I am a father, I keep telling myself.
I’m a poor rememberer.
We’re in the backseat of a cab. Our baby’s car seat is in the backseat with us, because, with our bags, it wouldn’t fit in the trunk. Perhaps it sits between us, me and my wife. Perhaps it sits on one of our laps. Certainly it’s on my lap, since I’m the father?
Part of coming to believe I’m a father involves associating certain inconsequential actions and states of being with fatherhood.
Fathers eat breakfast cereal. They don’t apologize for eating a second bowl. Or they profusely and embarrassingly do. Fathers sit in the shower and weep quietly. Fathers sleep with the TV on, because not doing so is suddenly unthinkable. Fathers carry bags. Fathers say things like, “I think I’ll make two trips.” Fathers locate elevators. Fathers take the stairs, panicked by the elevators, especially the ones that carry other people. Fathers think about but don’t run away. Fathers don’t run. Fathers hold car seats in their laps.
Or maybe the car seat, our baby’s car seat that hasn’t yet held our baby’s body, is in the trunk. Maybe the cab driver saw it when he put it in the trunk.
Maybe there was room there, after all.
I can’t remember. I keep telling myself to remember, but I’m having trouble.
We’re in a cab in a city we’ve never visited.
Upon entering The Big Midwestern Hospital, which I did for the first time in the early hours of June 2, 2014, the first of the hospital’s corridors a visitor encounters is the Pink Hallway. As I write today, years later, I don’t remember whether the hallway is actually pink. Perhaps there’s an elevator called Pink. Or maybe the elevator’s called Pink Castle. Perhaps the elevators are in a part of the building designated as Castle, and the background on the word castle, as displayed on various signs, is pink?
The first thing I was told upon entering the hospital was that following the Pink Hallway to the Castle elevators would lead me to our child. This I was told by a muscular, unsmiling man in a guard’s uniform. It had been a long, strange, sleep-deprived weekend, spent between two different hospitals.
Part of me really wanted to get to our child. And another part of me — loudly, insistently — didn’t. Yet another part was asking fatigued, bewildered questions: Is this what’s happening? Is what’s happening happening?
Kori had labored over a few days, and when Theodore was finally born, on the afternoon of June 1, 2014, he had trouble breathing. Nurses and doctors worked on him for about an hour and a half, and then, briefly, we got to hold him. He got to lay on his mother. And then his blood sugar had been checked, and he bottomed out the glucometer.
There was much then we didn’t know, but we knew he was sick. He was going to be transferred to the Big Midwestern Hospital a couple hours away.
The Pink Hallway confronts visitors, first, with the faces of children. Children who are no longer alive. Dead children. These faces have been printed on quilts. These faces hang in frames on walls. There’s a stretch — maybe 50 yards — of the hallway dominated by memorial. Some photographs are behind glass. Some are on quilts that, if so inclined, a visitor could touch.
Or maybe I’m remembering it wrong. Perhaps the quilts are behind glass.
The faces of these children are — how could they not be? — beautiful. They’re beautiful faces. Babies. Some as old as 10 or 11. Not many were older than that when they died, these children on the walls. They’re the children of parents about whose lives, I think as I see these faces for the first and the 50th time, I know nothing.
Below the faces are often printed birth and death dates. It’s like walking through a cemetery, a children’s cemetery. With faces. With pictures. A kind of group headstone.
About halfway through this cab ride from the airport in The City We’ve Never Visited, the driver will take the wrong exit. We’ll be in what might be a rough neighborhood. I don’t really know. What do I see, graffiti? People with body types or clothing I associate with poverty? If this were a different day, if the last three weeks had been a different last three weeks, I might be afraid, in the perhaps-rough neighborhood.
I’m not even really thinking about the neighborhood or its roughness. I’m not really thinking about the cab driver. Indifferent. That’s close: I am indifferent.
The cab driver admits his mistake and makes a square and gets us back onto the interstate.
I can’t really be indifferent because I care deeply, I know, about the baby whose car seat we’ve brought to the City We’ve Never Visited.
