My eyes slid open.
Six people in paper gowns surrounded me, surgical masks obscuring their faces. Hair nets covered their heads and made each of them clones and reflections of each other. I slowly blinked, trying to understand what had happened. A woman in a gown leaned over me, and I recognized her almond eyes, forcing my heart to quicken with unease. I whimpered, “Jennifer, what happened?”
She gently placed her hand on my forehead, and I then noticed the paper cap atop my own head. I tried to rip it off, but my arms were immobile. I twisted my face to my side, and my appendages were manacled to the table. I tried to kick in rebellion, but I couldn’t feel my legs. My breaths became wheezes as I frantically searched for any feeling in my abdomen or legs. A partition separated me from seeing my lower half. I wailed violently, expecting one of the doctors to jump or something.
“Calm her down, please,” was one’s response.
Jennifer leaned forward. “Look at me, Devin.”
I turned to her, my eyes wild and shocked.
“Good girl. You had a seizure at the house…”
The last thing I remembered was standing in the middle of the kitchen, leaning against the bar. I eyed two blue jays flying in short flight patterns, twisting and turning into each other’s lines like ice skaters in the yard. I smirked, sipping on a glass of water I just pulled out of the sink’s faucet. The jays were so vibrant, almost as if they popped out of a surrealism painting. I glanced down and noticed my wrists were itching. I gently placed the glass down on the bar and wringed my wrists, hoping to alleviate the unpleasant sensation. My chapped lips begged for attention also, so I simply ran my tongue across them.
And then I was here.
“What? Why?” I managed.
“Devin, calm down.” Ned’s mom was so calm and easy with me.
And then I remembered the baby. “My baby! My baby! Is she okay? Please tell me she is okay.” Tears accumulated in the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision. Jennifer was lost in a screen of sheen and glare.
“The doctors are having to take her out, okay? For both your safety as well as hers.” Her hand wiped away a layer of perspiration forming on my forehead.
I roared, “No! Her! Worry about her!!! She’s only seven months…”
A pressure resonated in my abdomen, and I braced myself, clenching my hands into taut fists. The doctors disappeared behind the partition as they tended to my ailments. A wave of nausea fell over me, and I twisted my neck to the side. I lurched from my chest into my throat, and Jennifer pulled a plastic bag to my mouth. The liquid seeped out of my mouth into the bag, and another session of vomit rushed up my throat into my mouth. The acidity cut through the bitter taste often associated with the after effects of my episodes. I pulled my chin to my chest and clenched my eyes shut.
“Done, sweetheart?” Jennifer inquired.
I slowly nodded my head. Exhaustion made sleep titillating all of a sudden—but it also could have been due to the sedatives pumping into my right arm.
“Call the NICU.”
My eyes snapped open, and I whimpered desperately, “Why isn’t she crying?”
The doctors whispered things to each other furtively, quickly, preventing me from raising my blood pressure anymore. I tried to sit up, but my abdominals were still paralyzed. Jennifer glanced over the partition and turned back to me. Her wan face alarmed me. “Devin, listen to me.”
I clenched down and nodded my head, swallowing an awful epiphany forming in my brain. A poisonous train of thought became a black storm whirring about my brain, and twee thoughts were no longer possible. The nascent anxiety was too much to possibly bear, and my body succumbed to frisson.
“There is something wrong with her.” A tear slid down her face, and her voice was stifled by congestion. She wavered with each passing slur.
“Okay,” I whimpered as I choked back a sob.
“They’re going to take her to the NICU, and then they will cart her by when she’s strong enough. You have to worry about you right now. Okay?”
I shook my head. “No, no, no…” I caught in my periphery a bassinet bursting through the hermetic doors, and the gowned doctors placed a tiny figure wrapped in bloody blankets into the little bed. She barely fit into a third of the bed. I gasped, and my fingertips attempted to brush against the glass, my body begging to comfort the minute thing.
Maybe my body was begging to be comforted.
Jennifer knelt down beside me, and I turned back to her. My eyes had to refocus because she was positioned so intimately next to me. Her emerald eyes glistened under the bright fluorescence, and I lost concentration for a moment—lost in horror as I realized there was something blatantly, obviously wrong with the baby. She quietly cried, “What did you want to name her?”
I noticed the tense she used.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Devin, can you feel this?” A doctor prodded me with a sharp instrument, but I could only feel a blunt touch.
