Mine – Susi Fox

A thin band of light falls in a strip of yellow on the floor beside the bed. My brain is full of static, my tongue a pad of steel wool in my mouth. Beneath the tucked sheet my legs are a tangle of pins and needles. I press my feet against the cotton and try to tug them free. It’s difficult to inhale the thick, hot air. The window on my right is out of reach. The curtains are striped and drawn together, with only a pale line of sky littered with treetops visible between their folds. A beeping monitor stands beside the bed, flashing red. Silver rails are locked in place on either side of the mattress, running from my feet to my torso. A white hospital gown cloaks my chest. Surely Mark should be here, by my side? I haul myself onto one elbow and scour the room. Empty. There’s no chair. No cot, either. Cot.

The realisation hits me. The baby. I pull the sheet back and hoist the gown to my neck. A thick pad is taped above my pubic bone. My belly is smaller than before, and wobbly. I’m empty. I ease myself back down against the mattress, sucking in air. There’s a flash of memory from the moments before I was put to sleep: a mask held over my face, the pressure of it against my cheeks, the smell of musty plastic. The anaesthetist’s pinpoint eyes. Mark, staring down at me, blinking in slow motion.

Then coldness in the back of my hand, stinging like a nettle. I lift my fingers to my eyes. My vision pulls into focus. Clear liquid dribbles through tubing into a vein. I yank at the plastic taped fast against my skin. There’s a call bell on the bedside table. I thrust my arm over the rail, knocking a cup of water to the floor in my haste. The liquid pools on the matted carpet, then begins to soak in, forming a jagged mark. I catch the cord of the buzzer and manoeuvre it onto my lap. I dig both my thumbs into it and listen as a loud ring resonates in the corridor outside my room.

There’s the squeak of a meal trolley. A baby whimpering from a nearby room. But no one comes. I press the buzzer again and again, hearing the echoing chime outside my door. Still no one answers. A red light flickers on the buzzer, the colour all at once too familiar. Blood. Was I bleeding last night? Why can’t I remember? There’s something far more wrong now. Where is my baby? ‘Excuse me,’ I shout in the direction of the corridor. ‘Is anyone there?’ I try to steady my breathing and take in my surroundings.

Everything about this place feels unsettling. There’s a thread of cobweb stretching high against the ceiling, a sliver of a crack in the plaster above the skirting board by the door, a dull brown stain on the bed sheet. I shouldn’t be here. This isn’t the Royal, with its homely birthing suites and clean, airy rooms. There the midwives are attentive and caring. Soothing music is piped along every corridor. The Royal was where I was supposed to have our baby girl. This – this is the hospital down the road, the one with the reputation. The one I’d insisted on avoiding in this town big enough to have a choice, small enough for me to know individual obstetricians. As the local pathologist, I’m the one who writes up the autopsies of babies that don’t make it.

I’ve seen the work of each specialist. I know more than anyone how much can go wrong. A wave of nausea sweeps over me. That hasn’t happened to my baby. Not after everything. It’s not possible. It can’t be. The door pushes inwards, the silhouette of a broad-shouldered woman backlit by the lights from the corridor. ‘Help. Please,’ I say.

‘Oh, but that’s my job.’ The figure steps under the downlights: a midwife in a navy pinafore. Ursula, the badge at her waist reads. ‘I do apologise. We’ve been so busy,’ she says. She dumps a cluster of folders on the end of my bed, picks up the closest one and peers at it through spectacles hung on a thin chain around her neck. ‘Saskia Martin.’ ‘That’s not me.’ My heart quivers inside me. ‘Where’s my baby?’ Ursula inspects me over the rim of her glasses, then thrusts the folder back onto my bed and picks up the next one in line.

‘Oh. You’re Sasha Moloney?’ I nod, relieved. ‘So you’re the abruption.’ Maroon clumps on asphalt rise, steaming, before my vision. The stench of metallic clots, bled out from behind the placenta, peeling my baby away from the inside of my womb before it was time for her to emerge. So, the bleeding was real, not solely from my imagination. ‘My oh my. You lost of lot of blood.’ I don’t ask the volume. ‘My baby.

