The alarms honk by the numbers. The blood pressure is an alarm, but they tell you it is not a bad one. The bleating continues in arrogant defiance of this fact. The temperature is an alarm but only because of the lights. The lights are on because the Bilirubin is too high. Only good blood-work results can turn off the lights.
The TPN is a stew of numbers. The label has his name on it, or at least the hospital’s name for him. “Share a TPN with BABYBOY,” you imagine the Coke can saying. But don’t, because the TPN is keeping him alive.
The CPAP went from 8 to 6. It could have gone back to 8. When you ask them the unit of measure, they have to think before they answer that it is centimeters of water. The water is bubbling next to the IV pole. The reality of this is simultaneously off-putting and welcome.
The milk is first gravity-fed at 11, and then they adjust down to pump-fed at 5. The 5 would fit in 2 sewing thimbles. On another floor, the babies are drinking 2 or 3 or 4 in a sitting, but these numbers are 60 or 90 or 120 on this floor. An hour’s snack is a day’s sustenance, a floor apart.
~ * ~
The unenlightened nurse speaks by the numbers. This was that and now it is something else. It fell, then it rose. It is okay now.
The competent nurse says to ignore the numbers and watch the squiggles. The kinks in the squiggles say the numbers are no good. Watch the squiggles, don’t go by the numbers.
The beautiful nurse says to ignore the numbers and squiggles and look at the baby. You feel a chill go through you when this nurse goes off shift. You imagine her walking down the street in a jacket, eating a granola bar, chatting on the phone about getting a pair of pants altered the next day. You wonder how he will do, now that he is back to being numbers and squiggles for twelve more hours.
~ * ~
The beds are arranged by the numbers, but most are not really beds. They are seed-pods, husks, formative material that will be shed in better days. You want to pick these things off like a scab.
The NICU is a point in space and a vector of change. You say “A-17” but you think “A-17, and getting better.” “A-17, and maybe transferring out soon.” “A-17, and they smile now when they talk to us.” “A-17, and the social worker wasn’t so persistent this time.” “A-17, and they haven’t mentioned the chaplain since check-in.”
You can’t avoid looking down the rows. The older babies are a curiosity; the private rooms are a riddle. You see doctors in the half-poncho scrubs they always wear on television when doctors work on babies. You want to shoo these people away, these totems of severity. Don’t do your procedures around my child; my child is getting better.
~ * ~
The overnight housing is assigned by the numbers. “How far away do you live?” “How many children did you bring with you?”
They say there is no food allowed in the Ronald McDonald House, but you can eat in the waiting rooms if you want. The man with the big, sweet-smelling bag of food looked hollow when they told him the rule. A fallen french fry sat at the base of a short staircase for a few hours one night. Maybe one of his kids dropped it.
~ * ~
Raising babies is measured by the numbers. The time between feedings, the focal distance of the eyes, the change in weight, the increase of height. These are numbers that could be printed above pictures of smiling people in glossy magazines.
Every problem in a healthy baby is wrapped around a blessing. The piercing cry comes from a pair of healthy lungs. The spit-up comes from an overfull belly. The stinking diaper comes from a motile intestine.
Amidst the honking alarms, the bubbling machines, the sanitization protocols, and the visiting rules, the NICU is quietly growing these bundles of potential, these radiators of sweet heat, these evokers of joy, these generators of worry. May it be unnecessary for all of them as soon as it can be.