheeks and lips and feet, then kisses the hard glass of her daughter’s isolette with her sad red lips.
Just a quick shot of oxygen and we are out of here, I remind myself. Out. Gone. Goodbye. And do not expect us back.
Mac pushes me up to the sink and turns the water on with foot pedals I can’t reach. He shows me how to wash up to my elbows with the fake-flower-smelling soap—gardenia or some similarly ridiculous scent. He’s already a pro at this. He’s been here all along while I’ve had to fight my way to get here from the recovery room, threatening to get up and walk here myself. An idle threat—laughable—the I.V. still dripping stuff into my veins and the whole bottom half of my body numb. But delivered with conviction. I’ve learned this from being a lawyer: reality isn’t important; what’s important is what people believe you will do. Top law school, sure, but do you have a good poker face?
Nicky’s bed is a small platform just about at the level of my shoulders, rimmed with four-inch high plexiglass. A hockey rink of a bed, but not an isolette. I take some comfort in that, though it’s a guilty comfort, and I glance back toward the woman and her little girl. I give a knee-jerk thanks to the Catholic God of my childhood, a stodgy old thing that peers down at me from his white cloud. It’s not like I’m happy the little girl is sick, I swear in a sort of explanatory version of a prayer. You have to know I didn’t mean that.
Nicky lies prone on the thin mattress, his little legs tucked underneath his belly, his butt sticking up in the air. He’s wearing a newborn plastic pamper and a powder blue knitted cap, something you might find outside a Salvation Army store. A hat even they wouldn’t sell. Except for the diaper and the hat, he’s naked, his skin not pink yet but no longer blue. Just pale. If it weren’t for all the equipment around him, he would look like a normal, healthy baby.
But he’s all needles and tubes and monitors. He has an i. v. in his arm and another in his foot. With one they drip glucose into him; with the other they draw blood out. To check his gasses, the over-freckled nurse says. To see if he’s getting enough oxygen.
And I start with the questions.
“Too much oxygen and Nicholas could lose his hearing, his sight,” the nurse, whose name tag says Wendy, answers. “Not enough, he might be brain damaged, or worse.”
At the sound of “brain damaged,” I begin to suffocate, though there is air all around me, extra oxygen leaking out from around these oxygen-pumping machines. I’m plummeting backwards, free-falling through unimaginable levels of something so dark it must be fear. Is this what dying is like?
But I am not dying. I am not dying and my baby is not dying. I will not let him die.
You can’t have him, You cannot have him!, I silently yell to the bastard on the cloud. Not his hearing, not his sight. And just don’t even think about his brain. He’s not even baptized. He does not belong to You.
I lean closer to Nicholas. My baby. My son.
There are little circles stuck all over Nicky, on his shoulders and on his back, with wires running from his body to monitors which beep—frantically sometimes—but no one panics when they do. And on his arm there is a small blood pressure cuff, the size you’d see in a child’s toy doctor kit. It inflates and deflates regularly, the air hissing out in a regular rhythm that provides steady background music for all those arrhythmic beeps.
“What happened to the oxygen tent?” Mac asks.
“They had to intubate him,” the nurse says.
“Intubate?” Like maybe this is all the nurse’s fault. What the hell does that mean, intubate?
“This is his ventilator,” the nurse explains.
Like every child should have one. Sure, you’ve got the sterling silver rattle from Tiffany’s, but where is your ventilator? No ventilator? What kind of parents are you?
Intubate? Ventilator? I. V. ? Respiration Rate? What happened to blankie-wankie, rattle, bassinet? What happened to breast feeding? Or even colic? Surely even colic is softer than intubate.
The nurse reaches up to adjust the heat lamp that warms Nicky’s naked body.
“He probably thinks he’s in the Bahamas,” Mac says, and we both laugh—so odd, but it strikes us both as funny, as hilarious. Because this can’t be real, really. This child is not a french fry. This child is not a cheeseburger wrapped up and waiting for the dinner crowd after the lunch crowd has left. This is a baby. What are you people thinking about?
The nurse smiles a polite, puzzled smile. She just doesn’t get it. She doesn’t understand the choices. You want a sloppy mess of tissue-dropping, blubber-mouthed sobbers? We are doing the best we can here. Can’t you see? Can’t you see? We are maintaining control. We are in control!
