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Touch and Go
He’s crying again. Even through my own translucent curtain of tears, beaded on my eyelashes so that every blink produces another cascade down my skin, I know we must be the picture of dismal hilarity – a mother and her infant, wailing ten feet apart, secluded from the world, navy blue drapes darkening the unlit bedroom all the more as the 6 pm sun fails to penetrate the material. I love him already, after only three days. He’s my entire soul, my entire being, my every breath. Except that he isn’t, exactly. I see Luke’s olive irises when his eyes flip open and dart about, chasing shadows. I see Luke’s smile in the curl of his upper lip – still minute now, still an infant’s halfway emotion, but waiting for adolescence, for maturity, when it will be a mask of his father’s. I see Luke’s winter skin in the pallor of our boy’s snowy arms and legs and stomach. So he isn’t everything to my soul, to my being, to my breath. He’s only everything left to me in the world.
And that soul is too damaged to shove me to my feet, hasten me over to the other source of despair in this room. I can’t bear the thought of standing up; I’m sure my legs won’t hold me. And I still have excess bulk from the aftermath of the birth. I’m just tired. My limbs are all tired. My head is tired, from trying to forget and trying not to forget and trying to decipher which end to accomplish. The pillow at my back is hollowed out in the shape of my frame, and my blankets are so soft, and they smell like Luke. So the baby must wait, wailing, wailing. Earlier, before the stupor set in and rendered me useless, I made myself some chicken noodle soup, the way my mother always used to when I was sick and home from school and terrified of having to catch up with all of the multiplication and projectile formulas I was missing out on. I poured the liquid into a big bowl and tried to engulf the rising steam inside the cavern of my mouth – all the escaping heat. I just left the baby in his car seat by the door, swamped by the overlarge carrier, encased like a mummy within his blankets, sleeping. And I stumbled over to our couch, the frayed brown one with the stain from Luke’s cup of coffee the morning after he had his worst drinking night. I sat there for an hour or maybe two, and then the baby started crying. While we were at the hospital, he always calmed once a nurse changed his diaper or I touched him. It wouldn’t help for me to touch him now.
He’s so soft. In that, he isn’t like Luke. Luke is hard, coarse. Luke doesn’t show emotion. He told me once that he was determined to cry at the birth, to prove to his son that you can cry and still be a man. He said he wanted it to be memorable.
It was memorable. Because Luke wasn’t there, the way he’d promised. He was There, though, in the hospital, bound up in the cords and wires and tubes and bandages snaking under his gown. I suppose the silence of his coma resounded as loudly inside his room as his son’s screams did in mine while they checked his lungs and limbs. Maybe he knew; it’s possible. I know the baby knew. He can’t move much yet, or think, but I’m sure he knew. That’s why he didn’t cry. He knew he was close.
And now he knows how far away he is. It’s now that he changes. For the past four hours, his wails have been ones of misery and helplessness. Now it’s terror. Shrill terror. His voice goes up an octave and the breaths he takes between shrieks are shorter. Even in the darkness I see the flickers as his darting eyes catch what little light there is. He’s hysterical. I didn’t know he could be that way. A twitch of his arm, the slightest grasping for something he can’t touch – and I know what it is. I know what’s happening.
My soul lightens and I can heave myself off the bed, away from the blankets. My sandals are there, by the door, and I slide into them as one hand grips the car seat and the other fumbles on the dresser for the set of keys I flung down distractedly.
The streets are a blur of chaos. There are red and yellow and green cars, so loud, lumbering down the streets, catching every pothole, huffing their black smoke while the people inside play with their cigarettes, cell phones, stereos, mirrors, broken bits of candy canes from Christmas vacation. They’re irritating, all of them, and where they’re usually well over the speed limit to the extent that I’m always alert for lurking cops, now they’ve reduced their travel to crawls. It takes whatever will I still possess not to rage at the turtles striving to suffocate me.
“Thank God you’re here!” Lucinda cries, dashing toward me in her hospital scrubs. “I’m afraid your husband has taken a turn for the w- why did you bring the baby? You can’t bring the baby, not to this. Dear, you’re going to have to let Luke go. It’s not appropriate to have your son there.”
Lucinda really isn’t the sort of person worth listening to. She tends to set too much store by rules and procedure, and not enough by the existence of necessary discrepancies.
There is a pair of doctors huddled outside the door, conversing in whispers, terms I don’t understand being flung about carelessly the way Jane and I slip into chatter about our historical figures and religious histories, and speak of “transubstantiation” as something everyone knows. They bow out of the way in that manner people only adopt when everything is lost for you and they don’t want to be the ones forced to tell you.
There’s no one inside. Just beeping, ugly machines that I know nothing about except that they are breathing for Luke. The baby cries out desperately as Luke’s heart stutters through the motions. His chest falters but no one comes running. He’s lost. They’re letting him disappear, fade into the archives of a history turned fable. But he isn’t gone yet and this is the last chance.
The baby’s fingers uncurl and grasp for the bed. So I do what anyone would do and give my son to his father. In the cherub cheeks, there is a sudden peace. The eyelids slide down and he nestles against a trailing cord. Luke touches his child for the first time, his slack hand folded over the young chest. And then the machines race to produce an everlasting racket of human terror as my husband slips away. The baby sighs. And then Luke leaves us behind.