the spoils of coney island

A week or so before Liam died I sat with one of the neonatologists next to one incubator or another, chatting. He was quite animated on this day, smiling and gesturing as he marvelled at the mystery of his tiny charges.

You know how this branch of medical science began? Tiny babies, I mean, he said, a glint in his eye.

No, how? I asked.

Coney Island, he said. They had a display, a freak show, for lack of a better word. Perhaps one day a baby was born too soon and this experimentally-minded doctor said ‘Let’s see if we can keep this fetus alive outside the womb…’ and he managed it, and then again, and then they were all hooked, trying to get them to survive smaller and smaller, and nobody had ever seen such a thing. It was one of the most popular displays. But then they realized that they were helping people to live who wouldn’t have lived before. And then it became legitimate. Isn’t that a colourful beginning?

Absolutely, I said, smiling.

So much of what little we know about the human body is sparked by accident and ego and showmanship and passionate curiosity. Medical science can be a steamroller, often lacks in street smarts and faith, can be full of itself to the point of alienation.

It is what it is: the wild, untamed west.


Ben is just Ben. Little, but less so every day. To see full-term babies now, with this skewed perspective, is to see the unthinkably enormous, all of them future Andre-the-Giants.

Despite still being mobbed wherever we go he is just plain baby, positively robust on the brink of six pounds and two weeks shy of his due date.

Blood pressure and reflux meds, both more proactive than anything else. Three bottles per day of fortified breastmilk, super high-calorie turkey dinner. Productive gluttony for him, but a feeding farce for this pump-cranky mama, trying to juggle the accessories and sterilization and wheeshing of breast plus bottle plus pump.

Frequent weigh-ins, hospital visits, consults with specialists and physio and eye doctors. This is how it will be for at least the next couple of years until we've passed key physical and developmental milestones. So far, all is well. Every time we go in there I feel like we’re being put to test (which we are) and every time I expect the other shoe to drop, for some newly discovered shortfall to rear its head. But still, he is a relatively straightforward boy. Never one to torment us with apneas or similar NICU drama, Ben's life to date has been spent sleeping and gaining, more or less.

His journey has been uneventful compared to that of his spirit-brother. No oxygen nor feeding tubes nor monitors came home with us. Just him, glorious him.

We go sailing and he snuggles next to my chest and I tip forward to brush my lips back and forth across the silky down of his head, the softest thing on all the whole planet right this second, and it belongs to me. And his mouth is open, catching flies as he snores softly, each outbreath a tiny, blissful coo of content.


Despite lacking any particular religious affiliation I’m struck with a sudden conviction that Liam has, most definitely, gone somewhere. He is looked after. It could be the necessary ravings of a grieving mother, but I feel like the leaves and trunks and grasses and waves watch us as we pass, trying to tell us something. The most eerie sensation, this deliberate, conscious presence. I know it not because I'm desperate, but because it's been revealed to me as a truth I didn't need to contemplate before.

I know it not because I'm desperate, but because it's been revealed to me as a truth I didn't need to contemplate before. When the sun dapples through the trees they whisper we have him. They may be all the sum of osmosis and photosynthesis and veins and nutrients but to me altogether they are one voice that breathes, knows, keeps.