That first night in the ward, Benny, my eldest, called it: “You’re an Octopus Mama,” he said. “You’re like Esmerelda in the bay, that octopus all the scientists studied last year. You know, the one that stayed nonstop with her babies? And she never left?”
I smiled as he said it. He was already walking out the door with his dad and his little brother, their visit over.
Maybe I am, I thought, though at that point, if I had to think of the animal world at all, it was all lions. I was still identifying with lions. “No,” I said, as they went round the corner. “I think I’m more of a lion mama.”
Flash forward two nights and I’d been asleep for years is how it felt.
In truth, it was an hour at most before an angry bitter clash of metal on metal ripped me awake.
I was up, fastest woman you ever saw, off my chair and falling forwards, reaching out to the crib, that plastic shell completely enclosing Samuel. My tiny newborn. He was perfectly still, asleep. He was okay.
The metal clanging gave way to a fuss of voices near the doors. I spun to see what I was hearing. Other heads had turned too. Other mothers. We were, all of us, in one big room—the NICU ward—together.
It was Tuesday. I knew that only because I’d given birth to Samuel on Saturday and three days had passed.
The voices were getting louder. They rose above the constant beep of monitors around the room.
I obsessed over Samuel’s monitor. Him and his monitor, that is. My eyes skimmed relentlessly over his belly and chest and tiny limbs to that screen and back. Samuel was breathing fast. He was three days old, except that he wasn’t. He hadn’t been due for another five weeks.
But there was no leaving me to silently watch the rise and fall of his chest. The voices weren’t going away.
They were impossible to ignore.
Nurse Suzi rushed past us and then past the three other cribs beside ours.
A woman stood at the NICU entrance, next to the hand-washing troughs where harried fathers and siblings and grandmothers scrubbed themselves raw clean before a visit.
But this woman wasn’t one of them. Her hair was a bird’s nest of a mess, a mess that only partially hid the dirt run crisscross along her cheeks and along her arms.
She was talking, to no one in particular. Words coming out, words I couldn’t get to. She grabbed at a tear in her baggy trousers, ripped and pulled at the hems, a gaping hole below the knee.
Nurse Suzi took a step towards her. “Can we help you?” she asked.
“Where is she?” the woman asked. Her voice was low and raspy. A growl that said: stand back.
Suzi raised a hand. “Why don’t you take a seat?”
The woman shook her head. Her coat fell away to reveal her middle—protruding. It was the only round thing about her. She’d given birth maybe three or four days earlier at best.
“Tell me. Where is she?”
Suzi slipped back behind the NICU reception desk and reached under the table.
“Don’t you ring that alarm!” the woman yelled. “You tell me where my baby is!”
“It’s okay,” Suzi said. Her voice was low and controlled. An attempt at calm, but she was no actress.
“Give her to me!” the woman yelled.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Suzi said.
The woman rasped again. “I want her.”
“Why don’t you sit down? You can’t be in here.” As Suzi spoke, a security guard appeared at the door, followed by another. They swiped themselves in.
The woman swung round to see who was coming. “No!” she yelled. “No! My baby’s in here. No!” she screamed as a security guard took her arm gently. She pulled away from him towards the cribs but the guard tightened his grip. He moved her towards the door. She kicked her left leg at no one, it seemed, and at everyone at the same time. Her loose pants flared as she thrashed. Her legs were bones covered in bruises and scabs. Not an ounce of flesh.
“I’m that baby’s mama!” she yelled. “You give me my baby!”
Her screaming gave way to a heaving sob as the guards pushed her through the doors. The glass doors shut and she fell into one of the guards who held her as she let out a low wild howl of pain.
“Jesus,” Nurse Suzi said quietly as she made her way back from reception to the tiny baby in the crib next to ours. The little one was wrapped in a hospital-issue pink blanket. She was the only baby not flanked by an anxious mother or father or grandmother.
“Baby Tyler” a card on the side of her crib said.
Nurse Suzi watched Baby Tyler’s monitor. “Jesus,” she whispered and stepped away.
Samuel lay next to me in his crib, undisturbed. Wires and tubes trailed along his matchstick arms and legs. Each piece of apparatus was critical in purpose: an IV for antibiotics, a line for glucose, and an oxygen tube that split in two and sat inside his nose. The lines met in a bundle at the end of the crib and stretched out to his monitor.
