Anthology 26 stories about people who have had a brush with death.
Giving Him Back
What I remember most about the hospital were the long stretches of time that passed without anyone coming into my room, and how dark it was. I could hear the bassinets rolling down the hallways, like some endless pronouncement of emptiness of failure. I wondered why, in a half-empty double room, they had felt the need to put me in the bed furthest from the door, as if the door itself weren't quite enough to let them forget me. They could close the curtain too.
When they did come in, there was a certain twitch in their movements, an almost imperceptible jerk, a shift of the head. It made them stumble over their words, or laugh too much, or hurry through their task so they could get away.
It was the hospital where my son was born, dead enough that he had hung limp, draped over the sides of my doctor's hand as she pulled him from me. I have a picture of it, although who knows how my husband, at that moment, had thought to pick up a camera. Maybe his mind, like mine, had put ' its veil of normal over what those hours of our life had been. It was a mist that covered everything. The wild ride from the birthing room to the operating room, pushing all the while. The harshness of my doctor's voice. The forceps pulling so hard they lifted me off the table. The enormity of time waiting, waiting for my son to cry, waiting for the doctor to sew me up, waiting for the nurse to stop stroking my hair.
Even when they wouldn't let me hold him. Eeven when the nurse asked what version of baptism she should use. Even when my doctor put her head on my husband's shoulder and cried. The misty edges arranged themselves politely and pleasantly, like a whiteness that settled into the spaces in the room and blurred the edges into the scene we had always expected.
They told me later I was slipping away, that they thought the baby was already gone, that they did what they had to do to save me. Only I didn't feel saved--jjust ashamed.
There had beenwas no twitch in the voice of the neonatologist who called me at 3 a.m., hours after the mess of the delivery had been cleaned up and there was no one but me in the room to answer the phone. Talking to me didn't seem to bother him, no whispered tones in the middle of the night, no fear of waking the half-dead. What I heard was the efficiency of someone who had recited the list too many times. It sounded so sure. , This pronouncement of what would be, all probablies, not possibllies. Probably mentally retarded, probably cerebral palsy, probably blind, never walk, never speak or feed himself--he spoke of a baby he had touched and held as he had examined him. His voice carried me into a lifetime of wheelchairs and feeding tubes, of endless caring and doctor's appointments and 2 a.m. shifts, of always being that family that everyone looked at and said, I could never do that.
Did I have any questions? What was left to ask?
Half-dead and only half-asleep, the list was sharp to me. And it was the only real thing in that blurry night more real than the baby I had not touched and had only seen for a moment as they wheeled him away taking him to the hospital on the other side of town. And while lying alone, at that deadest hour of dark, I quietly asked God to take him back.
Was it so wrong to ask for that? God, the only one now who could make it right; the only one who saw the way it would end. Surely he knew I couldn't do this.
For two days my husband took me to see him.Wheeling me from my hospital room to the car, one leg still numb and useless from who knows what, and from the car to the NICU, an endless process of riding, waiting, standing, sitting, shuffling, hurting too much, bleeding. Finally, we'd come to the nursery, where the wheelchair never quite fit between the isolettes, and there was never a good angle to see him through the glass. I couldn't reach him. - and I couldn't hold him for fear of pulling out the chords attached to every possible part of his body.
I thought -- what could I do with a baby like that who screamed with pain at every touch? Who seemed monstrous, surrounded by the porcelain-like pink preemies in rows of isolettes, and whose broken, swollen head still showed the purple marks of the forceps?
No one could tell us. It was as if they, too, would wanted to give him back to the hand of God.
He seemed to me to be like the balloon from the county fair, when I was five, that I had held so tight all the way home. Then my hand fumbled in a silly catch and release game, and it slipped away from me. "Bethie, get it," I had cried to my older sister, but what could she do, so far away across the lawn. I had lost it. I grew smaller as it floated above me, perfect, so high above my failure. Maybe if I had tried harder, or wanted it more, or been good enough, I could have reached it.
"Come now," they said the morning of the third day with the same shrill tone they had said, "Baptize him now." The blood had pooled under the twisted pieces of his skull, enough now that he had stopped moving on one side.
He looked too big, watching him from my wheelchair vantage. This new doctor with his gaudy, clown-covered surgical cap that seemed to brush the top of the doorway. Too big, too loud, too colorful for that place full of quiet tones and pastel gowns. He could fix the broken pieces of his head, he told us. Maybe someone else wouldn't have done that for this child, he said, but he would.
Suddenly, there was room for me by his isolette, the chords that had been too short and tangled the day before would now reach enough for me to hold him for a moment, before they took him into the surgery. He screamed as the nurse picked him up. After two days of hopelessness, somehow it seemed too cruel to touch him now, if this really was our last time, and plenty of time to touch him later if it wasn't.
I don't remember taking him from the nurse's arms. It's more likely she placed him on my lap with me wondering how to manage his little limbs and his head and the wires. like some awkward prickly bundle I couldn't quite hang onto and wouldn't dare to drop.
While trapped in a wheelchair surrounded by wires and machines and fragile things, helpless to run away from my failure, I remember wondering if I would hurt him more. Or if he would know me, and how long I could stand the screaming before I would want to push him back at the nurses.
I remember holding my arms as still as I could and looking down at him. He looked up. He stopped crying. He breathed out, a deep contented breath, like the sigh a dog makes when he settles into a favorite corner of his bed. He stopped fidgeting. His eyes were clear and big and knowing. He looked at me as if his eyes held all the things we would ever see together, all the ages we would ever be like he had already lived a thousand of our happy memories. And my cold heart crashed down and poured into him.
There in the sharp smell of Betadine, the tangled chords and tubes holding us motionless, and the sound of apnea alarms and respirators, I learned the aching, sweet awfulness of love. I learned that all I ever wanted to be was the one who could do that for him. I learned the shape of him, a hollow melted into me that made me forget he had ever not been there.
Sitting there, knowing the way it would end, expecting that moment of coolness on my lap when they took him away, as if the east wind had somehow found its way past the rows of isolettes.Knowing the brush of the flannel blanket would vibrate on my fingertips for just a moment after he was gone. Knowing I would take the smell of him off with my hospital gown and crumple it into the bin with the rest of the discarded laundry, even knowing all of that, I quietly asked God to let me hold him forever.