Mother Mary

I don’t know her name.

I see her in the hallway, in the small lunchroom, by the sinks in the Milk Lab where we go to wash and sanitize our breast pump parts.

We have made eye contact. But never spoken. Never even smiled.

I can see she is Mexican.

In my mind, I call her “Maria.”

Maria.

Mary.

Mother.

By the second day at the NICU, my husband and I have fallen into a routine. Every three hours, we do Maddie’s “care.”  The “care” is when we get to fold down the plexiglass sides on her warming table, change her diaper, wash her face (paying special attention to the areas that are being rubbed raw by her ventilator and her feeding tube), move the sensors for her monitors (if you leave them on too long, the adhesive can start to tear her already delicate, papery skin), then feed her. 30 milliliters of breast milk, warmed to body temperature, placed in a large syringe and allowed to drip down into her feeding tube. Maybe tomorrow we’ll get to increase it to 45.  While Maddie eats (Can you call it eating? She doesn’t taste or swallow the milk. It just enters her, penetrates her. It’s sustenance, but a violation at the same time), I pull out the large hospital pump, take off my shirt, and start pumping breast milk. Sometimes I pull the curtain along the back of the room to get some privacy. More often I don’t.  What’s the use?  The doors don’t close.  The windows have no blinds.  The lights only dim.

When I finish pumping, and Maddie finishes eating and is wrapped in clean blankets again, my husband and I usually have a couple of hours of down time.  We spend most of it on our phones.  Friends, relatives, employers, insurance agents. Everyone needs regular updates.  When we finally catch up on the texts and phone calls, we have to deal with the aggressively friendly staff.

Come to the common room for some soda and desserts! 

Just wanted to drop off a flyer for this evening’s scrapbooking class!

We wanted to give your little one this blanket that one of our volunteers knitted.

Would you like to come to our breastfeeding support group?

We need to have a serious discussion about finances.  Can you come to my office and start the application process for Medicaid?

And they all smile. They’re all so nice.  So gentle.  Their gentleness grates on me like sandpaper.  Haggard, unshowered, and only able to manage two hours of restless sleep at a stretch, I snap several times. “Why, exactly, would I want to make a fucking scrapbook of this hell?”

“Oh, someday you might want to look back . . .”

“I don’t want to look back. Ever. I don’t want to make friends. I just want my family to go home.”

(I wasn’t invited to the next night’s class. I think it was for learning how to knit baby hats.)

Under the weight of these routines, the minutes drag while the hours fly by.  Days pass.  We often don’t eat our first meal until 1pm.  Eating and drinking are haphazard affairs.  We forget to do small things, like put on clean socks.  I forget to take my pain medication.  By the third day after my c-section, I just stop altogether, the hassle being worse than the soreness.

Every six hours, I have to take my pumped milk and all of my pump parts down the Milk Lab.  I drop off my milk, where it is processed and frozen for my daughter’s future use, and carefully and meticulously I wash and sanitize my breast pump parts.  Maria is the only other mother I have ever seen doing this.  I know that most of the other children on the floor are on our schedule.  I know that every three hours, they are also having “care,” but Maria and I are the only other mothers who have stuck it out with the breastfeeding.  Most of the other babies are fed formula, if they are taking any food at all.  I don’t judge those mothers who choose the formula.  The constant pumping, the sore nipples (I had weaned my oldest daughter just 10 months before, but my nipples still became painful, cracked, even bloody at times, as the strong hospital pump pulled and tugged on them relentlessly, regularly, every three hours), the trek to the Milk Lab with a bucket full of dirty parts, the trek back with clean ones, neatly lined up on paper towels in pinky flesh colored hospital tubs.  You had to leave the NICU to drop off your milk, so when you wanted to return to your child’s room, you had to stop and scrub in again—three long minutes at a large trough sink, scouring your hands, forearms, fingernails, while a small kitchen timer ticked down.  Any time you punch in your code to leave the NICU, you are required to wash upon your return, even if you only go down the hall.  And this is only the annoyance you have to endure if pumping breast milk is going well.  If you respond to the pump.  If you are able to produce enough for your child.  Maria and I are the success stories.  We can do it.  It’s hard, but at least we’re able to do it.  I overhear another mother in the lunchroom on her phone, quietly, so quietly I could barely make out her sorrow, talking about how her nurse had to put her child on formula after a week of her being able to pump nothing but steam. She tries to sound positive, “At least formula’s free here.”  I think she’s talking to her mother.  Aren’t we all?  I know I am.  Don’t you always talk to your mother in a place like this?