Please tell me?’ She skims the file. ‘You’re thirty-seven years old.’ ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘And this is your first baby.’ ‘That’s correct.’ From the corridor now comes the sound of babies wailing in unison. Finally, Ursula lifts her head from the file. ‘You had an emergency caesarean at thirty-five weeks. Your baby boy was sent to the nursery. Congratulations.

’ Boy? I draw a sharp breath. ‘I thought I was having a girl.’ Ursula flips through the file, sticks her finger on the page. ‘Definitely a boy,’ she says. It takes me a moment to understand her. Not a daughter, but a son. This is most unexpected. But there’s a small chance the ultrasound – and my maternal intuition – could have been wrong. ‘You’re sure?’ ‘Quite sure. It says boy right here.

’ Her jaw tightens. ‘Oh,’ she mumbles. ‘Hmmm …’ Oh, no. Any baby, any gender is fine, as long as they’re okay. Please, please, let them be okay … Ursula scrambles through the notes, then inspects me again through the lower half of her bifocals. ‘It looks like he’s alright. The files are so difficult to read these days. So many babies. And so many mothers to care for. We’ll get you to him as soon as we can.

’ Relief floods my body. My baby is alive. I am a mother. And somewhere in this hospital is my newborn son. My heart is still a drum beating behind my ribs. ‘Can I see him now, please?’ ‘Hopefully soon. We’re extremely busy.’ She gives a theatrical sigh. ‘I’m sure you understand.’ She checks the file again.

‘You’re a doctor, am I right?’ I’m not sure if she’s playing some sort of perverse game. Perhaps she’s merely run off her feet. I’ve heard the stories about this place: a constant victim of budget cuts, perpetually short-staffed, doctors and nurses overworked. I nod. ‘Well, I’m a pathologist … But can you at least tell me how he is?’ Again Ursula drags a finger down the page. ‘It’s not immediately clear from these notes.’ She eases the folder shut. I scrunch the bed sheet into a ball beneath my palms. ‘I need to see him. I need to see him now.

’ ‘I understand,’ Ursula says, placing the folder on my bedside table. ‘Of course you do. I’ll be back with a wheelchair as soon as I can.’ ‘Mark will take me. My husband. Where is he?’ ‘He must be with your baby. I’m sure you can see him when we get you upstairs.’ She removes my mobile from the top drawer of the bedside table and hands it to me. ‘You can call him. Tell him to come to the desk for a wheelchair.

’ A buzzer screeches from a room nearby. Ursula frowns as she steps into the corridor. I find Mark’s number and press the phone hard against my ear. It rings out. I call again. This time I leave a message in a voice I barely recognise, begging him to come and get me straight away, to take me upstairs. I tell him I need him. That I need to check on the baby. I’ve worked in hospitals for years. I know the systems, the faults and flaws.

On the face of it, I should be more comfortable here. But being a patient is different to being a doctor. Now I’m the observed rather than the observer; I’m the one being dissected, examined, judged. I can spot incompetence like a watermark. And, worst of all, I know how easy it is to make mistakes. Nurses titter in the corridor outside my room. Muffled wails of newborn babies filter through the air. My uterus seems to tighten inside me. I’m starting to get some feeling back in my legs as the tingling fades away. My muscles soften with the last of the opioids and I gasp at the sticky, hot air, willing myself to stay here, stay conscious, there’s no time for sleep, but the room tilts beneath me, and I swirl into a vortex as the walls collapse in on themselves and the room disintegrates to black.

Day 1, Saturday Breakfast The clatter of a tray wakes me. There’s a stale sulphur smell about the room, a hint of bleach beneath. I peel open my eyes. Pale yellow scrambled eggs on a slice of soggy white bread. Acrid bacon alongside, flecked with charcoal. A woman stands over me. Her name flickers into my mind: Ursula. Then: the baby. The baby boy. My limbs stiffen as I remember that I’m a mother now; that I’m alone.

