Hannah Heath Johnson
Mothers of Winter
asali, the pregnant elephant, slowly sifts through a pile of straw with her trunk. I stare at her, looking for any evidence of her pregnancy, but I find none. She looks the same as she always has; I can tell her apart from the others because she is more slate gray, her folds taut rather than sagging. The elastic of my maternity sweat pants presses hard into my tight stomach, leaving a band of indentations. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt over my ears, trying to block out the February cold as I watch her. She is so close that I could touch her if I leaned over the fence. My husband, Brad, and I have come to the Memphis Zoo to walk in hopes of speeding up our daughter’s arrival. She is due any time.
“Good luck, girl.” I wave at Asali. “The next time I see you, we’ll both have our babies.”
Brad and I joke that I have the better end of the deal, since her baby, after a twenty-two-month pregnancy, will weigh around 200 pounds.
“She’ll remember us when we come back,” I say, telling him a story I have told him before. I read it in college, about how elephants remember their companions, even decades after their deaths. “She’ll know us. Elephants never forget.” The next time we come back, we say, we will have Heather with us.
Less than a week later, Brad and I stand side by side and scrub our skin from our fingers to our elbows with coarse blue sponges, one of three checkpoints before we can visit Heather in the neonatal intensive care unit. She did not breathe when she was born. Did not breathe for four endless minutes as I lay on a cool metal table vaguely aware that my stomach was being sewn back together. And now she is here, intensive care. A timer counts down from 90 seconds. I restart it one more time, terrified that I will do something wrong, something that could make her sicker. Signs above the large, industrial sinks tell us, in all capital letters, that failing to properly wash our hands and clean under our fingernails could endanger all of the babies. My fingernails are long and feminine for the first time in my life thanks to prenatal vitamins, but suddenly they repulse me. I use the hard plastic pick on the edge of the sponge to clean under my nails so thoroughly that the quicks of my fingers throb as the second set of doors opens, allowing us into the nursery. Inside, we put on robes, gloves, and masks. Then, we can see our daughter. We are only permitted to visit four times a day.
Brad and I walk to Heather’s basinet, and I stare down at her, still trying to memorize her face. When I am in my hospital room, in between our visits, I stare at her picture on Brad’s computer.
“Remember me?” I say. “We’re back. I missed you.” I stroke the bottom of her foot, hoping that somehow she will know it’s me. “It’s me, I’m your mama,” I tell her, trying to convince her, trying to convince myself. I am afraid that she will not be able to tell me apart from the nurses who also wear masks and who are with her all day.
“Oh, don’t touch her foot, please,” the nurse corrects me. I yank my hand back.
“The bottom of their feet is where they get their shots. It’s very sensitive.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say, once to the nurse, then one more time to the baby.
“You can touch her,” the nurse says. “Just not there.”
I reach down and softly touch her arm but only leave my finger against her skin for a few seconds. I draw my hand back.
The third time we visit Heather, when she is a day and a half old, a new baby is beside her. He is probably not more than three pounds, making her look enormous. The bassinets are made for premature babies, and Heather’s legs stretch to the end. She is nearly nine pounds.
“He’s so tiny,” I say, because I don’t know what else to say.
I try not to look at him, but I can’t help it. His dark black skin is stretched thin, and the outline of his ribs is clear. His soft stomach rises and falls laboriously. He has over an inch of thick, coarse hair, a small Afro. You might expect that much hair on a doll, which is what I think of when I see him, but on his tiny body it seems unnatural, wholly out of proportion. The veins in his tiny arms are a deep purple beneath his skin. He wears an oxygen shield like the one Heather wore her first night, but he is so tiny that his mask nearly covers his whole face. Like Heather, he is attached to multiple IV’s.
“Poor, poor, baby,” I say, turning back from him to look at my daughter. “Poor, poor baby.”
I wonder what his name is, but the sign above his crib reads “Baby Boy Stevens.”
“Why won’t they put the babies’ names on their beds?” I ask Brad. “I wrote Heather’s name down. I want them to call her by name.”
“So the nurses won’t get so attached to the babies,” he tells me. “A lot of the babies in here are very sick.” We cannot see many of the babies. Their bassinets are covered with dark quilts to block as much light as possible.
“I want them to call her by name,” I turn my back so that I cannot see the dark bassinets. We are nearly whispering. The nursery is a large, open room, with beds lining the walls. Nurses walk up and down the floor, checking on the babies’ monitors and recording their vital signs as we stand over Heather’s crib, one of our first times together as a family. Monitors beep loudly throughout the room.
