You have just been born, or, rather, they have just pulled you from the folds of my belly where you had been hiding. I am awake, but cannot feel half of my body; it is as though it has simply disappeared. When they first hand you to me, they have already wrapped you up, and all I can see is the little bump of your nose, lattice lips working to suckle. The milk flow is sudden and painful; it darkens my gown. It is three days before I see you fully; with the nurse about to give you a bath, I ask if I may help. I can stand up and move around now, although it takes an effort that locks my teeth together. The nurse is surprised that no-one has yet unwrapped you for me, but it’s been a cold spring, and you’re so small, and my gratitude to this place is such that I did not want to ask for anything I was not offered. You are smoother than I had imagined, and more beautiful. We slide you into the water, a dark and slippery eel.
It is a Tuesday morning. The sun spills across the table and down the carpet while I bring your porridge to its slow rolling burp. You smile at me, a leafy smile from the floor. A stub of brown stalk I find stuck to your tongue. The leaf could be poisonous – not enough of it remains for me to be sure. I seek reassurance, but they are all reluctant to take responsibility. I can see it in their faces – not one of them wants to be the one to say ‘it’ll be ok’, in case – just in case – it isn’t. They see my anguish and their eyes soften. They touch my arm, refer me gently to someone else. From nurse to nurse, medical centre to hospital, my panic propels you towards liquid charcoal, until finally someone shoos away the what if.
Here lies another hospital bed. You are snuffled asleep to my right, your father on a knee-high cot to my left. The nurses have all taken turns to coo – it’s a surgical ward, not meant for the likes of you. They call you their little ‘boarder baby’, here only because of your tie to me and my milk. You are really too big for the Perspex crib they have borrowed from Maternity. It must be near three a.m. because here she looms now to change the IV. Always there is one like her. Only for the clock will she materialise in the half-light of the bar above my bed. Then she is a little too impatient, a little too rough with my wrist, a little too much to bear at this dark, dark hour. I look over at you as the liquid begins its slow burn home. The guilt is a tall, cold wave that comes from nowhere: what a terrible thing to have done, to have given you a body that will break and pain and die. By mid-afternoon they can’t find a vein anymore. Your grandmother, my mother, leans forward over the coarse, white sheet to ask is there anything she could do. I attempt a smile. ‘Take my antibiotics’ I say, and she says ‘I would if I could’ – and I believe her.