I became lost in the post-op intricacies of being dissected. I finally managed to get stitched up, and I was hooked up to a nice little machine that let pain medication flood into me. I nestled into my hospital bed, and the doctors forced me to imbibe some juice after failing to persuade me to eat something. I just couldn’t focus truly on anything except my daughter. I wondered if she had Ned’s eyes, and I wondered if she had mine. I wondered if she was perfect.
I impatiently waited in the uncomfortable bed for what seemed like years but were merely hours. I would fade in and out of slumber but then awaken, frightened I would miss my daughter. I tapped my fingers against the bed rails. I refrained from moving too much in my bed due to the series of stitches and glue holding me together. I was afraid I was beginning to need some for my heart after Ned’s mom’s reaction. Her forcible reaction was almost too much to bear.
“Dear, I think you should come here,” she whispered into the phone in the hallway. The walls were tremendously thin, allowing me to hear nearly every word of anyone who passed by the room. “Why? I can’t do this to her.”
I cracked my thumb against my palm.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
I clenched my eyes shut.
“Have you called Ned about it? I don’t think you should tell him. She should probably tell him when he comes home soon.”
I rubbed the heel of my palm against my right eye, forcing bright fireworks to flash across my eyelids. Everything hurt, but the mental pain was at the forefront of even the physical. Sitting up brought me to tears, but the emotional turmoil made my tears run dry.
“I’m going to have to hang up; the doctor’s coming in.”
Ned’s mom burst through the door before the doctor followed in after her. They both gave me toothy smiles, but a hint of sadness was obvious behind their facades. Tears already fell down my cheeks, afraid she didn’t have everything she deserved.
“Hi, Devin, I’m Dr. Alastar. I performed your C-section. I’ve got some news.” The man’s wispy white hair barely covered his head, thinning in every sense of the word. His eyes hid behind the glare of his glasses. Clean-shaven and smiling, he seemed amiable, but I was not in the mood to put on a front of happiness. I was too distraught with thinking about my daughter, and then I noticed how he said, “news.”
“Ma’am, your daughter has nine alleles similar to yours.”
My heart dropped. A ponderous pressure fell against my chest, and I couldn’t breathe anymore. I wildly combed through my hair and frantically looked for somewhere to go. I tried to move my legs, but they were still numb. I needed to run. I needed to leave the hospital and just explode with all of this anxiety and frustration. I heaved labored breaths, and Jennifer placed a hand on my shoulder, rubbing back and forth as if the tender touch would assuage my panic attack.
“Dr. Alastar, what does that mean?” she innocently inquired.
“It means it’s not Ned’s,” I whispered, and then my voice broke. I buried my face into my hands, and I stifled my sobs. I coughed, and a pain ripped through my abdomen. My abdomen felt like it was splitting.
“I’m going to vomit.”
Jennifer handed me a pan quickly. I snatched it from her, and then I upchucked foam violently. I lurched forward, and more pain exploded from my incision site. I spit three times into the pan, trying to get the taste out of my mouth. The doctor remained unfazed, as if he expected me to have this reaction.
Jennifer rubbed my back lightly and reassured, “Everything will be okay, Devin.”
I turned back to the doctor as he expectedly waited for me to finish. My eyes widened as I realized that wasn’t the extent of the news. I murmured, “What else?”
“Well, your daughter suffers from a condition usually caught by ultrasounds, but because of her position, it wasn’t caught. She has what is known as anencephaly.”
I furrowed my brow in question. I didn’t know what that was.
“Nearly one in about five thousand babes are diagnosed with this condition.”
Jennifer finally admitted, “Sir, we don’t know what that even is.”
My heart jumped, and I hurriedly wondered if maybe I shouldn’t know what it is. Maybe if I didn’t understand what the condition was, it wouldn’t affect my child. Maybe it wouldn’t hinder her too much in life; maybe I could pretend she was just a normal kid. I turned to Jennifer and shook my head frantically. “I don’t want to know.”
Dr. Alastar simply continued, “Your daughter is lacking part of her brain and skull. She doesn’t have a prefrontal cortex. This condition is often caused in the first month of pregnancy and is due to a neural tube defect.” He pointed to the front of his head and then pulled his finger to the center of it.
I collapsed into myself but then rushed to understand the severity of the situation. “What? So she’s special needs? I’m okay with that.”
“No, ma’am.” His brow fell into a forlorn expression.
“What? So she’s fine?”