While we’re talking to Heather, Baby Boy Stevens’ mother, who appears to be several years younger than I am, comes into the nursery. She walks heavily, her stomach, like mine, still bloated from pregnancy. Her hospital gown pulls apart at the back, revealing her bare dark skin. She is still connected to her IVs, and she drags them awkwardly behind her as she walks. She has tried to bring both of her grandparents with her to see the baby, but she is only allowed to bring one person. I hear her arguing with the nurse as her grandmother takes a picture of the baby.
“Can’t my granddaddy come in, too?” she asks.
“No, it’s to protect the baby. His immune system is very weak.”
“But can’t a priest come back here? My granddaddy is a preacher. My grandma is, too. Priests are allowed to come back, somebody told me.”
“Your son’s situation is critical,” the nurse tells her. “The more germs he is exposed to, the more danger he is in. If the situation becomes much more dire, then we might allow you to bring both of them in. But that will only be if…”
I am trying very hard not to listen. “Look at her little hands,” I say loudly to try to distract myself. “She is so perfect.”
“He sure is cute, isn’t he?” I hear the grandmother say. “You’re gonna get better, buddy. You’re gonna be okay.” Her tone is kind and loving, not unlike the tone I have been using to speak to Heather. She hums to him softly, a familiar tune, but I can’t quite think of the words. It makes me think of standing beside my mama in church as a little girl, holding her hand as the offering plate was passed.
“Can’t I hold him?” Baby Boy Stevens’ mother asks the nurse.
“Not right now. He is too fragile. If we realize that his situation is getting more dire, then you can.”
“Good, I really want to hold him.”
There is something so childlike in the way this woman is begging to hold her son that I suddenly wonder if she knows what “dire” means. I feel sick.
Heather is getting better, breathing on her own and gaining weight. Baby Boy Stevens is not. The next time we see him, his mother is holding him. Her grandparents are both with her, and they hold hands as the grandfather prays for the child to be healed.
“Yes, Lord, yes,” his wife echoes as he claims scripture, praying verses over this child.
I have never seen the baby open his eyes, but while I watch the nurse change Heather’s diaper, I hear his mother saying, “He’s looking at you, Grandma!”
The mother is no longer on IVs, and she is not using a wheelchair. She walks more surely and less slowly. Her stomach has begun to go down. I wonder if she realizes that, with each passing hour, as she gets stronger, her son gets weaker.
I talk to Heather, almost stream of consciousness, telling her about the stuffed giraffe waiting in her nursery at home and pretending we are anywhere but in this place. The sign over her bed reads, “Baby Girl Johnson.”
Brad and I are thrilled when we arrive to find Heather off her feeding and antibiotic IV.
“I’m so proud of you,” I tell her. She can take a bottle now, and I watch jealously as the nurse feeds her. She has to take 20 cc’s of milk in one sitting before she will be discharged from the NICU.
Nearby, Baby Boy Stevens has been taken off his oxygen.
“Look!” I grab Brad’s arm. “He’s getting better, too.” Without his oxygen mask, I can see the baby’s face. His eyes are closed, thin brown lids resting peacefully above his distinctive cheek bones. My husband does not speak, just shakes his head no.
The next time we visit Heather, Baby Boy Stevens’ bed is empty. We are able to hold Heather and feed her ourselves now, and the nurses tell us she will be going home soon. If she takes her whole bottle during this feeding, in fact, she might be able to stay in our room tonight. As I feed my daughter, I hear the nurses talking near Baby Boy Stevens’ empty basinet.
“Did you ask her if she wanted an autopsy for him?” one nurse asks the other.
“She didn’t say yet. I told her we needed to know.”
Where is his tiny little body right now? I wonder. Where is he?
Some of their words are lost over the beeping of Heather’s monitors, which are attached to her with several different wires.
“She’s gonna have to tell us. Go back up there and ask her. We’re gonna have to know.”
I want to leave the room. Brad and I do not look at each other. I hold Heather close to me and try not to listen, but I cannot help it.
“You’re going home soon, baby,” I tell her. “We’re taking you home.”
Heather takes her whole bottle, and we watch as the nurses from upstairs come to get her, transferring her to the nursery with all of the other healthy babies. Both bassinets are empty when we leave.
Heather, two weeks old, sleeps against my chest as I rock her in her room at home. She has been asleep for an hour, but I cannot rest. I think about the other mother. I do not know her name. Somewhere in Memphis, I am sure she, too, sits in the lonely darkness of a quiet house, unable to sleep. I try to pray for her, but it is a guilty sort of prayer. My baby came home. Our places could have been switched, I know. The tall stuffed giraffe standing near Heather’s crib stares back at me, its expression kind and peaceful, as it always is. We named it Sesi, after the new baby giraffe at the Memphis Zoo. We had watched her rise awkwardly on skinny, knobby legs, standing close to her mother who lowered her graceful neck to rest her face against her calf’s. Watch, I had said. See how her mama loves her.
