EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 13

“Any more questions?” the doctor asks.

We shake our heads, so she leaves us sitting bolt upright on the sagging couch, like fence posts rammed into shifting clay. We’re hardly aware of each other’s presence, yet we hold hands, my left in Josh’s right. He grips my hand so tightly that my rings dig into my fingers. We feel each other’s anxiety, but we don’t comfort each other. We just stare numbly into dusty corners as intercoms and alarms sweep over us like a prairie wind howling over tired, dry grass.

“She looks so awful,” I murmur.

“I know.” Josh closes his eyes, inhaling deeply, perhaps trying to free himself from the fear that grips his chest. He hasn’t slept decently in a week and looks it. His eyes are smudged dark. His hair is matted and greasy. I know I look the same but I don’t care. In fact, I care about so little it frightens me. All the things that worried me last week have faded away—income tax filing, studio scheduling, meals in the freezer—wisps of smoke, nothing more.

 

Josh and I finally look at each other—husband, wife; father, mother—but we don’t smile, not even a forced smile of reassuring optimism. It would take too much energy; besides, we understand how the other feels. We’re stunned by what we’ve seen and heard. We’ve glimpsed the dark side of nature, its capability to churn out mistakes, to mangle lives, and it happened too quickly to make sense of it. Yet, we must pull ourselves together. My room in the Maternity Ward must be packed up and my discharge papers signed. Groceries have to be bought and laundry has to be washed. There is a life to return to even if we don’t remember it.

 

We pull ourselves off the couch and tiptoe to Room A for one more look at Madeline.

 

She lies on her back, a limp bundle of wrinkled flesh, taped and wired to multiple lines. She has no will of her own, no strength. Her survival relies on the platoon of machines that queue around her incubator like sentries on duty, watching over her, tallying up numbers and percentages, pumping oxygen and nutrients into her body through narrow lines.

 

The incubator’s thick, curvaceous Plexiglas walls bend our perception, like a glass of water confusing the world beyond. Although the incubator protects and warms her, it also keeps us away. We are outsiders, observers. Look, but don’t touch.

 

A quilt, sewn by a volunteer, covers the incubator, blocking sunshine by day and fluorescent light by night. Lifting the corner of the quilt feels like a sacred ritual, a prayer in action. I lift, look, and breathe, “Oh dear God. She looks so awful. So very, very awful. Save her, I pray. Save her.”

 

As each hour since birth slides by, I begin to accept her death as inevitable. I hadn’t pictured a loss after birth, but that’s what it will be—a labour-in-vain, a miscarriage, a “not-meant-to-be” as people so infuriatingly say. I always thought if I were to lose a baby, it would happen early on, at twelve weeks maybe, a splash of blood and then all over. But a birth, followed by a suffering death, might be the cruelest loss of all. I will have to watch her give up. At least if I had miscarried, I wouldn’t have to see her fingers claw when needles are sunk into her veins, or listen to the alarms wail when her oxygenation plummets and heart rate drops down to nothing.    

 

Through the gap in the incubator’s blanket, I memorize Madeline’s face in case she gives up before I return later this evening. It’s an odd face, barely-formed. So impossible. So strange to see.

 

A ghastly memory flashes and I try to ignore it, but it won’t go away. It keeps coming back to mind, to the mental view that flits away when you really try to look at the details. It’s from when I was a little girl on the farm. I was six or seven maybe, visiting a batch of new baby piglets in the farrowing barn.

Outside their pen though, Dad had piled a half-dozen stillborn piglets. Wet and red, awaiting burial, they were a mass of taut, translucent skin. They were haphazardly stacked because, really, they didn’t matter anymore. They were dead.

 

The resemblance between those pigs and Madeline is uncanny. The wet, red skin. The fused eyes. The half-formed features. I want to gag, yet I can’t turn away from the incubator. How can I? This poor child is mine.

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