* * * * *
“Do you want to hold her?” The nurse asks me. I do want to, but I am nervous. She is very ill now, deeply poisoned by an army of invisible creatures. Her body is so weakened that it has been skipping and faltering. There is a zigzag of wires and tubes connected to her, all feeding her body something it needs to survive this. There is a gaping hole in her flesh just above her stomach, where the stitches surrounding her feeding tube have slipped out. Through the hole I can see her dark red, almost brown, shiny stomach beneath the skin edge. I look away and face the nurse.
“Yes” I say bravely. I settle myself into the chair they have placed beside her metal and plexiglass bassinet. The hard, wide chair is set awkwardly close to the equipment because my baby’s lines don’t go far. I tuck blankets under and around me, trying to mimic the feel of a nursery rocker. It takes me a moment to drape a sweet smelling cotton blanket over me, arranging the pink-edged swath across me to form a barrier between my perhaps germ-infected clothes and my daughter’s fragile body. As I get settled, the nurse adeptly wraps up wires, moves feeders and medicine pumps, disconnects the heater, and scoops my child out of her bed into my waiting arms.
I study her beautiful face. She is so dainty with a rosebud mouth, tiny nub of a nose, and huge dark blue ringed eyes. I want her to smile or somehow indicate that she is happy to be with me, that she knows me to be different from the hoards of others who handle her but she is too sick for such affections. Her six and a half pound body feels very heavy to me. I realize that she is perfectly still, not breathing. Bile and panic rise in the back of my throat.
“She’s not breathing.” I manage to squeak out to the nurse who is hovering over us. The nurse quickly turns to consult the monitor screen. The numbers reassure her.
“She’s ok,” the nurse replies over my shoulder.
“She’s not breathing,” I say again louder with strong emphasis on the word not.
The nurse glances at the screen again. She puts her hand on my shoulder to soothe me and says, “She’s ok. It’s ok.”
A baby girl in our pod has died this morning. Infection, our shared enemy, destroyed her overnight. Not more than an hour ago I was with that mother and child as the mourning process began in the hospital’s small “family” room. That mother and I had passed a bit of NICU time together waiting on our daughters. She held out her baby, already dressed up like a little princess, and I accepted the bundle because no other reaction seemed appropriate.
It has only been a few seconds. The nurse trusts the monitors and she thinks I am having a reaction to the morning’s sorrow. But now I know what it feels like to hold a lifeless baby and this feels exactly the same. I am shaking from an overload of adrenaline in my system. I want to throw my baby into the nurse’s hands. “She is NOT breathing,” I hear myself shouting. My arms will not obey me and I cannot lift her up.
Finally the monitor corroborates with me and sounds the alarms. Immediately the nurse whisks my baby away, up on to the open bassinet, and begins to bag her with a portable mask and oxygen pump. I stare at the monitor watching for my baby’s return. It comes swiftly. The nurse assures me that Kimani is ok, that the apnea has passed.
It is not ok though, because now I don’t want to hold her anymore.