“Would you mind holding Sally, for about ten minutes? My wife and I would like to get some fresh air in the garden.”
I looked up from the nursing station and saw a handsome young man with a deeply-furrowed brow. He held a sleeping baby in the crook of his arm.
Sally was just six weeks old, first-born child to her young parents. She looked perfect with a head of soft silky blonde hair, and big dark blue eyes. Her skin was just as a baby’s skin should be, pink and healthy, with little puckers under her eyes, and folds of skin at her elbows and behind her knees. Prenatal ultrasound hadn’t picked up the anomaly. Sally’s brain wouldn’t sustain life for more than a few weeks.
I had never looked after a dying child before, even though I’d worked as a nurse for ten years in a cancer hospital by then. The mere thought of working in a hospice with that much pain in it had always scared me. I couldn’t imagine making meaning out of the trivia of my own life while being engaged in lives where babies die.
“Of course. I’d love to hold her,” I said, in spite of the tremor inside. “Sally’s captured everyone’s heart around here.”
Sally’s beauty entered me as I reached my arms to take her from her father. Her warmth radiated through the white hand-knit shawl wrapped around her little body as I carried her down the hallway, past mostly-closed doors, to the quiet room, a private space for difficult conversations. The big overstuffed armchair by the window looked out over the garden below. I don’t know why I talk aloud to babies about the world outside, but I always have. Perhaps they’ll feel my love of nature through my words, and feel connected to eternity, like I do sometimes.
Sally’s little chest moved up and down with each rapid breath, and her nostrils ever so slightly inflated with each inhalation. An eyelid flickered, as if about to open, and her top lip quivered. My gaze was intent on knowing her entirely.
I talked all about the trees I could see that were ready to burst into blossom any day; the star magnolia with its furry oval buds, and the yellow of the forsythia beginning to appear along rust-coloured stems. “I planted a magnolia in our garden after my Dad died and I think of him when the buds pop open every spring. I wonder if your parents might do something like that for you, when you go.”
All of a sudden, fear shot through my body from head to toe, an instantaneous physiological reaction to the thought I’d just had. What if the next breath is Sally’s last breath? Could she actually die right here in my arms, in this ordinary moment? A voice inside me whispered, Yes, any breath could be her last breath. That voice has a way of telling me the truth.
A surge of fear mixed with responsibility arose out of nowhere. If Sally died in my arms, perhaps her parents would think it was my fault. My heart pounded against my ribcage, as though trying to escape its destiny. Sally needs to be held by her parents when she dies.
Glancing down at Sally then, I noticed a sunbeam brighten the gold in her hair. I gulped in a breath, and then exhaled slowly. The breath seemed to enter the skin of my whole body, not just my nose, as though I was breathing in the universe, one that included this little baby in my arms, and all babies that had to die too soon. I thought of all the mothers and grandmothers, the fathers and the grandfathers, the nurses and the doctors who the world over had held dying babies in their arms. I knew then that I wasn’t alone.
If Sally took her last breath with me, it wouldn’t be my fault. Sally would die when her last breath had been breathed, and whether she was in the arms of her nurse, her mother or father, or alone, she would die. I couldn’t control any of it. I could only offer myself fully to that moment with my love, and live with Sally for a while. Just she and I entwined in an inexplicable world.
My thoughts and my pounding heart had settled. Sally seemed oblivious to the storm that had raged inside me. She hadn’t stirred. I gently stroked the top of her head, and noticed the soft indentation of her fontanelle, the space between her skull bones that would never get the chance to close over.