Three hours after Saul's birth, Clara and Ray were escorted into the bright and noisy neonatal intensive care unit, where 20 miniature hothouse plants sought to root and take hold in five columns by four rows of mechanized greenhouses, inside each a precious son or daughter, perfect but for being a little raw, slightly underdone.
Simian and still, the babies were suspiciously quiet amidst the surrounding chaos of alarm bells and emotion, disturbingly meek in spite of the tubes in their noses, IVs in their scalps, sensors on their skeletal rib cages, sensors even on their tiny big toes. Some had Dixie cups taped to their heads to keep the inserted needles from dislodging, and Clara found the juxtaposition of such a familiar, benign object with the otherwise ultra high-tech atmosphere comforting. Saul lay on an open bed with high, bright lights, the bed reserved for the more serious cases. His eyes were closed, all anger dissipated, his scarce energy going into the tricky business of staying alive.
"Wired for sound," Ray said, fingering each wire attached to Saul and tracing it back to a machine.
"He should still be inside me," Clara said.
Ray looked at her warily, but remained silent. A nurse approached with a tray of sparkling tools.
"You'll have to leave now," the nurse said.
Clara raised her head to refuse, but saw that Ray was already moving away from them.
"He should still be inside me," she said to the nurse.
"You'll have to leave now," the nurse repeated, an edge of possession in her voice. "Baby needs his meds."
"His name is Saul," Clara said.
The nurse turned away without reply, and Ray reached for Clara's elbow. They had seen Saul for only a few seconds after he was born, when the masked, cloaked nurse held him up for viewing like a butcher presenting a steak for approval. Naked and screaming, his chin quivering in fury, he was the most beautiful thing Clara had ever seen. And then he was gone.
An absurdly young neonatologist visited them in the recovery room and described Saul's condition as delicate, clearing his throat a bit as the euphemism stuck there.
"Statistically, a twenty-seven week preemie of his weight has approximately a sixty percent chance of survival, but there is the additional fact," he went on, pulling a little neurotically at a gold chain on his neck, "that white males tend to fare the worst." The boy doctor had milled a little uncertainly around them, his ego for once ineffective, and then he left.
"Statistically, men who wear gold necklaces are insecure and incompetent." Clara had said to Ray. "Besides, white males never fare the worst."
"Clara," Ray said, "he's trying to tell you Saul might not live."
"My child is not going to die," Clara said. But in her hospital room that night, hearing the other newborns demand their mothers and the soothing responses, she had surrendered completely. Weak from fear and uncried tears, she beseeched her childhood God for clemency, a commutation of the death penalty to a life sentence. Failing a reply, she grasped for any kind of heaven, anybody's god, begging the darkness shamelessly for the slightest possible hope.
The darkness remained dark, the silence remained complete, and she knew in that moment that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, after death. This succinct understanding filled her with a cool wonder and strange relief, as if a niggling logic problem in the back of her mind had suddenly been solved. Birth. Life. Death. Simple as that.
Mama called the next morning. "What did you do to deserve this?" Her fear, as always, twisted into accusation.
"Nothing, Mama. It just happens."
"Well, it's in the hands of the Lord God Almighty now, sweetie," Mama replied, her soft Southern accent glazing the words with a sickly piety.
"The Lord can to go hell," Clara said, "It's in the hands of a million dollars' worth of technology."
"That's my girl!" Pop crowed, having snuck onto the extension line.
After Clara hung up, she shed the gown worn thin by too many diseased and injured bodies, put on her nearly new denim maternity jumper, and called a taxi to take her home. The tiny baby man remained behind, his lungs forgetting to breathe, his heart misremembering its beat, prodded repeatedly to live by efficient, laconic nurses and their expensive machines. The taxi driver had too much experience to question her silent tears, but wordlessly handed a box of tissues into the back seat.
For eight mornings after his birth Clara awoke believing she was still pregnant, but on the ninth her sleeping self capitulated to the cheated reality of it all. No enormous belly, no Lamaze, nor warm and lazy bonding in the exhausted, jubilant hours after childbirth. The small tear in her membranes had revealed a new and wounded world just below the surface, where day became night without her knowing, and on and on as she waited for something to change, a new medication to take hold, a rally of strength, a final breath.
Each day when she visited Saul, scrubbed each arm up to the elbow for one-two-three minutes, shrouded herself in a wrinkled green gown and affixed a mask over her germy mouth, she stood guard at Saul's Isolette all day, a hand through each stockinged porthole, one hand encompassing an entire slender leg, one on his wrinkled skull, as if somehow touch and sound could replace their discarded, rotting umbilical cord.
When he stopped breathing, his heart rate would slow in conspiracy, and the electronic line on the graph would plunge, setting the alarm off. No, the number on the screen was his breath, the line on the graph was his heart.
"Isn't he gorgeous?" she would insist to visitors, and the more deceitful agreed before they looked away.
"He has no hair," Pop said.
"Neither do you," she replied.
Clara picked up a package of stew meat one night at the grocery store and, noticing that the weight inked on the label was precisely Saul's birthweight, she remembered a run of sick jokes from high school.
