We have tea parties on Beelzebub’s Roof and get skincare tips from Helen of Troy and whenever we’re feeling sorry for ourselves we get drunk with Cleopatra and play chicken, taking turns peering over the edge of the Bottomless Pit.
Then at 3 AM we stumble together through streets of fire to Anne Boelyn’s Waffle House for belgians with cinnamon sugar. It’s not what you would call fun but we are arm-in-arm anyway, shuffling in step.
I’m sorry you’re here too, but I’m glad for the company.
The pamphlet was a piece of paper folded twice, a photocopy of a photocopy, crooked and smudged. On the front was a line drawing of a forlorn-looking woman with her head in her hands. She was wearing bellbottoms and a turtleneck sweater. The title read
BOOKLET OF NORMAL FEELINGS.
It was a fruit-punch-and-cheese NICU gathering for parents and I must have looked a mess, eyes glassy and red, bird's nest hair, on the brink. A social worker appraised me and as she reached for the melonballs with one hand she pushed the pamphlet across the table with the other, saying maybe you should read this, looking prim and satisfied, duty done.
Instead of taking the pamphlet I reached under her waistline for her pantyhose, pulled them up over her head and walked out.
I obediently took the thing and looked it over with a frozen face as the parents around me yammered cheerfully about jaundice and reflux. Then I burst into tears, the snotty, gulping-for-air kind, bawling about cerebral palsy and retardation and brain damage and lifelong diapers as everyone else buried themselves in platefuls of two-bite muffins and styrofoam cups.
As I stumbled out into the hall she followed me and I thought cynically here we go, she’s going to try and help me but instead she called my name and said here, you forgot your bag, pressing it into my shaking arms. Then she turned and walked away.
Later that day the social worker in charge found me at the isolettes and said Kate, I think we should talk about what you might need, you know, to get through this and I said okay and she said I’ll be in touch but she never was, even after Liam died, other than giving me a $10 gas coupon once every two weeks. Which reduced the cost of twizzlers for my NICU commute by about half.
I understand they’re budget-strained. I understand that babies are the priority, not me. They provide beepers and tubes, the diagnostics, the chemical goo, the doctors highly trained in the art of saying we just have no way of knowing.
But I often wonder: if I were in charge, how would I initiate new and aching parents to this alien world? How would I help them feel like they had a place in it? How would I stand beside them as they made decisions about do-not-resuscitate orders and palliative care? What would I do to consider a babylost family ‘discharged’? We wouldn’t set them loose again into the rampant ordinariness, squinting and disheveled, without some sort of floatation device… right?
In a week or so I’ve got a phone interview with a researcher from the hospital who wants to know what they could be doing differently for bereaved parents. What would you tell her?