The nurse leaned over the plastic bassinet, she carefully fixed the baby’s cap and took him to her. With eyes fixed out the far window focused on the burnt harvest moon, Lila felt the bed shift and knew her baby was besides her. It was somewhere past three o’clock in the morning; her tired body and foggy mind disconnected from the room at the quiet hour.
“What are you naming him?” the nurse asked rubbing her leg for attention. Lila shook her head in an attempt to deny what her body could not; her stomach turned, the taste of sour bile filled her mouth.
“Do not be afraid,” the nurse instructed gently.
Lila lowered her eyes; on the floor to the side of the bed she saw the white shoes and stockings of the nurse and imagined the white dress and cap that completed the uniform. When Charles left Lila to her woman’s work she only had this nurse for comfort. Her care was without fault but her manner was curt and she did not have the patience for Lila’s anxious ramblings. Lila had felt unlucky to be on her service but now grateful as her strength provided the place Lila needed to hide.
Lila wondered how many births this experienced nurse had witnessed; her eyes closed as her mind insisted the question, how many deaths? Lila imagined the other mothers that lied in this bed before her and the nurse next to them as she welcomed their babies carefully into this world. Lila searched deep, she tried to draw out some courage to cling to, but only shame and defeat surfaced.
“Allow this moment for your son,” the nurse said, now soft and cautious with her words. Lila was no longer another new mother that she didn’t have the time to slow down for. Lila had become the exception and the nurse called upon her expertise to provide this special care.
Lila moved her eyes to the end of the bed, then up to her deflated belly where for a moment she was surprised it was not still full. In her peripheral she saw traces of his white blanket and her heart ached to see him. Lila darted her eyes up to meet the nurse’s, postponing the moment she’d have to take him in. Lila wondered if this fragile infant could sense his own mother’s repulsion as the nurse placed the baby in her arms.
Finally, Lila looked straight into the face of the child she carried deep inside, who she felt kicking and whose heart she heard beating. His eyes were closed; she pretended he was like any other infant, accepting the pretense of the blue knitted hat covering his deformity. She unwrapped his swaddling and drew a quick breath at the perfection that was his infant body.
Ten fingers, ten toes, little nails and eyelashes. These beautiful tiny details seemed to only mock the essential deformity that occurred during the first few weeks of prenatal life. Why bother knitting organs, muscles, skin, when by the very early weeks the brain was already absent? How could nature be so divinely intelligent and get it so wrong?
Lila leaned in, melting her lips into his baby cheek; she felt his breath graze her face and heard his small squeak, his broken attempt to cry. She closed her eyes, so close to him and pressed her breath over him. Slowly Lila drew in the air from the space between them wanting to bring him back inside. As her hair fell on his face, his eyes opened looking upward at her. Lila knew he could not feel or see her but she felt him and there was something she couldn’t deny somewhere between where he ended and she begun. She sat with him inside this for only a moment before his squeaking accelerated.
“He needs medical attention,” the nurse called out, abruptly scooping him from her arms.
They rushed in with the crash cart, administered oxygen, and inflated his tiny chest. Lila was told when he was born that it was only a matter of time; that he was incompatible with life. Two doctors discussed whether to bring him to the NICU or wheel him to a separate room. As she watched from the bed the swirling of care, she didn’t understand why they took his dying so seriously; seeming almost surprised.
“What are you doing?” she finally cried out. Lila could see her son from the bed and remembered how only yesterday this was her child, her future and how she arranged her world around his; every decision made, based on this life that was only but a moment. As thoughts of the days to come outside these walls penetrated her mind, Lila realized it was her own life that had caused this and experiencing this pain was exactly what she deserved.
“Stop, go away, leave me alone,” she screamed, sending her eyes back out the window to that moon so round and complete.
Amidst the commotion of the nurses and doctors, Lila now only prayed for them to take him away. The doors opened, she heard the sound of the bassinet wheels fading; her stomach cramped, her breath became shallow and quick; she burned full with heat until her body surrendered to the blackness.
Katie made Nana promise to wake her if the baby was born in the night but woke to the smell of burning butter instead. She jumped hop scotch across the small apartment into the kitchen to find Nana over the griddle flipping pancakes.
“Your mother lost the baby,” Nana said, without lifting her focus off the cooking batter. Katie did not understand what Nana was saying. Her eyes began to burn as she stared into the back of Nana’s head and her washed out yellow sleeping coat.
“But Mommy said I could help take care of my new brother or sister. I’ve been practicing on my baby dolls and I even take them to church. And we’ve already shopped for the nursery and picked out baby toys,” Katie protested. “I told Mommy I like Shane for a boy and Alexandra for a girl.”
“Shane sounds like a dog’s name and Alexandra is a mouthful of syllables,” Nana said turning around to place the fresh hot stack on the table. When she looked up and saw Katie’s tears, she became very angry; she reached quickly across the room, taking Katie under her arms.