What do you call a man with no arms and legs hung on a wall?
What do you call a man with no arms and legs in the water?
What do you call a two pound white male with a collapsed lung?
Clara read all she could relating to prematurity: pamphlets, books, medical charts. She made notes in the margins, and marked key phrases with a yellow highlighter, just as if there were going to be a final exam, and her knowledge, or lack thereof, would save or condemn her son. So she now knew that forty thousand babies were born 10 to 15 weeks early in the United States each year; she knew that nearly 70 percent of the infant deaths in this country were related to prematurity. But how to quantify the grief and analyze the despair? There was no average anxiety, no standard deviation of hope.
She knew, too, that historically babies born as early as Saul died within a few hours, except for the very tough or very lucky, like the ones wrapped up and discarded for dead by the wood stove until morning, when they startled the grieving family that found them not only breathing but hungry, the heat having jumpstarted their small souls.
Pure luck of the cosmic draw dictated where on the time line of medical technology a person was born, and this very randomness intrigued and appalled Clara. It was nothing now to saw people open and snip out the bad, to replace body parts with plastic and steel, or even someone else's, but there was no explaining the whys and wherefores of who suffered, who escaped. Why me? Why not?
There were surprisingly few tears in the unit; the babies incapable, the nurses too experienced, and the parents drained dry from the night before. Indeed, the atmosphere was festive with helium balloons floating high like hopes, and teddy bears posted at each Isolette. Relatives and staff milled socially as if at an extended cocktail party. Parents compared medication notes, progress and regress, insisting reciprocally that everything was going to be okay, really it will. But saying so did not make it so. A slot where an Isolette was and then suddenly wasn't, a hole that everyone tried not to look at, but when they did Clara saw in their eyes the horror in her heart.
The sturdy staff kept their balance with an extraordinary sense of humor, and the greater the tension, the more jokes were told. A man is riding on a subway with a dog carrier that he borrowed from friends. He is returning it to them, bringing in it a potluck dish. A woman beside him says, "What's in the dog carrier?" "Tortellini, "he says. "Is that anything like a Lhasa Apso?" she asks. "That's Tibetan," he replies. "This is Italian."
Ray had found this hysterical, laughing until tears ran down his cheeks. Clara's own laughter had started to rise, but dried and crisped in her throat like an autumn leaf before it escaped, so she only smiled silently and tightened her grip on Saul's leg.
Time proved benevolent to Saul. He opened his eyes warily and squinted at them doubtfully. He remembered to breathe all on his own, 40 separate miracles a minute, hour after hour, day after day. One by one, his wires were detached, and then he graduated to a non-heated bassinet. Finally, he was discharged, a tiny old man in the smallest sleeper Clara had ever seen. His bruises faded black to blue, blue to yellow, and the many scabs where IVs had been inserted — potions pushed in and blood sucked out — healed and fell off, one by one.
Clara began to forget the days of secret stashes of Kleenex to handle the uncontrollable tears that came on in inappropriate places, of nights sitting dry-eyed on the couch, expecting the phone to ring. But she now knew about 20 little beds on the sixth floor where the lights were on bright all night long and alarms were ringing because somebody's baby wasn't breathing, and that she could never forget. She could not forget that life becomes death suddenly and permanently, in spite of everything and everybody, and that being innocent and well-loved didn't provide any advantage. She became quite rational and accepting of it all, but there was no more laughter in her because it was all such a sick, rotten joke.
Oddly, the bad dreams had begun only after Saul was released from the hospital, well after the waking nightmare had ended. Her sleep always started gently enough, yet each set of vaguely recalled, disparate events culminated in some fantastic fall: her new teal and gray suede hiking boots crumbling the edge of a trail in slo-mo to reveal a craggy ravine that patiently awaited her broken body; the freefall of her office elevator plunging Clara and her sleek leather briefcase to a jointly mangled oblivion; the spiraling death plunge of an airplane carrying Clara home. She had no idea that there were so many variations on the theme.
Try as she might, she could find no positive connotations to falling, psychological or physical. Falling away, falling apart, falling from grace — even the heady high brought on by falling in love was canceled by the certainty of love growing practical and exciting as a grocery list.
As the obsession of her sleep began to invade her days, her consciousness joined forces with the night in discovering creative ways to plummet to death in and near her previously safe home. Off the deck, over the loft railing, through the bridge guardrail into the serene Winooski River far below, over the highway shoulder on Route 125 into one of countless picturesquely rocky New England streams.
Clara put it down to delayed stress reaction, the same mechanism that had allowed her to pull through each semester in school without a sniffle or a fever, only to collapse in bed with a flu bug the day finals were over. But she drove very carefully now, and took the train to see Ray's parents instead of flying. She made Ray replace the loft railing, although he insisted it was quite stable, and she forsook elevators for stairs whenever possible.
