Tangled technicolor cords bleed over my arm. They are fastened to my yellow hospital gown with a crunch of white medical tape. The cords are attached at one end to monitors, IV stands, and a ventilator. The other end is attached to my son. Today is Mother’s Day, 2000. My first.
A pink cord is taped to his tiny big toe. Three round dots in blue, green, and white are stuck to his chest. A white piece of cardboard wound with yards of white tape holds his left arm stiff and straight to keep the IV from loosening. A stiff accordion tube hovers over his face and it narrows into a clear plastic tube which disappears into his mouth behind a cross of white tape that ends just under his cheekbones. His ribs, almost visible through his translucent skin, expand and contract in time with the puffy breath of the ventilator machine. A square adhesive bandage featuring a smiling Winnie the Pooh secures a tube that runs from his stomach through his nose to a stand that drips recently thawed breast milk into his digestive tract. I wonder whether he feels the cold sensation as the icy milk rushes through the tube against his cheek and then splashes in single drops into his stomach.
I sit in a vinyl cushioned chair staring alternately at the television mounted high on the wall and at the nurses writing, laughing, and gesturing around the station outside the clear glass doorway.
My right arm, which is supported by a pillow that also supports my son’s tiny bald head, prickles from staying in one place through The Today Show, The Price is Right, and now some soap opera that I’m too tired to remember the name of.
I have to go to the bathroom.
I don’t want to stop holding him because I can’t just put him down to go to the bathroom and then pick him up again like most mothers of 14-week-olds. Like I used to before we came to this hospital three weeks ago. Before I watched him gradually lose his muscle tone, his smile, and his ability to suck. Before he’d been diagnosed with Infantile Botulism. Everything is different now. Now, holding my baby is a once, or maybe twice, a day privilege for me. When I’m holding him, I know I’m his mother, and I know he is my baby. Tape, tubes and all, he is mine in my arms, and I feel I can’t lose him, at least not in this moment.
But that will change the second I reach over his head to press the intercom for the nurse. He won’t be mine anymore. A team of nurses, at least two and sometimes three, will walk through the antechamber, don yellow robes, wash their hands and roll powdered nonlatex gloves over their hands. One will disentangle me from the wires. Another will detach the feeding tube for a moment. Then one will press buttons on the ventilator, disconnect the tube, and replace it with a bulb that will manually fill his lungs with air for the few seconds while the other nurse lifts his limp body from my arms.
Then he’ll be laid out in the middle of the crib-bed that looks something like a metal cage. I can touch his cheek, which is chapped from alcohol and adhesive. I can rub the fuzz on his head. I can stroke the back of his hand with my fingers, but I’m not allowed to lift him up. I can’t nestle him close to my body. I can’t put his motionless lips to my breast. I’m not even supposed to change his diaper without a nurse’s assistance.
So I just sit still, feeling the weight of his little body in my arms for another moment, with my bladder bursting from the coffee one of the nurses brought me earlier.
For my first Mother’s Day, I’d imagined breakfast in bed with the New York Times or a picnic at the beach or a brunch of some mysterious egg dish that my husband would scoop on my plate with a proud look in his eye.
That’s not what I got. I got to be a mother, but it’s nothing like I expected. Words from Audre Lorde’s poem, Now That I am Forever With Child keep coming back to me: My head rang like a fiery piston / my legs were towers between which / A new world was passing. / Since then / I can only distinguish / one thread within running hours / You, flowing through selves / toward You.
I look at him and know I am forever his mother, even if one or both of us never make it out of this hospital.
I look down at his quiet face. His mouth is obscured by white adhesive tape and his eyes droop at half mast because he hasn’t got the muscle strength to open them. I feel humbled, utterly humbled to be given this chance to be this baby’s mother. I whisper superstitious prayers that he’ll live to hate me for chaperoning his prom, and to grumble about the overcooked vegetables I’ll make him eat, and to resent me for not buying him a Nintendo playstation and to throw a tantrum in the candy aisle of the grocery store. I hope he’ll live to let me mother him. I hope he’ll forgive me for the mistakes I’ll make. I hope he’ll know how fully and wildly he is loved. I kiss a few tears on the top of his head and feel calmed by the thought that being a mother can’t be undone. Not by death or separation. It lives with me and within me. It has changed who I am and what I will become.
Before the tears have dried, my mom walks through the hospital door. Her gray hair is crumpled on one side from sleeping too many nights on the waiting room couch. She hands me a small brown box. I reach for it using my one free hand and flip the box open. Inside lays a jeweled bracelet. The card reads, For the joy you bring to me and for the bravery and love you give to Quinlan. Happy Mother’s Day. I love you, Mom. I take it out of the box and watch the crystal pieces reflect in the greenish fluorescent lights of the ICU, and I feel humbled again to know that her love for me is as full and wild as mine for Quinlan. And though we don’t have any more words to say about it on this day, I feel the spirit of mother-love flowing from her into me and from me into my baby son. And it is enough. No matter what happens now, I’ll always be a mother.
I reach over his head and press the intercom.