The machine flashed at me, a silent red number four, imploring me to press play.
I ignored it a while, got the kids in from the car, unpacked the weekend’s bags, put a load of whites in the washer and loaded Toy Story to distract the boys while I started dinner.
While the Toy Story menu demanded I press play on the DVD remote, the answering machine still blinked at me. I hit play on the old black Sony with the failing cordless handset.
“You have four new messages. Message number one”
“Sara, it’s Julie, there’s a new set of twins in the NICU. One of them has Downs. She could use your help. Call me.”
I press delete.
“Message number two”
“Hi Sara, It’s Georgina from the NICU. Please call me or have social work paged on 466.7682 as soon as you can”
I press delete.
“Message number three”
“Sara, It’s Michele, I’m charge nurse tonight. There’s a family here who’d like to meet…”Delete
“Sara, It’s Isabel. I was hoping…”
I call the NICU, 462 7682. The number was engraved on my heart four years prior.
“Hi, is the new family with the kid with Down syndrome around right now?”
“I’m sorry, patient confidentiality…”I cut in:
“It’s OK, It’s Sara, I work over in admin, and run the local DS group. The family have asked to meet me. I just don’t know their names yet.”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Lemme get the Mom”
“Hang on” I plea…
“Before you get them, can you give me some info, some background?”
“Are they preemies?”
“Are they nursing, is Mom pumping?”
“Are these their first kids?”
“Are they IVF?”
“Do they have family around?”
“About how old is the Mom?”
“Do they have a religious preference listed?”
I get the best answers I can expect from a unit coordinator and then she fetches the new, newly distraught, and horrified mother.
We arrange to meet. In one hour.
She doesn’t sound too good.
I haul the kids to my neighbor’s house, despite their protestations, and appease them by sending them off with the Toy Story DVD and a box of Annie’s Naturals Organic Macaroni and White Cheddar Cheese Shells.
I buzz in to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. There are the 34 week newborn twins; Victoria, the normal one, and Scott, the little floppy one with the clear plastic canula poking up his nostrils. They lie in matching isolettes, bundled up tight in the white cotton baby linen with the pink and blue stripes ubiquitous to maternity units across the country. There are feeding tubes shoved down one side of their noses, IV lines taped to boards on their ankles and three monitor cables smother their chests while recording heart rates, oxygen saturations and breathing rates. They’re sleeping like… like babies.
The Mom sits, hunched over, shriveled in a scratched up solid oak rocking chair without any padding, the only two privacy screens in the room of twelve infants acting as a mourning veil, hiding her shame and fear and grief.
She wants to give up her little boy.
Her face is wet and soggy, eyes swollen, hands trembling, hair greasy, breast pump standing idle by the wall.
“What amazing children”, I say. “Welcome Victoria, welcome Scott.”
I introduce myself, and ask if I might touch her babies. She nods, though she doesn’t really look up.
Scott’s hair is thick and black and very, very soft.
“I see he has your hair. What is his father’s hair like?”
I think she’s grateful for an unloaded question.
“He doesn’t have any hair, well not much anyway.”
I snort a little giggle. “Well, his beautiful babies don’t have that problem.”
“May I .. may I hold this little boy?”
“Sure” she says, surprised.
I ask a nurse to assist.
We twist the clips, and the side of the plastic cage hinges open. I reach in, the nurse carefully drapes the wires and tubes over my left shoulder, and I stand, holding a new life close to my heart. He smells like new life. Future unknown, floppy start, terrified mother, weak suck.
I kiss his head, even though I know I really shouldn’t. I drink him in. I lust for his newborn peach, his miniscule lips, his luscious petal thin toenails.
Mom asks me a few questions.
“Can they talk?”
“Will he walk?”
“I don’t see why not.” I say. I try to be upbeat, without being a goody two-shoed, fucking annoying, incessantly positive person. I talk about my first thoughts when Ben was born – the picture I had in my mind – and then I talked about our reality.
Mom listened, or at least nodded like she was listening. But she didn’t want to hear, she didn’t want to digest this raw steak with a few maggots gnawing away at the rind of fat. Her eyes were empty of understanding, full of pain that vicodin fails, of fear that doesn’t allow your hemorrhaging brain to stop pissing blood.
I came back the next day.
Rachel wasn’t like the other new parents I’d met. She looked worse with each day. Her eyes had gone from pain and fear to desolation and despair. Her breasts were torturous and bursting with milk she hadn’t the strength to pump, and her hair was still unwashed.
There was a flutter around the NICU. I caught the wind. They were going to send her to the back. The back of the hospital. The “locked facility” Behavioral Health Unit. A CPS caseworker was on her way for an initial interview, but Rachel needed to get a mental health eval first. The snowball had been given its first push downhill and it could gather momentum in no time.
Rachel and I walked through the locked NICU, down the long corridors, past Cardiopulmonary and the Recovery Room, past wives and sons waiting for good news and blue haired ladies selling gift cards and biscotti. We went out through the swoosh of the automatic doors, her first glance at sunlight in three days, and walked the crossing to the brown shingled building with bars on the windows and no pens allowed in the rooms.
We sat in the friendly lobby and soon Georgette came out to introduce herself as the Mental Health Intake Nurse. I stood, ready to leave them to their confidential work, but Rachel asked me to stay, so we sat in the comfy green plaid armchairs and talked. We talked about depression in the family, about suicidal thoughts, mitral valve prolapse and about post-natal depression.
When Georgette happily announced that Rachel had every symptom of classic post-natal depression, I couldn’t decide how I felt. Was this diagnosis a good or a bad thing? Didn’t that woman, Andrea Someone, just drown all her kids in the bathtub because of her post-natal depression?
Georgette said that Rachel didn’t need to be admitted.
We walked back to the NICU, got buzzed in, and she slunk in the old oak and asked how to pump her leaking breasts. It was a start. A good start in the right direction...