We parked across the street from Oakland Children’s Hospital. I threw my sexy platform sandals, which had betrayed me, in the trunk of the car. I remember thinking, “If only I had worn sneakers.” I hated those shoes. I hated myself. I was too afraid to carry Simon, so I handed him to Jack and followed as they rushed across the street. As I ran, the gravel dug into my bare feet, and I welcomed the pain.
The waiting room was drab and institutional. There was a line of parents and children to the right, and a seating area with hard, plastic seats the color and pattern of TV static to the left. The parents in line with sick kids saw our faces, saw Simon, and stepped back to let us go right to the front.
I was sure he had broken bones, a concussion, and brain damage. The ER nurse examined him immediately. I was so relieved to have someone looking at him. His firm grip on Simon told me that he wasn’t as fragile or hurt as I had assumed. He ran his fingers over Simon’s arms, legs, and torso. He put his finger in Simon’s mouth to show how strong his suck was, smiled reassuringly, and said, “This is a really good sign. His body is okay but we’ll need to admit him to check out his head.”
Jack went out to the parking lot to get Simon’s stroller and baby bag and I went to find a seat in the waiting room. For the first time since his birth, I was afraid to be alone with my baby. All the emerging parental confidence I had gained in those few short weeks shattered along with Simon’s skull, bone on concrete.
I wandered around the crowded waiting room to find a place to sit. The only spot was next to two teen-aged boys in baggy pants and funky t-shirts. My milk let down so I took the seat, unbuttoned my tight blouse and whipped out my breast. I couldn’t believe my first time nursing out of the house would be here.
My festive outfit completely contradicted my feelings. I was unsure, timid, bumbling and ugly. I felt overly sexual in my tight blouse and jeans, vulnerable in my bare feet. Simon’s suck was painfully strong, and he made these soft whimpering sighs. My breasts felt huge, and the seats were so small that one of the kids in baggy pants grazed my arm.
As Jack came in with our baby gear, they called Simon’s name in the ER. Finally. We were ushered into a little room to wait for the doctor. When the nurses came in and asked us to put Simon on the examining table, I didn’t want to let him go. As they took him from me, I held his sweet newborn hand as they dressed him in a hospital gown. A baby hospital gown. Definitely something I had never thought about.
I cringed as they used a needle to insert a shunt into his arm in case he needed an IV later. His arm was so small. The bandage securing the shunt looked like a cast. It was a considerable weight for his little arm to lift. Then they left us to wait again.
An hour went by, and finally a doctor who looked younger than we did came in and tried to reassure us. He said “You must be feeling awful. Really, Simon probably looks worse than he is. Bringing him in was just the right thing to do. I’m going to order a CAT scan to make sure there are no deeper injuries, and keep him overnight for observation.” A CAT scan. A night in the hospital. So much for reassurance.
We took him to the CAT scan room. My feet were cold on the floor, walking down the long hallway. I wondered if anyone thought I was strange for not wearing shoes. The room was long, cavernous, and dark. Quiet orderlies were dressed in scrubs and masks. There was a conveyor belt and a huge grey machine with a hole in the middle, like some sort of draconian science fiction torture device.
One of the nurses told us Simon needed to be asleep for the scan or he’d have to be sedated. Shit. We upended the baby bag to find a pacifier. Suddenly, the nurses were urging us on, like after all that waiting time was of the utmost essence. We had been there for hours, and now they couldn’t wait ten minutes so my son could fall asleep and not have to undergo potentially harmful anesthesia? The thought made me angry but somehow the angry part of me wasn’t connected to my mouth. I couldn’t take action or stand up to the nurses. They held Simon’s life in their hands.
At last, we found the pacifier. Simon took it eagerly, began to suck, and thank God his eyes began to droop. If he hadn’t fallen asleep at that moment I’m not sure if we would have had the wherewithal to make the nurses wait until he did. They wrapped him up tightly in blankets and loaded him onto a conveyer belt. He was drawn into a small hole, the belly of a giant machine.
When the test was over I took him in my arms and brushed my cheek against his. I wanted to feel his warmth, his life-force. I inhaled his baby smell.
A nurse brought us to our room, literally a tiny corner section of a room divided by a cloth drape. She said, “Here’s where you’ll stay for the night. As you can see, there’s not much room. The hospital policy is that only one parent can stay with the child.” I must have blanched because Jack took one look at me and asked the nurse to step outside.
When they came back she said, “I guess one of you can stay in the chair and the other can rest on the window seat.” I looked over and saw a windowsill with a small plastic cushion. I looked at my watch. It was one in the morning. This is where we would spend the night. Dinner never happened, but I didn’t want to eat, and there was certainly no one offering us any food.
The doctor came in to the room. The CAT scan was back. Simon had fractured his scull. Because of me.
The doctor tried to reassure us, “A fractured scull is actually less serious than a concussion. Simon will probably be able to go home in the morning. He’ll just have a big head-ache and a lump on his forehead for awhile. Baby Tylenol will help. So far there’s no swelling in his brain”
The doctor left and I sat down in the chair, shivering with cold and disbelief. Jack gave me his warm, slightly smelly wool socks. Through the night, nurses came in to check the monitors and weigh Simon’s diaper to make sure that he was properly hydrated. I rested on the windowsill and Jack in the chair. The monitors droned on with a consistent beeping and whirring. I didn’t sleep, my mind only tuned out in time with the blips and beeps.
At about eight in the morning Simon’s pediatrician, Dr. Jones, came in to the room. She hugged me. I’ll never forget that. She assured us that Simon was okay, that we could take him home. She said “Unfortunately, sometimes things like this just happen. Really, it’s not your fault.”
Not my fault? How could I possibly accept that? At first her words gave me a twinge of relief, but how could I sit with that feeling? Relief was what I was feeling the night before on the path out to the car. What I was feeling just before my world fell apart. I needed to protect myself and my child from that.
She went on to tell us about a grandfather who had put his baby grandchild in his car seat, balanced the seat on top of the car to put the groceries away, and then driven off. She said that kid was now a freshman at Harvard.
I heard her, yet I didn’t hear.