“Would you like me to turn him over?” the nurse asks.
Mac wheels me back to give the nurse room to maneuver. She removes the disks from Nicky’s back (the monitors beeping loudly) and turns him over. She reattaches the circles to his belly and his chest, and when she steps away to reset the monitors, there he is, blue eyes under that stupid blue cap, looking as terrified as I feel.
I have the urge to scoop him up and run, to head west to the sand, to the sea, to the edge of the sunset. To get the hell out of this nightmare in white. But Nicky is imprisoned, held to his bed by little velcro straps. And connected, too. There is a tube that goes in through his navel, is taped in place there, the other end connected to a machine. I don’t want to know where the other end, the one that goes inside him, ends up. I ask about the other tube, the one that goes down his throat. It pumps oxygen directly into his lungs so it can get to his heart, maybe, the nurse explains, and get circulated around.
And I can tell that Nicky is crying now as I watch his little face but, with that tube down his throat, no sound comes from his mouth. Eyes squeezed tight, mouth stretched wide open, but no sound escapes.
I reach out to touch him, stroke him, but then I stop, my hand suspended in mid-air as if it’s been separated from me somehow. “Can I touch him?” I ask, as if the nurse is Nicky’s mother and I’m a neighbor, say, coming over with a casserole, or not a casserole because no one makes casseroles anymore, but that’s the idea. This is all turned around, all confused. Who did this? Who brought us here? What did we do wrong?
The nurse nods. “You can touch him. Just be careful of the lines.”
I pat the small patches of Nicky’s skin between the tubes, the needles, the disks. I have this horrible dread that if I accidentally bump the medicine dropper connected to the i.v., I’ll deliver a fatal dose. Surely they wouldn’t allow me to touch him if that were the case.(Imagine what a field day the litigators would have with that.) But I ask again anyway, and despite the nurse’s assurances, I shift my hand, pat the wireless expanse between Nicky’s ankles and his baby-round belly, which heaves up and down with each asthmatic breath.
The door to the unit sucks open and a pudding-white man in a lab coat and rimless glasses slumps in. He stops at the sink, washes his hands to his elbows for what seems like forever. When he’s finished, he shakes the water off his hands. A few drops miss the sink and splatter on the floor.
“Doctor,” the nurse says, “this is Nicholas’s mom and dad.”
The doctor nods but doesn’t look at us. His pink hands lift the chart from the hook at the end of Nicky’s bed. He frowns to himself, and I think, he can’t be the doctor. His coat droops on his shoulders. His tie is crooked. Where is . . .what’s that guy’s name? The handsome one who used to make house calls on TV.
“What’s wrong with Nicky?” I ask, my words a whisper against the sound of alarms calling out again.
The nurse pushes a few buttons, turns down the volume.
The doctor’s eyes behind the glasses flutter closed and he stands motionless for a few seconds, as if the answer might be coming to him in some Zen Buddha form. “RDS,” he says.
“Which is . . . ?” Mac says.
“Respiratory distress syndrome. Also known as Hyaline Membrane Disease.”
Disease, disease, disease—the word echoes in my head. The diseases I know about are things old people get, or people I’ve never met. White hospital rooms, masked faces, last words.
This is insane. This is a baby we’re talking about here. This is absurd.
“This little guy’s lungs aren’t working,” the doctor says. His eyes are open now, but he’s speaking to every part of the room: the floor, the ceiling, the wall, the door. “He’s deficient in surfactant, so the alveoli collapse.”
“This little guy’s not very bad, though. Look.” The doctor flips a switch that illuminates a light for viewing X-rays. “See.” He points to the middle of an X-ray.
I look, but I have no idea what I’m looking at.
The doctor taps the X-ray. “Clear lungs,” he says, and his eyes look at me now, and he offers an awkward smile, like a toddler expecting to be praised.
“What’s that white line there in the middle?” Mac asks.
“That?” The doctor points to a white line that runs vertically most of the length of the X-ray. “That’s your son’s arterial line. The tube that goes in through his navel.”
Mac’s face goes as pale as Nicky’s. “All that is tube inside my son?”
The doctor nods. “We get it as close to his heart as we can.”
