Each time I pour the liquid into the nebulizer, hold the blue tube up to your tiny pursed mouth, I wonder: If I had loved you more, would this still have happened? The 37 weeks I dreaded your existence. You sound like Darth Vader the way you wheeze, your jowls barely moving but chest heaving above that baby fat stomach. Do your lungs fill with longing to be loved?
Emergency room terror: a feverish baby just lying there. Not eating, not even crying much. By the time you’re admitted we’ve spent eight hours here, doctors and nurses looking at me with pity. Everyone can see I’m ill equipped for this job. Nurse Shelly brings a sandwich from a machine, squishy white bread American cheese and ham. I eat with one hand while I hold you upright so you can get some air. Nostrils nearly closed with dried phlegm, a fever despite Tylenol and Advil. They’re about to send us home, having filled your body with steroids and bronchial dilators when the doctor changes his mind and sends us upstairs for a few days.
I’ve failed you at the simplest of all my tasks: keep your body going. I’m taught to use a vacuum device to suck the mucus out but I worry I’ll somehow suck out your brain. Your arm stabilized for the IV becomes a weapon; you whack the crib rails. My baby, in this cage, in a tiny hospital gown covered in clowns of all things. Droopy eyes, red cheeks, you still smile. You are ten months old.
I move the IV stand over to the tiny couch extended into a bed of sorts. I awkwardly hold you on my right side trying to keep the lines free. I hold you all night, through waking for temperatures and treatments and oxygen saturation checks. Hold you still and pat your back and will you to breathe.
I never thought you’d live. Call it a way to cope, but I never thought about life with you. I didn’t want you from conception. Surprised at the ultrasounds when there were no problems. Not hoping for deformity but expecting it at each measurement. Then you were born, tiny and early, fully awake and demanding from the first moment.
And so with each illness, each time your pallor turns dusky, I know it is my fault. Doctor visits and the best care can’t make up for a mother who doesn’t want her own son. I follow instructions to the letter, filling prescriptions and waking in the middle of the night to flood your lungs with chemicals to strengthen them.
Only I know why you don’t breathe, why your body fights the very air it craves. It is me. You want so much to be adored, not just cared for. I hold you and touch you, keep you clean and fed. You are safe and secure. But there is a distance between us.
I can’t let go and fall in love with you. Not when I know I might lose you. How could I go on, having abandoned myself to your grey eyes and floppy hair? Your cackles and furious crawling tear at my heart. If I give in, if I love you, stop fighting this growing thing inside me, I will be consumed. How much worse each time you wheeze and look at me for help? How much worse when the doctor says nothing helps your asthma?
Your birthday comes amid months of sickness, constant viruses attacking your useless lungs. You cry at the cold of an ice cream cake. Dad holds you while you open presents from grandparents, your eyes revealing a total lack of energy. I sit at the table, dutifully taking pictures, angry at this charade of normal family life. Soon I take you in a dark room with your bottle, snuggle you in the crook of my arm.
As you suck in contentment, one hand searches for my skin. You reach down my shirt, kneading like a cat. The tension leaves my body for a moment. Here, you and I, our heartbeats in sync, I think we might make it. The bottle drops from your lips, a thick drop of milk in the corner of your mouth.
If I’d loved you, planned for you, dreamed of a tiny layette, would you have known? Would your cells have divided more perfectly? If I grow into your mother, ever so slowly, will it be enough?