In the past three days I’d been listening to the same soundtrack: How had we ended up here? Had it been the heat? The Toronto summer was crazy hot. Maybe I hadn’t drunk enough water. Or maybe too much. Maybe it was the takeaway salad sandwich I’d eaten—a salmonella colony that had launched Samuel into the world too soon. Had I lifted too many grocery bags? Did that heavy bag of milk and the canned tomatoes start labour too early?
Or, was I too old to have been pregnant again?
There were 14 other premature babies in there with us, mostly attended by their mothers, women freshly postnatal, hunched in the discomfort of post-birth tearing or stitches or cramps, exhaustion and worry. Their babies were also wired up to monitors. Their babies had turned up too early and couldn’t feed or breathe without help, a scenario that drove these mothers to an equally wired, almost permanent sleeplessness as they sat vigil.
I wondered: were they hearing this soundtrack too?
Yet I held tight to an earworm of factual reassurance. Whatever I had done, whatever I hadn’t, I kept telling myself five weeks early was okay. Five weeks early in this day and age was fine. There were things they could do.
Nurse Suzi lifted the plastic lid on Samuel’s crib. Her hands moved with a swift and heavy confidence as she took a clear plastic suction tube and pushed it down his throat. Samuel gagged as yellowish brownish froth bubbled up into the tube.
“Who was that?” I asked her.
“That lady. The upset one?”
“I can’t talk about that,” Suzi said.
“It was Baby Tyler’s mum, wasn’t it?”
Nurse Suzi said nothing.
One station over, Baby Tyler lay still and quiet, unattended. Bold, thick tufts of black hair shot out from beneath her pink skull cap.
“Here,” Suzi said, motioning at Samuel. “You have to get that cleaned out.”
“No this,” Suzi said, pointing to the froth building in the tube.
“I do? I can do that?”
“We can,” she said.
I waited for her to say more. For her to say: like this, you take the tube and you do it like this. I waited for her to give me a tip, or tips, instructions. Samuel wasn’t my first baby. Benny and Luke were first and second. With Benny, I was clumsy but I had no real reason to doubt myself as a mum. With Luke, I felt yet more confident.
But this room and these tubes? No.
The whole scene was like a TV news report. A year earlier, Benny was obsessed by news reports about an octopus mama in Monterey Bay. He reiterated his comparison every time he entered the NICU ward: “You’re like Esmerelda, mum. Remember? Remember the octopus in the bay last year? The one on the news? Remember? She sat beside her eggs for 53 months and she never even got up to eat or even lay down to have a sleep!” I pictured myself thick and many limbed, entrenched in water, unable to get purchase on the rocks or ocean floor, standing guard, on watch. Perhaps he was right.
“I’m new to this,” I whispered.
Suzi removed the tube and closed the crib lid. “You’ll adjust,” she said. “The mothers always do.”
The ward was on the 15th floor of the hospital. Oversized windows flanked the western side of the building. They framed Toronto below: a remarkably flat expanse on the edge of a lake that froze most winters. It was a city almost without hills and vantage points were few and far between. The streets formed a grid that stretched to the industrial estates at the fringes and beyond.
The panorama was wasted on the NICU ward. No one noticed it. The mothers at the other incubators barely looked up, rarely made eye contact. Hellos and goodbyes were nearly nonexistent.
Directly beneath us, opposite the hospital, was a park. It wasn’t the kind of park you took your children to. There was grass, there were chairs, there was a church at one end. But from one corner to the next lay people old and young. I pictured discarded syringes. And more.
I hadn’t stood by the window once since we’d arrived but after the guards pulled that woman from the ward, I felt drawn towards it.
I squinted through the glass, searching for that matching shock of hair in the park. I wondered if she was standing there, looking back up.
As I stood there, Nurse Suzi arrived at Baby Tyler’s crib. A woman in a tight blue suit joined Suzi and beside her stood another woman, plainly dressed and generously large with a mound of blonde curls that crowned her smiling face. Between them, they clutched a mountain of paperwork.
The golden-haired woman smiled. “Here she is,” she said. “How divine.” She pressed her forehead against the incubator. “I’ll take good care of you, sweetheart.”
The more official looking woman in the blue suit turned from Baby Tyler and the golden haired woman, and spoke quietly to Suzi.
“What was that?” Suzi asked.
“I said, how long does it take till they’ve weaned her?”
Suzi made a face at the woman in the blue suit like she was some clueless intern. “At least a few weeks,” Suzi said. “The baby was born an addict. Getting her through that will take time.”
The golden-haired woman had not taken her eyes off Baby Tyler. “You’re going to be just fine,” she said again.