Heart. Now there’s a baby word, but it’s being used all wrong. Sweet little heartbeat. Heart-shaped face, like his grandma’s. He broke my heart the first time he smiled his toothless smile. But arterial line up to his heart? This was not in the baby books. This was not something to expect when you were expecting. Even Spock—and he’s a doctor—even Spock does not mention anything about arterial lines. Not once. Not even close.
“These babies make it,” the doctor says. “We almost never lose one. We just keep them on oxygen, and they turn around by themselves. You’ll see. Two days. Three max.”
Three days. I grab onto that despite the doctor’s lack of Marcus Welby—that’s that doctor’s name—Dr. Marcus Welby manners. Merely a long weekend. I stayed awake for three days in a row once, in the middle of a hostile tender offer. I can bear anything for three days. Three days is just a blink of an eye. Three days here for my baby’s life, my baby’s health? It’s a deal, God. It’s a deal.
“What happened?” I ask, or maybe it’s Mac who actually says the words, I’m not even sure. But someone says them, because the doctor explains. The lungs are one of the last things in the body to develop, he says, his face serious, professional, as he speaks to Nicky’s chart, already thick with paper, which he flips through as he talks. So in premature babies, they see this a lot, he says, though there are ways to prevent it, drugs they can give the mother before the baby is born to speed lung development in the fetus. “Still, it’s the most common cause of death in premature babies,” he says.
I close my eyes against this word, the D word. These babies make it. Two days. Three max. But already, I’m weeping. At the sound of the D word, right there in my baby’s life, I begin to weep.
“It’s less common in full term babies, like your son . . . ,” The doctor looks at the chart in his hand. “. . . Nicholas. But it does happen. Just last year Arnold Schwarzenegger’s baby was born here, with this same thing.” His voice picks up now; this is a story he loves to tell, anyone can see. “A nine-and-a-half pounder, too. You should have heard Arnold.” Then in a weak, dough-boy mimic of a Terminator voice, “”All these little ones—three pounds, four pounds—they all breathe. Why not my child?” You can imagine facing Arnold with that,” he says, chuckling to the air between my wheelchair and Nicky’s hockey rink bed as if this ridiculous story might have a prayer of cheering up this weeping mess of a mother that is me.
What is funny?, I want to ask him. There is nothing funny here.
The doctor clears his throat and looks at Nicky’s chart again. “Two days. Three max,” he says. Then he excuses himself.
“Astounding bedside manner,” Mac says.
By the second day, I’ve abandoned the wheelchair, despite the maternity ward nurses’ clucking of tongues. I’ve perfected the post-caesarian shuffle and become as adept as Mac at working the foot pedals that turn the faucet on. My milk has come in, too, and I’ve begun to pump it, the milk sucked from me into a plastic-funnel-topped bottle, then stored in a refrigerator for later use. Mother’s first milk has special antibodies the doctor wants Nicky to have when he’s able to drink it, antibodies that provide immunities he won’t have without it. So the milk is saved. It’s such a pitiful little amount that I’m embarrassed to hand it over, but the nurses in the neonatal unit treat it like it’s gold.
Mac has brought photographs from home for Nicky’s bed: Nicky’s two-year-old brother, his grandparents, even Trevor the dog, all lean up against the plexiglass rim.
“This is your brother, Christopher,” I explain. “He’s a bit confused right now. He thought you were coming home today. That’s what we told him, that Mommy would be gone for just one night, and would bring home a baby brother for him. Daddy’s trying to explain it to him, but he’s only two, you know.” Nicky has fallen asleep, though, and the nurse—what’s this one’s name?—is very sweetly pretending that I’m not bonkers in that infuriating way all the nurses have of pretending that everything is normal here.
“So you can see why your brother is confused,” I say to my sleeping baby. “Who wouldn’t be?”
The monitor starts beeping, and I, closer to it than the everything-is-normal-here nurse, reach over and press the buttons, one of the many things I never imagined I’d be competent to do. I’ve stopped opening the presents that come daily—clothes Nicky can’t wear and fuzzy animals that aren’t allowed in his bed because of the germs they collect. I’ve stopped receiving phone calls and visitors, stopped caring about Mac’s news from the outside world: a friend pregnant, my brother promoted, a neighbor’s grown son killed in an small plane accident, a neighbor I don’t know, whose son I’ve never met. I rarely even return to my room—mostly just when Christopher comes to see me—and when I do, I don’t smell the vases of lilies and roses and tuberoses that fill the spaces, brightening up the gray white blankness there. I spend the time pretending in that everything-is-normal-here way I have learned from the nurses so that Christopher, who has yet to see his brother (too scary for him, with all those wires and monitors, Mac and I agreed), will not be alarmed. “Oh, yes, your brother. . . . But how about another popsicle? You can get a popsicle here anytime you want one. Isn’t this place great?”
