Small Great Things(2)
Written By: Jodi Picoult
It wasn’t until I heard Christina’s voice that I realized the noise had woken her up. She stood between Rachel and me. “You three, go to Miss Christina’s room,” Mama ordered, with steel in her voice. “Now.”
But we remained rooted to the spot as Mama quickly forgot about us, lost in a world made of Ms. Mina’s pain and fear, trying to be the map that she could follow out of it. I watched the cords stand out on Ms. Mina’s neck as she groaned; I saw Mama kneel on the bed between her legs and push her gown over her knees. I watched the pink lips between Ms. Mina’s legs purse and swell and part. There was the round knob of a head, a knot of shoulder, a gush of blood and fluid, and suddenly, a baby was cradled in Mama’s palms.
“Look at you,” she said, with love written over her face. “Weren’t you in a hurry to get into this world?”
Two things happened at once: the doorbell rang, and Christina started to cry. “Oh, honey,” Ms. Mina crooned, not scary anymore but still sweaty and red-faced. She held out her hand, but Christina was too terrified by what she had seen, and instead she burrowed closer to me. Rachel, ever practical, went to answer the front door. She returned with two paramedics, who swooped in and took over, so that what Mama had done for Ms. Mina became like everything else she did for the Hallowells: seamless and invisible.
The Hallowells named the baby Louis, after Mama. He was fine, even though he was almost a full month early, a casualty of the barometric pressure dropping with the storm, which caused a PROM—a premature rupture of membranes. Of course, I didn’t know that back then. I only knew that on a snowy day in Manhattan I had seen the very start of someone. I’d been with that baby before anyone or anything in this world had a chance to disappoint him.
The experience of watching Louis being born affected us all differently. Christina had her baby via surrogate. Rachel had five. Me, I became a labor and delivery nurse.
When I tell people this story, they assume the miracle I am referring to during that long-ago blizzard was the birth of a baby. True, that was astonishing. But that day I witnessed a greater wonder. As Christina held my hand and Ms. Mina held Mama’s, there was a moment—one heartbeat, one breath—where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman, helping another.
That miracle, I’ve spent thirty-nine years waiting to see again.
Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BABY I ever saw was born without a face.
From the neck down, he was perfect: ten fingers, ten toes, chubby belly. But where his ear should have been, there was a twist of lips and a single tooth. Instead of a face there was a swirling eddy of skin with no features.
His mother—my patient—was a thirty-year-old gravida 1 para 1 who had received prenatal care including an ultrasound, but the baby had been positioned in a way that the facial deformity hadn’t been visible. The spine, the heart, the organs had all looked fine, so no one was expecting this. Maybe for that very reason, she chose to deliver at Mercy–West Haven, our little cottage hospital, and not Yale–New Haven, which is better equipped for emergencies. She came in full term, and labored for sixteen hours before she delivered. The doctor lifted the baby, and there was nothing but silence. Buzzy, white silence.
“Is he all right?” the mother asked, panicking. “Why isn’t he crying?”
I had a student nurse shadowing me, and she screamed.
“Get out,” I said tightly, shoving her from the room. Then I took the newborn from the obstetrician and placed him on the warmer, wiping the vernix from his limbs. The OB did a quick exam, silently met my gaze, and turned back to the parents, who by now knew something was terribly wrong. In soft words, the doctor said their child had profound birth defects that were incompatible with life.
On a birth pavilion, Death is a more common patient than you’d think. When we have anencephalies or fetal deaths, we know that the parents still have to bond with and mourn for that baby. This infant—alive, for however long that might be—was still this couple’s son.
So I cleaned him and swaddled him, the way I would any other newborn, while the conversation behind me between the parents and the doctor stopped and started like a car choking through the winter. Why? How? What if you…? How long until…? Questions no one ever wants to ask, and no one ever wants to answer.
The mother was still crying when I settled the baby in the crook of her elbow. His tiny hands windmilled. She smiled down at him, her heart in her eyes. “Ian,” she whispered. “Ian Michael Barnes.”
She wore an expression I’ve only seen in paintings in museums, of a love and a grief so fierce that they forged together to create some new, raw emotion.
I turned to the father. “Would you like to hold your son?”
He looked like he was about to be sick. “I can’t,” he muttered and bolted from the room.
I followed him, but was intercepted by the nurse in training, who was apologetic and upset. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just…it was a monster.”
“It is a baby,” I corrected, and I pushed past her.
I cornered the father in the parents’ lounge. “Your wife and your son need you.”