The Beginning of Relief
    Barbara Snow
Carol can't stop talking about the brain-damaged baby. I won't listen. I only hear the Alanon mantra: "You didnít cause it, you canít control it, you canít cure it." I realize that acknowledged helplessness lifts the burden of responsibility, though it can't cure the loss. Only why the guilt? Was it the confused relief after my husband's dead body was found? The question is by now mere habit and boring from repetition. Carol said to me only last week, "And it was one of the worst things Iíd seen in all my years in Alanon, his drinking when alcohol conflicted with his medications. You know, Janet, it was his way of checking out. It was not about you."

I tell myself I loved John just as much after his stroke, and this thought provides a moment of comfort, but I decide to focus on the brain-damaged baby to prevent any further depression.

"So tell me again, what happened to this baby?" I ask.

Carol starts over. ďHer oxygen supply got cut off during labor . . . damaged her brain." Something more about thirteen minutes without oxygen, baby lungs scorched by the flux of her distress into the fluid of the womb. Not expected to live through the first night. "She made it through her first winter, but sheís been sick a couple of weeks. My friend Jenny, her mom, is about to collapse. I want you to watch the baby while I try to help Jenny. Please."

Months later, one expects a limp, listless doll. Instead, after arrival at the mother's house, we are both speechless at the sight of the damaged babyís beauty. Her creamed-coffee cheeks are plump, accentuated by an angry squall between ragged gasps for breath. The neck muscles, too soft to hold her head fully upright, stiffen in fear and pain. The mother, alone with the baby in this basement apartment, is hysterical: sleep-deprived and terrified that anything else that might go wrong.

I try to retain a flurry of instructions as she surrenders the little body to me. Carol plants her sturdy arms around the frantic woman and steers her away into the bedroom. Behind the door I hear Carolís murmuring, and the motherís sobs gradually soften.

As the painkilling drug takes hold, the baby quiets, no longer writhing or crying. I make sure the feeding tube in her stomach is laid carefully to one side to avoid pressure on the wound. She relaxes against me and suddenly I am enveloped by peace. I had forgotten how it feels to be trusted by a helpless creature. The rhythmic rocking of the glider where I sit and the deepening night silence lull us both. In the fluid space between waking and sleep, I am defenseless.

The baby squirms in her sleep. I hold her close so that she can feel secure in her dark and silent tactile world. Again she relaxes, trusting, the release of her body triggering a similar response in mine. I stroke the tiny arch of an eyebrow and marvel at the plush dark fringe that lines her eyes. She is peaceful, and now the air around us feels vibrant. For this baby, I am enough.

As the baby sleeps, I know this is what I wanted to give John, and this was what I wanted John to give me.

Against my chest, the baby breathes more easily.

I can smile through my tears.

Barbara Snow is a fiction writer learning to perfect her art.


In Posse: Potentially, might be ...