“This place is creepy,” Yoni says, rolling over on his thin, foamy mattress. His large black eyes squint at me in the darkness of our hospital room, his lashes thick and heavy beneath his prominent brows.
“Isn’t this the kids ward?” I ask, from a perch on my own identical bed, a few feet away. There is a pale blue curtain that can be drawn between our beds, dividing up the already cramped space, but it hangs open, agape. “Shouldn’t it be a little bit happier?” The Mother/Baby unit was immaculate and bustling, full of life, but here, the halls are silent, dark, a road without any little footsteps. Since pediatric surgical procedures are not scheduled for weekends, the unit is empty, and so the hospital was able to accommodate us, affording us with a complimentary room.
I had given birth two days earlier, but because the baby arrived six weeks pre-term and was forced to stay in the NICU despite her birthweight of 5 lbs, 14 oz, the hospital administration made an allowance for us to stay a few flights below in the empty children’s wing, so that I could be there to nurse the baby around the clock, and so my husband could support me. I was weak, raw, emotional.
I hesitantly stepped into the bathroom in our room, and saw that it was even more daunting than our sleeping quarters. The tiles were all chipped and the toilet was crying out for a good bleaching. The shower stall had no door or drain, and the exposed pipe on the floor was like a ghoul’s mouth, open, ready to swallow indiscriminately. I created a thick layer of toilet paper on the seat prior to sitting, and only when I felt the barrier between myself and years of collected germs to have been satisfactorily built, was I able to sit.
At 2am the phone in our little room rang. It was the NICU calling to remind me to come upstairs for a feeding. I was tired and lethargic, and as I traipsed through the halls of the hospital in search of the elevator, my uterus began to cramp and my head began to ache. I make it through most of the lengthy feeding, the baby latching on behind my draped corner of the neonatal intensive care unit, and we sat together in the recliner, the plastic coated BOPPY pillow clinging to my bloated bare stomach as it supported her tiny body, my copy of Still Alice, left unopened by my feet.
“Stand behind my shoulder,” I hear a woman command her husband. Like me, she is cloaked by a thin partition, her image rendered private, but not her conversation. I hear the husband grunt, and awkwardly shuffle around the recliner, to reposition himself. “If the baby falls asleep, your job is to wake him up so he can continue eating. And also rub my back because this chair is too stiff. Don’t forget to take a few pictures for the scrapbook. Get ready with the diaper…” she drones on. I am feeling pangs of sympathy for the husband, and want to slip him a script under the curtain, replete with expletives to have his wife shut up. She is clingy, naggy, and as I think of my own husband sleeping alone downstairs, I am slightly jealous. Jealous of the overly doting husband a few feet away, of the wife who so effortlessly can share her burden by spitting out commandments, of Yoni sleeping, when I think it should be me, instead. I want him behind me, breathing his hot breath on my neck, observing my efforts, applauding my skills as a mother.
A while later, I emerge, breathing the less sterile air as I head back towards the children’s wing below, anxious to return to my bed and off of my tired feet, emboldened that my time alone with the baby solidified my skills as a caretaker. “How did it go?” Yoni asks, his voice muffled with sleep. In the dark, I can see the shape of his body beneath the scratchy blue blankets. He doesn’t budge.
“Okay,” I say, “but I’m not feeling so well. My head. My neck. There’s something wrong.” He props himself up on his elbows. “I feel like there’s a bubble of air in my neck. Maybe from my epidural?” I had heard of this before, complications with epidurals that lead to severe pain, and I imagine this to be me in my usual exaggerated way. “A spinal headache. I think that’s what it’s called. I have it,” I say authoritatively, as if I myself went to medical school and have suddenly become an expert on epidurals. I sigh and tenderly lie back on my lumpy pillow.
“You’ll be fine,” Yoni says, assuredly, trying to dismiss my concerns. He knows me and my overactive imagination. That I think I am on my deathbed every time I get a little joint ache, that I fear my brain might be leaking out with every nosebleed. I curl up under my own matching blue blanket, the wool scratching at my sensitive skin through the top-sheet, and drift off to sleep, grasping onto his words as I become one with my dreams.
But a half-hour later I am up again, the bubble feeling as if it has grown, threatening to burst out of my vertebrae to relieve itself. I am shivering in the sheets, shaking in fear and discomfort. Never having felt this pain before, I become nervous, and I feel guilty waking Yoni but I need to tell someone about my symptoms, to come up with a plan of action, lest I die in my sleep. “Help. My neck,” I whisper. And in an instant, he is awake, staring at me across the chasm of our beds, his face transparent like the divider curtain.
“Can you move it?” Yoni asks, his voice etched with concern, still hoarse from sleep. I swivel my neck and it seems to work.
“Should you wheel me downstairs to the emergency room?” I ask, wondering if I need some medical attention. “I mean, I guess if I am having a stroke or something, I am in a pretty safe place.”
“You’re not having a stroke,” he says, his tone gruff and forceful, like if he says it with enough passion, it won’t be true. He swings his legs over the side of the bed, and in an instant is by my side, his open palm offering me two Tylenol from his overnight bag and a cup of water. “Here,” he says, “swallow these, and see if that helps.” When Yoni climbs back into bed, attempting to make himself comfortable in our meager accommodations, he picks up his head, and tosses his pillow at me. “Take this. Elevate your head a little.” And he becomes still on the stiff mattress. I envy his confidence.
Together, we fall back asleep, our bodies facing each other, lips folded in half-smiles, and it’s as if there is no gap, no boundary between us. He understood that to heal me, to alleviate my pain, I need to be discredited, disproven. That if he shared my panic, my pessimism, my afflictions would have grown, spreading to my brain, my limbs, down to my toes. If he coddled me and smothered me, lingering behind my shoulder, I would deflate. But he gave me an apt moment’s concern, and released it, unable and unwilling to dwell on my fears alongside me. He believed in me, and stepped away, so that I can figure things out on my own; in my ailments, my relationships, my motherhood. By creating a distance, he gives me strength to become an individual, to realize my own greatness. For this, I will be eternally grateful.
Yoni went up for the next feeding, excited for his own opportunity to bond with the baby, and he fed her my expressed milk. I was excited for the opportunity to sleep for longer than two consecutive hours. And when I awoke, I was swathed in relief and gratitude. I stretched my limbs and discovered that my pain had dissipated, my spinal headache burst, my stroke, un-struck.
Even 18 months later, the memory lingers, hovering over the photos of us embracing our newborn. In the hospital, when we were stripped to the basics, living meagerly and simply on two thin beds, with thinner sheets, and Yoni tossed his pillow at me. He gave me his one luxury, knew instinctively that this was what I would need to survive, to recover, and he knew me more than I could know myself. As the pillow took its flight and arced from his hands to mine, I nestled it beneath my head, holding and hugging, my luck, my pride, my gift. My husband.