I had a lucky shirt I wore the whole time. I took it off only to sleep and to wash it in the laundry room at the hotel, where the jungly humidity and the smells from the detergents made a world away from the NICU where our son lay immobilized. But the churning of the washing machines and the clinkclankclink of a zipper in the dryer counterpointed the whirring and beeping which kept him alive, which kept all of them alive in their bassinets or tiny containers, sealed off like wizened relics from the age of faith. And staring at my shirt convulsing behind the dryer’s see-through door was like another hour of staring through the Plexiglass at my son. In the dryer my shirt’s arms were outstretched, reaching for something I could not grasp.
If I’d had more than a few hours each week I might have done a study: What Your Choice of Detergent Reveals About You. The detergent came in cute little boxes, like those cereals you could buy once upon a time, shrink-wrapped in a stack; you cut the boxes open along the dotted lines and ate right from the box with a spoon, Fruit Loops turning your milk pink or Frosted Flakes, Tony the Tiger saying They’re grrrrrreat! But no, I couldn’t ask because I was only there when no one else was, because I didn’t want to talk to anyone, because I was afraid that my chest was as transparent as the dryers’ fronts and that anyone would be able to see my heart, lopsided and skipping a beat now and then, as blue and red as the blurred plaid of my shirt as it spun. In any case, I always chose a non-scented detergent because why would I want my son’s first smell of me once I could hold him again to be a nightmarish citrus grove, lemons hanging like grenades, or the waxy scent of a gardenia in a vanished garden. I’ve often wondered what I really smell like because you know we can’t totally smell ourselves, it’s like trying to talk while you’re thinking about your own tongue, but I imagine in those days I smelled like determination and despair and bad food, consumed without thinking about it, wads of sandwiches or hardboiled eggs slipping down almost whole under fluorescent lights, or sometimes even in the car staring out at the parking lot just to get away from the heavy weather inside.
But no, I couldn’t conduct that study because if someone had ventured into the laundry room while I was there in the dead of night (oh, but I didn’t use that phrase during those weeks of gnawing fear) or if someone had tried to talk to me in the elevator and asked my partner and me in a friendly way where we were from or how long we were staying, the words that would have come out of my mouth would have been “oxygen saturation levels” or “intubate” or “swallow study.” The kind of language I’d used with other people had left me, and we were in a weird place, something like a weather inversion, which holds smog down and makes everything leaden. It was the language of Emergency. Other people in our inversion were subject to it too, though; it filled our heads with dryer lint. Like when they were preparing our son for his first surgery and the doctor asked Alix, my partner, if she or anyone in her family had had difficulty with anesthesia, and then he turned to me and said, “And in yours?” I had to remind him that I wasn’t the biological mother, and I sat there knowing what a carrot feels like when it’s been yanked out of the ground into the chilly air.
If we could have laughed more. There must have been things to laugh about, like thinking I understood how a carrot feels or having to remind a doctor that you can’t make a baby by rubbing two eggs together. Or even the feeling of eating a hardboiled egg so fast because you were hungry for sensation, that was kind of funny, like swallowing yourself, but what was not funny was that the hardboiled eggs came in little plastic baskets from the franchised café at the hospital, “Au Bon Pain,” the name of which was also a reminder of my son’s newborn grimace. He was strapped down to a table to hold the tubes and needles and monitors in place. He was on morphine, also not funny. It was almost funny that we’d left the hospital where he was born in such a rush that we had only the clothes on our backs, Alix and infant both strapped down in the ambulance (she had had a Cesarian just days before and the strap and the jolting over the frost-heaved Vermont highways was another kind of torture) and me following in my own car, keeping the strobing light of the ambulance in my sight like a star of wonder, star of light. It was not long after Christmas and the post-holiday sales and once he was settled, which meant he was attached to everything including an IV in his forehead because that’s the only place they could find a suitable vein, we’d had to drive to the closest Gap to buy other things to wear and because it was mostly leftovers at that point I’d ended up with my shirt and also a long coat, a snowboarder’s coat, or so my students told me much later. It’s funny because I was fifty then and because I was then and am now the least snowboard-y person in the world; completely risk-averse, slopes fill me with dread, that smooth surface like an egg you might fall off of. And yet — also funny but not in a ha-ha way — here I was in a very risky situation, guided by mostly kind doctors and nurses who nonetheless could not promise anything, the very definition of risk.