In the afternoon of the second day, the doctor orders another chest X-ray. “Just in case,” he says. It comes back foggy-looking, cloudy white in the center. Even I can see this.
“Fluid in his lungs,” the doctor says, again with the eyes closed. “Not good.”
More and more often, the nurses use a plastic bulb to suction out the tube that goes down to Nicky’s lungs. They call this “clearing his line.” Life-line, they mean.
But tomorrow is three days. Tomorrow we’re busting out of here, heading west, never coming back.
In the middle of the night—that second night—when I hear the rattling of the other babies’ cribs being wheeled from the nursery to their mothers’ rooms for the two a.m. feedings, and my breasts are swollen with milk, too (milk that will have to be pumped), the thought slips into my mind: Nicky might not make it. It’s there, filling the room around me, and a sense that I am surely drowning crashes in. But I grab hold, turn up the volume on the late late movie, wash out the rattling of those other cribs and their healthy baby cries. And it is not until an hour later that the station signal and its long, loud beep come on.
I put my slippers on then and walk—holding my scar so it will hurt a little less—down the hall to the nicku. That’s what the nurses call the neonatal intensive care unit. Nicku, they say, like it’s a word. And I sit down with Nicky and his nurse—he has his own nurse, all the time—and I watch him till morning. I watch his clear blue eyes looking back at me, saying, “It hurts, mommy, it hurts.” I stay until the wall clock says it’s morning and Nicky is sleeping, and then I shuffle back to my room. I nibble a tasteless piece of dry toast from my breakfast tray, drain the thin coffee from the plastic cup and watch “Good Morning, America.” Good morning, I think. Because today is the day Nicky turns around, starts breathing on his own. Three max. And this is the third day. The time is up. The flag has dropped. It’s time for this game to be over.
When I return to the unit, the respiratory therapist is taking blood from the I.V. in Nicky’s tiny, wrinkled foot and storing it in test tubes with color-coded caps. Though this is done every three hours, he is sure Nicky’s blood supply will not run out. They don’t take that much, he says, though it seems like volumes to me. It seems like gallons, like oceans of blood.
“Feeding the vampires again?” Mac says to the respiratory therapist. He’s just shown up for a morning visit after Christopher’s baby-sitter has arrived and before he escapes to work. I don’t question his returning to the office. What is there to do here anyway? And the truth is, I sort of understand. I can see losing myself to the intricacies of a subordinated debenture, maybe. I can see the relief of working through credit agreement capital spending limits with a client who actually believes they are something to worry about.
“I thought these machines monitored his blood gasses,” I say. They flash numbers constantly: heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure and temperature on one handy screen and then, on its own separate monitor, O2 uptake—oxygen. With all that, why do they need to take Nicky’s blood?
“The machines are good, but we get a more accurate read from the blood itself,” the respiratory therapist says.
Now comes the anxious waiting for the results. Down is bad. No change is better. Up is good. So far we’ve heard only down or, once, no change, but even that was followed by down again. Mac and I sit, watching Nicky’s chest heave up and down for maybe ten minutes, or maybe an hour, or maybe more. It’s hard to tell, here in the fluorescent light that doesn’t change, day or night, where time doesn’t pass in the way it always has, but is marked off in eight hour chunks when the nursing shift changes, at midnight, at 8 a.m., at five o’clock.
The midnight shift nurse that third night has a sureness about the way she changes Nicky’s diaper with all those wires about, the way she turns him now and then (“to avoid bedsores,” she says), the way she punches off the monitors and adjusts the I.V., the disks, the wires, that is comforting. Nothing about the way she handles Nicky suggests he might die. I can’t talk to my mother anymore, or even to my best friend, but this nurse—her name is Becky, but I call her the good nurse—-is straightforward, kind without being emotional, matter-of-fact.
“At least he’s not in an isolette,” I say.
