Still. Life. by Mara Sonnenschein
Gus wheels me from my pre-partum room on the 7th Floor North to my OB/GYN office, 4th floor South. “What you doing today, Susan?” he asks.
“The usual excitement.” I try to breathe in some sunshine as we pass through the glass lobby at NYU-Langone Hospital. “Wheelchair rides. Sonograms. Bed rest.”
“How’s the baby?” Irina asks me, after Gus drops me off in the waiting room. I want to get up and walk, but Irina maneuvers the wheelchair to just outside her exam room.
I shrug. “We’ll see.”
I get out of the chair and walk to the exam table. I slide on and wait.
That was twelve steps.
I used to try to do 10,000 steps a day.
The clear goo is on my stomach. Irina’s wand does its magic. We look at the monitor together. Gray pixels show a spine, a balloon of head. Hands and feet and miniscule fingers and toes.
A shadow in the upper left corner. “What’s that?”
Irina pauses. “Reduction sac,” she says in her thick Russian accent.
“The diastolic is high for a 26-week fetus,” Dr Griffith says, after Irina wheels me to his office. “I’d hoped the reduction would bring down both your blood pressures, but unfortunately it seems you have the start of preeclampsia. You should start preparing yourself for a premature delivery.”
He passes me a printout. Black spikes on white paper. Triangles of my remaining girl’s heart rate.
His face is smooth and rabbity, his fingers pink and plastic-looking.
Sixteen days ago, his hands reduced me from two babies to one.
Back in my white slab of hospital room. Small kicks inside me could be a foot, could be an elbow.
Do mothers know which twin is kicking as they get bigger?
“It’s not like you have a choice. They said the one is already compromised,” my sister had insisted over the phone.
“This is probably life or death for you and the other baby,” Dr. Griffith had said. “Probably.”
Jason’s strangled words as we lay in bed at home, crying and deliberating what we should do: “I want them both.”
The hospital’s automated blood pressure cuff tightens around my arm.
Lisa’s the nurse on duty.
“I’ve got some gossip for you,” she tells me. “But first, let’s talk about your blood pressure? Your numbers went way up an hour ago.”
“My sister called.”
Lisa looks at my chart, then at her wrist.
“Time for your blood thinner. And Dr. Griffith wants you to get a steroid shot, too, for her lungs.”
“What’s the gossip?” I ask, but Lisa’s on her way out to get my drugs.
Jason calls. “Let’s make this quick,” I tell him. “Gordon Ramsey just found rat shit in a Lancashire pub and I don’t want to miss the meltdown.”
“Glad you’ve got your priorities straight,” he says. “I’ll be over after work.”
Lisa returns two hours later.
“Sorry about that. I don’t like to keep people waiting?” she uptalks. “But there was an emergency?” Her blond hair is spilling out of her ponytail and there’s the sheen of sweat on her upper lip.
“You look like you’ve been at the gym,” I say.
She barks out a laugh. “I wish,” she says, and produces two syringes.
I point to my right side. “Lovenox is here today.”
She administers the blood-thinner, then rips open a wipe.
“Steroids hurt,” she says. “It’s in the thigh. Sorry.”
A rap on the door, then a yarmulked man looks through the wedge of glass into my room.
“I thought I’d see …” he yells in, but Lisa cuts him off, shaking her head at him.
“Rabbi, not a good time.”
He puts up his hands like we’re police after he’s dropped his weapon. He lingers a moment, then leaves.
“I keep telling him I’m Jewish by birth only,” I tell Lisa as she rubs my leg with the alcoholic wipe. “You know what he says? He says, ‘It’s Yahweh or the highway.’”
Lisa jabs the needle into me. My thigh muscle screams and curdles around the dose. I think of a tiny heart and a needle of potassium chloride, of weeping in doctors’ offices, of baby bones disintegrating in a dried-up amniotic sac.
Days bleed out. I am a human crock pot, attempting to give this baby a slow cook of 40 weeks.
Jason visits me after work, occasionally before. On weekends he spends the day by my bedside while I watch TV.
“Sexy times,” I tell him, after a nurse comes in and sticks my arm for the latest blood work.
“Whatever it takes,” he replies.
And then one Wednesday night, start of my 29th week, Dr. Griffith comes in to my room around 9:30. Jason is just packing up to go home.
“Your liver enzymes have doubled,” he says, like we know what that means. “So we are going to deliver.”
