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Two rounded green blobs. Two brownish orbs that an optimist would say look like shells on a sandy beach. Spinach and potatoes, or so the menu claims. It must be the cafeteria’s idea of a sick joke to serve meals that resemble the excrement of babies – especially tasteless considering we are trapped in a children’s hospital. This is Thursday night dinner, the veterans say. Friday night offers pizza served with limp salad, and compared to the spinach it’s a Michelin star feast.
The meal is served at 6pm sharp. No exceptions. The adults inhabiting the parents’ room examine the food. Elbows rest on the table, which is decorated with day-old newspapers. Forks push the blobs around. Silence reigns. Just moments before the meal cart arrived, there had been a dispute over the use of the shared refrigerator. Mary mother of Juan had accidentally eaten Tim father of Stefano’s yogurt, and all hell had broken loose. So no one is speaking and the food is more unbearable without the usual jokes.
The door swings open, and all heads swivel in anticipation. The evening nurse appears in front of us, lip curled, blonde hair tied back in a severe ponytail. It’s obvious she practices her scowl in the mirror. The nurse calls out a name, and the chosen ones – this time, Seth and Janet, parents of Sebastian – gather reading materials and walk toward their child’s hospital room.
The rest of us? We wait.
This has been my home for the past three weeks. Other than the food, the antiseptic smell, and the permanently annoyed nurses, they’ve worked hard to disguise the fact it’s a hospital. A walk down the corridor takes some time with an inquisitive babe in arms. Bright cheery fish are painted on the walls, and wooden toys are screwed into the plaster at knee height. Playrooms filled with toys beckon at every turn. Clowns show up on a regular basis to perform for an audience of IV-infused children. Despite these distractions, it still feels like a prison.
We had no choice but to sign the admittance papers. We saw no other alternative. When there’s something medically wrong – especially when it’s your child – you must trust the system. There’s no other option, unless you’re a Scientologist or a believer in herbal remedies. Even then we hadn’t understood we’d be signing away our freedom. Their system dictates everything: What our son eats. Where he sleeps. What brand of diapers he uses. When his blood is drawn from his arm, and which arm it is drawn from. How long he must lie in bed, crying, after each procedure, before we are allowed to comfort him.
They only allow one overnight visitor, so my wife has stayed each night. I offered but she refused. This scenario is repeated throughout the heterosexual couples on the ward, meaning that the women have bonded much more than the men. When news is announced, it’s the women who hug, tears streaming down their faces. The men simply shuffle in place and avoid eye contact.
We’ve agreed not to compete about who is worse off. She’s stuck in the hospital, with no release papers in sight. Even though I get to leave, I feel the pull of obligation like a physical force. Even though I am released, I’m the one with the hour-long commutes, driving through streets dark and rain-slicked, enveloped in the stale silence of my car. This is not how I imagined parenthood to be. I pictured freedom and love: This is not that. The fear bound up in that hospital is blinding. Each morning I anticipate and dread our reunion. I walk through the sleepy corridor with my heart in my throat, unsure of how the night has gone.
Our reunions go something like this: I give my wife a peck and swing my son a little too enthusiastically. My wife hisses air through her teeth and glares at me.
“You know what I call that look?” I say. “Hate in slow motion.”
Her chuckle inevitably softens her gaze. “How dramatic,” she says.
Then I swing my son again, more tentatively this time, but with the aim of taunting her.
“Stop it,” she says, her scolding tone not convincing. We survey the breakfast tray, which arrives between 7 and 7:30: A cold hard-boiled egg. Bread, untoasted. Miniature plastic packages of salted butter and strawberry jam. Tea is available in the hall, in white plastic cups. The coffee isn’t worth mentioning.
Before, things were so different. We earned the privilege to dictate our own terms. We were in the prime of our lives when we met. I saw her across a bar and cheesy as it sounds, I just knew. I bought her a glass of wine and a tray of bruschetta, and we became acquainted. She devoured the bruschetta and I admired her gusto, her dark hair, her soft, full lips when she smiled. She asked me to meet her the following week and I kissed her, surprising us both. Drinks turned to dinners and then breakfasts, wine to mimosas, medium rare tenderloins to French toast with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. We fell hard for each other.
