A most wonderful and horrible thing happened ten years ago this winter. We had another daughter.
The doctors were doubtful from the beginning. Red flags were flown, obscure tests ordered, prognoses foretold. The embryo wasn’t growing fast enough. Chemicals of life were out of whack. Still, my wife persisted in being pregnant. She had done so numerous times before, and she was good at it. As we cleared the sixth month, the countenance of our prenatal specialist grew darker than usual. My wife and I sat in a colorless examination room, accepting his verdict that she should spend the remainder of her pregnancy in a hospital bed. He afforded us privacy to talk it over. We resigned ourselves. We wept with determination. I would work from home, take care of the kids. She would lay in that room and finish cooking the baby. To perfection, as the menus put it, and so we hoped. Only the prenatal specialist manifested bedside once more and rescinded his original decree: It was now or never. December twenty-six, unexpected as a miracle, would be our baby’s sudden birthday.
The cesarean was specialized to match a specialized fetus. High in the abdomen, wrecking tissue and the machinery beneath. None of those attending, nurse to anesthesiologist to demigod doctor himself, expected our baby to survive it. I hid behind a mask and surgical drapery, unable to cast eyes on the tiny life they were extracting. My mind whirled with nightmares until one of the nurses said, “It’s a girl.” Such a normal thing to say. So extraordinary a thing to hear.
They conveyed our baby so swiftly to the lightbox I caught no glimpse. Their backs were an impenetrable celadon cordon as they weighed her, checked her vitals, stared at her in bewilderment. She had several heart defects, underdeveloped lungs, Down syndrome. They inserted a tube to feed her oxygen and an IV to feed her chemicals. And our baby girl was whisked away to the NICU where she would spend the remainder of her short life.
This was not in the script, not the way such events proceeded. We knew from blessed experience. Mother and baby were meant for the Maternity floor. Dad would earn a bracelet, visit them daily bearing chocolate from a vending machine until the time came for hospital administrators to drive them out and their euphoric father to drive them home.
Instead, Mom and Dad came to visit their beautiful thirteen-ounce creature in her Frankenstein laboratory. Every day the drill: lather our hands in antiseptic gel, ring the buzzer, abide beyond her plastic chrysalis. Stare into her blurry gray eyes, wonder what she was thinking, yearn to hold her. I read the printed labels on her IV fluids, hung like a mobile over her sci-fi crib. I Googled the names. Nicardipineto, control severe hypertension. Fentanyl for pain, and perhaps to keep her immobilized. I counted the needles stretching her skin blue. Even the smallest manufactured gauge assaulted her anatomy. I counted the punctures on her toy-sized heels from endless tests that told us nothing new. Standing sentry one evening, I suddenly realized this was not medicine, but a space far darker along the evolving corridors of science.
In the parking garage, my wife heaved soul-wrenching sobs how she wanted her baby. I sat beside her hating God and his inscrutable plan for breaking my wife’s heart. So it went the first week, and so it went the second. And so we were prepared to continue for eternity if that’s what it took. Antiseptic, buzzer, chrysalis. And around us, neonates cooed and parents won the lottery drawing to a Maternity room one floor down.
But the demigod doctor prognosticated further, saying it was time to let go. Letting go was the best thing. As if he could still be relied upon to define the best thing. How long will you go on, he said. There is no hope, he said.
The taking of life is no small matter. We consulted our Rabbi. Turning off the medicine would be akin to murder. In our specific situation, the proper approach would be instead to simply let the medicine run dry and not refill it. Such is the thin line between mercy and its opposite.
One day in early January a nurse stood before our daughter’s cocoon telling us what to expect once her medicine ran out. As she spoke, I watched my daughter’s LED monitor. The digital lines spiked and slid, the green numbers draining lower and lower. As if she had been eavesdropping on our plot. But no. Her vitals rebounded. As they had for the thirteen days prior. Our little preemie was a strong one. Vitally wounded perhaps, but stubborn. Like her mother.
On the scheduled day, the day of our conspiracy of mercy, I was driving the highway between home and not-home. Over my steering wheel I screamed questions at God. Not why she had to die. But why we had to do the dirty work.
That afternoon, my wife and I attended the NICU to say goodbye. To ask for forgiveness. There were hours and hours of medicine remaining. We stood vigil until a nurse demanded we go home, try to eat something. It will be a while, she said. So much medicine left. An IV drips in slow motion, measuring out life by the milliliter. We complied and went home. I don’t recall eating. But I remember the phone call. Come back, they said. Quickly.
Our two-week-old daughter died before we arrived at the NICU. Before her medicine ran dry. This was her mercy to us. And I suppose God’s wordless response to my questions. For the first time since she’d been cut from my wife’s womb, we were allowed to hold our baby. She could have fit in my cupped palms. The nurse handed her to us on a pillow, like a glass slipper.
I remember the cemetery, its corner designated for stillborns and infants. Our Rabbi holding an impossibly large umbrella in a soaking New Jersey rain. There was no ceremony, as is customary in such circumstances, but I said a few words I forgot even as they left my lips.
Some days later I went for a drive. Going nowhere, letting one-way streets and traffic lights direct me. I stopped before a stranger’s house. They were discarding furniture. Chairs, boxes. Among the items curbside I found a wooden cabinet hand-painted with flowers. I loaded it into my car and brought it home. The cabinet fit precisely an empty corner of our tiny kitchen. As if it had been made for that very spot.
We short-sold that house, moved away from New Jersey years ago. I hope that cabinet is still there. It really did fit the empty space perfectly.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/OakleysOriginals