So is my son. And where is Mark? ‘Please … Is my baby okay?’ I should never have fallen asleep. It’s my first failing as a mother. Correction: my second. My first failing was my inability to keep him inside until forty weeks. ‘I checked with the nursery while you were asleep. He’s stable. But he’s little. I’m sure you guessed that.’ She indicates my chest; my milk hasn’t yet come in.

‘What he needs right now is some colostrum from you.’ Colostrum. The first milk. It’s full of antibodies, fats, all the vital nutrients. I want him to have it, right away. ‘After we get that, can I see him?’ When I see him, I’ll know how he is. How I am, too. ‘Things have settled down on the ward. I’m sure a visit can be arranged. You’ll be able to see your husband in the nursery.

’ Mark. He should be able to calm me, help me forget the images of deceased premature babies flickering through my mind, the ones I’ve dissected at post-mortems over the years. ‘My baby will be alright, won’t he?’ I remember his gestational age. ‘I mean, thirty-five weeks is okay, isn’t it?’ Ursula lifts my gown. ‘He should be fine.’ She places her thumb and index finger either side of my nipple, first squashing it against my chest wall, then squeezing it like she’s juicing a lemon. I wince, but say nothing. ‘You understand we need to stimulate your breasts, to get your milk flowing? You know breast pumps won’t work yet?’ I nod. ‘Good, then.’ Ursula squeezes harder.

‘You’ve picked a name for him?’ The child on the ultrasounds had an upturned nose, pouting lips and a sloping chin. I’d been delighted to discover we were having a girl. After all, I’d saved my childhood dolls, my Anne of Green Gables and Malory Towers book collections in a box under our bed, for our future daughter. Mark had been happy enough, too, even though I knew that, deep down, he’d wanted a son. He’ll be ecstatic now we’ve had a boy. ‘We had decided on Gabrielle for a girl,’ I say. ‘So, I suppose Gabriel, then.’ Ursula raises her eyebrows. ‘Your turn to try.’ She untangles my arm from the IV line that trails to a hanging bag of saline.

Then I pump my breast, fingers thrusting back towards my ribs, clenching together like she has demonstrated, crushing the nipple as hard as I can until it’s the colour of a bruised strawberry. Nothing comes, not even as my hand stiffens into a cramp. ‘Let me,’ Ursula says. I’ve always admired breast tissue under the microscope; something about its branching channels, like a tree growing within. In lactating women, the ducts are filled with smooth pools of milk, stained a salmon pink by the dye. I’d assumed my lactiferous ducts would fill of their own accord. I had never anticipated the need to express the milk into being with brute force. Ursula twists and squishes my breasts, trying to extract even a single drop. I focus on the babies’ cries through the walls, through the open door, through every inch of this room until, finally, there’s a pearly bead of yellow on the tip of my nipple, shining like a jewel. ‘He’ll need this,’ Ursula says, sucking it up into a syringe.

‘Well done.’ I’m not sure if she’s talking to me, or to herself. My breast throbs. I wiggle my toes against the cool sheet, then with tingling fingertips trace the edges of my thighs up to my sagging abdomen. There’s a new lightness in my limbs, an ease of movement that I’ve missed these past months. My belly, though, feels hollow after all the constant kicks. ‘Can I go to the nursery now?’ ‘One thing at a time. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve delivered this to the baby.’ ‘You don’t know where Mark is?’ Still pumping at my breast, Ursula uses her chin to point out a vase on the shelf opposite the bed. ‘He sent those down.

He said not to wake you. He’s upstairs with your baby.’ Twelve blood-red roses. The florist must have mixed the colours up. Mark knows white roses are my favourite. The cotton pillowslip chills the back of my neck as I press my head into it. Ursula holds the syringe up to the peeling cream ceiling, examining the straw-yellow contents. ‘That should be enough for now. Their stomachs are only the size of marbles, you know. And we’ll need more in another two or three hours.

