I was pulling out of the hospital parking lot when I recognized the man.
He was across the street, leaning against a pole, waiting for the light
to turn in his favor. He appeared to be an ordinary man wearing chinos
and a golf shirt. He lit a cigarette and stepped off the curb.
Ten minutes earlier the doctors had told him his newborn daughter was
dying. I sat holding my own infant son three beds away in the intensive
care unit of a Children's Hospital. Several doctors and nurses circled
his daughter. They stood silently while the man wiped tears from his
eyes. His body was so still otherwise. How odd, I thought, as I glanced
at the clock and then furtively at the man, trying to hear, trying not
to hear. It was just before 6 p. m. and a dad's life was slouching
toward parents' hell. He would go home and his words would break his
wife's heart. I would go home for a quick dinner and hand my husband the
parking pass so he could return to the hospital for his nightly visit.
I heaved myself out of the rocking chair, wrapped my son, Max, and all
his medical Tupperware into his crib, kissed him, and headed for the
door. But the man's baby was positioned there and I needed to pass this
woeful scene in order to leave the unit. I mentally clenched my ears
shut to give the father some privacy. Sometimes we are not prolonging
their lives but prolonging their deaths. I knew that doctors sometimes
said this elliptical phrase to parents. Was this how they told him? Was
this how they would tell us if we needed to let Max go?
I derived an unreasonable sense of satisfaction from Max's placement in
intensive care. For the first few months he was along the wall, next to
the door to a small room. It was like having the corner apartment with
the larger balcony. There was more space for the rocking chair and a
stroller. The only people passing Max's crib were nurses going into the
ante-room to weigh diapers. No parents were going to get a gratuitous
look at my baby with all his bells and whistles attached! By the third
month, we moved up to an actual corner with its own sink, which was akin
to living on a cul-de-sac. You wash your hands incessantly in intensive
care. With our own sink, I could turn my back on Max and wash without
walking across the room. What was the gain in this? Heaven knows. There
are small mercies when your child spends months in intensive care and
you find them wherever and however you can.
Part of the folklore of being in a room flush with all sorts of humanity
is that you learn the unspoken rules of minding your own business and
respecting others' privacy. But, try as you might, you do overhear news
about other children. Sometimes knowing more than I should made me feel
guilty, as if I were a voyeur. The guilt comes, in part, from a real
desire to know - what will the doctors do then if that doesn't work? - a
perverse pleasure in understanding your place in the pecking order of
critical kids. I don't pretend to be right. Just honest. Spend nine
hours a day holding your baby and staring at a sea of critical infants
and the line between proper and private begins to blur.
One day as I rocked my son, I noticed a pair of gold lamè high heels
pointed toward us. I looked up to find an older woman standing over Max
and me. Her eyes flashed with curiosity as she took in the pumps and
monitors connected to Max's body.
"I just have to ask you," the visitor began. "What is wrong with him?"
The woman's daughter, herself a mother whose baby was in the unit,
lurched forward in embarrassment and pulled the older woman away. It was
all right, I smiled. Because I could truly understand her desire to
© Laura Novak
Laura Novak lives outside San
Francisco with her husband and son. Her award-winning essays on Max and
other medically fragile children have appeared in publications
nationally and world-wide, and on National Public Radio. She is
currently at work on a medical memoir.
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