1. Cosby, Vanessa


A neonatal ICU nurse makes a lasting impression on a new mother.


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The seemingly infinite boredom of the hospital was not something I expected. I would sit beside my son, looking at him, listening to his monitors beep, and think to myself this is all so unreal. I memorized the pattern of little octagons forming a tessellation on the ceiling. I listened to the nurses talking about their relationships and their boyfriends.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new window Illustration by Annelisa Ochoa.

I'm sure they had no idea I was eavesdropping. I'm sure they thought I was focused entirely on my sleeping baby. But no, my mind offered me welcome respite from the thoughts of my skinny little boy. They say, as a new mother, you should live in the moment with your newborn; you shouldn't be engulfed by your fatigue, but instead you should cherish those first few weeks with your little baby because, they say, they grow up so fast.


Any mother who has had more than one baby knows just how very important it is to appreciate those moments with a newborn, with his floppy head, with his little legs not yet ripe with the pudge of an older baby, with his unmistakable high-pitched cry that demands his mother's immediate attention. Most mothers with newborns fight the fatigue and find tender moments to revel in the new life they hold in their arms. I never did that. I never delighted in the beauty of my newborn, strong and resilient. I feel incredibly guilty about that. I never saw the awe in the fresh new life I had just given birth to-I saw only his weakness and vulnerability, and my predominant thoughts stemmed from the shock and anxiety over his premature birth.


I think most mothers who spend weeks gazing at their babies in incubators project to the future and longingly imagine their child as a fatter and more alert baby. The moment you live in is split between two worlds: the future and the trying reality of the present. I did not relish seeing my child so underweight. I did not savor the boredom of waiting for him to grow. There is little that I enjoyed during those weeks with him in the hospital. But at the same time, I didn't dislike the hospital. It was just something we had to grow through. The hospital was and still is a revered place where I focused my gratitude. The neonatal ICU is a place where physicians and nurses work round the clock to keep sick babies alive, and where parents hope and dream of health and happiness for their children. It's a place of intense emotion and of fervent prayer.


Four months after my son was discharged, I was in a store riffling through the sale racks. I was giddy, gorging on these clearance bargains in a shopping frenzy with other women. They kept coming: things I needed, things I wanted, different colors, different sizes, as I sifted and raced through the clothes. The thing about having a small baby is that he has almost every size ahead of him. You don't need to say no. You don't need to hold back.


Then I saw the hands. Those hands and fingers that stopped me in my tracks. I looked up and there she was. She didn't recognize me. I backed up from the rail. A lump formed fast in my throat. Those hands, so beautiful-hands that had handled our baby before we were able to, hands and fingers in so many photographs of our son, hands of a woman who would never know what she meant to us. One of the things I thought when my son was born was that we shouldn't be looking at him now. We shouldn't be able to see him. We're looking at a fetus in an incubator. And we can't hold him. I didn't want to hold him. But she could. And I felt with her that she knew she was doing something extraordinary: touching something that should be untouchable. She was so solemn in her work. And she was my favorite one: the one who had introduced us to him the very first time we'd met; the one who'd explained all his wires and cables; the one who didn't pressure me to touch him, who told me I could sit and talk to him and he'd enjoy listening to my voice.


I didn't say anything to her. I couldn't have even if I'd wanted to. I left the clothes behind. I went back outside to the car park, to my car. I got in and clasped my hands around the steering wheel. I was numb, but my mind was racing. I needed to scream, but I couldn't. I needed to cry, but I didn't. I reversed out of my space slowly and carefully, knowing I was in no fit state to drive. And by the second set of traffic lights my cheeks were no longer dry.