Private Parts

Laura Novak

I was pulling out of the hospital parking lot when I recognized the man. He was across the street, leaning against a pole, waiting for the light to turn in his favor. He appeared to be an ordinary man wearing chinos and a golf shirt. He lit a cigarette and stepped off the curb.

Ten minutes earlier the doctors had told him his newborn daughter was dying. I sat holding my own infant son three beds away in the intensive care unit of a Children's Hospital. Several doctors and nurses circled his daughter. They stood silently while the man wiped tears from his eyes. His body was so still otherwise. How odd, I thought, as I glanced at the clock and then furtively at the man, trying to hear, trying not to hear. It was just before 6 p. m. and a dad's life was slouching toward parents' hell. He would go home and his words would break his wife's heart. I would go home for a quick dinner and hand my husband the parking pass so he could return to the hospital for his nightly visit.

I heaved myself out of the rocking chair, wrapped my son, Max, and all his medical Tupperware into his crib, kissed him, and headed for the door. But the man's baby was positioned there and I needed to pass this woeful scene in order to leave the unit. I mentally clenched my ears shut to give the father some privacy. Sometimes we are not prolonging their lives but prolonging their deaths. I knew that doctors sometimes said this elliptical phrase to parents. Was this how they told him? Was this how they would tell us if we needed to let Max go?

I derived an unreasonable sense of satisfaction from Max's placement in intensive care. For the first few months he was along the wall, next to the door to a small room. It was like having the corner apartment with the larger balcony. There was more space for the rocking chair and a stroller. The only people passing Max's crib were nurses going into the ante-room to weigh diapers. No parents were going to get a gratuitous look at my baby with all his bells and whistles attached! By the third month, we moved up to an actual corner with its own sink, which was akin to living on a cul-de-sac. You wash your hands incessantly in intensive care. With our own sink, I could turn my back on Max and wash without walking across the room. What was the gain in this? Heaven knows. There are small mercies when your child spends months in intensive care and you find them wherever and however you can.

Part of the folklore of being in a room flush with all sorts of humanity is that you learn the unspoken rules of minding your own business and respecting others' privacy. But, try as you might, you do overhear news about other children. Sometimes knowing more than I should made me feel guilty, as if I were a voyeur. The guilt comes, in part, from a real desire to know - what will the doctors do then if that doesn't work? - a perverse pleasure in understanding your place in the pecking order of critical kids. I don't pretend to be right. Just honest. Spend nine hours a day holding your baby and staring at a sea of critical infants and the line between proper and private begins to blur.

One day as I rocked my son, I noticed a pair of gold lamè high heels pointed toward us. I looked up to find an older woman standing over Max and me. Her eyes flashed with curiosity as she took in the pumps and monitors connected to Max's body.

"I just have to ask you," the visitor began. "What is wrong with him?" The woman's daughter, herself a mother whose baby was in the unit, lurched forward in embarrassment and pulled the older woman away. It was all right, I smiled. Because I could truly understand her desire to know.

© Laura Novak

Laura Novak lives outside San Francisco with her husband and son. Her award-winning essays on Max and other medically fragile children have appeared in publications nationally and world-wide, and on National Public Radio. She is currently at work on a medical memoir.

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