That’s how I got my lucky shirt. We went back with our GAP clothing and our underwear from K-Mart, and soon enough the days fell into a rhythm, driving to the NICU early in the morning and back again late at night with frost on the windshield at both ends of the day. We rubbed it off with the sides of our hands so that the world was like something seen through the portholes of a ship heading somewhere else. Maybe sometimes we even wished we were on that ship.
We didn’t always talk a lot; the days were filled with the voices of machines and also a kind of static which we broke with small exchanges.
“What’re you going to have?”
“I guess the soup. What about you?”
“I’ll have the hardboiled eggs.”
And sometimes I stuck the tiny packets of salt, the ones I didn’t use, in the pocket of my shirt where they rustled as I shifted in my seat next to our baby’s isolette. But I’m not sure even now why I started to think of my shirt as lucky. Maybe because of the slow seepage of dread, so that the red and blue threads, even as they started to unravel at the cuffs, were something I could cling to. Maybe that’s how it started.
When my son was born his esophagus and stomach were not connected. What happened at the end of each nub was sometimes described as a “pouch.” When I tell people about it now, I have a little gesture I make in the air. I do it without really knowing I’m going to do it, but I do it every time, a downward motion and then a cut with my palm as if to evoke the broken tube. It’s hard to visualize how his insides were interrupted and I want to make it easier. When I do it my hand looks like the hand Mary raises to the angel Gabriel in some paintings of the Annunciation, which is also funny because our son’s conception was immaculate if you think of it that way, syringe and sterile glove and our gentle OB-GYN.
The staff didn’t pick up on his defect in utero though or even for days after his birth. Every time he nursed he’d gag and cough and eventually throw it all back up because it had nowhere to go, though we didn’t know that then. We walked miles with him in that same stale room, holding him upright, his wobbly head on our shoulders and his fretful, weakening crying like a small appliance, a pencil-sharpener, maybe, running out of battery-charge. The nurses called the Lactation Consultant and we were told to relax.
“He’s not latching correctly,” she said. “Try to relax.”
“I think he is latching,” said Alix.
“Maybe he’s getting too much air. Hold him higher–like this.”
“Okay.” Alix strained against the pull of her incisions to lift him up.
We were doing it wrong, apparently, or he was. But that’s not what this story is about, blame. Though when I think about it even now, almost twelve years later, I feel a kind of searing heat in my chest as if it were my heart going around and around in the dryer on high, my heart drying out just like he was after days of not getting any milk. But that’s all I’m going to say about anger.
By the time we got to the NICU at the larger hospital, an hour away from where he was delivered by Cesarian section because there was too much amniotic fluid (another sign of his condition that was missed, apparently) he was so dehydrated that he was yellow and did indeed look like a relic, something that had dried up in a desert climate over a long period of time instead of just four days. The other babies there were mostly preemies, like Persian miniatures of newborns with their tiny caps and patient faces and limbs like twigs, painted with a brush made of camels’ eyelashes, maybe, so delicate. I marveled at them, their quavering cries and their little mouths puckered as if kissing the air. Our son was delivered full-term and so was a bruiser in comparison, and we were bruised, too, the areas under our eyes purple with worry and lack of sleep, and our hearts were also contused. No one is prepared to be an Emergency Parent and it takes time to learn the language, as inadequate as it is. And I recognize that the other language, the language we left behind, also felt inadequate to some.
