I touched my cheek to hers to feel the softness of her skin just the way I had so many dozens of times since her birth, nearly two weeks ago. Heat radiated from her young flesh. It was too warm for her little body. I knew.
We drove through the dark of night. “Don’t we ever do anything in daylight?” my husband questioned – referring to the births of our three children. Alexa and both of her brothers came through the darkness into the light and into our arms. He was trying to distract me, make light of the situation, but I ignored him and caressed the softness of her skin and the heat. My eyes gazed out of the window onto the highway. We were alone on the road, just my husband, Alexa and me. He was driving at an unusually high speed which seemed in sync with how my thoughts were going. I saw a tiny, white coffin, opened and empty. I thought perhaps I would bury her in the outfit she wore home from the hospital. No, I recanted, I want to keep that a happy memory. In fact, it was one of the happiest of my whole life. A daughter. Mine. I thought about God and now I realized why some people christen their children right away. I thought about the boys and what could I ever say? When I was pregnant with my first, I told my mother I couldn’t wait until the baby was born so I could just know that he or she was okay. Then, I would stop worrying. My mother gave the look she’d given me when passing on some wisdom that she had acquired from her mother and those before her. “Once a mother, you never stop worrying. You always envision the worst and pray for the best.” Just then, a car sped past. I can remember myself thinking about her words and using them as an affirmation, “ I’ve envisioned the worst, now it’s time to hope for the best.” I began humming , “You are my sunshine … when skies are grey …” a song I had hummed to her brothers. I looked up to God the whole rest of the way as I whispered the words through a broken melody. I believed they were written for just the two of us.
The first nurse was all business. “Sit down. What’s the problem? Who’s the doctor? Do you have insurance?” God, I remember wanting to scream, “This may be your job, lady, but it’s my life! Get the doctor, now!” Instead, my husband answered the business questions. Bless him. He was being strong for me – letting me drift with my thoughts and just hold her as close as possible. But I could see his fear. I could see it behind the glassy curtain in his eyes.
Placed in a green, grey and cold room, we waited. A male C.N.A entered about, I don’t know, eons later. He began prepping the table. “The doctor will want the works,” he stated, referring to the amount of sterile supplies he was placing on the table. He offered his statement as an explanation, in an attempt to make me feel informed or better, I don’t know which. “Because she’s so young,” an afterthought, as if it would help. I wondered if he had children, because surely, if he did, he would know that nothing could help short of me waking from a deep sleep in my own bed and realizing it was all a nightmare.
Alexa slept soundly on the hospital bed, flat and hard, metal frame and white sheets. She looked most peaceful in the midst of all the medical supplies that would soon disrupt her peace, make her cry, and quite possibly and ultimately save her life. I wanted to continue to hold her, but the C.N.A. had hooked up several monitors to her tiny body. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten to ask him if I could hold her. Instead, I caressed her soft thin hair. I watched her lips quiver with each breathe she took.
The doctor, a resident, entered. He introduced himself and firmly shook both of our hands. He pulled no punches with us; he was a very matter-of-fact, bottom line kind of guy. “With a fever like this, in a child so young,” he paused between each phrase. “We worry about,” pause, “a bacterial infection,” pause. “They spread rapidly,” pause, “because infants do not develop an immune system until about three months.” I remember thinking how generous he was to talk parent speak versus medical jargon. “The very worst,” pause, “spinal meningitis. It could be fatal.” And there I stuck. My mind trying to get beyond those words to the hope. “Hope for the best,” I screamed at myself. Only then, I returned to what he was saying . “If she were my daughter…” There was a softness about him; I’m sure it was not anything he learned in medical school. His eyes looked straight into mine, “I would have it done, all of it.”
The second nurse came in. She was dark skinned, Indian, I supposed. Her necklace was made of plastic, colored beads, and I surmised that a child had made them. I wondered if it had been one of her patients. And she wore friendship bracelets, several of them, on her wrists. She had a warmth in her eyes as she looked at my little girl. She took hold of her hand. “She’s beautiful. Is she your first?”
I shook my head, “Two boys,” I replied.
“Oh, she’s your first girl.” She smiled. “We’ll take care of her for you.” I knew that before she even said those words. I knew that she would do all she could.
First there were the x-rays, then the catheter, then the bloods, then the I.V. drip… and, following, the curdling screams from my baby. When the nurse inserted the needle into her hand, she moved it around under her flesh. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, “her tiny vein moved.” I wanted, from the core of my being, to haul off and punch her. Feel the sting of my fist against her face; I had never before felt that depth of rage in my life. But I could only hold onto Alexa’s hand and look away. After a long deep breath, I prayed non-stop through the cries and my husband stood stoic beside me, rubbing my back.