Saul ate with a vengeance now, making up for lost time in furious growth spurts that left Clara thirsty and sore. Her milk let down so fast it burned, and it seemed that her breasts spent more time out of her shirt than in it. He sucked all day long: his fingers, his shirt sleeves, his pacifier, and if you put it in his mouth he would even suck your nose. Sometimes he sucked on nothing at all, his lips and cheeks working some phantom nipple overtime. His toothpick bones padded trapunto-style into lovely firm fat so dimpled and creased that Clara pinched it mercilessly. She awoke, cold and coverless, to Saul's demands three, sometimes four times a night, but never minded, for it meant for awhile her body and her mind were both firmly on the ground.
Saul was three months old today, but Clara measured his age from the date he was discharged, so he was only six weeks old to her. The baby grunted as he nursed, making joyful, piglet sounds as he sucked Clara dry. When he stopped to smile at her breast, the sweet milk spilled from his mouth, dribbling creamy tears sideways down his cheek and smearing to a sticky shine. Dr. Khatri had assured her that, given enough time, the feral grunting noises would be replaced by more normal coos.
Saul finally drifted to sleep, slackening his industrial strength vacuum latch on Clara's breast. She adjusted her shirt and plopped him gently over her shoulder, still not much larger than a bag of sugar. She climbed the stairs to his room and nestled him under his black and white mobile, wondering if its harsh stark shapes would haunt his adulthood as they haunted her now.
Turning on the nursery monitor, she went downstairs to the kitchen. The telephone rang as Clara filled the teakettle and she let the answering machine kick in.
"Cara?" Pop asked the air, the L dropped by Clara herself at age 2.
The telephone was near the pantry, and when she needed quiet or privacy for a conversation, Clara simply opened the door and stepped in, carrying on between the canned goods and pasta. She had discussed her friend Jean's divorce at great length amid the tea bags and cocoa, conducted an ambivalent flirtation with the comptroller at her office among the flour and rice, and learned of her brother's death while staring at a can of tuna. Ah, the basics of life. She paused, debating whether to answer, or to indulge herself in a quiet cup of tea.
"I know you're there. Pick up the phone, Cara."
As he aged, or maybe as she aged, the things that used to drive Clara nuts about her father became endearing, although his rudeness to waitresses was still intolerable. In person, he seemed unchanged by time, but she knew from his photographs that he was an old man. She picked up the phone.
"You had no way of knowing that I was here."
"I hate it when you don't answer the phone."
"I hate it when you tell me you know I'm there."
"I heard the damnedest story the other day. Last month Norman built a fenced area in their backyard so the grandkids would have a safe place to play. Well, when he came home from the mall the other day, the whole thing had just caved right in. He found out he'd built it on the septic tank and the top just rotted clean away Can you imagine that?" His voiced was indignant with the gross unfairness of it all.
"All too graphically." There was a pause. "Don't worry, Pop. Our septic tank is pretty new."
"But do you know where it is, Cara?"
"Of course." She didn't.
She knew he would go on with another nervous disaster story unless she changed the subject. "How are you feeling?"
"Well, I only buy ripe bananas these days," he cackled. Only old people cackle, Clara thought.
"She's shopping. I'll tell her you said hello." That meant Pop was calling during prime time on the sly, and Clara loved him a little more for his minor rebellion.
Saul coughed, then squealed over the monitor. "I have to go, Pop, Saul's awake."
"You're spoiling that boy, Cara."
"That's right." She hung up.
Clara ran up the stairs and picked Saul up, amazed still, amazed again, eternally amazed by his being and body. He smelled sweetly fecal and as she changed his diaper she reflected that there was nothing quite as lovely as a baby's bottom. She picked him up and squeezed him a little too hard, because she loved him a little too much. Talk to your baby, the books advised. "Hi, Baby," Clara said. Saul murgled and drooled. She noshed his neck, making mmm noises, absorbing the ecstasy of moist, warm, living skin.
The teakettle whistled in the kitchen and she went to the top of the steps. Clara's right leg buckled ever so slightly and she pitched forward, silently, off the top tread. There was no fear in her as she recognized the dream feeling in her stomach, the onerous weightfulness of her limbs, the inevitable downward pull of her catapulting body, but she did feel a slight annoyance that she had never considered the stairs a danger.
Ray won't find me for hours, she thought as the useless bannister passed by and she lost contact with anything solid. Would she smack Saul's soft skull on the hardwood floor and kill him outright, or just break every tiny bone in his slender body?
Clara rolled her shoulder under her so as not to land on Saul and add insult to injury. Surprised that she was allowed control of anything anymore, she tightened her right arm around the baby so that even when her flailing left arm grabbed at a baluster, Saul miraculously remained in her arms. Her momentum was too great to maintain her grip, but she was able to swing her feet in front of her, noting with mortification that she was wearing one navy blue and one black sock.
Clara continued the fall on her back, feet first, jogged rudely the rest of the way by each tread and riser, her backbone connecting with every sharp edge, until she landed thump on her bottom at the foot of the stairs. Saul lay loosely against her chest. She gently leaned the motionless child away from her, trying to recall the fall exactly to better know the nature of his injuries.
Saul eyed her expectantly, raised one eyebrow, then nonchalantly hiccuped. Contemplating the sharp hotness of her scrapes and bruises, Clara wiggled her toes to ferret out further damage, but found none. Then she began to laugh.