The first time I see my baby, a nurse brings her into my room, lays her down at the foot of the bed and says, “Well, here she is.”
A face. Pink. A hand. Also pink.
I stretch my arms toward the bundle, toward that face.
“Better not,” the nurse warns. “We just fed her and she’s beginning to fall asleep.” But she undoes the tight swaddling blanket and even the diaper to show me that this baby is, in fact, a baby girl.
“Beautiful,” I say.
I watch the baby’s arms tracing jerking circles and ask the nurse to wrap her up again because I can tell she’s cold. And the nurse takes her out of the room.
The second time I see my baby is a day later in the nurses’ break room. A group of mothers, all of us dressed in robes and slippers, sit on wooden chairs pushed into jumbled rows in front of a long table. On the table there’s a plastic bathinette, a pink plastic bottle of baby soap, two towels laid out and two baby washcloths. New Nurse bustles in, holding my baby in both arms. She stands on the other side of that long table, rocking my baby gently and I look at my daughter’s head resting on that white-sleeved elbow. With her other hand, New Nurse pats the rhythm of a heartbeat on my baby’s swaddled bottom.
Then she shifts my baby over onto one arm, holding her like a football while she grabs a clear plastic pitcher and carries it to the sink. “You never want to wash Baby in the sink, because it’s too hard and deep and Baby is slippery,” she says over the gush of running water. She has her back to me and I crane my head forward to try to catch a glimpse of my baby but all I can see is the blanket wrapped tight around her feet.
“I can hold her while you do that,” I say, but New Nurse either doesn’t hear or she’s ignoring me.
“This is how you test the heat,” New Nurse dipped her wrist in the water. Then she unwrapped my baby and all the mothers oohed and ahed.
“That can’t be a newborn, look at the size of her!” one of them giggles.
“She weighs nine pounds eight ounces, and she’s 22 inches long,” I say.
“Yes. She’s mine.” I watch my baby slip into the water, eyes wide open, mouth shut tight, her arms waving and her head moving from side to side like she is looking for something she’s lost.
I should just walk down there and look at her. They can’t stop me from doing that.
I’m sitting in the hospital bed trying to convince myself that seeing my baby would be just that easy when Dr. Baker, the pediatrician, comes into my room and perches on the edge of the bed. “Elizabeth. That’s some baby you had!”
I nod, ready for him to start talking about how great adoption is. If I had him for a husband, a handsome and rich doctor with straight white teeth and blue eyes, no one would be talking adoption.
“She’s gorgeous,” he says. “Are you breast-feeding?”
“I haven’t even held her yet.”
“They won’t let me hold her.” The tears start and I gulp hard against the tightness that spreads from my throat into my chest.
“Who won’t let you hold her?” He leans toward me, his hand on my arm, his forehead bunched in a way that makes me wonder if he thinks I’m crazy.
“The nurses.” Not crying is impossible now.
“Well, that’s bullshit!” And he’s off the bed, out the door. The sudden shifting of the mattress sends a jolt of pain so fierce I have to grab the pillow and press it hard against the thirty-two steel clamps in my belly.
A minute later I hear New Nurse practically shout. “But Doctor! Doctor!” Then it’s her voice then his voice and the footsteps coming closer.
He stands in the doorway for a second, holding the tight white bundle that is my baby firmly against his chest and I wait for him to keep her there just out of reach, ready to have him not hand her over to me. “You’ll be more comfortable with your back against the pillows,” he says. I maneuver myself, moving fast in spite of the pain, and he puts her in my arms then walks out without a word, pulling the door shut behind him.
Solid. She is so solid. She’s twisting her head in a kind of figure eight and I can feel her arms move under the blanket. I lay her on my legs, unwrap her the way I’ve seen the nurses do it.
A halo of strawberry blonde fuzz swirls across her skull and there’s a bruise on her left cheek. I lift her closer, press my lips as gently as I can against the purplish splotch, feel the tickle of her hair on my cheek. She makes the tiniest squeak ever and I hold her closer, inhale the smell of her—sweet and salt and something I have always known but cannot name—and that smell is so so good, so much better than anything I have ever smelled before.
With one arm I wrap her close, run my hand over her right arm, squeeze lightly, my mouth following the path, tasting her skin, memorizing her flesh, the suggestion of bone so close to the surface. I press my fingers into the hollows of her ribs and can feel her heart flutter against my fingertips.
I feel her legs, check her toes, discover the wonder of toenails, kiss the bottoms of her feet.
I want to tell her that I am so happy she is here.
I want to tell her that we are going to be okay, she and I.
I want to tell her that I will be as strong and brave for her as I know how to be.
I want to tell her that I will love her forever, no matter what.
I want to make sure that I say the right thing.
“Hello, baby,” I whisper.
She stops moving her head and I look into those eyes that still have all of heaven in them. ““Hello, Shannon, I’m your mother.”