’ She snaps the bedside rail back into place and walks out of the room. Oh God, no. This isn’t what breastfeeding is supposed to be like. I stare up at the paint flecks on the ceiling. None of this was on my birth plan. I was supposed to have a peaceful vaginal birth, Mark beside me massaging my shoulders, whispering encouraging words in my ear. Pain relief if I needed. A healthy baby girl. It was supposed to all go right for me, after everything that had gone wrong before. I’d written my birth plan in minute detail during the hormone-induced bliss of pregnancy.

Maybe that was the problem: I never should have written one at all. The bedside rails are jail bars, pinning me to the narrow mattress. I must wait for Ursula to come and fetch me, and take me to my son. Day 1, Saturday Morning Tea I’m gripping the wheelchair armrests as we pass the nurses’ station directly opposite my room. Why did it take them so long to answer my calls? Ursula pushes me down long, tunnelling corridors with metal handrails fixed to the pale pink walls. Overhead, flickering fluorescent lights hang in unbroken tracks. The scent of disinfectant, mingled with quiet murmuring, wafts out from adjacent rooms. The footsteps of staff strike hard against the laminex. Is it because I’m in a wheelchair that people seem to glance away as we pass? Twists, turns, corridor upon corridor; it seems as if I’m being transported into the centre of the earth. The chair clamours to a stop in front of an elevator and the doors scrape open.

Inside, Ursula thrusts her thumb against the button numbered five. The lift is filled with a potent antiseptic smell, suggesting it has been recently cleaned. Mirrors reflect my face from every angle: straggly fair hair and bloodshot eyes emerging from a white hospital blanket slung over my shoulders, images of my blotchy face repeating infinitely. My fingers tingle on the armrests. The air is still thick. My chest starts to heave and shift. Is this what panic feels like? The lift jolts to a stop. As I’m wheeled out, the hollow inside of the lift reminds me of a receding womb. We move down the corridor and I see a plastic fern beside a row of chairs, a pinboard of smiling baby photos opposite. We reach a small annexe.

Faint baby mewls are audible. A long, shiny metal sink is attached to one wall, numerous taps without handles perched above it. An opaque glass door beside the annexe sink is labelled in thick black font: Special Care Nursery. Wash your hands before entering. ‘Mind you don’t forget,’ Ursula says. ‘Infections can spread quickly. We’ve had issues before when people didn’t wash their hands.’ The water comes on with an automated spurt as I place my fingers beneath the tap. I lather purple liquid soap in my palms and use a nailbrush to scrub at the tinges of blood coating the side of my fingers until I’ve rid my skin of all the stains. I’m very careful.

I know, more than anyone, how dangerous infections can be. The door slides open with a rasping sound to reveal the cacophony within. Bleeping monitors, crying babies, apnoea alarms reverberating off the bleach-white walls. Hitting the back of my nostrils, the scent of starched linen. The sweetness of newborn faeces. The reek of latex gloves. It’s all too familiar, back from my rotation as a junior doctor in a nursery in the big smoke, when I had no clue how to slide needles into the miniature babies’ veins or how to thread tubes into their tiny lungs. Back when I had no experience of how sick a baby could get. Ursula pushes me over the threshold into a low-ceilinged room. Mark must be here.

My baby, too. My stomach knots. To the right of the L-shaped nursery, humidicribs – plastic boxes illuminated with white lights, each containing a miniature baby – are trimmed with leads and monitors attached to flashing screens on the benches beside them like a perverse Christmas display. Two lines of the cribs stretch down a long corridor, about five on either side. The small window on the far wall is the only source of natural light. Open cots, for the larger, less sick babies, cluster close to the nurses’ station in the smaller arm of the ward to the left. With two separate wings, I imagine it’s hard for the staff to keep an eye on all the babies at once. I can only hope they’re taking good care of my son. A gaggle of nurses survey me from the desk beside the door as I’m wheeled towards the corridor of humidicribs on my right. The nurses here are overworked, indifferent, hostile even; I can see it in their narrow eyes and tight lips.

