Night in the NICU
If you don’t look too closely,
it’s a childhood dream—
room after room of cradles,
and all the babies snug in their beds.
It’s dark outside, dark,
the noise of traffic a distant hush.
In here the environment is always
temperate, in here with the pacifiers
and clean clothes, rocking chairs
and pillows to prop up a tired arm.
On every wall, a clock,
a sheaf of paper at each bedside,
charts telling the nurses when to feed,
when to take off the babies’ clothes
and bathe them and change their diapers
and wipe down the plastic beds.
Every bottle has to be scanned,
for the ones who can take a bottle,
who don’t have to receive nourishment
through a slender gavage tube
snaked in through one nostril,
and on the monitors, the numbers
rise and fall, with their corresponding
graphs. Anything too high or too low,
any disconnection, and an alarm
will sound: that fragile heart, that breath.
Their skin is bruised from needles,
chapped from medical tape.
Here and there, the shift changes.
The babies in the enclosed cabins,
wearing soft eye masks under the
bili lights, have their portholes
opened and closed. The mothers still
in hospital gowns go back to their rooms;
the parents who have come to visit after
a long day at work tuck in the blankets
and push back the privacy screens
and go home to their toddlers.
One of the babies, inconsolable all day,
closes her eyes at last.
Soundlessly, a nurse crosses the room
and dims the lights.
She was lying on the operating table
when her heart stopped
and she stood for some period of time
on the precipice, halfway there,
until the paddles brought her back
to the side of the living.
If this were the Murakami novel
that I finished last night
she would instead have disappeared,
like the wife whose husband
zipped up the back of her dress
before she left for work
with the scent of an unfamiliar cologne
behind her ears. I complained that
several of the women never came back.
So desu ka, my son said drily.
Is that so.
I had somehow failed to notice
a recurring theme. They wheeled her
straight from the emergency room,
sick and in a cold sweat, and helped her
into a dry well. She climbed down with nothing
but a penlight to cut through the dark,
and we waited to see if she might reappear
in the distant, labyrinthine rooms
of our collective dream.
Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens and six chapbooks. Her fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Four Way Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Forge Literary Magazine, Uproot, The Threepenny Review, Sliver of Stone Magazine, Poetry South, The Stillwater Review, and elsewhere.