Jason asks, “When?” and Dr. Griffith says, “Now,” and next thing I know I’m in an operating room getting a nerve block in my spine.
Charlotte, my favorite nurse: “Are you in pain?”
I shake my head but mutter, “Heart hurts.” I can’t say more. Did I even say that?
I think I’m awake with cotton mouth? No water – or visiting my baby – until the magnesium sulfate drip is dripped dry.
The doctors came before the C section and told me, “Premature babies can look … shriveled.”
A flash of her after they pulled her out of me and washed her: Slice of forehead between hat and blanket. Forehead sandwich.
Then they whisked her away from me and shoved a tube down her throat to inflate and deflate her miniscule lungs. They took her to the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit, AKA the NICU.
I don’t know what she looks like.
Reptilian? A little lizard?
Jason tells me, “She’s beautiful.” But was he here? Did I make that up?
This drip drips dreams into me. Percocet every four hours adds some luster.
Jason walks in with a lizard in his hands. A two-pound lizard isn’t that tiny. A two-pound human is tiny.
How is it possible that the two-pounder is in his arms? She should be upstairs in the NICU? In her little fake womb-bed?
“This is for you,” Jason says and puts down the baby: A cup of ice chips. Not my daughter but something I want almost as much. My mouth is suddenly cold and wet again. Thirst isn’t quenched but there are other things to worry about.
Magnesium sulfate, commonly known as Epsom salt.
My veins are getting a salt bath. Salt stops seizures. Preeclampsia causes preemies.
Preemie. Pre-me. Prehistoric-looking, maybe?
Or maybe perfect but miniature?
Sulfate. Sulfa? Sulf …
I’m focusing more on what my baby looks like than on her medical problems. Is that sulfish?
It was very sulfish of me to have a baby at 40.
Because of my sulfishness, my daughter was born 11 weeks early.
They are here to check my scar. I feel hands pushing away my hospital robe, pulling my underwear low.
“Healing nicely,” my OB says. I love my OB right now. He delivered my baby and she is alive.
Then he says, “Your daughter is no longer intubated and is using a CPAP, but I’m concerned about brain bleeds. She is not in the clear yet and she may never be.”
I don’t understand. CPAP? What?
Is that Jason standing there, crying? I hear a noise like the one I made when my mother died. A roar ripped from deep inside, like the sound of the ground grinding in an earthquake.
Who’s making that noise?
The nurses avert their eyes. From me.
I’ve been declared post-preeclampsia. The magnesium sulfate did its work; now that my blood pressure is hovering around normal, I’ve been moved from the pre-partum hospital room to a shared room on the maternity ward.
The hospital is showing its attention to detail and concern about every patient’s well-being with this room share. I’m sharing a room with a woman whose baby is full-term and healthy. I get to hear her nurse while I struggle with a mechanical pump to extract the almost non-existent milk in my breasts. I get to wake up every time her baby cries at night. I get the vicarious experience of family and friends arriving in droves to congratulate her and coo over her baby.
Nobody asks me about my baby.
She lives in a house of glass. Sometimes a blanket is dropped over the roof like a tarp placed over an unfinished project.
“We do our best to mimic the womb,” a nurse tells me. “We’re keeping her in darkness.”
I can’t hold her. I’m not supposed to even stick my finger through the tiny window of her incubator to touch her. My germs could kill her.
There’s not much to do in the NICU. It’s an alien world full of tiny bodies hooked up to wires and machines. I sing to her and read her books. I am a crazy woman, reading to a box shrouded with a blanket.
Jason was right: She’s beautiful. Except.
Except she’s the size of a squirrel.
Except she has a hose pumping oxygen through her mouth.
Except her right temple looks like a fender that’s been dented.
My first thought when I saw her: Long hair and bangs will cover that.
My second thought: Who is this vain and terrible person I’ve become?
We have been trying to come up with a name for her.
“What about Hope?” Jason asks. I look at him to make sure he’s serious.
“Can’t do that. Hope is the thing with feathers. She looks like a plucked chicken.”
Jason leafs through the name book.
“How about Avian?” he says. It’s the first laugh we’ve had since my delivery.
I haven’t been outside in 32 days.
The best thing about still being in the hospital is my constant access to the NICU.
The worst thing? The constant access to the NICU.