“No, he has to stay in an open bed so we have a better chance of getting to him fast enough if he stops breathing.” The good nurse looks straight at me, soft brown eyes under mascara-coated lashes, hair pulled back. “If they—When they get him off the oxygen and he’s breathing well by himself, we’ll move him to an isolette.”
“Oh.” I laugh a little, an involuntary laugh that wants to be a sob. I think of that first mother I saw in here, the mother of the tiny daughter. That mother must feel sorry for me, I see now.
Three days! What happened to three days? Three days is up!
I don’t say much after that. For minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, lifetimes, I just sit and pat Nicky while the good nurse makes notes on his chart. I don’t even want to ask questions, not of anyone. There is absolutely nothing more about this I could possibly want to know. I just sit with the good nurse and stroke Nicky’s bald head, let him hold my finger in the strong grasp of his little hand, the one without the I.V.
“He has a strong grip,” the nurse says. “He’s a fighter.”
A reflex, I know, but still.
I sing softly to my baby—”Hush little baby don’t you cry” over and over again—not caring that I can’t carry a tune. He seems comforted when I’m singing. His heart rate seems to slow on the monitor. His oxygen count ticks up.
I pray, then, to that Catholic God I try hard to believe in. I pray right there at Nicky’s bedside, though not on my knees.(If there is a Lord worth praying to, I figure, he can’t possibly care if I kneel.) I try to talk to this God rationally first. This isn’t Nicky’s fault. He’s done nothing. I’m the one who hasn’t been to church in years, not him. And then I start the bargaining. Give up smoking? I only smoke when I’m out drinking with the girls anyway, and I haven’t had a cigarette since I’ve been pregnant. Drinking? Fine. I’ll go to church every Sunday. How about every damned day? And my career? I can change tracks, do something more meaningful, work to protect the world from the big industrial polluters I now represent, for a quarter of the pay. Or I can give it up entirely. Twenty years of school and the debt to prove it—it’s all yours God, all yours. What’s a career, anyway? A career? Who cares?
I offer this guy on the cloud all the bad things I’ll never do again, all the good things I’ve ever wanted. I’ll give up everything. But if the guy on the cloud is listening, if anything like any kind of God is listening—and I don’t even know who that might be anymore—he isn’t giving any sign.
So I lay it on the line. My last card: my own life. I’ll do it in a blink. I don’t even need this God to promise that Mac will live long enough to raise Nicky and Chris. I’ll trust him on that. I’ll trust him on anything. I just want one thing: my baby’s life.
On the afternoon of the fourth day, the doctor asks us if he can have a word with us, could we step into his office.(And what are we going to say: No, we don’t have five minutes to spare, can’t you see we’re busy here?)
“We have this drug,” the doctor says. “It’s a miracle drug really. A synthetic lung surfactant. Turns these babies right around. Some side effects, so we prefer to let these children recover on their own. But I think it’s time. He’ll turn right around. Tomorrow, the next day, he’ll be breathing on his own.”
Three days! You promised us three days! But I say nothing. I can’t imagine believing anything this doctor might say now. But I have to believe. This drug has to work. Something has to work.
After that, I sit and pat, pat and sit. When Mac suggests it, I go outside for a short walk, and I’m surprised to find the late afternoon is warm and sunny. The light hurts my eyes.
When I come back inside, the evening shift nurse is there, telling Mac she goes to school days, doesn’t get much sleep, drinks gallons of coffee just to make it through work. No sleep?! Gallons of coffee?! Where the hell in the taking-care-of-sick-babies rule book do they allow that?! I stay at Nicky’s bedside every minute of the caffeinefiend nurse’s shift.
On the evening of the fifth day, when the miracle drug has failed to be miraculous and the doctor is considering whether he can give Nicky more, Mac persuades me to be released from the hospital, to go home and get some rest. I protest, but the truth is I’m relieved when Mac invokes the needs of my son Christopher. I’m wheeled out of the hospital alongside a cart loaded with my vases of flowers, dropping dead leaves and petals as I go. The water in the vases is gray and slimy and the flowers themselves have started to stink, but the thought of leaving them behind is unbearable.
At the sidewalk, the attendant parks me next to another woman while Mac gets the car from the lot. The other woman sits in a wheelchair, too—hospital rules—but she has her baby in her lap. I feel myself staring as the child’s father lifts the child from the woman’s lap and straps him into an infant seat, then helps his wife into the car and drives off. Mac returns with our car and puts his arm on me, but I shrug him away and climb in by myself.