People said to me afterwards, “I didn’t know what to say.” People, now that I have learned both languages somewhat adequately, I want to tell you that it is okay not to know — but say something anyway. There is never just the right thing to say, even with two languages. But your words are good things for us to hear, even if you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, because the land of Emergency feels unpeopled, sometimes — or unpeopled of people who are not directly involved in trying to keep your child alive — and it’s nice to know other people are out there. I received some short emails from colleagues while we were at the hospital, like “Thinking of you” and “Hoping you’re doing OK.” Even now, I recognize those simple sentences as life-lines that kept me from drowning. Because I was supposed to be at work, a new (old) mom, teaching about Gilgamesh, how he inscribed the story of his journey on the sun-baked walls of Uruk, desert gleaming all around. But I was not there, I was not teaching about the arrogant king who was finally humbled by his own mortality; I was being humbled each day in a dry place and I was without words.
I can tell you that in that place of inverted weather, of heavy hearts and dry heat, language is important and so is belief. It’s funny to think about the Desert Fathers, those ancient ascetics, in this context since a father wasn’t involved in our case, per se (or per say, as some of my students used to write, which always made me chuckle but also works). Since then I’ve learned there were Desert Mothers too though most of us don’t know about them; rather than “Abba,” which is funny if irreverent, they were called “Amma,” like Mama, inverted. But either way both had faith enough to go out alone and live with nothing in their makeshift shelters, though they didn’t have lucky shirts, probably, since that’s considered superstition and not faith. I still wonder about the difference between the two; maybe one way is that faith is something more people agree to, and only I had faith in my shirt’s power to keep my son alive, which makes it superstition.
I imagined asking someone in the elevator or in the NICU or leaning over the counter at Au Bon Pain: “See my shirt? Does it look magical to you?” or–worse–wide-eyed: “Do you believe in my shirt?” They probably would have looked at me like I was a crazy person. And I think I was a crazy person for that month we were at the hospital, because I can’t tell you how quickly the makeshift walls around the land of Emergency went up, trapping us inside, my partner and me and our baby and my shirt, which, by the end, had lost a button and was frayed at the cuffs by constant wear and the tough love of the hotel laundry.
There were of course other sojourners there but everyone was in their own makeshift shelters and we said hello on our way to the bathroom or in the hall outside the pumping room, which is where the lactating mothers pumped milk that was then fed to their infants through stomach tubes for the most part. We knew snippets of one another’s stories but didn’t really converse, we were too tired and most of us were still learning the language. Our son had a stomach tube inserted first thing because he was starving to death. He was so shriveled up when they brought him to the NICU that when they tried to hydrate him through that IV in his forehead his lung collapsed. He simply took up so much fluid all at once that his tiny body couldn’t bear it. That is an Emergency and there is nothing to laugh about in that. They put him in a plastic box and intubated him, which means threading a tube down his trachea to help him breathe. Beyond that I can’t tell you much about it because the nurses told us to stand back and also my head was mostly in my hands. I wasn’t praying though because despite my love for biblical allusion or really any kind of allusion at all, I am not Christian or even religious in any accepted sense. I had a lucky shirt, but no, I wasn’t praying. Maybe my prayer was my shirt.
There were other times I could have prayed, like when we wandered the halls of the hospital for almost seven hours during his first surgery. They were going to try to reattach his esophagus to his stomach by pulling up the stubs of both tubes and sewing them together. He had something called “esophageal atresia, long-gap” so it was risky, which they informed us about as they always did. They made no promises. The nurses gave us a buzzy-disc that would let us know when he was out of the OR, it was like waiting in a huge theme-restaurant in the mall where they buzz you when your table is ready and you wind your way self-consciously through groups of loud happy drinkers and artificial palms, “Margaritaville” piped in through the speakers, maybe. Maybe there’s a pool for throwing coins into and wishing.