Jennifer nestled herself beside me on the bed, embracing me tautly. She curled my neck into her bosom. Her breaths broke and shuddered; her chest collided against my cheek. Tears showered down upon me. Her nails dug into my back, and my body threatened to fall apart just due to Jennifer’s reaction.
“Anencephaly is generally a fatal disease. Your daughter maybe has a couple hours left.”
I aggressively pushed Jennifer off of me, tearing her arms away from my bare back. She whimpered, “It’s okay, Dev.” She kept trying to wrap her arms around me again, attempting to console me, but I couldn’t allow it. I wouldn’t.
“No, no, no!” I roared. “Get off of me! Get off!” I shoved Jennifer off of the bed, and she caught herself before she collided into the concrete floor. My fingers drove into the sides of my head as I succumbed to the news. My body violently shook, forcing the paper gown to audibly crinkle. I pulled my knees to my chest and dug my teeth into my knees. I choked on my own saliva and forlornly whimpered at my own cost, continuing the cycle of exacerbation of my pain and then of my emotions from crying and choking.
What had I done to deserve this? What had I done for my daughter to deserve this? The one thing I could think of was if she had been anybody else’s daughter, she would have been completely normal. She would have attended kindergarten, high school, maybe college. She would walk across those graduation stages, beaming with pride. She would maybe get married, maybe she would have children of her own. I just know she wouldn’t be exposed to the world I saw growing up. Maybe if she had been anybody else’s daughter, she wouldn’t have been a product of incest. Maybe if she had been anyone else’s daughter, she would live.
Edgar rushed inside the room, a camera in hand. He gave me a hearty smile as I peeled away from my legs to see my visitor. Jennifer and Dr. Alastar turned to him and just stared at him. He meekly stated, “I didn’t know what to bring.”
I noticed he didn’t have a baby carrier or a bag for clothes or anything. She must have told him when she knew my daughter was going to the NICU.
“Would you like to speak to a chaplain, Miss Sebold?”
I turned to the doctor and shook my head, and then I timidly inquired, “May I see her?”
Dr. Alastar pulled his chin to his chest, taken aback by my odd request. I guess most people don’t want to see their child deformed and hurt. They didn’t want to suffer through the vision of their precious daughter without the aspects and features of a normal child. Who would want to? A masochist, and someone who deserved to know what her only child would ever look like.
The hospital was very lenient and wary of my status, pulling her little bassinet into my room. Wires and tubes flooded from within the tiny little bed. I glanced over the lip of the glass box as the nurse parked her next to my bedrail. I pulled myself onto my knees like an impatient child waiting for her gift on their birthday. I heard the click of the camera as a smile crept across my face.
Her fluorescent blue eyes protruded from her minute face, and a thin mop of black hair plastered to her tiny little skull. One section of her smooth skin delved into a bumpy surface, and I knew that was where she lacked the organic material she desperately needed. Her whole body blushed and reddened as she gave a wide yawn, unveiling her blue-tinted lips. Her hands curled into her chest like a raptor, and she tucked her chin into her tiny chest. A tube sprouted from her nostrils with a piece of white tape holding it just above her lips. A white hospital bracelet identical to the two I had barely fit on her wrist. A pink wool cap was gently placed on her head by the nurse as I watched her like a hawk—careful not to expose my child to anything more traumatic.
I whispered weakly, “Hi, baby.”
The nurse glanced at the baby and then back at me. She scratched the back of her neck before leaning into the bassinet and picking up my daughter. Wrapping her tautly in the blanket, she bobbed up and down, staring down at her. The nurse turned to me and inquired, “Do you want to hold her, Mom?”
I stole a glance to her and then fell back to my baby. I had never been called “Mom” before, and I both loathed and loved it. I loved her immensely the moment I fully accepted my pregnancy, and the name impacted me in believing I could actually do this. However, I would never hear her call me that. I would never know the pleasure of watching her grow up. It was a reminder of what I was for a moment and then never would be again.
The nurse gently placed my daughter in my arms, gently pulling down the front of my gown to below my clavicle. The baby leaned against me, and I wrapped my arms around her, cradling in her head in the crook of my elbow. I leaned forward and pressed my lips against her forehead, wary to not hurt her—terrified I would break her. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, and I didn’t know why. Just all of these feelings welled up inside of me, and tears began to stream down my face.