That night, the fifth night, I tuck Christopher in under the mouse blanket I knitted him, sing him a lullaby, I watch the late late movie, Casablanca, on my own television, wearing fresh pajamas and sitting on my own couch. After Ingrid Bergman flies off without Humphrey Bogart, I listen through the long station signal, then stare at the test pattern as if the answer might be there. And then I change into street clothes (I fit back into everything already; I should market this: the sick-baby stress weight-loss plan). I leave a note on the bathroom mirror for Mac, who has been sleeping for hours, handling the stress in his own way, I don’t wake him, don’t give him the chance to talk me out of this. I only kiss Christopher, whisper to him that his daddy will take care of him, and set the house alarm on my way out so that he is safely locked in. And I drive the three miles back to the hospital, feeling something like a compulsive gambler who, though broke for years now, cannot keep away from the hope that the slots will finally pay.
At the hospital, I take my place next to Nicky’s bed and sit there on into the morning, through the long, unchanging sixth day and the longer, still unchanging night. I wander no farther than the vending machine in the hallway, which spits out wretched cups of thick black coffee, but will not give cream or sugar or change.
On the morning of the seventh day, when Nicky’s fragile breast bone is still straining against his skin with every breath, a pediatric cardiologist is called in. “We’re concerned it might be more complicated than we thought,” the doctor says, his eyes focusing on his hands, which are bending the corner of a piece of paper on his desk. “We’re afraid your child’s pulmonary veins might not be draining into the left atrium of his heart.” His eyes close now, in that peculiar way. “We’d like to do an angiogram immediately. With your consent.”
Mac’s and my heads bob up and down, as if we understand. We sign the consent form without reading a word. Some lawyers, Mac says. My clients would be appalled.
After we leave the doctor’s office, we find a pay phone at the end of a long, sterile hall. There, we call a heart surgeon friend of ours to get an explanation.
The pulmonary vein takes oxygen from the lungs to the heart, our surgeon-friend explains in his low, rumbling freight train of a voice. “But in some babies . . .if the vein doesn’t flow into the heart. . . well, the heart can’t send the rest of the body oxygen it doesn’t get. You see?”
I work hard to swallow. I nod. Heart, yes, a baby word. I know our surgeon-friend can’t see me nodding through the phone, but it’s the best I can do.
“It’s the hardest heart problem to fix, but it can be done,” he says. “Is there any way I can help?”
I understand he is offering to do the surgery himself, but that he’ll understand if we choose a surgeon we won’t have to drink cocktails with if anything goes wrong. I also understand this: he is the best pediatric heart surgeon in the state, one of the best in the country. Cocktail parties? Add them to the list, God. Add them to the list.
“If it’s the heart, if it comes to that. . . .” Mac says.
I nod, acquiescing in this choice of heart surgeons that, amazingly enough, needs no discussion.
I know it’s the seventh day, I say to the guy on the cloud, but you are not resting here, God. This is no place to rest.
“I guess we’ll take that little lung disease thing after all,” Mac says. “Excuse me waiter! Don’t take that lung disease special back. I was mistaken. That was what we ordered after all.”
I collapse into laughter, and Mac does too. The noise of our laughter in the bare white hallway shocks me, but still I laugh. I laugh hysterically, holding my incision. I can’t stop. And when the laughter turns against me, I can’t control that either. Only the passage of time soothes me, time and the gently rocking motion as I huddle like a sick child in Mac’s lap, there underneath the pay phones, on the cold, hard hospital floor.
When we get back to the nicku, three men are wheeling a white machine about the size of a refrigerator right up to Nicky’s bed. They watch as even more lines are connected to Nicky, then listen intently to the quiet whir of the machine, as if it might have a message we could understand. Afterward, Mac asks the young man who is disconnecting the machine if Nicky is okay.
The young man looks surprised: Is the baby okay? The baby is in intensive care.
“I’m just a technician.” He taps his name tag. “I’m not allowed to talk to patients about test results.” He isn’t cold about it. Only matter-of-fact. But Mac’s ears redden like they do when he gets angry. He stands up.
“Hey,” I say gently. I lay my hand on his stubbly cheek. (He’s got the tie and the suit on, all ready to go to work after he swings by the hospital, but he’s forgotten to shave.) I move both hands to his waist. “Hey,” I say again.
