We have two children now, but only one is visible and she is something to see. Her name is Helen, meaning light, and her eyes shine bright and radiant. At just eleven months, she already seems full of thoughts and plans, always watching everything and everyone for more ideas.
When she was born, we were focused on a single line of thought. A blue line to be specific. She was perfectly healthy, except there was no blue line. The line that appears like magic on a diaper to indicate even the slightest urine output. No blue line, no blue line . . . it echoed and rippled off the cold white walls. Every doctor and nurse and intern would shuffle through the paperwork looking for some detail they missed that could make sense of it. A lack of blue line meant an additional week in the local children’s hospital.
Until Helen peed we could not take her home.
The hospital ushered in a whole team of young medical students to our room like an episode of House. They had nothing. My husband and I went over our medical history again and again. I used no medication during labor and only a round of antibiotics throughout the pregnancy. A lack of input could lead to a lack of output and so, topless, I sat in bed while everyone watched Helen nurse and swallow, and then watched me pump, each coming close, in turn, to see the colostrum and milk for themselves. Again and again, they watched until finally the head doctor, bless her soul, said “Enough!” Her name was Dr. McLeod.
The clueless desperate search moved on to find an answer to why a perfectly healthy baby wasn’t doing perfectly healthy things. They poked and scanned and inserted a catheter up her six-pound beautiful body—she, my husband, and I all cried. They taped all the lines down. “I hate doing this,” the nurse said, “because it hurts when we take it off.”
I had never been a mother before. I’ll never forget those days. Helen, in only a dry diaper, stuck to me, mostly naked myself, like a tree frog. She would look up and stare at me, and I imagined she was wondering where all the noises from her life in-utero had gone. Where are the birds and the chickens and the horses? Only our voices she recognized and her brow furrowed with the question, When are we going home?
One day they did an x-ray and the nurses came in with protective vests, and they asked me to leave the room with my tree frog alone on the bed. I came undone and wept unashamedly in the hallway. After a minute, I had the presence of mind to look around and see
if anyone was watching. There was just one other person, a woman down the hall. She was leaning against the wall, too, her eyes were red from crying at some point, and she was staring at me. We looked at each other for a while, as you look at yourself in a mirror after a long illness.
Then we both heard a sound, the sound of crying from another room in the hall, and anguish for the new weeper came into our faces.
At that moment I should have thought, this is hell, but instead, the thought that came to me so strongly, as if over the intercom, was, Jesus is here.
Still looking at the woman, I saw him, my Lord Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, well acquainted with grief, and I hope she saw him in me. If not, I hope she felt, even still, the presence of something more in that place, a companionship much sweeter and deeper than mere humans can offer each other in this troublesome world, and I hope she called out for mercy as I did.
The nurses left the room and I went to nurse my child. I never saw the woman in the hall again.
Finally, the team came in and reviewed their findings. They had found nothing, but the catheter bag had filled up, and maybe if they removed the line now, she would urinate on her own. It might be a few hours before someone could come and do that for us, they said.
“Is there anything you would like to say?” Dr. McLeod asked me.
Through tears, I said, “We’ve been waiting for days. I know you have lots of sick patients, but I want someone to remove this line right now.”
All those students who had seen me topless were now embarrassed by my emotion, and they looked to their teacher for guidance.
She nodded with gentleness and said, “Yes, of course. We understand.”
Later, I found out how important Dr. McLeod was. She probably had children on her rotation who had been there for years. I’ll never forget the respect she gave me as a mother, and although I wasn’t right to request immediate attention, the way she treated me was ennobling and gave me confidence in my calling, even to this day.
It wasn’t long after that, glory be, that my husband jumped up and shouted for the beautiful sight of a long blue line. We had waited for that line like the watchman for the morning, and every day since we have been grateful for all the diapers that girl can go through.
As we drove away from the children’s hospital, I said to him, “I feel guilty. Why do we get to drive away when so many others have to stay?”
“I know,” he said, “I’ve been thinking the same thing.”
They say help at an exigency lays you under peculiar obligation and should never be forgotten. I will never forget Dr. McLeod, but all I could do in return for her help was to write a thank-you note, and perhaps I can remember to give those who are tired and impatient the respect she gave me.
I’ve thought about the woman who watched me cry many times since. Was she able to take her baby home? Or is she still there in the hallway, eyes filled with sorrow, a friend for every broken-down mother?
Cover image by Nevin Ruttanaboonta.