I watched, not even trying to politely look away. It was hard to know whether I was displaying relief—someone to hold Baby Tyler, finally, someone to hug her—or simply my horror, my sudden sense of solidarity as a woman just days from childbirth standing guard over her own baby while acutely aware of another woman, a complete stranger, stranded somewhere outside that ward, also just days from birth and forcibly removed from her own child.
I wasn’t in control of either reaction. Both ran concurrently in clogged tracks along my fatigue-riddled jelly brain.
The woman opposite me had my respect. And my terror. Are you just here for now? I wanted to ask, hoping that she might be part of some recovery team, that she might be part of a whole picture that included helping that mum too.
The golden-haired woman hovered a moment longer then looked across and smiled at me before pulling the curtain to.
When Samuel was born the midwife put him straight to my chest. I held him as his eyes opened and he tried to focus on me. We had a whole minute together, Samuel and me before they lifted him to the scales to do their checks. They did this with all babies. This was standard.
But they didn’t bring Samuel back after the two or three minutes they normally needed. Instead, they placed an oxygen mask on him. One doctor called in another and then another and then, by the time the third doctor arrived, Samuel was being wheeled out of the delivery room. As Samuel disappeared, I lay on that bed, unable to move. My chest was bare.
They were good people, the attendants, the staff who had wheeled Samuel out that door. They were doing exactly what they had to. They were helping. I reminded myself of these obvious facts, in a quiet voice, over and over. Yet instinct was louder, and instinct was yelling: after all that I had just done, lying there with empty arms somehow just went against nature.
Three days in and my milk was finally coming. My chest ached—from my loose belly to my puffy, swollen arms.
When your milk came in, you felt possessed at best. Estranged—from yourself. The other women round the room were days ahead; they’d been through this and slid past. Tyler’s mother? It must have been happening for her too.
Nature’s great design was to take your milk while you were in that strange state and use it.
But what if you couldn’t use it?
After the golden-haired woman left, I changed Samuel and held him in my oversized hands. Every part of me felt filthy with the general slick of hospital grime and birth. I longed for a hot shower, for water that hit my scalp in shards fierce enough to wash the muck away.
Suzi reappeared. “You need some fresh air,” Suzi said. “Go downstairs, go get out of this building for five minutes. I’ve got him.”
She nodded at me to go. I did as I was told and handed Samuel to her, as though under some spell. She spoke in a way that left no room for disagreement. I would do exactly as she said. I took another look at Samuel’s beautiful little chest. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”
I caught sight of myself in the mirror on the back of the elevator wall. I didn’t look like me. I didn’t care. I might have a week ago, but that was then.
The lift doors opened and I stepped out. I made my way past the gift shop and the overcrowded reception desk towards the front doors.
I told myself, The nurse has him, he’s fine.
Within a second I was out, blasted from the icebox cold of the hospital foyer, hurled into a crowded Toronto, panting its way through a searing summer.
Cars hustled, people pushed past. A streetcar clanged to a stop. I didn’t move as others propelled themselves forwards.
The speed of it all floored me. On the other side of that door, time moved in the tiniest of increments. You sat, you waited. Out here, people were oblivious to what went on inside.
I had on the old, greyed tracksuit I’d brought to the hospital, so neatly folded, the week before. The loose cotton now fell limp as I slumped back towards a shape that resembled not pregnant. Everyone else was so neat and coordinated, so dressed for business. Technically, I knew Toronto and its streets and rules and habits. I’d lived there a year. I knew it wasn’t going to be forever, nonetheless, I’d developed a working knowledge of the place.
But at that moment that knowledge left me. What was I supposed to do out here? My life had stopped but this city had not.
I was meant to be getting some air. The nurse insisted.
Standing outside the four walls of the hospital was meant to be a reminder of how things were and should be and might be again.
But really, standing on that street was like stepping into alien country.
Within a minute or two, the traffic eased. I became aware of the park opposite. The grass grew in patches where it wasn’t overshadowed by trees and where it hadn’t been kicked at. The bins were not full, they’d passed that stage days earlier; junk lay in heaps beside them.
I pressed my back against the hospital’s glass front. I scanned the park for Tyler’s mother.
There she was. Sitting on the church steps. The church looked as though it had been shut a long time.
I raised my hand, instinctively, as though to wave—remember me?—then stopped. What was I doing?
Tyler’s mother raised her eyes to the sky, scanning the side of the dirty beige hospital. She stood, then sat. Had she seen me? Did she remember me from the ward? She had no reason to, why would she? Yet I felt compelled to wave, to acknowledge her.
