ALWAYS IN SEASON
The entrance is like an air-lock on a space ship. You put on booties and a special paper dress. You scrub your fingers, your hands, and your arms even though you will never be able to go to medical school now. Inside, amid so many plastic vessels on wheels and the off-tempo sighing of a half-dozen respiratory machines, you barely know where to put yourself. Your thoughts are racing on an infinite loop. This is all new to you, to everyone here, except the nurses and doctors. To them, your naiveté is a burden your child will bear.
Blue-lit boxes are reserved for the yellowest babies. Their mothers pray in shades of pink. The earliest arrivals are furthest back, but you can glimpse their impossible bird bodies and imagine that behind the tape on their duck-egg heads there may actually be eyes. They have little doll arms that occasionally startle and flail. You don’t stand next to their isolettes because it is rude to stare, but you watch as a visitor does. She is told to move and you are embarrassed for her.
Every sterile baby box is paired with a hygienically upholstered rocking chair. They come in two colors: cornflower blue and dusty rose. Those were the colors of domesticity from your childhood and you wonder how recently they got around to swapping out the ones in shades of harvest gold and avocado green. Time makes a play for your sanity here. It stands still as it runs out.
Your baby is swaddled in tubes and wires that give and monitor breath. You didn’t understand what they meant when they said “push” so he stopped moving and breathing inside of you and was born a delicate Apgar Blue, only available in Crayola’s 120 pack.
The County Hospital is where all your low-life friends had their babies, and you’re no better than them, so you did, too. Your whole life is ahead of you and you can still do everything right, but no one expects this from you anymore. Every moment here reinforces this.
You ask the nurse to show you how to change a diaper because it looks hard to do through the box’s two portholes, around tubes and wires, with latex gloves on. She is irritated with you, but she does it anyway. She makes a horrible mess and you’re glad it wasn’t you. If it had been you, it would have been your fault.
Other mothers have husbands that visit their babies with them.
You ask the nurse to show you how to bathe your baby because you’ve never done that before. You know she is busy, so you also say that if she doesn’t have time, your mother can. She lets you know that this is your baby and that you will have to take care of it, not your mother.
To hunt the teenaged mother, no license is required. They’re always in season.
You can visit whenever you want because you’re breastfeeding. Women who don’t can only come during visiting hours. This makes you feel like you’re doing something right, but sometimes you are halfway back to the unattended room the hospital allows you to stay in before you remember to button up your shirt. A self-care regimen was prescribed, but you cannot locate those papers. Everything hurts, but maybe it should. There are 100 things to remember.
A nurse stops by to tell you there is a visitor waiting in the hallway claiming to be the grandfather. He is drunk and missing one sleeve from his shirt. You cry and tell him to leave. There is no Kleenex in the NICU, so you use the dry baby-wipes that come out of the boxes like fabric softener sheets. They hurt your face and only smear the tears around.
A new baby arrives on the unit weighing 10 lbs., 2 oz. His mother had gestational diabetes. You wonder if that was her fault, too. You whisper to your baby, “You’re not the biggest one in here anymore.” He opens his mouth, but doesn’t answer.
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