Penny Porter pushed the tray table with a cricket sound in the wheel to the other side of her hospital room, using it like a walker for the elderly. Outside the window on Eastchester Road, the smell wasn’t much different than the chicken leg and broccoli she left on her dinner plate. The road flashed below with all its quickie lube joints, bars, Conti’s bakery with the so-called lobster tail pastries, and The Church of God, trying to lure new members into its kingdom with a billboard ad. The Salsa Fest was an all-nighter, apparently. At 2:00 a.m., a light from somewhere hit Penny in the face, probably beamed over by the church. Become the amazing woman God called you to be. Right. She couldn’t be anything. She couldn’t even remember her baby’s face.
Penny got back into bed and focused on the congratulatory bouquets lined up on the windowsill; the more lanky flowers were falling forward as if something were hilarious.
The door opened, bringing in fluorescent light long enough for her to see the nurse slip in sideways.
“Sign these, please.”
“What are these?”
“Your baby needs a spinal tap. We moved her up to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.”
“You have the right infant?” How many stories did Penny hear about these errors, especially in a facility like this?
“Infant: Summer Porter. Mother: Penny Porter.”
This is where people laughed at her name. Penny Porter. She was trying to numb herself, thinking this way.
“66 Trumpet Lane, Greenwich, Connecticut,” the nurse continued.
“I’ve been waiting. She needs to start nursing.” Still, Penny took the clipboard. She signed, seeing the image of her daughter’s spine as the vertebrae of a flounder.
“She’s not keeping her food down, Mrs. Porter. She turned dusky when we fed her formula. We should know more tomorrow. Try to sleep.”
The nurse left, but the word dusky lingered in the room, a floating aura, a blue-gray mass settling in front of Penny’s face. If the baby was having her colostrum now, the way she was supposed to, there would be no issues.
Penny felt around for her iPhone. Instead of calling her husband, Jack, to tell him what was going on, she opened Google to find out what this procedure was, exactly. To her, a spinal tap meant a long thick needle would be stuck into the raw bottom of her daughter.
She scanned WebMD.com: Lumbar puncture, cerebrospinal fluid, bleeding in the brain.
This is what she gets for coming to this oversized and overcrowded teaching hospital because her obstetrician, Dr. J, delivered here. He convinced her that Greenwich Hospital was like a country club, not equipped for any medical emergencies that may arise. Penny’s friends gave birth to their babies at Greenwich Hospital where in the lobby a piano player improvised melodies all day that sounded like running water.
Two days ago, the nurse in Dr. J’s examination room pressed her finger on Penny’s arm, the indentations making large, white polka dots.
“Oops,” the nurse said. “Lots of salt?”
“Not really.” She recalled her nightly doses of stovetop popcorn. She perfected her recipe using extra virgin olive oil and that pink Himalayan salt. She read that organic popcorn, pure fiber, prevented type 2 diabetes. And, the pink salt replaced all the minerals in your body.
Dr. J came in and examined her and confirmed she had preeclampsia.
“You can either go home and stay in bed for a week, or, I can induce you tomorrow.”
Penny couldn’t think of lying in bed, it was hard enough at night. During the day, she sat at the piano, her belly pressed against the keyboard. In the third trimester, she practiced as long as she could sit. She didn’t hide her plan to go back to school to study music, because now she was playing for someone who was listening. She practiced Waltz for Debbie every night, until there were no hesitations, picturing her fetus, a shadowgraph, buoyant, yet securely fastened. They were inside the song together.
Jack called Penny’s music an interest, and she could only blame herself. If she didn’t make her interest a priority, even if it demonstrated she was only a third-rate musician, then how could she expect anyone else to take her seriously? She went to her teacher’s studio with his two grands, side by side, finally getting into improv. When Penny hit the knot, as her teacher called it, she felt as though she was having an out-of-body experience, and ever since, was addicted to finding that same place every time.
She smiled now, thinking of her son, Teddy, already three, intensely tracking bear in their living room to the roaming melody of Bach’s Invention No. 9 in F Minor, wearing the vegetable strainer upside down on top of his head. With Jack away so much, Penny played for him, too, providing a soundtrack for his travels in her mind, a type of novena. His absences kept her on alert. Still, when he returned, she never shared the growing anxieties that ruled her.
“Induce me tomorrow,” she said to Dr. J.
And, wouldn’t Jack be delighted when he found out they could actually schedule their baby’s delivery?
Yesterday, on the day Penny was to be admitted, Jack drove too far south on the Hutchinson River Parkway and they ended up in Co-op City in the Baychester section of the Bronx, so they had to backtrack. The female voice in the GPS told them to do a U-turn to correct them.
“Let’s not pretend in there,” he said to the GPS, thumping his breastbone.
