Stephanie, my therapist, answers her phone.
“Rebecca, what is it? Is everything all right?”
I can’t speak. If I speak, I’ll tell her what happened and if I tell her, it will be real.
So I begin to sob and hiccup. The details of Gus’ trip to the NICU are somewhere above the surface of the dark water I’m drowning in. I choke at saying words like “heart” and “defect.”
I hand the phone to Nina, my doula, and say “Please, can you tell her?…” Nina takes the phone.
I hear her telling Stephanie that a valve in baby Gus’ heart wasn’t working properly, that he was intubated and taken to the NICU at Children’s Hospital. I forgot the name of the valve. Nina knows it. Was Jack with Gus for the intubation? Hearing Nina’s voice helps me take it all in.
Nina gives me back the phone.
“Hi Stephanie, sorry I lost it. I don’t know what to do. I can’t do anything. I’m just in my stupid hospital room here at Summit. Gus is all the way over at Oakland Children’s and I can’t do anything.”
“Oh Rebecca. How are you physically, are you all right?”
“Yes, that’s the hard part. Physically I feel great. Of course it hurts to sit down and they haven’t taken my catheter out yet, but I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain. Oh, Stephanie, when my water broke I was so excited. I was happy that he was coming early. I was so proud of the great job I did in the birth.”
How could I have wanted him to come out?
My voice begins rising: “He wasn’t ready. After all the antibiotics and the asthma meds and the anti-nausea meds and the stupid antidepressants I just wanted him to be born. I was ready and he wasn’t. I chased him right out of my body. I can’t believe I’m not with him. He’s a world away. I barely saw him. What if he doesn’t know me?” Sweat is making my hospital gown sticky. I shift in the bed. I’m ready for more pain meds and for my catheter to come out.
“Rebecca. I want you to remember this. You are his mother. He knows you. You did not cause this to happen. It was not your fault. He came out because he was ready.” Stephanie’s deep timber resonates.
I close my eyes. The little red stork bite over his left eye, my one quick image of him, flashes inside my eyelids. It was not my fault. Okay. I can accept that. I have to accept that. A lot is riding on it.
I hang up with Stephanie and soon Deborah arrives with take-out Italian. I allow myself to feel relieved and happy that I have a friend who can help me. A friend who knows that I love spaghetti and meatballs and haven’t enjoyed eating them since Gus was conceived. After a few bites, I even feel strong enough to tell her about the birth, and what is going on with Gus.
My cell phone rings. It’s Jack.
“Hey, Babe, I have news! They think he’s probably going to be okay. I talked with the head pediatric surgeon. She says sometimes these guys just have a rough start.”
“What about his heart, will it be damaged?” I ask.
“She says Gus’ heart looks fine and it’s no longer an emergency. He’ll need to stay here in the NICU for a while, maybe a couple weeks. As long as he gains weight, he’ll be able to come home. ”
“Oh honey, thank God. They really think it’s going to be okay?”
“I think so. Of course they won’t promise anything, but I think the worst is over.”
“How are you doing?” I can’t believe Jack is there, with our baby — without me.
“It’s really hard to see him with all his tubes and monitors. I just want to get him out of here.”
“Will you be able to leave? Or do you stay with Gus the whole time? ” Gus. It’s so strange to use his name.
“Each baby has two nurses. He’s really in good hands. I’m going to stay here for another couple hours, but after that I think I can go home and get some rest. I called Jane and Sarah, they said Simon is having a great time and will be fine for another night.”
We hang up and I tell Nina everything .
Then I look her in the eye: “Okay, you’ve done over four hundred births. On a scale of one to ten, how worried are you?”
She pauses and thinks. “Well, when they took him I was a nine. Now, after hearing what Jack had to say, I’m down to a four. I think you can relax. But you should remember: Jack has seen a lot. He watched the intubation. He’s going to need your help to deal with that.”
I don’t want to think about it.
The nurse comes in and removes my IV and my catheter. Finally. Nina helps me wobble to the bathroom. I hate that stupid squeezy bottle that I have to spray on my poor vagina while I’m peeing. I remember after Simon was born — I was convinced my vagina was ruined forever. It doesn’t hurt nearly as much this time. All these post-birth symptoms bring me right back to Simon’s accident. I wonder why. I always thought of my depression as beginning right after I dropped Simon on the pavement. Maybe I would have been depressed even without the accident.
Nina interrupts my thoughts. “Let’s get you pumping and to bed.”
Pumping? I really am alone here with a machine instead of my baby. Nina sets up the industrial hospital breast pump. I sit for twenty minutes with the machine sucking my breasts, hard. I hate it.
“Nina, nothing is coming out. It feels like I’m not really doing anything.” My stomach is flippy from the smell of the plastic suction cups.
“I know it feels strange. But if you want to nurse him, you have to do this. Every three hours until Gus is home. They will let you nurse him in the NICU tomorrow. The pump is all you have right now to get your milk to come in.” Nina’s voice is level and kind.
I do want to nurse Gus. I imagine his sweet lips. The machine keeps sucking and still nothing comes out. One of the cups falls off my breast because my tears have found their way under the rim and broken the suction.
Nina comes over and helps me take the machine off and put it away. “It’s okay. It will take awhile to come in. That’s normal.” She assures me.
I lie down to rest. For the rest of the night, it’s Nina who wakes me to nurse the machine. I’m desperate to hear Gus cry.
The irony is somewhat comforting.