Tsunami Faith

By Clayton, Meg Waite | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Tsunami Faith


Clayton, Meg Waite, The Virginia Quarterly Review


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 LV. 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. …

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