Even more astonishing was our obsession with a traditional future. We fell under the magical spell of domesticity. Marriage. A mortgage. Kids. A large kitchen, a storage pantry and a produce delivery service. We’d disdained it all for years, and suddenly we wanted it desperately. It’s funny how you can spend your whole life scorning the system but when love delivers, there’s nowhere else to store it. Love: true, passionate, forever love, had to equal a white picket fence and diaper changes. There was no other model to follow. There was no other way to show the world and each other the depth of our feelings. It may have been a sacrifice, but we were willing, enthusiastic victims.
Despite our efforts, conception evaded us. The path to happiness was no longer clear. Our dinner parties grew smaller. Instead of five courses, we found ourselves sitting on our friend’s couches twisting our wedding bands. We played with their infants, then their toddlers smeared in cream cheese and jelly. There was nothing to complain about, nothing to look forward to. We worked. We were promoted. We stayed in increasingly luxurious hotels, upped our taste in furniture and entertainment. We watched our lives take on a dull but controlled melancholy.
Then she’d announced she was pregnant. I was travelling. I sat in a room in the Tokyo Hilton, the drapes drawn, a tumbler of whiskey and a plate of sushi next to my laptop. I’d known she was late before I left, but I didn’t think much of it. It had happened before. But the days went by and she had to find out. She’d held the pregnancy test up to the webcam. Her fingertips and the corners of her lips were trembling. She was alone in our apartment, and I wanted nothing more than to hug her. But I wouldn’t be home for another two weeks.
When I returned she had transformed. Life made sense; she had a purpose, again. Her purpose was to be a generous hostess for the fetus. My purpose was to observe. Out went the blue cheese and steak tartare. In came the organic, vegetarian meals, carefully washed and cooked. Nights out became movies in, paused midway because she’d dozed off on the couch. Sex was replaced with perennial massage. She stopped mentioning the daily irritations at work and only discussed her possibilities for maternity leave. She didn’t ask about my options. She had a purpose. We had a purpose. And we had mere months to wait for that purpose to appear and make us whole, and provide the magical ingredient to the family life we craved. That’s what happiness is, right? We convinced ourselves of this even as we secretly wished that our son wouldn’t inherit her temper, my nose, her freckles, my bad fashion sense.
We walked the streets with pride. We were the couple with child. Her fertility was announced by the swelling of her belly. My virility was made clear with a protective arm wrapped around her shoulder. Look world, we said. We have created life and cheated death. We’ve won the game. We are triumphant. Send us your congratulations.
The baby came a week late. My wife pushed him into the world with primal yells, and as he lay on her chest I saw her at her most beautiful. Her face shone with accomplishment. Later she told me she had been flying high from the oxytocin until the paediatrician approached. “Congratulations. He’s almost perfect, except…” I watched the sparkle in her eyes fade.
I said, “Was it something prenatal, something that could have been avoided? I told her not to…” My voice faded. I’m not sure why I said it. It seemed like a logical question, a logical direction in which to turn. Searching for the source.
Sometimes a relationship boils down to one moment: one act, one thought, one comment. For her, I know it was that moment: that medical diagnosis, that question, that implication. She turned away as she nursed him for the first time. We didn’t know if it was her fault, and it certainly wasn’t his. It was becoming mine.
The nurse calls our names. We push away the spinach and potatoes, and ignore the gelatin dessert. Feeling slightly squeamish, we walk slowly down the hall, back to our son’s room. We have created all of this. We created a miracle together, nurtured it, and planned for it. Now, the effort to reach for her hand seems too much.
Janelle Ward is a Minnesota native and has spent the last 12 years in the Netherlands, evolving from carnivorous student to vegetarian mama. Her day job is in political communication. She's published a bunch of academic stuff but is most passionate about fiction writing.