He is barely ten hours old when the neo-natal retrieval team arrive. They attach him, my first-born, to an electrocardiograph, they wrap him in what looks like pliant aluminium foil, they place him in a space capsule on wheels. They turn on the oxygen. They close the lid. They will take him to the airport and to a city hospital where they will look after him. I watch him roll away from me, I listen to his heartbeat until the maternity ward’s wide doors close and he is gone.
I know as soon as he is born there is something wrong. His first cry is a mewl of complaint, not wholesome newborn outrage. His stomach retracts with each breath, he pouts ferociously and for a legitimate reason. He is born too early. ‘Why,’ the retrieval team doctor asks, ‘was he induced two weeks early?’ I want to reply, ‘Because I trust my doctor,’ but offer only this; ‘My doctor said that even though it was two weeks overdue the foetus was too small.’
I join him 24 hours later. I am re-admitted to hospital. I endure, as all postpartum women must, the tedium of having my weight, height, blood pressure and other details recorded yet again. Finally, I visit the neo-natal intensive care suite. They have tied down my baby’s arms. A tube sprouts from his chest, just above his midget heart. He cries but I cannot hear him; another tube is threaded down his throat. ‘We have to restrain his arms, he keeps pulling at his tubes,’ the dark-haired nurse says. ‘He’s the biggest bub here at the moment. His lungs aren’t quite developed yet, but he’s a fighter.’ I am too easily read; she pauses then says, ‘It’s okay. You can touch him. Talk to him. He’ll recognise your voice.’
Later, exhausted, I sleep and dream. I take my baby to a staff meeting. My work mates are polite, they smile but we must work; there is no time to praise my newborn. There is only one place I can put my baby; an empty aquarium. I lower him into the glass casket and he sleeps. I contribute to the meeting, I watch him through the glass but the aquarium fills with water. His blankets are soaked, the water rises, the wet swaddling drags him under.
I wake before I can reach him.
Two hours later a doctor from the neo-natal unit walks into my room. My baby is fine, she says. The clip board with his medical details are her shield, a black pen her sword. ‘Tomorrow,’ she says, ‘we will try to feed him through a tube, one millilitre only of the breast milk you expressed for him. We won’t give him your milk today. There was a little problem this afternoon. Do you remember the tube that drains fluid from his lungs?’ I nod. ‘For some reason, it became blocked.’ She moves her shield so it covers her heart. ‘We had to drill a second hole in his chest and start the drainage again. There is nothing to worry about now.’
‘When,’ I ask, ‘did this happen?’ She tells me and I count the hours since I arrived at the hospital.
While I slept, my son almost drowned in his own mucus.