This was a different kind of wishing, not just tossing in a quarter and hoping she’ll reply to your daring email or that your poem will get accepted by that magazine. This is a full-body experience, every cell on hold and your heart on standby. Despite my years of teaching English and reading English and speaking it, I can’t think of a good description of what that wishing-waiting is like. Maybe being on a plane all alone, just your little family taking off from the land of Emergency, without knowing where you’ll land. That seems like a lame comparison though because that might raise anxiety but what’s missing in that scenario is terror, the terror that something will go horribly wrong. Maybe if the person who put you on the plane told you there was a ___% chance that it would crash but only your child would die and that you and your partner would immediately have to board another plane going somewhere, anywhere, without your child, breathing that canned air for the rest of your life and that you’d have to Remain Seated with Your Seatbelt Securely Fastened forever on that flight of grief. Maybe that’s close enough.
There are external buzzers and internal buzzers. External buzzers are like when the buzzy-disc goes off and you rush to Recovery where you hope you will recover your son. Or when there’s a swallow study and after your baby has been fed a bottle of something that will make his insides glow, and everyone is standing around the screen, and you all see at once that there’s a leak in his esophagus, radioactive liquid seeping out around the surgical site. You hear a sharp intake of breath from your favorite pediatric surgeon (did you ever in your life think you’d have a favorite pediatric surgeon?) and her breath is like a buzzer then, and it means waiting, another few weeks in the inverted weather of the NICU.
Internal buzzers are when you get a call late at night but you’re not there to pick up, maybe you’re watching your shirt go around and around in the dryer, and the message is from the Night Nurse who says something rushed like Oh OK you’re not there everything’s OK. Your internal buzzer goes off because you do not believe that at all, not for as minute, in fact it’s more likely that something terrible has happened and it turns out that your buzzer is right, your baby kicked out both his chest tubes while the nurse was filling in her Sudoku booklet with a sharpened pencil beside him. The Nurse said afterwards that in her forty years or so of nursing, she’d never had a baby do that. It is one more story you tell your son now, now that he is almost twelve, with a kind of pride still tainted by fear. We say, “You were just done with all the tubes. You wanted out of there.” And we did get out of there, eventually, driving home with a car full of things like Pete Seeger CDs and coolers full of breast-milk and clothes from GAP and a baby with a stomach-tube we were learning how to manage.
Just last night, my partner and I were discussing whether a memory I have of the NICU is accurate at all.
“Remember that lady with the harp? I couldn’t believe it.”
“What lady with the harp?” Alix looked at me with her usual quizzical concern.
I remember a willowy woman wheeling in a harp and playing it there, surrounded by the little plastic bassinets and the chugging machinery. My partner says that never happened, and even though she was on pain-medication and sleep deprived from waking every few hours at night to pump the milk our baby needed, I know that her recollections about that time are often more precise than mine. She is a realist, not a fabulist. Harps play angel music though and so I suppose it’s possible that in my bruised and exhausted state I simply conjured up the harpist in her long skirt and gauzy top as a kind of comfort, music to quell the internal buzzers, but it remains a mystery in the way certain scents jettison me back to the NICU, like the hand-sanitizers wafting on every breeze these days. Then I am back there, watching my son grimace.
Another mystery now is my son himself, who at almost-twelve is almost as tall as I am. At sixty-two I am subsiding as he is rising, and that is as it should be: Even with his scarred insides and other troubles, he is rising. It’s not physics per say but it’s a kind of physics, something I accept now as a fundamental truth but which for many weeks at the beginning did not seem certain or even likely. One day recently I was driving him to school and he was watching the countryside unspool beyond the window, fields smoothed by snow and unbroken as eggs. He said, musingly and out of the blue, that he had learned a lot about gravity and I had to say, “Yes we have, sweetie. Yes we have.”
BENETH GOLDSCHMIDT-SAUER recently retired after a 35+-year career teaching high school English and is now an MFA candidate in fiction and poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She graduated in English Literature/Creative Writing from Reed College and also holds an M.Ed. from Harvard. She lives in southern Vermont with her partner and son, and also has a grown daughter who lives in Brooklyn. Her dream is to spend an overnight in the Rijksmuseum.
Art: “Solitude Riflessa-Mirrored Solitude” by Delta N.A., Oil on Canvas