Here’s what I learned in the days after Cap’s birth about what happened while I was too sick to be awake and aware.
My ob/gyn had made the call to take the baby by Caesarean because too many things were going wrong for me and for him (the baby, I mean, not the doctor. That would be weird and very unprofessional). When Cap emerged, he wasn’t responsive or breathing; the NICU team snatched him away from the delivery team and began saving his life, which was complicated by the fact that the clean fluid that should have been draining from his lungs was putrid and brown with meconium. No way would those damaged lungs pump on their own. So, while I was having my belly closed up, and Husband was being escorted to the recovery room like a pale, confused zombie begging for answers that no one was able to provide, a first-class team of neonatal experts did the only thing they could: they put Cap on a ventilator and wheeled him down to the NICU in an isolette.
I don’t really know what happened behind the scenes at this point. I have Cap’s medical records, but the records don’t talk about how two people, who minutes earlier occupied the same space, shared the same fluids, consumed the same calories, responded to the same sounds, and battled the same infection moved separately through the innards of a the hospital, one headed back to L&D for rest and pain medication and the other headed to a warren of machines and monitors for x-rays and blood draws and silent, assessing consultations from strangers with secret, magical knowledge of how to keep a little life from slipping away.
I think about those hours my boy spent in the night after he and I parted. I think about the faces that looked down on his darling, silent features, about the eyes that watched his chest rise and fall with mechanical regularity, about the gloved hands that inserted miniscule needles under his flawless skin (the first transgressions against that otherwise unblemished organ). I think about the whispered voices that inputted the first unmuffled noises into his brain. I think about the whirring and shushing and beeping that sound so foreign to those of us who don’t spend our days in a hospital, how those alien sounds in an alien place would have been just so much more newness in a totally new place.
And I think about the hours that passed before I was finally well enough to be wheeled down to see him, my sister prodding me gently to keep me from falling asleep, pain medication and exhaustion and the temptation of escaping the terror of my son’s tenuous first hours proving too powerful to overcome in my weakened state.
Medical records don’t record any of that; they only reflect with icy objectivity the unlikeliness of success, the dimensions and scope of catastrophe.
In the end, though, I didn’t need the records to reflect how bad the situation was. I had a doctor for that.
When the NICU doctor who had swept my newborn son out of the delivery room woke me in the middle of the night, standing beside my bed in the darkened L&D room, I was filled with dread. Why else would a doctor wake a recovering patient in the darkest hours? Only terrible new can’t wait for sunrise.
“Where’s your husband?” he asked me.
“I sent him home,” I said. “He was exhausted.”
“Call him back,” he said.
I wonder what it must have been like for Husband to get that call from me. He wasn’t even all the way to the house by then; he just turned the car around and drove back to the hospital, a long enough trip that he would have had plenty of time to explore the darkest implications of the doctor’s words: “You should both see your son now, in case it’s the only chance you get.”
My sister made the drive faster, so it was she who wheeled me down to the NICU in the back elevator that hospital staff used to move between L&D—the floor buoyed by hope, anticipation, and relief—and the NICU—the floor tethered by grief, anxiety, and grim determination. She navigated us to Cap’s alcove where a nurse moved aside tubing and wires so that my chair could be pushed up alongside his tiny isolette.
“Use two fingers,” she told me. “Like this.” Kindly, she demonstrated stroking his exposed skin with the tips of two fingers. “Talk to him, but talk quietly,” she instructed. “He’s sedated, but we want to keep him calm. We don’t want him to startle.”
My sister, who I think loved my son as much as I did in that moment, had the good sense to ask questions, and I did my best in my addled condition to absorb the answers the nurse provided: what the wires were for, what the machines were monitoring, how the NG tube worked. She pulled gently at a plunger that lay beside his head, and a cloudy, brownish liquid traveled up the clear tubing taped to his downy cheek.
“That’s what we’re drawing out of his lungs,” she told us, and that was the last thing I remember thinking about for a while.