I care deeply about the woman next to me.
But indifference is close because I’m thinking about giving up. I haven’t given up, but I’m thinking more about giving up than I’m thinking about the future, about persisting. I’m not suicidal, I don’t think, but I’m dwelling, I know, on the analgesic possibilities of giving up.
We both, my wife and I, had drinks at an airport bar. There, finishing a second beer at noon, I received a phone call from a resident at the NICU of the Big Eastern Hospital. I didn’t know the phone call would be coming. About phone calls, whether or not we’d get one, I’d forgotten to ask. I didn’t think to ask. The physician that I didn’t know would be calling said our baby had arrived safely and was now drinking from a bottle.
The first time I see the faces in the Pink Hallway, I’m walking about five feet ahead of my wife, and then, remembering that she just delivered a baby a few hours before, that she’s only had ibuprofen given to her by a nurse (from her purse) at the previous hospital, I slow down and touch her on the elbow. I should have requested a wheelchair. I keep forgetting that’s an option.
Suddenly I want to get to the Castle elevators as soon as possible. I want to sprint. A good husband probably wouldn’t run ahead of his wife, abandoning her.
I don’t know how fast or slow to walk. I alternate between walking too fast and walking too slow.
Do I really want to find this elevator? Maybe I should sit down, here, in the hallway. Why not.
And why are these images here? Why am I seeing, first, not something anodyne and forgettable but rather these faces, these beautiful faces, of children who lived a few years, a few months, a few days, a few hours? Why am I — today! — confronted by these beautiful children who have died?
The airport bar was a backup plan. Kori had a prescription for Xanax, but it was too old, expired. She has a fear of flying. I didn’t tell her, but I was planning on asking her for a pill — or taking one when she wasn’t looking. Neither of us have ever taken a Xanax, and I know taking one that isn’t prescribed to me is against the law. Under usual circumstances, I would feel guilty taking a pill that wasn’t prescribed to me. I believe old pills should be destroyed. But this was neither a law nor a belief I cared about in this moment. Without pills, we decided to drink.
Our three-week-old baby was being flown to the Big Eastern Hospital. Special ambulance, special plane, special ambulance. Or maybe they’re not special. For some reason, it helped me in those days and weeks to think of the ambulances as “special.” I once wrote an email to our university colleagues — my wife and I teach English — where I talked about our baby’s “very special plane ride.” Now I’m embarrassed. How needy. How pitiful.
We were flying separately on a commercial flight. Before we had a baby, I would have thought I’d do anything to be on that plane, that I’d leap — with great effort, with meaningful strain — every hurdle: how to get our clothes and personal items to The City We’ve Never Visited since we couldn’t have them on the medical transport plane, how to lose two pounds quickly so I’d be under the weight limit (cut out that second and third bowl of cereal?), how to prepare for my wife’s and my fear of flying in a plane much smaller than a commercial jet, without Xanax or alcohol.
Being a father, it turns out, just this once, or maybe always and forever, who the hell knows, meant not getting on one plane — and, instead, getting on another.
Now we’d arrived, and we were in a cab.
There is only silence for a while, maybe five minutes. I assume there will only be silence. We live in a small town in the middle of nowhere, in northwestern Missouri. If our car breaks down, we walk or inflate the tires of a bike — or call a friend. But I’ve taken a few cab rides in my life. Maybe 20 or 30. Never has a cab driver said anything to me beyond answering my questions or asking for clarification on an address. But this ride’s different.
“So,” the cab driver says, “where is the baby?”
Eventually, at the Big Midwestern Hospital, Teddy is diagnosed with congenital hyperinsulinism, a rare endocrine disorder. He is, we learn in the City We’ve Never Visited, lucky to have the focal form of the disease. Perhaps only a small part of his pancreas is malfunctioning. He will not have to have, as his treatment, nearly all of his pancreas removed. Still, we sign the forms giving the surgeon permission to do various surgeries. There are backup plans upon backup plans. Months later, I’ll talk to a pediatrician about pancreatic surgeries, and he’ll say, “Yeah, those sometimes go really wrong.”