“There isn’t going to be a baby and there isn’t anything to talk about,” she said lifting her up and placing her firmly in her seat.
Nana pushed Katie’s chair into the table, placed a pancake on her plate and a fork in her hand. Katie sat there trying to choke down the pancakes and stuff down her tears, wondering if it was possible for the stork to leave a child with the wrong family and imagined a boy being raised in a home that wasn’t his.
June 19th, 1969
“Yes mother I will pack myself.”
“Yes mother I know what I need to stay at Nana’s house while you’re in the hospital.”
“No I won’t forget.”
“Yes I’ll do it now.”
“Yes I know your nerves with the baby coming you need everything in order.”
“Your nerves? What about my god damn nerves living with you?” Katie mumbled under her breath.
Katie was sitting on the floor against her bed with her knees pulled into her chest. After all this time, all this drama, Katie thought at least this should finally be over. Katie pushed her brittle nail harder into her mangled cuticle creating a sizeable hangnail. That part didn’t hurt, all dead skin; she continued working it till she hit the fleshy part where it ripped and bled. Katie stopped, leaving it to hang by a string of flesh; she played with it under the touch of her finger moving it in circles, daring it to break off.
Seven years ago, after her mother came home from the hospital, five year old Katie clamored to her side. Katie came to her mother’s room every day; she watched her take out a shoebox from under her bed, stare at what was inside and then close it and put it back away. Katie sat wishing her mother would explain what happened to her baby brother or sister. Her mother was far away and more interested in the silence of the small shoebox than the questions of her small daughter. Katie hoped if she sat very still and was very good that her mother would eventually share the contents of that precious box. A couple weeks’ after, Katie’s child’s patience full, she asked her mother if she could see what was inside the box. Her mother snapped that it was none of her business and she didn’t want Katie in her room bothering her anymore. After that Katie didn’t go to her mother anymore; her father tried for a while but her mother was gone.
Katie returned her full attention to the hangnail she was procuring; pulling on it with the intent to sever it free but the skin proved too elastic. She brought it to her mouth and gnawed through that final thread. It was already bleeding and Katie dug her nail in the wound making it deeper. The blood flowed out of its crevice and Katie sucked her thumb enjoying its metallic taste.
School had just let out, next month she would finally turn thirteen, the country was walking the first man on the moon, and today her mother was one week overdue with this miracle baby. The whole world seemed to believe anything was possible; Katie, however, knew better.
“Where’s the baby?” Mrs. Andrews asked stirring and opening her eyes. Her husband was curled into the small visitor chair next to the window. His eyes open but heavy as he looked out the window, Lila stared at his swollen lids discovering crease lines she never noticed before.
“Oh hey, you’re awake,” Charles replied.
“I must’ve dozed off,” Lila said shaking her head and widening her eyes. “These drugs.”
“Yes you were feeding the baby; you couldn’t keep your eyes open,” Charles explained. “I took him from you. You feeling rested now?”
Lila ignored Charles’ question focused only on retrieving her son. “Where is he now?”
“Who?” Charles asked; his mind and eyes fixed somewhere far beyond the window. “Oh the baby; the nurse came and said he was needed back in the nursery for the doctor’s rounds.”
That’s odd, Lila thought. “The nurse said he was checked this morning before he was brought to me,” Lila replied. Her husband didn’t seem to hear her; he was far away, lost in thought. Maybe she was tired and didn’t hear the nurse correctly this morning. Or most likely Lila decided the baby needed a diaper change and Charles gladly gave the baby up for changing.
“He’s a newborn there are so many tests and exams they need to give him,” Charles finally responded.
Lila looked at her husband, he was wrung out. You would have thought he was the one who had the baby she smiled to herself. She imagined he was called in the middle of the night when the baby was born. Charles never could go back to sleep once he was woken.
“You look tired,” Lila said figuring he must’ve been up most of the night.
“Nah I’m ok,” he said pressing his palms into his eyes.
“Please ask the nurse to get the baby,” Lila said. “I want my boy.”
Charles walked over to Lila, hovered atop her a moment and then pressed his lips to her forehead. “Okay honey,” he whispered.
Charles left the room to do as she asked. Lila sat alone, she propped herself up in bed and look across the room. It was hot, she wished she had a cool cloth; the heat made her feel more anxious and she hoped the baby would be brought soon. She wasn’t sure she could confine herself to wait in this room knowing a simple walk to the nursery would alleviate her nerves.
When Charles returned to the room, he sat down on the bed next to her. He placed his eyes on his wife and she smiled at him; she felt proud to have finally given him a son. “I wish we could feel like this forever,” he told her. Charles put his hand on hers and took a deep breath. “I am going to pick up a few things for you from home and will bring Katie by. Will you be alright alone?”
“I won’t be alone that son of ours is on his way back,” Lila’s voice, light with joy, sang back to him. “Do make sure to tell the nurse again that I am waiting for him.”