Jennifer leaned over and rubbed my baby’s small arm. She whispered, “Happy birthday, girly. Congratulations, Mom.” Edgar sat back and just took endless pictures. I didn’t understand why he was documenting it because it would be all over soon, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be reminded.
I didn’t want to be reminded; I didn’t want to lose her again and again in my mind.
I just sat there with my baby girl in my arms for about five hours before she finally stopped breathing despite being hooked up to so many tubes and wires. She just closed her ponderous eyes for the last time and then stopped everything. She died in my arms, and I really can’t describe how amazing and heart-wrenching it was to have her and then lose her all at once. I was done screaming and crying when she passed away that day—I was numb.
The doctors and professionals asked for a name for the birth certificate and death certificate, but I chose not to give her one. I didn’t want to mar her perfection with a name that didn’t measure up to her. I know she was medically considered deformed, but I just could look past it. Everything that was supposedly wrong with her, I could just ignore because she was my daughter—she was my everything for four hours and forty-one minutes. I lie because the real reason I never named her was because I didn’t want to get attached, but I was already lost in her existence. They simply put down an ID number, and then they asked for the father’s name. I cried for another thirty minutes, devastated because maybe if she was Ned’s, she would not have died.
Edgar, Jennifer, Alexa, and I went home the next day—empty-handed. I lay across the back seat, my legs atop Alexa’s lap as Edgar drove with Jennifer by his side. Searing pain ripped across my abdomen every time I sat up or generally moved. I never understood how much your abdominals were used until this moment. I gripped the door handle to stabilize myself, but each little divot and hole the car lurched over shook me. I bit my lip and swallowed a cry. Alexa gently rubbed my calf. Edgar painfully explained to his daughter why I no longer had one.
We finally made it home, and Jennifer escorted me up the stairs to my bedroom. The stitches tugged at my skin as I tried to stand up. I loosely just hung over, resigning to the pain. Jennifer gently sat me down on the bed, allowing me to sit up with her arm around my shoulders. I vacantly stared at the baby bed Edgar and I built the past weekend, just sitting there, open to a new child. Painted lime green vines wrapped around the white bars and base, and bright lavender tulips exploded from yellowing buds. A soft mattress and blanket sat atop the built structure, and I gently grabbed a little plush dog sitting in the corner of the bed I bought for her. The white fur and dark eyes reminded me of Holden, and I guess that’s why I got it for her—because I wanted her to be forever protected.
But I couldn’t protect her after all.
I pulled myself off of the bed and placed my hands on the edge of the cradle. I wrapped my fingers around the lip and stared down at the empty mattress. I tossed the toy into the little cage and just glared into mattress.
Jennifer murmured, an edge of fear in her voice, “Devin?”
I shoved down as hard as I could, popping the side of the cradle out of place. I snatched the loose side and smacked the side perpendicular to it. I cracked the wood and smashed the cradle into divisible parts. I fell to my knees and scratched out the nails holding the wood together. I scratched away the neat finish; splinters littered the ground. I beat against the remnants of the bed with my knuckles, trying to destroy it. My breath wavered as pain radiated from my abdomen, and I roared suddenly. I combed through my tangled hair that I failed to brush at the hospital—putting it into a bun with wild tendrils falling away from me after she died. Tears poured over the edges of my dry eyes, and I wept freely without the reservation I utilized in the hospital. I bawled and wailed as a piece of me was torn away yet again.
Jennifer merely whispered, “Devin…”
I frantically turned to look over my shoulder at her. I gritted my teeth and begged, “I want to know why.”
“Why the hell did this happen? Why does God give me all these great things and then tear it away from me? What did I do? What did I do?”
“Why?! Why did she have to die? She never did anything!”
Silence answered me.
“Why did Heath have to die? He was the best person I knew! Why did Ned have to go through all of that? He didn’t deserve it! No one ever deserved it, but they get all of this shit thrown on their plate. They get all of these worries and consequences for things they never did. No one ever deserved this.”
“No one! No one!”
“Devin, your stitches!”
I glanced down and blood stained my t-shirt right at the center of my lower abdomen. I shook my head and lifted up my shirt. A couple stiches came loose and stretched across the incision. I pulled it back down and pulled myself back onto the bed. I lay back and waited for something. I don’t know what. Jennifer pulled the sheets over my shoulder, and then she left me to mourn in solitude. I burrowed in the sheets as Jennifer meekly watched me revert back to a little girl.
Because that’s what I was.