After check-in, they settled Penny into her room, hooked her up to the monitor, and a young, attractive doctor came in, as if he was on an audition. Penny thought this was a joke, until he asked her to lie back.
“Dr. J will be in to break your water,” he said, pulling off his glove.
Penny was a fainter and she was going now. How did they do this? She wished she could stop seeing things, these little hallucinations, and now she was seeing a man with a broomstick.
Just then she felt the baby’s feet pushing against the sides of her stomach, a baby that compared to Teddy in utero, was disturbingly calm. How often Penny pressed her stomach to get a reaction.
Dr. J came in to take the young doctor’s place and Penny was relieved for his jowly face. He broke her water, just like that, complaining she got his shoes all wet.
“We’re going to get you ready for an epidural.” He pronounced it eppy-dural.
“I don’t want one.”
“Don’t be a martyr,” he said. “Take it.”
Letting Dr. J boss her, who would believe she was far more aggressive when she worked full-time in her old position? Now, the uncertainty and weight of being a parent stopped her from speaking up.
The transducer strapped to Penny’s belly made her uncomfortable, but it allowed her to hear the baby’s heartbeat.
“Can you turn up the sound, please?” she said. “I don’t hear anything.”
She waited in the silence, the same silence she heard when she had her first ultrasound and they couldn’t seem to find the baby.
A strong wind-through-the-trees swish came in via the monitor, quickly buried by a stronger rhythm, a galloping horse, rising in volume and intensity, coming straight at her.
“That’s one healthy heartbeat,” Dr. J said, tapping his foot.
So Penny was on her side, a pancake thin pillow under her stomach, another crew worked on her lower back, trying to get the epidural right. Didn’t women get paralyzed from these things?
Soon after, she was dilated enough and they gave her Pitocin, intravenously. She could already feel the weight of her baby moving down the center of her like a falling elevator.
“Are we ready?” Dr. J said, clapping his hands, turning to the nurses, and giving Jack a nudge on the shoulder.
Penny was in position, her legs like an aperture with Dr. J in his mask as the focal point. They turned off the TV, dimmed the lights, and put on the Cool Jazz station. Jack continually fired questions, then walked closer to Penny, checking her, she could tell, for anything that didn’t seem right.
“Are you comfortable?” Jack said kissing her hand, smiling at the obvious answer. “We’ll be home in a few hours with our new baby.”
Then he went back to his overseeing position, checking his watch.
The nurse beside Penny held her hand now, demonstrating deep breaths for her.
“Is he a lawyer?” The nurse asked, after exhaling with her.
Penny felt such enormous pressure to push she could only concentrate on breathing.
Visualize the Sea is one birthing tip. She’s nowhere near the beach.
Surrender. Does she really have any choice?
Have a Trick up Your Sleeve. This tip suddenly takes hold. A visual carries her out to Eastchester Road. The August humidity is like cotton in her nose. A salsero runs to her, tugging her along to his dance floor over the manhole. Her bare feet are burning. He puts his hands on her would-be waist, pressing each side to encourage a salsa motion. The pastor and his wife, the first lady, from The Church of God are gliding around them. Penny, come into the life. The man is a sweaty little thing, his perspiration drips off the tip of his nose as he tries to get Penny to follow his steps, but the sidewalk turns into sand.
“Push Penny!” Dr. J pinched his mask. Jack stood behind him riveted on the spot she can’t see but is certain is not very attractive. She didn’t care. She just wanted the baby out. The nurse coached her lovingly; another nurse stood silent in the corner of the room, giving Penny the creeps.
Remembering the birth of her first, Penny was afraid of this baby’s shoulders.
Have a Focal Point makes her follow the simple woodwork along the ceiling. She tries to find where the music station was piped in. Jack has his own birthing tips and this must be one of them. One of his tactics. Put on cool jazz for her. That will make it sooooo easy.
There’s a skip in the station’s CD. The riff is endless, and how can they let this go on? A personal affront. They are destroying Waltz for Debbie and what are the words? No one around here knows, she won’t even ask. Instead, she goes back to her birthing-walk-visual on Eastchester Road, and the little man tells Penny he knows the words. In her own sweet world . . . lives my favorite girl, he confirms, using his whole body to shove her.
Penny pushed, and out came her baby girl.
Jack cut the cord and the nurse placed Summer on her chest.
“There you are,” Penny said in the same tone she had been talking to her all these months.
Dr. J yelled for a decent scissor. With his glasses on the tip of his nose, he looked like he was sewing.
The nurse took the baby from her.
“I’m not a nurse, I’m a physician’s assistant.”
“I still want to hold her.”
“She’s a little blue,” she said, already with the baby on the warming table.
She was the one standing in the corner this whole time.