Later that morning, after Mac has called the office, said he just doesn’t have it today, the doctor summons us again. As we follow his assistant down the hall, Mac leans over and whispers, “Tonight on Channel Nine News At Ten: Condemned Couple Is Sent to the Gallows.” It is not the least bit funny, but we pretend it is, as if by pretending we might be convinced.
We take the two hard wooden seats across the desk from the doctor, who sits up straight for once, adjusting a portrait of his own healthy family. Sure, flaunt them, I want to say. Your healthy doctor family skiing in the rockies. Who the fuck do you think you are?
The doctor’s eyes flutter closed, and I feel myself sinking, sinking, sinking. It’s the heart. I know now. The doctor is doing the eye thing. It must be the heart.
The doctor says Nicky’s blood gasses are up.
“Up?” I whisper, afraid I’ve misunderstood, afraid to let in hope.
They’ll decrease the oxygen slightly, the doctor says in the same subdued tone. He could be telling us he was sorry but there was nothing they could have done; he could be using the D word in that voice.
But we understand. When we’re safely released to the hospital hallway, Mac sweeps me up so my toes don’t touch the floor. “Up is good!” he says. “Up is good! Up isn’t the heart! Up is the lungs!”
And I hold tightly tightly tightly to him, and my lungs fill with great wracking sobs of laughter, of relief.
On the eighth day, the doctor stands next to Nicky’s bed and pulls the oxygen tube out of his throat, and the line out of his navel too. Mac squeezes my hand. When the doctor is done, he holds a long length of tubing streaked with the red of Nicky’s blood. A drop splatters bright red onto the clean, white floor.
Nicky is moved to an oxygen tent, then, where he screams endlessly while the other babies, oblivious, sleep. Mac runs off to the pay phone to call our mothers. Two completely different women, our mothers, but with the same rare talent for disseminating news.
And Nicky drinks, first from a bottle and then from me. I feed him there in the nicku, with the curtain pulled for privacy, a few tears splashing from my eyes onto the round disks and wires connecting Nicky to those machines. The machines beep frantically as he sucks quietly at my breast.
The next night, they disconnect Nicky from the monitors and move him to an isolette. I run home, tear open gifts until I find a cute pair of soft yellow cotton pajamas with a baby duck embroidered on the front. Mac and I return to the hospital, bringing Christopher with us to meet his little brother, and I dress my new baby for the first time in his life. I pat him through the portholes and kiss my fingers and touch them to his lips, his cheeks, his feet. I laugh a soft, gentle laugh. And then I lean forward and press my lips to the smooth, solid glass of the isolette.
On the tenth day Nicky comes home—”healthy baby care” it says on his discharge sheet—and he falls asleep nursing, and I hold him like that, watching the rise and fall of his chest. When I put him in the cradle in the master bedroom, I lean my ear next to his mouth and listen to the sound of his breath, feel it warm on my ear.
Later, I put him in the stroller and walk up the street. I walk past a neighbor’s house, people I don’t really know. The street is lined with cars. Another car pulls up and a man in a dark suit climbs out, heads up the walk toward the covered front porch, the sturdy columns. There is a crowd of people inside; I see them through the door and at the windows, people standing in polite clumps like colorless versions of the impatiens by the walk. There is no party music, though, no laughter spilling through the window. And I remember then Mac telling me—sometime but I can’t remember when—about the neighbor’s son who died in a plane crash, the boy I’d never met.
I flee, then, running with the stroller pushed on in front of me, bumping at each crack in the sidewalk though this does not wake Nicky, he does not even stir. I sprint away from the sturdy columns of that house, pushing the stroller with one hand and holding my abdomen with the other, as if the pain could be contained in that C-section scar. As fast as I run, still the fear catches up to me, an inexpressible tsunami, a tidal wave. And it is only just as it begins to crash down on me that I lift my head up and catch it, ride with it, letting an ocean of salt-water tears stream down my face. I round the corner, the wheels skittering, the stroller stuttering, Nicky waking and wailing in protest. But I don’t slow. I can feel that the wave has set me down now, that I’m on soft, sandy shore. But still I run, my chest heaving in the fragrance of star jasmine and roses, my wet face turned upward to the white tufts of clouds floating gracefully above.