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Today’s story will eventually be adapted into a chapter in my memoir book project.
I hope you enjoy it.
It’s been six days since my daughter Em was born and it’s time to let my stepdaughter Sara visit her new sister.
It’s midday when Sara arrives at the hospital, but the lights in Em’s room are dim and the curtains are drawn across the partially closed sliding glass door, leaving just enough room to walk in and out. Em is in her isolette, the clear plastic crib where she sleeps. She’s awake, but mellow due to the phenobarbital—an anti-seizure medication that keeps her drowsy most of the time.
Since Em’s birth, I’ve been on high alert, with adrenaline ready to course through my veins at any given second. The hushed calm of this moment is welcome.
I’m standing between Em’s isolette and the sliding glass door with my iPhone in hand, ready to take a video of Sara seeing her sister for the first time. It’s quiet enough that I can hear Em’s nurse typing on the computer on the other side of the door.
Em is Sara’s first sibling. For just over nine years, Sara has been the center of attention. But for the last six days, she’s only seen my wife Allison and me for short visits in the waiting room or for a meal in the hospital cafe. To her, it probably feels more like a month than six days. We’ve been vague on the specifics of Em’s situation with her. Allison told her Em had trouble breathing when she was born and the doctors are helping her learn how to breathe on her own.
Sara is anxious to meet Em, but she has been patient and understanding. We knew she was excited to meet her sister ever since we saw her practicing reading books to a doll in the nursery at our house a few days before Em’s due date.
We’ve been waiting to introduce the two of them because we don’t want Sara’s first impression to be traumatic. I worry that it might still be too early. Em has an IV in her foot, a feeding tube in her mouth, a nasal cannula across her face, a pulse oximeter on her toe, and sensors on her chest. And the only TV in her room doesn’t play Frozen, but instead makes strange beeping noises and displays a bunch of complex numbers and squiggly lines.
It has been hard enough for me, a forty-year-old grown man, to see all the wires and tubes attached to my new daughter. But the gear Em has on now is nothing compared to the CPAP snorkel she had on her face and the mess of EEG wires she had on her head up until yesterday. Now she’s breathing mostly on her own, with only a little bit of added oxygen. We’re not worried about her blood oxygen saturation level suddenly dropping and reliving the chaos of when she stopped breathing 72 hours ago.
I picture how I originally imagined this first visit going, before the difficult start to Em’s life. We’re in a different hospital since Em wouldn’t have needed to be airlifted here. Sara walks in while Allison is breastfeeding. Em is milk-drunk and content in Allison’s arms. Allison carefully passes her off to Sara. And Sara instantly falls in love, staring down into the blue eyes of her new sister.
But everything is different now.
I hear Sara’s voice approaching and I tap the record button on my phone. Allison says hello to Em’s nurse. Sara comes into the room first with Allison right behind her.
“I think she’s Em’s favorite nurse,” Allison whispers. Sara smiles.
Sara has some papers in her right hand and her left hand is nervously holding onto her right forearm. Before she looks at Em, she steps toward me, hands me the papers, and says, “These are for Em.” I glance down at the top page and see drawings of what look like a half-dozen swaddled babies in purple marker and multi-colored words that read, “Go Em Go!” scrawled across the top.
Then Sara turns her head left, sees Em bundled up in her isolette, and covers her mouth with both of her hands. She’s frozen for a few seconds, just staring at Em while taking it all in. Allison helps her around to the side of the isolette so she can reach down and touch Em. She gently strokes the soft skin on Em’s hand.
Em grabs her finger and Sara looks up at me with her mouth open in amazement.
I stop the video and put my phone in my pocket to be present and fully absorb the beauty of the scene.
Ten minutes later, with some help from Em’s nurse, Sara is on the recliner holding Em and reading her poems from Shel Silverstein’s book A Light in the Attic—just like she practiced with the doll a little over a week ago.
My heart swells. This is how it’s supposed to be. Two sisters beginning their lives together. The noises of the hospital fading into the background.
Someone else’s words to read:
Innocently Macabre is a weekly newsletter of short fiction for those who love speculative fiction, horror, and the weird and wonderful. For starters, follow along with the secretive, wonderous, and oddity-rich lives of the residents of Due North, or try Within and Without, the cautiously surrealistic tale of a dying last breath undoing the past half-century.
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