I raised my hand slowly but was stopped by a sing-song “Hello!” My hand hung in the air.
The golden-haired woman from upstairs stood in front of me. She must have come from the drug store opposite. I’d not even seen her from the corner of my eye.
Tyler’s mother was now watching. I was certain. She was watching us.
“Hello,” I replied. I pulled my hand swiftly back to my hip.
“Getting some air?” she asked. “Good for you. It’s so important. How’s your little one?”
“Good,” I said, switching my gaze between the two women. “They say another day or two and we’ll be out.”
“Marvellous,” she said. As she did, Tyler’s mother rose from the church steps and unsteadily made her way closer.
“I’m heading back up,” the golden-haired woman said. “See you there.”
Tyler’s mother stopped at the park gates. She clambered onto the rough stone fence that ran the circumference of the park and placed her right hand on her belly. Daylight hit her face hard, finding all its cracks and wear, but the light’s scalding brightness did not deter her. Her back was pencil straight beneath that mane of hair. The light caught something. A fleeting flash of pride? Ownership? Loss? Her gaze settled on the 15th floor.
I’d been gone seven minutes. I buzzed myself back into the NICU ward, waved a thank you at Suzi and raced to Samuel. There he was, asleep. No different from when I left.
The golden-haired woman was busying herself next to Baby Tyler. She filled any space she inhabited so completely.
My Benny, who, at five, still made sense of the world through the simple actions of animals, would have pegged the golden-haired woman for a gentle cat or dog, the kind you saw in videos, the kind that took the broken bird into their care and in so doing, found their way to YouTube, to be watched and liked by millions.
I opened Samuel’s crib lid and reached in and placed my hands on him. I pulled him out with his wires trailing beneath the both of us. He formed a small ball and I snuggled him into my chest, rocking back and forth, even though right now, he didn’t need any soothing.
He smelled like me, like his brothers, like himself. So familiar. I held him like a toddler jealously guarding a toy. He was mine.
Baby Tyler let out a squawk. The golden-haired woman jumped with genuine delight. “Sweetheart! Hello!” she said, making her way to the crib. She placed her round hand on the baby’s arm. “There, there,” she said quietly.
She stepped back to the windows searching for the cause of Baby Tyler’s discontent. “Here, too much light,” she said. “Let’s close these,” and with that, she pulled a curtain straight across the window. The closed curtain cut off the city below.
I flinched. Closing a curtain was a simple action, completely innocent, designed to help and yet, in this context, unwittingly callous.
Baby Tyler’s mother was surely still downstairs.
Samuel started to wriggle. I relaxed my hold on him.
The golden-haired woman took to unpacking tiny pink sleepsuits in the cubicle beneath Baby Tyler’s cot.
I turned away, unable to watch.
Five or six minutes passed. My head was a mess of imaginings. I wanted to turn back around and say, Are you going to help her too? The mom? What about her? Where does she get left?
But I didn’t. I was no great lion roaring at the injustice of life. But I wasn’t entirely the octopus mama Benny described either. Benny’s vision of the octopus mama had always been incomplete. Deliberately so. He had marvelled at the scientist who trawled the deep Pacific waters in a submersible, studying the octopus and her long vigil by her eggs. Benny, of course, wanted a submersible. He wanted to dive deep into the Pacific. Discovery! Adventure! But we knew how it was going to end. We pulled the iPad from him before any news report ever finished. The part Benny missed? The octopus would brood and brood until finally, she died, exhausted and spent in the work of raising up her young. It was an ending I wanted no part of, not for me, the woman downstairs, or any of the mamas in the room with me.
And so it was that I found some resolve. I resolved to wait—wait until the golden-haired woman was gone so that I could go and open the curtain in front of that tiny baby girl, so that both windows were in clear view of the street below, so that the link between window and ward and park was unbroken.
It might have been impossible to see anything from the park, all the way down there. It might not have made a difference. But what if Tyler’s mother was still there, on that scratchy rock fence, watching?
A closed curtain only broke her watch. And whatever comfort that watch gave her, it was hers to have.
Opening that curtain seemed silly and pointless, the tiniest of gestures, and yet it was all I could think of while I waited for the golden-haired woman to leave.
I couldn’t fix it, I couldn’t fix any of it. I barely knew how to tend to my own little man, strapped up as he was.
But I couldn’t stand to see another bruise form on that woman.
So, I waited. And then, I did it.