(Originally written: September 28, 2020)
From the day he was born, Kit has known only the sterile lights of the hospital. The sickly glow they cast on even the healthiest of people. He has known the rigidity of plastic tubes going in and out of a body too small to fight their apathy. He has known blankets sewn by a machine and not by love.
He has also known the touch of warmth. Whenever the doctors felt it was safe for him, they would carefully take my son out of his box and put him into my shirtless embrace. I’d hold him closely and gently, my love for him fighting my need to squeeze him tight and never let go. I’d brush my lips against his bald head and smell him. I’d rock back and forth in the chair, humming the lullaby Autumn had written for him.
He knows the rhythm of my heart, its roar from under my chest as muted and powerful as distant thunder on grassy plains. If we were left alone, if a father was allowed solitude with his son, I could feel Kit’s heart. As weak as it was, I needed silence to feel him beat. To know, with certainty, that what I held was living since my son never whimpered. Otherwise I would have to rely on his occasional shivers and that was not enough for me. I had learned from Autumn, on the day of Kit’s birth, that movement did not mean life.
They’d take my son away after a few minutes. Put him back in his prison. Make him remember apathy. I’d cry and they’d frown in sympathy. But they’d still do it. They had to.
I don’t envy them.
The NICU did not have private rooms, just curtains. They would be drawn shut when a doctor or nurse needed to talk privately with one of the other parents. They would talk in low voices and I could see their silhouettes. Hands would reach out and touch shoulders. Heads would nod. Occasionally a hug would happen if the parent was open to one. Then the professional would leave the partition and sometimes come to me. Curtains would be drawn. Hands would touch my shoulder. Heads would nod. Their care toned down to sterile levels for the sake of professionalism annoyed me the first week. Until I caught on to their act of self-preservation. Then I began accepting their hugs.
I was in the hospital whenever I wasn’t at work and my home only functioned as a shower. My meals were all from the hospital cafeteria and they were all swallowed in a hurry so I could get back to Kit. I couldn’t tell you what I was eating even as I was eating it. I just wanted to get back to my boy and the heartless box he was in. My boy and the medical team who cared but couldn’t afford to care as much as I did.
Eventually, they let me take Kit home. They gave me instructions that they put in a folder in my bag. A nurse gave me a card saying goodbye and wishing both of us good health. They suggested I put Kit in a stroller but I refused. I’d carry my boy out of the hospital. With both arms, even though I only needed one. He was still very small.
When we stepped outside, the sun came out from behind the clouds and taught my son what life meant. Kit mewled and shifted in my arms. He also opened his mouth. I understood after a second that he had smiled. I had never seen that before.
I stood there, on the cool and wet concrete, for a few minutes. Letting Kit forget fluorescence. Letting Kit learn what life other than his dad felt and smelled like. Letting Kit see what I looked like with the sun on my face.
But we did have to go home. So I began walking to my car. Slowly so Kit could have his fun. And as we walked, a breeze came from behind us and swirled around us. She lifted my hair and made me stop as she continued to play with me and our smiling son. Then, as quickly as she had come, she left.
I put Kit in his car seat, wiped my tears, and drove us home.