The rubbing alcohol smell of that sterile room. The dim lighting, the pods of isolettes (incubators). Thin blankets and IV drips. The alarm bells, the blood draws, the spinal taps. The quiet mumblings of parents cooing to their babies. The soft voices of nurses and doctors intoning the best and the worst.
And my baby, the acorn I dropped early, sleeps away the days and nights in an enclosed box that’s not a coffin.
Horns and sweat and pore-clogging dirt and I start to cry. Fresh Manhattan air! 36 days in the hospital and I’m finally released, a rat leaving its cage.
But Amelia’s still inside. That’s the part the doctors and social workers don’t even mention: If you have a premature baby, you will go home first, and come back to see your baby as often as you can.
Visiting hours with my own baby.
The Hasidic man is arguing with the head doctor, and I overhear Dr. Berg tell him, “If you take your son home today for his first Sabbath, it will also be his last Sabbath.”
Two hours later, the man and his wife leave the NICU. With their son.
Mairen is a small woman with a large body. She often comes into the NICU with grease stains on her shirt from the egg sandwich she wolfs down on the PATH train to the hospital. She will say, “Can you believe I fucking started lactating just thinking of Haimish on the way over?” as if the stains are milk spots, but the smell of the egg and cheese and bacon give away her lie.
Some parents barely visit their babies. They don’t hold them. It’s hard not to be judgmental about this but I’m reminded of the advice my grandmother told me her mother told her: Don’t fall in love with your child until they turn one. They’re less likely to die after that.
I spend hours now doing Kangaroo Care with Amelia. The nurses pick her up, wires attached to her with miniscule leads, and they place her on my bare chest, then drape her with a blanket. Amelia wears only a diaper, the tiniest triangle of white. After ten or twenty minutes, she sticks to my chest with the heat we make. She stays tucked against me like this for three, four hours, until I’m stiff from staying in one position and hoarse from singing: “Scarborough Fair.” “Dream a Little Dream.” “In My Life.”
Those are the best days.
The blood infection shows up six weeks in. One of the nurses notices that Amelia isn’t as feisty as usual and that her color is off. The doctors agree and start treating her with antibiotics, even though it will take ten days to get the results from the cultures.
Jason and I hear lots of talk about fungal balls that could lodge in her liver or brain or kidneys, hiding from the antibiotics and destroying Amelia’s future. We sit together, glazed in shock.
We call our family members scattered around the country, a few overseas, and we tell them about the infection. What’s left unsaid: “You may never have a chance to meet her.”
We don’t leave the hospital for 72 hours.
Amelia has a spinal, two blood transfusions, and who knows how many doses of antibiotics that may cause her to have drug resistance in the future.
Whatever it takes, we tell the doctors.
This is New York City; even the NICU is competitive.
Who pumps the most milk. Who pumps the least. I win the title for Least Productive Breasts.
Whose child survived the worst. (Amelia’s blood infection was scary, but doesn’t crack the top five Most Dire.)
Whose baby was born the earliest. Whose baby was born the heaviest.
Whose baby is most likely to leave next.
“How’s Amelia today?” Mairen of the egg sandwich stains asks me.
Her baby, Haimish, is scheduled to have a feeding tube inserted in his stomach tomorrow, and it hurts to look at him.
I shrug my shoulders and say, “She’s doing well. No apnea episodes. They think we can take her home in a few days.” The NICU version of the humble brag.
The doctors and nurses hug us. The most exciting day of our lives is routine for them. “Please send photos,” they say, and, “Have a wonderful life, Amelia!”
We are outside the NICU now, in the fluorescent lighting and dingy green hallway. In the heavier air, the warmer air, the dirtier air outside the NICU. I am standing outside the NICU with our girl.
We are about to plunge into the afternoon, into the sunlight, into the grime and noise of Amelia’s hometown. The city skyline, the Empire State Building, the stretches of sky above – all are inconsequential compared to the four pounds of baby asleep in my arms.
© Mara Sonnenschein, 2015
Mara Sonnenschein has been a Web writer/editor/producer since the late 1990s. She has an MFA in Screenwriting from the University of Southern California. She has recently started writing fiction, mostly thanks to the encouragement of her husband and the discipline of classes at the Writers Studio. She lives in New York City with her husband, young daughter, and their two cats.
Still. Life. was read by Amber Bogdewiecz on 4th February 2015 for Entrances & Exits