Mother.

Mother.

The NICU is full of mothers. Signs for mothers.  Classes for mothers. Services for mothers.  A sign in the lunchroom reads, “Please give seating preference to our NICU mothers.”  Mothers are sent free meals, delivered to the floor.  Brochures circulate, offering massages and laundry services for “our NICU mothers.”  I joke to my husband, “Dads are really getting the shaft here!  You have to sit on the floor and starve!”

He responds seriously, “The mothers are the important ones.”

I look at him.  Suddenly, I want to cry.  “Dads are important, too.”

He is calm, steady, and unflinching.  “Rachel, please. You know that here—especially here—mothers mean more.”

I don’t know why, but I know that he’s right.

By the third day, my husband and I are comfortable enough, curious enough, brave enough to walk the circuit through the entire NICU.  Starting at our room—the last door on the left of a long corridor—we walked straight to the end of the hallway of patient rooms, turned right, walked down another hallway full of open doors, large windows, and dim lights, and turned right again.  One giant trapezoid.  I can’t stop myself from looking in all of the windows.  Most of the rooms are eerily empty.  Babies sleep in incubators that have been covered with colorful blankets.  The NICU recommends that parents bring in blankets from home to cover their children. It protects their still-developing eyes from the lights.  And it’s supposed to look cheery.  A reminder of home.  A happy sight.

They look like sarcophagi.

There are very few parents on the floor.  Again, I don’t blame them.  Most of the parents have children who have been here for weeks, not days.  They have jobs.  Older children.  Homes in the area.  I know the pain they must feel, having to leave their babies behind as they move on with their daily lives, and I feel suddenly grateful. I’m in hell, but so long as my child is here, there is no other place I want to be.  Either I stay here and burn with her, or we all leave together.

The small scattering of parents don’t look up as we pass.

Only Maria makes eye contact.

I walk by her room, and I see her, sitting next to her baby’s incubator. I recognize the blanket that is draped over it.  It’s a receiving blanket with monkeys on it.  It came in a pack of 4.  I received one as a shower gift for my older daughter.  Maria is sitting in the blue recliner, looking out of the window.  Her hands are folded across her belly.  She looks as though she could be calmly taking in the view at a mountain resort on a still morning.  Thoughtful.  We look at each other.

And I feel it.

Every time Maria and I make eye contact, I can feel it.  There is no sadness.  No anger.  No frustration.  Just a resoluteness. She and I look each other fully in the face, without fear or embarrassment.  We take each other in.  And I feel it.  This is a good mother.   I can see it in her face.  Without fear.  Without reproach.  She will do anything for her child.  She will hike through hell.  For as long as it takes.  She’s here, and she’s not leaving.

The next day, around dinner time, my husband and I try to walk to the lunchroom to have dinner.  But the medical staff has a section of hallway closed off.  NICU nurses in their red scrubs, and medical residents in crisp white jackets swarm around outside of a single room.  There is even more medical equipment than usual in the hallway.  Two young nurses stand on either side of the room, shooing people away. My husband and I go the long way around.

We don’t say it, but the entire floor knows what has happened.

A child has died.

I don’t remember eating or talking the rest of that night.  I’m sure I must have.  At some point, I think I hear a wail. A cry.  I hope it’s one of the babies.  I hope it’s my imagination. I don’t think it is.

I started praying that night. I don’t even know if I believe in God.

Please be kind to our NICU mothers.

We love our NICU mothers.

Our NICU mothers are important to us. Please let us know if there is anything we can do to make your stay more enjoyable.

Late at night, I walk to the lunchroom to fill my water bottle (a gift for the NICU mothers).  The hallway is still blocked, though only four nurses now stand outside the room.  A curtain has been drawn across the doorway.  I can feel the anger, the frustration, the fear, the sadness coming from the nurses.  I’m afraid to make eye contact with them.

I enter the lunchroom just as Maria is leaving.  Again, our eyes meet, and we know.  Through hell. Through fucking hell. And back again.

I never told her.

I wish I did.

I wish I had to courage to tell her.

Maria.

Mary.

Mother.

You are a good mother.

A great mother.

I hope that she knows.

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