“She needs to be wrapped. And the little hat,” Penny called out trying to clear her sore throat.
Jack kissed her. Then he held the can of Coke so Penny could sip from it, his eyes red and watery.
Penny tried to turn from the waist to get a good look; her legs were numb. The physician’s assistant was waving a small black tube of oxygen in front of the newborn.
“Hear that?” she said in a hunched position. “She shouldn’t be doing that anymore.”
Jack rushed over and put his head down by the baby’s face.
“I don’t hear any noise,” he said as definitively as he said most things.
“Listen,” she insisted. “This noise should have dissipated by now. I don’t like it.”
“I suctioned her. She just swallowed too much fluid,” Dr. J said, finishing up.
“Your baby is doing funny things,” the assistant continued as if talking to herself, waving the black tube.
Let Go of the Visual You Had About A Perfect Birth.
It was 3:00 a.m. and Penny hoped the spinal tap was done and Summer was sleeping. She didn’t want Jack to know yet; let him have time with Teddy at breakfast. Their son would slam down a shot glass on the kitchen table for a refill of apple juice, his bare chest covered in a necklace of rubber bullets, the pointed tips painted red. Jack will learn that Teddy will only respond to the name of Crockett. Would Jack play the game? His preschool teacher asked Penny if Teddy was ever in the real world.
With everyone gone now and the room quiet, Penny got up and peeked out the door. The janitor buffing the floor saw her and stopped whistling.
Penny closed the door and put on her white eyelet robe with matching slippers. Her mother was some sort of baby aficionado, giving her this outfit for the hospital, perfumed lotion for a lift, and a white knit footie with silk ribbon for the baby because newborns should only wear white.
Penny left the room. The floor’s shine made it appear slippery. She walked slowly down the hall, afraid to put her hand on the wall for balance because she might stick to its germs and bad luck. Still, the yellowy hue coating everything fell on her. She saw it on her hand when she pressed the button for the elevator.
Getting off on the Neonatal floor, Penny was faced with a sink and brown liquid soap. She washed up and went to the desk, signed in, and the receptionist gave her a disposable robe. She put it on, adjusting to the extreme brightness, feeling the pings of beeps and blaring monitors in her chest. Incubators were lined up, divided by machines. Inching her way between the plexiglass, she happened to see a premature baby the size of her own hand with an IV stuck to his scalp.
Penny was afraid to move. An alarm blew and a short, heavy nurse squeezed by her and slapped the machine.
“Damn things,” she said.
“What is that?”
“It’s just for saturation. Tells us how much oxygen is in the blood. I’m Ruthie. Who are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for Summer Porter.”
Ruthie took her by the hand and brought her to her incubator. She was by far the biggest baby in the unit at eight pounds, her face plump.
“Snacking in utero?”
Penny laughed for the first time since the birth. She studied Summer to make sure she was hers, guilty she could not remember what she looked like only 16 hours ago, except for her rosebud lips.
“Just unclip. You can take your Gerber out.”
Summer’s skin was warm from the controlled temperature and the blood and vernix map on her head was replaced by blonde fuzz. Penny held her and the baby curled right into her breasts.
“Do they have any ideas yet?” Penny asked, while they both stared at her.
“Could be neurological, a cardiac problem, something in the esophagus. Could even be a late bloomer.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, rocking, lulled by the smell of her newborn.
“Some have a hard time getting it together—the sucking-swallowing knack down. I’m serious.”
“Dr. J said she swallowed too much amniotic fluid and that’s all it is.”
“Well, he’s an obstetrician.”
Penny noticed the baby boy in the next bin, Infant Marquez. His clenched fists reminded her of peach pits.
“Don’t worry, Langford will get to the bottom of this. Haven’t you met with him yet?”
“Who is Langford?”
“He’s the Chief of Pediatrics. A lot of the nurses can’t stand him. I rode the ambulance with him before he became a big shot. He’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“Well, she seems perfectly fine now,” Penny said, moving the baby to her other shoulder, noticing a splash of spit up and covering it with her hair.
The nurse was at another incubator, and from Penny’s vantage point, it looked like she couldn’t get her thick hands in the armhole.
“Why do I always fall for the bad boys?” she yelled out with that voice.
Penny sat in the nursing chair getting Summer to latch on and as far as she could see, her baby was a quick learner. Her eyes were the color of midnight, and Ruthie said they would be blue. She also encouraged her to bring Teddy to meet his sister.
Penny supported her baby’s head with her hand. When Penny was a child, she was warned never to touch the soft spot on top of a baby’s scalp. So the first chance she got, she put her hand lightly on her baby cousin’s bald head and slowly moved two fingers over the veiny surface, until her finger sunk into the quarter sized dent as soft as a poached egg. She knew how to be gentle. She knew a baby’s neck had no strength, not yet, and the first thing she should do is support his head with the palm of her hand, whenever she was lucky enough to have him in her arms. Just seeing the baby’s head wobble made her want to cry, especially since she discovered the warm circle that marked the entry to his brain. But she knew how vulnerable he was, no one had to tell her, and she wondered how any baby made it through the day.
