He settles into the rocking chair opposite us, Liam and I in the thick of a skin-to-skin cuddle. He straightens his hospital whites and clears his throat in a distinctly bad-newsy sort of way.
"So… on the latest ultrasound we could see damage in every part of his brain."
I never know what to say when they tell us things like this. Especially when he is curled up under my chin, his chest rising and falling, mouth open contentedly, catching flies. All making me swell with denial. The doctor continues.
"Based on these results alone, I’d say he should need a tracheostomy to keep from choking on his own secretions. I'd say this would be a baby without much of a future — at least not the kind of future you'd call healthy or happy. A baby with a brain that looks like that shouldn't be able to clear his own throat, and that's not good. But he does. We don't understand how. It's amazing. It's like he's rewiring — we can see that the parts of the brain that have been injured are being walled off, and presumably he's growing around it. He's making new connections — and not just in the brain stem which controls vital signs, but in the cortex, which controls complex movements and thinking. You can tell by the way he squirms."
<Liam gurgles, coos.>
"See? Look at that. He should not be able to do that, to make those sounds, to talk to you like that. In my career I've been wrong a few times about some babies, babies I've said won’t make it. Not often. He's one of the few. I don't want to give you false hope, but let's not base our assumptions on what we see on the screen. Because in this case, what we see on screen doesn't match what we see him doing. Clearly, he wants to be here, and he's going to chart his own course."
<Liam sneezes several times.>
"Wow. You know how complicated it is for the human body to orchestrate a sneeze? Diaphragm, nasal passages, lungs, mouth. That's cortex. This is why we should draw our conclusions from him rather than from the ultrasounds alone."
<Doctor gestures at us, pleasantly exasperated.>
"From what we see on his brain, he shouldn't be able to do that either. I don't know what else to tell you, other than we'll all just keep supporting and watching him. That's a very industrious little boy you've got there."
We wrap up our chat and the doctor walks away, still shaking his head in wonder. The pessimist in me grumbles he’s blowing a little sunshine our way to soften the ‘brain damage everywhere’ news. He’s cutting us a break, seeing no point in deflating us with an unmendable truth.
But the doctor is genuinely puzzled, I'm sure of it. In front of us was a man passionate about neonatology, and who is not accustomed to being proven wrong. Apparently it's not only the gods who are tinkerers. It's my son, too.
"You okay here?" says the nurse, peering in around the edge of the curtain. The doctor has just left. "I'm off on break. When you're done cuddling, feel free to put him back in bed, and he'll need a change too. Okay?"
She whishes off cheerfully amid a flurry of beeps. Then it dawns on me: she meant that I'd be doing all that m-m-myself.
It cannot be delayed. I am the Dunkin Donuts baker: time to pump the milk. I tilt myself forward, grimacing, still a bit precious in what's left of my abdomen. Get him settled in the crook of one arm, draping sensor wires in a neat cascade off the end of his feet. Open greenhouse, one side at a time. Sneak him underneath the edge of the roof with one eye on the monitors: oxygen sat fine, heart rate steady, respirations normal. Lay him back in his nest, gingerly retracting my hand from under his clammy, floppy silkiness.
I scrub in again, douse with alcohol. Working through portholes I nudge wires out of the way, collect both feet between index finger and thumb, fold the dirty diaper under itself, wipe, slip the new one in place (ten minutes less to write than to do). Finally, tucked in, my Liam stretches and sighs.
Satisfaction finds both of us in this black hole of bewildered doctors and unfavourable odds and day-by-day mystery. Mamalove through it all, mamalove.