The doctors have told us that Heather will experience brief periods of rapid breathing until she is approximately four months old. This is expected, they assured us. Nothing to worry about. Every time her breathing quickens, my heart stops. I continue to relive her first four lifeless minutes.
I am up washing dishes around 4 a.m. one morning when Brad comes into the kitchen.
“What are you doing?”
“I can’t sleep.”
He sits on the couch and watches me.
I tell him that every time I try to sleep, I imagine something horrible happening to Heather. Every time I wake up, I am terrified to look into her crib, afraid I will find her still and lifeless.
“She’s okay,” he says. “She’s doing great. She’s a healthy baby.”
“But what if something bad happens to her?”
“Nothing is going to. She’s fine.”
I have run out of dishes to wash, so now I wipe the counter tops.
“You don’t know that.”
He is quiet.
“That other mama, she didn’t want her baby to die either,” I say. It is the first time we have spoken about Baby Boy Stevens.
He sits on the couch and watches me for several more minutes. “Come try to sleep.”
He lies back down, and I sit at the foot of the bed, staring into Heather’s bassinet, listening to the steady rhythm of her breathing as she sleeps.
He is right. Heather is a healthy baby. She is a happy baby, a perfect baby. Slowly, I begin to trust her, trust her to wake up in the morning, to take her next breath, to make it. By the time I return to the doctor for my six-week check-up, the terror of those first few weeks has subsided. I am enjoying my daughter. I sit in the OB-GYN waiting room, leaning over her and tickling her with my hair. She smiles and coos loudly, batting her arm in the air.
As we wait, a thin young woman comes in and whispers to the receptionist at the desk. I watch the swish of her long orange skirt, jealous of her firm stomach and narrow hips. I self-consciously pull my shirt down to cover the elastic of my maternity jeans, which I am still wearing, and I think about the racks of clothes in my closet that I can’t fit into. By August, I tell myself, I’ll be back to my normal clothes. I watch this woman as she walks across the room and imagine myself, a few months down the road, wearing a skirt like hers. I am startled when she curls up on a couch and begins to cry. An older woman enters the waiting room a few minutes later and hurries to her side. She has been crying, too. Her mother, I realize. The young woman lays her head in her mother’s lap, and her mother softly strokes her hair. The young woman cries audibly as she looks at my daughter. I know, suddenly, why she is here.
“Shh, Heather,” I whisper into her ear, trying to quiet her. “Shh, shhh…” I am ashamed of my shallowness in envying the woman’s figure.
Heather is happy, cooing loudly, and I press her face against mine, trying to muffle the sounds that I know remind this woman of what she has lost. I turn my head and look the other direction, feeling like Heather and I are creating an insensitive spectacle.
“Shh, baby…shh.” Heather’s cheek is chubby and cool against mine as I pray for God to comfort this grieving mother.
Heather is lying on her green mat when Brad calls to tell me that Asali, the elephant, had her baby. He heard it on the radio on his way in to work.
“It’s a girl,” he says.
“Oh, good!” I dangle Heather’s orange monkey over her face, trying to make her smile. “I can’t wait to see her.”
I imagine the three of us going to the zoo to see the baby elephant. It is almost spring, and I am glad. It has been a long winter. That night, Brad and I look at pictures of the baby elephant online and talk about Heather’s first trip to the zoo. We are both ready for spring.
The next day, the lead story on the Memphis news is that the baby elephant is dead. Asali killed her, a freak accident. The calf stumbled and she tried to help her up, fatally spearing her with her tusks.
Heather looks at me, curious, as I cry audibly, imagining this poor mother’s heartache. Elephants grieve, I remember. I hold Heather close to my face. It is too much.
Finally, spring. The three of us stand in front of the elephant exhibit.
“Which one is she?” I ask.
“I think that’s her,” he says. “But I’m not sure.”
We push Heather’s stroller to the chain-link fence and watch all three of the elephants. One is off to the side, her trunk lifted slightly.
“You’re right,” I say. “That’s definitely her. She’s the smallest one. And look how gray she is.”
She steps heavily toward the front of the exhibit.
“I’m sorry, girl,” I tell her. Elephants never forget.
We watch her for a few more minutes, and then we keep walking.
Hannah Heath Johnson is an M.F.A. fiction candidate at the University of Memphis. On the subject of front porches, she recalls: “When I was a child, my grandparents’ front porch was home to two stone planters, the same chalky white as their stone house. A triangle of jagged rock had been knocked out of the planter closest to the door, and I would carefully fit the missing piece back into the stone base. The next time I came, it would always be out of place again, lying somewhere nearby. My grandma once tried to grow tomatoes in those planters. She was unsuccessful, but my father would sneak a few cherry tomatoes in the potting soil to make her think she’d grown them.”