The faces that adorn the Pink Hallway, of course, deserve to be there. As the overtired parent of a newborn recently arrived at the hospital, I converted the images into harbingers. The beautiful faces of children whose lives were cut short by disease seemed predictive. They were bad omens. They were reminders of mortality when my oxygen was a fantasy of immortality or, if not immortality, the equally miracle-dependent belief that an eight-pound infant would somehow have the guile, the pluck, the will, the grit, the resilience of his mother and father combined, and that he’d be able to overcome what I viewed then as the stacked odds.
The faces in the Pink Hallway indicate the stakes of the place.
Quick arithmetic. November to July of the following year: eight months. Those parents had eight months. They only had eight months.
Is it better, a father of eight hours wondered, to know your living child for eight days or eight months? What might be the difference in those two kinds of pain?
End of July. We’ve been in hospitals for two months. Now it’s the day we’ve been waiting for.
The sun is shining, and we are at a Krispy Kreme in the industrial Midwest.
Teddy is not cured, but he’s well enough to go home. He can’t fast for very long before going hypoglycemic, but he can fast for long enough to live at home. He survived his surgery. We survived the summer of our baby’s birth, and we’re driving back to Missouri. The sun is shining.
I’m getting to do something that, I’ve known for a while, I’ve been needing to do. I’ve got a two-month-old baby, and I’m holding him on my chest for the first time without an IV.
At a prenatal class we attended about a month before Teddy was born, the teaching nurse had gotten laughs with what seemed to me a rehearsed joke: something about the delicacy with which fathers felt they had to treat their newborns. Dads! How silly they were to be so careful, to treat their babies as if they’re fragile creatures, as animals that might inadvertently be injured or killed. “A lot of dads have to be instructed,” she said, making careful eye contact with the women in the room, “that they’re not going to break their babies.”
For many of those children of the Pink Hallway, their picture hangs in a building that was likely their primary residence. They slept and ate and played in that hospital more than any other place. The hospital may not have been listed as residence on any official documents, but in some or all of the important ways it was their home.
And when confronted with the desires of parents to hang pictures of their children in a place that served as home, should we be convinced that the needs or desires of scared parents of newborns should matter more?
Break, perhaps not, but it’s certainly possible — likely, it seemed to me — that I might get up the wrong way and step on something I shouldn’t and then pull from my child’s body his nasogastric tube or his central line.
Sometimes, if Dad wasn’t careful, if he didn’t approach the situation with some delicacy, two nurses would have to come in and shove a tube back down my baby’s throat, through his nose. Sometimes, if Dad wasn’t careful, the IV might be moved from a central line position to a midline, and that meant another trip to the radiography lab or another visit from a sadistic line nurse.
But now, at a Krispy Kreme in Washington, Pennsylvania, I’m holding Theodore on my chest, as he snoozes, for the first time in a public place that’s not a hospital. And there are warm doughnuts and delicious coffee and air-conditioning, and I have already shown my infant son the amazing conveyor, through the large glass viewing windows, carrying hundreds of hot doughnuts. The furniture is comfortable. We’re the only customers. The doughnuts are good, and I have more than one. And a baby, our baby, my son, on my chest! Without an IV.
In the past two months, Theodore’s had an IV in both arms, his leg, his belly button, and his head — not all at once, of course. And then there was the nasal canula for a while and the nasogastric tube. All of it, the equipment, the stuff attached to him, the monitors, the IV, the tube for oxygen, the tube for dextrose to the gut, aren’t really that important, in the end. The stuff’s temporary. The situation’s temporary. The environment’s temporary. It’s a surprisingly calming mantra, given its more ominous implications: this is all temporary.
I wonder if Kori might take a picture. She says something about her camera being in the car. She asks if I want her to go get it. “No,” I say, “it’s all right.” The picture might be nice to have, but I feel in this moment like I’ll remember this forever — and that’s better than nice. Like maybe I won’t need the picture. Like maybe I’ll finally be able to remember.
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Author: Richard Sonnenmoser