It was 1972, and I was a nursing student in the final months of my training, eagerly awaiting graduation and the beginning of my real life as a nurse. I don’t recall the time of year exactly, but it must have been early spring, just warm enough to come to work without a cardigan. I know this because I remember thinking how oppressive it was in that closet, the one where my patient awaited me; I remember thinking that it was a good thing I didn’t bring a sweater.
The closet that housed my patient was simply that—a linen closet with a stainless steel rack that held piles of sheets and jonny coats, pillow cases and Chux. This rack had been shoved to the side to make room for the single isolette that stood just inside the closet door. A small crib with a thin mattress and an extra bumper, it held a newborn infant, a boy, who slept on and on. There was no card attached to the front of the isolette proclaiming his date of birth, his weight, or his name. I called him Baby Boy, although they told me I shouldn’t get attached to him. I sang and hummed to him, although they told me he couldn’t hear.
When he wasn’t being tended by me or one of the other nursing students who, during the day, were assigned his care, Baby Boy’s closet door was closed and the light was turned off, leaving him alone in the quiet dark. When I protested, I was told that he couldn’t see and so the light being left on or off made no difference. When I asked about his mother, the nurse in charge hushed me. It’s a tragedy, was all she would say. It took us students some time and quite a bit of snooping to discover that his mother’s room was just down the hall on the other side of the maternity ward. We learned that her baby boy had been whisked away at birth, before she awoke from anesthesia. We learned that the doctors had told her, at her husband’s urging, that the baby was stillborn. She’d never seen her boy, never held him; and she didn’t know that he was only a short walk away, left in a closet until, as the charge nurse said, “Nature took its course.” Sometimes we students ambled past the mother’s room, peeking in to see her face. We talked about how we might go in and let her know that her baby wasn’t dead at all; we said, what if she had a chance to hold him?
Looking back, I assume that we were assigned Baby Boy’s care because he was considered a lost cause—even bumbling nursing students couldn’t cause him any more harm. And he required minimal care: diapering and turning. No vital signs were to be taken. Water was to be offered but no sucking response was anticipated. The medical staff expected the baby to die within hours. But two, three, four days later, he lived on.
When I first saw him, I was only mildly taken aback. Well warned by the charge nurse, I expected the baby to be some sort of monster, born “without a brain” as she said, “with nothing left but a face and a body.” Instead, I saw an infant with a strangely compressed forehead, eyes tightly closed, and perfectly chiseled lips and chin. Although his face was prominent, he did in fact have what seemed to be a near-normal sized skull, only steeply sloped and covered with fine blond hair. He looked, from some angles, like an elderly wizened man. If I turned him just a bit, he looked like a peacefully sleeping infant. Did he respond to my holding and rocking? I thought he did. Did his lips and cheeks respond to the nipple, to the bottle of water I offered? I believed they did. When I asked the charge nurse if I could please try some formula, that I thought he might take it, she said she would ask the doctor but she doubted he’d be unwilling to prolong the inevitable. On the second day, Baby Boy began to cry, a high pitched, hungry, agonizing whine. Okay, the nurse said, try some formula. But although his lips smacked and his cheeks tried to suck, most of the formula dribbled out of his mouth.
When the keening persisted, some of the nurses worried that his mother might hear and, responding to some primal recognition, try to investigate—why were such haunting sounds coming from behind the closed linen closet door? They moved her further down the hall, and the next day the doctors sent her home. I wondered how long it took her to stop crying over a baby she’d never seen. I wondered how her husband lived with the knowledge that he’d left their newborn boy in the hospital where it was taking what the doctors called “way too long to die.”
No, the doctors told me. No intravenous. And a feeding tube was out of the question.
I first cared for Baby Boy on a Wednesday. Thursday he cried, and Friday he seemed to settle into a resigned stupor. His mouth worked in the pantomime of nursing. His fists curled and uncurled. His eyelids—did I imagine this?—opened and his eyes wandered about, searching. I never asked what happened to him on the off-shifts, on evenings or nights. Did the aides have time to rock him, to sing to him? When I returned to the maternity floor on Monday, the linen closet held only linen. Baby Boy had died, unattended, sometime during the afternoon on Saturday, in the fifth day of his age. He died before the time of grief counseling and support. He died before the time when his parents would hold him; when a nurse would wrap him in receiving blankets and photograph him; when another nurse would clip a lock of his hair and tie it in a blue ribbon. He died before we understood how necessary it is for parents, siblings and grandparents to gather together to welcome such a child, and then to accompany him gently to his death.
I don’t know what happened to Baby Boy’s body. At the time, I never thought to ask. At the time, I never thought that such disregard for life, such secrecy, such denial of the reality of grief, was all that unusual. It wasn’t until years later that I wondered, as I do now, where all those babies went, all those who were not whole, not perfect. Were there other closets in other hospitals where infants, abandoned as hopeless, were tended by other nursing students who sang to babies who could not hear, and loved babies who would not survive? Today, when genetic testing is so common early in pregnancy, these babies are too often “weeded out,” denied not only sustenance and love but also life itself—even if that life would be brief and seemingly insignificant. But I wonder, how many lives did Baby Boy touch from within the small space of his life, during the few days he spent in the dark, never held by his parents, never loved except by some awkward students? But here I am, all these years later, writing about him. If he only touched one life, one soul, wasn’t that enough? And even if, during his brief life, he never touched anyone, still, he had a soul—and wasn’t that enough?