Charles let out a puff of air through upturned lips. “I’m sure they’ll bring him soon.” He walked across the floor retrieving her leather overnight bag from the bottom of the small armoire. “Try to get some rest while you can,” Charles said passing out the door.
Katie spent the night once again at Nana’s house, she was still in her bed when the phone rang at seven in the morning; Katie made no attempt to get up.
“Katie,” she heard Nana calling out. “It’s a boy! Katie, come quick!”
Katie pulled herself out from under the sheet and walked across the small dining room to where Nana was standing, in the center of the house, holding the phone. Katie reluctantly took the phone Nana had thrusted at her and held it slightly away from her ear.
“Katie girl! It’s a boy,” her father said in a voice so light she doubted it him for a moment. “He’s here, he’s beautiful and oh your mother she is a sight. It’s like she’s got back all these years.”
Katie stood still, looked at Nana who was smiling and wringing her hands. “Oh,” she answered softy.
“And guess what his name is?” Katie’s father asked her. “Shane honey,” he answered before she could even ask. “Your mom named him Shane. I don’t know where she got the name but she insisted it had to be Shane.”
Katie couldn’t believe her mother gave the baby the name she chose so many years before when she was the mother Katie wished she could still be. Katie allowed herself to imagine that maybe her mother chose this name as an apology. Her mind began filling with the image of a myth she learned from her drawing book; a bird rising from its own ashes. She tried to ignore, push away that budding feeling of hope she knew had already, against her will taking root.
“The Phoenix,” she spoke quietly to herself.
“What’s that honey?” her father asked hearing her faint whisper.
“Can I see him?” Katie asked.
“Of course, you’re his sister,” her father almost sang. “I will come get you for visiting hours.”
As the scoop sank deep into the carton she heard him start crying again. She didn’t even look up as she finished scraping the last from the container. His crying escalated while she rummaged through the shelf, grabbing the hot fudge. When he ran out of air he was quiet for a moment; then drew enough oxygen back to his brain to erupt with a fierceness that gave her a moment’s pause before crushing the cookies on top of her ice cream. Shoveling the sundae into her mouth and placing the whipped cream back in the fridge she grabbed his bottle. Spying the pot had enough water remaining she lit the stove and placed the glass bottle in it. Standing over the stove top with a mouthful of Rocky Road she tried to separate the nuts from the chips and the marshmallows in her mouth before swallowing.
“Jesus Sabine he’s been crying forever,” Sabine heard her husband bellow, coming down the stairs turning on the lights.
“Where is he?” Derek asked standing next to her looking at her hands, empty except for the sundae. “God damn it Sabine what are you doing?
“I’m making the bottle,” Sabine said never lifting her eyes upward from the stove. “He’s crying.”
“I know he’s crying. The whole neighborhood knows he’s crying.” Derek took his son from the couch, where Sabine had left him, to his arms. “There, there,” he did his best to console. “You’re okay, Mommy’s bringing that milk.” Sabine could feel his glare on her back as he scolded, “You wouldn’t have to be over the stove at this hour if you didn’t just quit nursing him.” He looked at the sundae she was eating, “Aren’t you fat enough? I hope you don’t plan on getting back in my bed until you find a way to fix that.”
Sabine cringed thinking of how the baby would bite and suck on her inflamed skin. Maybe it’s your turn to give him your cracked and bleeding nipples she thought, quietly finishing her ice cream. If Derek had to give his body, his life for that baby he would understand why she didn’t want him.
The bottle was ready, her sundae finished, and most urgently she needed to get away from her husband. She took her still screaming son from Derek to her arms. With the bottle in hand, she walked back to the couch, sat down and put the hysterical baby next to her with a pillow beneath his head. She rolled a swaddling blanket and placed it across his chest propping the bottle securely and then returned her attention to the flickering light of the television.
“Christ Sabine! You can’t even hold him in the middle of the night to feed him? He’s all worked up. Hold him!” he commanded.
Sabine easily ignored her husband. She knew he didn’t have enough conviction to argue more than a sentence’s worth when his tired, fat, old body had to get up for work in three hours.
“God damn it Sabine! This isn’t right. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you but it is time you stop now. God damn it Sabine.” And up the stairs he went.
Sabine returned her attention to the television where the six o’clock news was being replayed. It was this afternoon’s press conference about a baby kidnapped right off the maternity ward. The father was pleading with the kidnapper to return the baby unharmed. The mother, who seemed about the same age as Sabine, said nothing; she just sat there grey in face, broken in spirit. There was a representative from the hospital commenting on their strict security guidelines and the forceful investigation that was underway. No late night feedings, no diapers no diarrhea, no spit up, no screaming, Sabine thought as she listened to the details of the abduction.
“Now why didn’t I get that lucky when it was me on the maternity ward three months ago?” she asked aloud to her tiny infant still feeding next to her.