During the quiet time, after the pain, after the nurses had left the room and finally it was only the three of us again., Alexa fell asleep in my arms, exhausted from the fight. “Alexa,” I whispered, my mouth breathing closely to her ear, “my sweet angel, you’ll forget all of this. It’s this incredible thing when we’re little; we don’t remember these times. But God will remember. He knows how strong you are. And I hope this is the worst pain you’ll have to endure for your whole life.”
The doctor returned with the male C.N.A. He looked at me, straight on, as the C.N.A. prepared his supplies. “It’s time for the spinal tap,” he announced. His words seemed to echo off the coldness of the walls. “Do you want to stay for this?” he asked. I nodded. “Are you sure?” He was giving me permission to leave. My husband reiterated, “I’ll be here.” And for an instant, I thought … No, she may not remember, but I will never forget. I, an adult – I reminded myself, can and need to be strong for her. I will hold her hand and be, at least, a presence for her. And all the while, I will pray. The doctor talked us through the procedure. “ He,” referring to the C.N.A., “ will hold her back, curved like a “u”. This needle will go into her back and will drain the fluid.” I nodded and looked away. Holding her hand and sitting beside her bed, I could not look. I did not want to see what they were doing to my baby. I had to rely on trust; I had to rely on my husband, who stood beside the doctor and watched his every move. I bit my bottom lip and closed my eyes each time I felt the tears welling in them. I took a deep breathe as he inserted the needle, in fear that he would miss and cause paralysis. I relaxed once he said the needle was in. The fluid came slowly, three viles of it, in between the bareness of her cries. She stopped crying, my eyes widened and looked frantically at the doctor. He shook his head to reassure me. “She fell asleep,” my husband clarified. It seemed forever, but when they finally finished, I pleaded to hold her. That motherly thing kicked in, as if I could make it better. Well, at least, I could try. I cuddled her. She felt slightly cooler now as I touched her forehead to my cheek and caressed her cheeks with my finger. I began singing “… please don’t take my sunshine away” in my of key and crackling voice, right there in front of the doctor and the C.N.A.. I didn’t care who was there. I just wanted her to know I was there with her. My husband walked over to us and wrapped us up in his arms. His eyes were glassy red and his skin pale, and I’m sure he was very much a mirror of me.
We remained quiet for a time. The three of us were alone again. Alexa was sleeping and my husband was reclined back in his chair with his eyes closed. My thoughts drifted to our sons who would just be waking up now. I wondered how my mother would explain our whereabouts. I worried what they would think. I remained consumed by my thoughts. They zig zagged back and forth between half full/half empty. And I had just told my eldest son the other day to try always to see the glass half full. The clock on the wall ticked loudly , and it seemed, as the hours had passed, I had become colder. Alexa, half dressed in the outfit she wore when we brought her in, was loosely wrapped in soft, fluffy, pink receiving blanket. I tightened it around her. Periodically, almost methodically, I kissed her forehead – felt the softness of her against my lips, breathed in the sweetness of her skin. “Please God?” I offered up time and time again. Once, I said it out loud and my husband brushed his hand over mine and squeezed. I wondered if he had been sleeping or thinking with his eyes closed. And I thought how generous he had been in letting me hold her all this time. He knew the depth of my fears. In just the last two years a friend and a cousin lost their babies, both under two years. Any mother hears stories like that and thinks she wears the pain, at least she feels the sympathy. I mean really feels. One doesn’t feel that pain unless she is a mother. But even a mother doesn’t know, absent of the experience: the pain, the anger, the permanent loss, the hole that fixates itself in her heart. Every mother’s nightmare. I witnessed it; I didn’t want to live it too.
A high-pitched, beep came from one of the monitors on the wall. The nurse rushed in. “What is that noise?” I asked impatiently.
“Her oxygen saturation level has dropped.” I didn’t really know what that meant until she waved a tube blowing oxygen in front of her nose and her level raised. “ It’s probably all of the congestion,” she reassured me. “Your tests should all be down soon. They’re looking good,” she smiled and scurried off to another patient’s room.
My husband wanted a girl first. I remember how surprised I was when he said that, now, almost seven years ago. When we were pregnant with our first child, we had chosen Alexa for a girl’s name. Then came baby number two: “A BOY!” my doctor exclaimed in the delivery room. I think my husband had given up, but I never lost hope. I believed with conviction that Alexa would be our daughter oneday. And in just two short weeks, she had engraved herself into our lives.
Although worn and evidently in need of sleep, we welcomed the sunshine as my husband opened the doors. The three of us left the hospital together. I sat in the back seat with her again, only this time I smiled as she clutched her tiny fingers tightly around one of mine. She appeared unscathed. I wondered how long it would take her memory of this night to go away; perhaps, it already had. But, from my memory, it will never disappear. I will always appreciate just how close we had come to knowing the fear. She is such a blessing in our lives– our sunshine.
My husband drove at an anxious speed. We couldn’t wait to get Alexa home to her brothers.