The first thing I realize is that my lips hurt. They are so achingly chapped and swollen. It feels as thought I’ve been repeatedly punched in the mouth. There’s a hand in front of my face now, and it’s holding something clear and glassy. I can’t really focus, because my eyes are groggy, and there’s so much light. Too much light. Where am I that’s so bright?
The hand rests against my lips and I feel the shocking relief of something cold and wet. Ice. I turn in the direction of the hand, and I recognize a familiar shape. A person.
“How are you, honey?”
I know this voice.
I murmur, “Okay,” around the ice cube, afraid of breaking contact with this welcome salve. Somewhere in my mental fog, I finally recognize the voice belongs to my mother. I also know something is not right. Something is … missing? Then, as if someone flicked on a projector in the darkness of my brain, images flash inside my head. I turn as quickly as my drug-induced stupor will allow and ask my mother, “Where is Nate?!”
“He’s fine, honey. I wanted to be here when you woke.”
I move my arm and feel something tugging. I see a wire or a tube protruding from the back of my hand. It is swollen into an almost-unrecognizable shape, as if someone replaced my hand with a lump of flesh-colored Playdoh. A woman appears. She is dressed in a matching shirt and pants that look as though someone barfed a rainbow upon her. She asks how I am. I don’t think I answer her, if only because I lacked the words. My brain is coming alive with tingles and stabs of worry; my body is too numb to feel it anywhere else, but I’m certain my stomach is churning. I don’t care about my chapped lips anymore, I don’t care about the pain that is starting to creep around my hips and rib cage like a boa constrictor preparing to consume its meal. I just want Nate.
Eventually, a young man appears. He wheels the bed on which I’m perched away from the torturous lights, down several hallways and into a quieter room. There is a window here, but the room is dark. The clock on the wall directly in front of my bed says it’s 5:15. I’m not sure if it’s morning or night. I ask the nurse, who is fussing with wires and the tubes seeming to come from my body in every direction like an octopus’s tentacles, “When can I see Nate?”
“The doctor says you should get some sleep first. Maybe around 6:30,” she says. I start to cry, but I don’t argue with her. Instead, I stare at the clock. It has a second hand the sweeps gently over the diameter of the circle of numbers. You do not realize how long sixty seconds are until you watch them elapse and collect into the next sixty seconds and the next, waiting for minutes to reach a temporal destination. The worry starts to become more concrete yet less logical, What if I don’t recognize him? What if he doesn’t recognize me? What if he’s not okay?
Finally, the interminable wait mercifully ends. A nurse wheels Nate into my room, parking him next to my bed. He is wrapped in a blanket as a tortilla around rice and beans, and I can see only his face. I notice first his lips, and in that moment of staring at the plump, pink arch of his upper lip and the thinner, straight line of his bottom one, all my doubts are gone. It is like looking in a mirror; that mouth is unmistakably mine.
I want to reach for him, but the core of my body – where every muscle I need t0 stretch over and lift him – is electrified as I try to move. The nurse hears my gasp. Without a word, she moves Nate from his bed and places him in my arms, resting him gently across my chest. He is sleeping. I stare at his face for an eternity. I am memorizing him — his tuft of downy hair, his strawberry-stained porcelain skin, his mile-long eyelashes, his impossibly perfect nose. But, the purpose of this is practical; not emotional. I am perpetually afraid that the nurse will bring me the wrong baby, and I will not know. The “bond” I spent so many months reading about is not materializing. Instead, I feel only tired. So, so tired. I call for the nurse, and she wheels Nate away. She brings the artifice of peace that comes with pain medication, and I fall into a comatose but restless sleep.
When I wake, there is movement in my room. My sister. Nate’s father. My mother. They are fussing and cooing. “Did you wash your hands,” I ask. Their assurances come with laughter and mock disdain. I am not amused. Neither is Nate, because he starts to fuss and cry. It’s an odd cry. It’s not the least bit annoying, yet I have a powerful, desperate urge to make it stop. My mother hands Nate to me and says, “I think he is hungry.” I have no idea what to do, but my hands and arms are moving Nate toward my breast as though I am possessed of something or someone. He tries to latch on, but his little mouth just won’t cooperate with him. I am terrified of smothering him. His wailing increases, and mine begins in earnest as well.
A nurse appears to offer assistance. She grabs Nate like a running back heading for the end zone. This makes me cry harder. The nurse presses Nate’s poor, red, wet face into my bosom. He remain angry and unsated. We change positions, holds, angles – nothing works. I feel the deepest sense of failure, but I am told not to despair, because he isn’t really hungry; he’s just looking to fulfill a sucking instinct. I don’t believe her, because I know she is speaking memorized words. She doesn’t feel them.
Nate and I go on this way until about 4:30 a.m. I beg the nurse to bring him a bottle of formula. She takes pity on me, on Nate or on us both and brings a four-ounce bottle. She tells me he won’t drink more than a few cc’s of the fluid. “That’s fine,” I tell her, not a little dismissively. I wave her out of the room. Then, I nestle Nate into my lap and bring the bottle to his lips. He latches his mouth onto it with a vice-like grip and begins sucking down the fluid with a singular focus. About two ounces in, he turns his head to me and our eyes meet. The only light in the room is coming from the television, and it casts a halo-like aura around Nate’s little body. The tears instantly stream down my face. I am not crying. There is no squinting or sobbing. But water is pouring from my tear ducts in a silent shower of gratitude. My heart feels though it may swell right through my rib cage. The words in the books – the paragraphs and pages and chapters I read about maternal bonding – all worthless and woefully inept. There are not words that describe that feeling. There are not words that prepare you. It is love and sorrow; it is courage and fear; it is the beginning and ending. It is the sum of all contradictions. It is beautiful, singular and endless.
When Nate finishes the entire four ounces of formula, I gently burp him. Then I lay him on the bed in the space between my legs. I slowly unwrap him from his burrito blankets, and I examine every inch of him. I find the blush-colored birthmark, shaped like Africa, on the back of his leg. I find his little bent toe curled under his other toes. I fuss at the remnants of his umbilical cord. I marvel at the tininess of his fingers. I kiss every warm, sweet-smelling inch of him. I breathe him in and burn that smell into the memories of my olfactory sense bank.
Some mothers gleefully recite their baby’s statistics, record all firsts, save outfits and locks of hair and first lost baby teeth. But, Nate was born via emergency Cesarean section. I was given general anesthesia, and I didn’t see Nate until he was a little more than six hours old. So, what was more important to me than his 9 pounds and 5 ounces or his 22 inches or his Winnie the Pooh going-home outfit was to remember every tiny detail of our first moments together. To revel in the knowledge that the love that grew inside of me would survive on the outside; that the strength of my arms would equal the protective envelope of my womb; that he wouldn’t stop being a part of me.