Another mother who has made more work for us. Another mother who has failed her baby. As for the building, it is shabby, old-fashioned, a tad unclean. It feels backward compared with the progressive city hospital where I worked as a junior doctor; where I first met Damien, the baby from years ago who I’m still trying to forget. That hospital had a completely different atmosphere, an aura of calm, modernity and efficiency pervading the entire organisation. Ursula points down to the end of the row. ‘Your baby is this way. We’ll get a doctor to come and let you know how he’s doing very soon.’ Is it because she knows I’m a doctor that she doesn’t feel comfortable telling me herself? ‘And Mark?’ ‘I believe he’s just headed off. I’m sure he’ll be back any moment.

’ Where could he have been going? Downstairs to see me? ‘You’ve worked in a nursery before, I take it?’ Ursula says. I nod, even though it was only for a short time and long ago, during my paediatrics term as a medical resident. Like all young doctors, I rotated through multiple specialties, trying to find the one that suited me best. Obstetrics, paediatrics, emergency, psychiatry, among others. Ursula doesn’t need to know how little I remember of those early days; how much I’ve blocked from my mind. There must be twenty or so infants in here. I have no idea where my baby is. ‘Here we are,’ Ursula says, tugging me to a stop beside a humidicrib on the left, beside the window. ‘Your baby.’ My heart skips a beat.

Part of me doesn’t want to look. I fixate on the outside of the humidicrib. It’s an unfamiliar model: matt-grey base with a rail strung along the side, see-through plastic over the top like a snow globe, enclosing another world. A rectangle of blue card is sticky-taped to the cot wall in front of me, coming unstuck at one corner. Name: _________________ Baby of: Sasha Moloney Sex: Male Then a list of numbers: his weight, date and time of birth. I have to bend around the card to see him. There are wires taped to his chest, a tube emerging from his nose. He’s tiny – smaller, even, than the teddy I bought him, waiting in the cot back home. His chest sucks in between his ribs, his abdomen flailing with each breath. He doesn’t look comfortable.

His arms and legs are kindling-thin, with wads of padding at the knees and elbows for him to grow into, his skin almost translucent with purple streams of veins beneath. He looks like he’s struggling. Like he knows he should still be inside my womb. Him being born prematurely – I blame myself. As his mother, the one who was supposed to keep him safe, I know it’s my fault. Yet despite my guilt, there’s no stirring in my chest, no tightening of my heart. He doesn’t look like the baby who appeared in my pregnancy dreams. I stare at him as I would any other premature newborn. I don’t feel like his mother at all. Fleetingly, I’m struck by a terrible idea: what if this isn’t my baby? But I reorder my thoughts, pushing that inconceivable notion to the back of my mind.

Ursula is back at the desk, chatting to another nurse. They both stop speaking to glance up at me. I give them a cursory smile and turn back to my baby. I understood it would be love at first sight. That’s what I’d heard other mothers describe, what I’d read, what I’d always believed it would be like. It’s strange, I suppose, but I find this baby unappealing. He has a flat-bridged nose, wide-set eyes that are blue-grey in colour – different from Mark’s, and my own – and ears that protrude like a monkey’s. A few tufts of dark hair jut out through pocks of dried blood on his conical scalp. I’m waiting for a maternal connection to kick in, a sense of certainty to settle over me, but as the seconds tick past nothing changes. This could be anyone’s baby.

Shut away behind plastic, with no way to reach him, no way to touch him, no way to feel the texture of his skin – he’s barely more than an outline of a child. This isn’t what I’ve been spending months planning for. This isn’t what I believed motherhood would feel like at all. I wish Mark were here. I need him to tell me that everything is going to be alright. Around me, several mothers stroke their babies’ backs, cooing and ahhing and smiling in delight. A father a few cots over tickles his newborn under its chin as it snuffles and gurgles. I observe them, trying to figure out how they are able to touch their children. Of course – the portholes. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten.