Penny wondered if that was the very moment she became a mother.
Now, she wasn’t leaving this spot. The medically fragile babies could not be cuddled like this and how would it affect them later in life, not being touched?
The Marquez infant next to her still had not had a visitor. Penny watched him, following the wires that seemed to sprout from him rather than the machines.
A deliveryman came in from the deli with a carton of breakfast sandwiches. Tar smeared diapers, bile, fishing for veins, nothing affected the nurses’ appetites.
“Not enough grease,” Ruthie said closing the foil. “There he is, Mrs. Porter.”
Dr. Langford stood on the less hopeful side of the unit, his elbow on a bin. He wore the disposable robe backwards, open in the back. His belt touched the floor. A small group of interns followed him en masse.
“He better kick back and enjoy that tube feeding. Rough day ahead,” he said swigging his coffee and taking questions as he looked towards the window.
“That baby has a collapsed lung and is scheduled for surgery,” Ruthie whispered.
Penny pulled Summer closer. She took out her phone and listened to Dr. J’s reassuring voicemail again.
They were coming in her direction. She decided to put Summer in her incubator so she wouldn’t be exposed to the terms they used. Penny also checked on the Marquez infant boy.
When they reached the Porter bin, they talked among themselves first, as if Penny wasn’t there.
“Mrs. Porter?’ Langford asked, shaking her hand, as if she just arrived. “You are a standout in that robe.”
He wasn’t smiling, but his large biscuit-colored teeth were visible.
“We are going to improvise with her,” he said, scanning the interns who were checking out Penny.
No hands were raised.
Langford stooped down in front of Penny and for a moment, she thought he was flirting with her.
“Thus far, we can’t find any cardiac problem. In fact, I never said this baby had a cardiac problem.” He straightened up and swigged his coffee. “There are no obstructions in the esophagus; there are no neurological difficulties. She vomited.”
“Hey,” he said, turning to his group. “Babies throw up!” The greasy roll of his dark red hair bounced.
The interns laughed without sound.
“So, Dr. Langford, it looks like we will be heading home.” A new energy raised Penny out of her chair. He really wasn’t so bad.
“Not so fast, Mrs. Porter,” he said, draining his cup. “Let’s wait and see. Like I said, we are going to improvise with your baby.”
Penny felt heat on her face as if she were standing in front of a fire.
“Improvise,” he repeated in a reprimanding tone. A flake fell off his lip, probably pastry from the open bakery box on the receptionist’s desk.
Langford and his interns moved to the other side of the room where the most serious cases were.
Ruthie was singing, shampooing a preemie with a cotton ball. You’re the cream in my coffee . . . .
Penny could not wait and see. How could she just play along each day until something bad happened?
She walked over to Ruthie and asked if the Marquez mother ever came to visit him.
“Can’t afford the bus fare,” she said.
The interns were focused on Langford making a triangle with his hands in the air for a diagram. Ruthie was talking trash, her way, to another preemie. The night shift nurses were digging into their egg and cheese on bagels, reminding Penny of her careful organic food choices, all her cooking. Here you ate anything to function.
Jack and Teddy must be getting in the car about now. They would both be carrying something for her. Jack never let on about surprises but she knew he would bring her a gift to mark this time in their lives.
Ruthie was talking with Langford, her hands going. At one point, she poked him in the chest and got him to crack up. She was the only one who had a rapport with him. Now he was following Ruthie. She led him further away to an Isolette, their backs to her.
Penny moved with familiarity now. She kept any eye open for the arrival of new mothers so she could guide them, the way Ruthie took her hand and brought her to her daughter.
She could hear the song Aguanile from the street, the noise of the salsa fest had slowed to this ballad outside the window, the kind of music she never listened to, she never thought was for her.
A steady downbeat from a pulse oximeter machine was ignored. It just needed to be reset.
Penny was grateful the melody of Aguanile penetrated the large thick window, soothing every baby, as if it were the voice of each one’s own mother. Surely, this would sustain the Marquez baby until his mom arrived. Penny had to check on him. In this short time, she had gotten to know the way his one foot curled inwards, the way he stretched his toes. She loved his dry folded ear, the comma-like curls on his head, the white tape on the bridge of his nose like a boxer after a fight. She looked around. Everyone in the unit was occupied. Ruthie was doing vitals. Langford and his interns gone. The morning was in full swing. Penny opened the latch, gently put her hand in, and rubbed his warm back with one finger.