Small Great Things(3)
Written By: Jodi Picoult
“That’s not my son,” he said. “That…thing…”
“Is not going to be on this earth for very long. Which means you’d better give him all the love you had stored up for his lifetime right now.” I waited until he looked me in the eye, and then I turned on my heel. I did not have to glance back to know he was following me.
When we entered the hospital room, his wife was still nuzzling the infant, her lips pressed to the smooth canvas of his brow. I took the tiny bundle from her arms, and handed the baby to her husband. He sucked in his breath and then drew back the blanket from the spot where the baby’s face should have been.
I’ve thought about my actions, you know. If I did the right thing by forcing the father to confront his dying baby, if it was my place as a nurse. Had my supervisor asked me at the time, I would have said that I’d been trained to provide closure for grieving parents. If this man didn’t acknowledge that something truly horrible had happened—or worse, if he kept pretending for the rest of his life that it never had—a hole would open up inside him. Tiny at first, that pit would wear away, bigger and bigger, until one day when he wasn’t expecting it he would realize he was completely hollow.
When the father started to cry, the sobs shook his body, like a hurricane bends a tree. He sank down beside his wife on the hospital bed, and she put one hand on her husband’s back and one on the crown of the baby’s head.
They took turns holding their son for ten hours. That mother, she even tried to let him nurse. I could not stop staring—not because it was ugly or wrong, but because it was the most remarkable thing I’d ever seen. It felt like looking into the face of the sun: once I turned away, I was blind to everything else.
At one point, I took that stupid nursing student into the room with me, ostensibly to check the mother’s vitals, but really to make her see with her own eyes how love has nothing to do with what you’re looking at, and everything to do with who’s looking.
When the infant died, it was peaceful. We made casts of the newborn’s hand and foot for the parents to keep. I heard that this same couple came back two years later and delivered a healthy daughter, though I wasn’t on duty when it happened.
It just goes to show you: every baby is born beautiful.
It’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.
RIGHT AFTER I gave birth to Edison, seventeen years ago at this very hospital, I wasn’t worried about the health of my baby, or how I was going to juggle being a single parent while my husband was overseas, or how my life was going to change now that I was a mother.
I was worried about my hair.
The last thing you’re thinking about when you’re in labor is what you look like, but if you’re like me, it’s the first thing that crosses your mind once that baby’s come. The sweat that mats the hair of all my white patients to their foreheads instead made my roots curl up and pull away from the scalp. Brushing my hair around my head in a swirl like an ice cream cone and wrapping it in a scarf each night was what kept it straight the next day when I took it down. But what white nurse knew that, or understood that the little complimentary bottle of shampoo provided by the hospital auxiliary league was only going to make my hair even frizzier? I was sure that when my well-meaning colleagues came in to meet Edison, they would be shocked into stupor at the sight of the mess going on atop my head.
In the end, I wound up wrapping it in a towel, and told visitors I’d just had a shower.
I know nurses who work on surgical floors who tell me about men wheeled out of surgery who insist on taping their toupees into place in the recovery room before their spouses join them. And I can’t tell you the number of times a patient who has spent the night grunting and screaming and pushing out a baby with her husband at her side will kick her spouse out of the room postdelivery so I can help her put on a pretty nightgown and robe.
I understand the need people have to put a certain face on for the rest of the world. Which is why—when I first arrive for my shift at 6:40 A.M.—I don’t even go into the staff room, where we will shortly receive the night’s update from the charge nurse. Instead I slip down the hall to the patient I’d been with yesterday, before my shift ended. Her name was Jessie; she was a tiny little thing who had come into the pavilion looking more like a campaigning First Lady than a woman in active labor: her hair was perfectly coiffed, her face airbrushed with makeup, even her maternity clothes were fitted and stylish. That’s a dead giveaway, since by forty weeks of pregnancy most mothers-to-be would be happy to wear a pup tent. I scanned her chart—G1, now P1—and grinned. The last thing I’d said to Jessie before I turned her care over to a colleague and went home for the night was that the next time I saw her, she’d have a baby, and sure enough, I have a new patient. While I’ve been sleeping, Jessie’s delivered a healthy seven-pound, six-ounce girl.
I open the door to find Jessie dozing. The baby lies swaddled in the bassinet beside the bed; Jessie’s husband is sprawled in a chair, snoring. Jessie stirs when I walk in, and I immediately put a finger to my lips. Quiet.
From my purse, I pull a compact mirror and a red lipstick.
Part of labor is conversation; it’s the distraction that makes the pain ebb and it’s the glue that bonds a nurse to her patient. What other situation can you think of where one medical professional spends up to twelve hours consulting with a single person? As a result, the connection we build with these women is fierce and fast. I know things about them, in a mere matter of hours, that their own closest friends don’t always know: how she met her partner at a bar when she’d had too much to drink; how her father didn’t live long enough to see this grandchild; how she worries about being a mom because she hated babysitting as a teenager. Last night, in the dragon hours of Jessie’s labor, when she was teary and exhausted and snapping at her husband, I’d suggested that he go to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee. As soon as he left, the air in the room was easier to breathe, and she fell back against those awful plastic pillows we have in the birthing pavilion. “What if this baby changes everything?” she sobbed. She confessed that she never went anywhere without her “game face” on, that her husband had never even seen her without mascara; and now here he was watching her body contort itself inside out, and how would he ever look at her the same way again?