I fiddle with the latch on one of the two round portholes lining a side of the humidicrib, pressing the catch firmly until it releases with a pop and the door springs open. This is the moment I had dreamed of. Skin on skin with my baby, for the very first time. I lean forwards in my wheelchair and ease my hand over to my son. The sole of his foot is squishy, like mincemeat. I recoil. The other mothers are still massaging their own babies. I reach for him again, edge my thumb into the arch of his foot, but he thrusts his leg at my hand, kicking me away. I extricate my arm from the porthole and snap the door shut. I’d imagined my baby’s body on my chest, nuzzling into my breasts; hardly the vision now before me, of a skinny, skeletal mound struggling to breathe, unaware I’m even here.

I remember one of my patients, a new mother, years ago, when I was a junior doctor. In her shared postnatal room she had been trying to put her newborn to her breast, but the baby kept pulling away. ‘This is the worst,’ the woman had complained to me, staring down at her son as he lay on the blanket, perched long and restless between her outstretched legs. ‘How can I love him when he doesn’t even seem to want to know me?’ I’d clicked my tongue. ‘It’s not that he doesn’t want to know you,’ I’d said. ‘He’s learning. Breastfeeding is a learned skill for both of you.’ ‘Then why is it so goddamn hard?’ the woman said. With no personal experience of babies or motherhood, I didn’t have an answer for her back then. I thought she was the one with the problem.

I had no idea how right she was; how hard this could be. Beside me, the small window provides the nursery’s only viewpoint to the outside world. The pane has been tinted black to soften the glare. I can still see out, but no one can see in. The town’s main road runs directly below, cars gliding over asphalt. Across from the hospital, a playground glistens, ringed by a black fence. There’s a clump of gums at the far corner of the park. Beyond the trees, red rooftops stretch like blood-flecked breakers into the distance towards the hills where the bush begins. The park is where I want to be right now. Away from this sterile, noisy place.

Away from this tiny baby who might live, or who might die. But no one would understand my desire to flee. This is my child. And he needs me. A siren blares from the road as a fire truck weaves in and out of lanes, lights blazing. The memory comes to me in a scatter of broken images: our car lurching across the road. A dark shape rising through the windscreen. The pulsing blue lights of an approaching vehicle. I was brought here by ambulance. Mark called the emergency services from the roadside.

On the humidicrib panel, two numbers flicker red amid the dials and knobs. Oxygen, twenty-nine per cent. Temperature, thirty-four degrees Celsius. A grey monitor is fixed to the wall above my head, displaying more numbers on its screen. Heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation – all flashing in lurid blue, red, green. Beneath the clear plastic, the baby’s bellybutton stalk is cherry-red, oozing yellow. Should I call a nurse, warn them about the possibility of infection? But the staff are capable professionals – I should focus on being a mother, rather than a doctor, for now. I inspect my son closer. His fingers tapping against the cot sides are pudgy, his palms thick; both out of proportion to his scrawny body. It has been a while since I dealt with living, breathing babies. Aren’t they all unattractive, a little hard to bond with? Maybe I just need more time to feel something for mine? The residual sedatives loosen my muscles, turning my limbs to liquid rubber, thickening my eyelids even as I try to prop them open. Ursula is behind me, her hands pressing on my shoulders, offering to take me back downstairs. I try to resist – I should be here, waiting for Mark – but Ursula is firm. ‘You need some rest,’ she says. She wheels me back out through the sliding nursery door, into the shiny elevator, then along the long pink corridor to my private maternity room. She shuts the door behind her, guides me into bed and tucks me in tight. The babies in the other rooms are quiet now. Fluorescent lights hum above my head. When Ursula flicks them off, I try to fight against the endless blackness, the mind-numbing promise of not having to think or feel, even as my body limbers into stillness. As sleep engulfs me, I feel like Mark could almost be at my bedside, scratching the itchy spot between my shoulders that I can’t quite reach, smoothing down my hair, whispering that he loves me, that everything is going to be alright.

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