“Birthday” by Shelley Blanton-Stroud
“No,” the doctor says when I ask, “Is everything all right?”
His shiny bald head rises between my wide-spread knees, a perfect red balloon over the ball of my belly.
Like a movie, I think, Demerol having its poetic effect.
Numb below the waist, foggy above the neck, I watch grim-faced professionals race around the fluorescence, like ants disturbed, rolling machines, fetching tools, kneading my belly, stitching my softest skin. One punches buttons on a metal tree, down which slithers a gray tube onto my arm and hand, teeth biting into my vein.
“No,” he says again, blue eyes watering. “I don’t think everything will be all right.”
I stare at the two deep furrows inching like caterpillars up his brow.
My baby is already gone. I haven’t touched him.
Nine pounds, fifteen ounces, a big, red bruiser, my son Bates has choked on his own meconium long before I squeeze him from the dark warm place grown too small almost a month before. For weeks he has taken black glue into his fresh pink lungs, so that when I finally push him out, he cannot gulp, his lung sacks full, unable to contract.
He knows how to breathe, expects to breathe, after all that practice inside me, but is punished when he does what is natural. The shock to his body when the oxygen doesn’t come. He has finally pushed out of the fluid to the land world, where he drowns.
Hours later, I cradle his warm weight, attached to an oxygen-pumping device, surrounded by a circle of strangers, eyes downcast. I touch his cheek with my rough finger, ashamed of my cracked nail polish. I like the lanugo on his shoulder, shimmering under blue light. Below the shoulder, he’s tucked into a quilt I taught myself to make out of our old clothes, with tiny precise stitches in unruly patterns, like what my grannies made, but not.
The Demerol dulls me, like numbing cotton on an open wound, so that I don’t cry or despair. I observe. The perfectly shaped baby, thick, ready. The shocked professionals. The husband, lips swollen, red. Through the Demerol I see what emotion wouldn’t allow.
I nod and a teal-costumed man flips a switch and my son’s feet kick, kick, kick and then drop. I shake his body once but he does not answer. I hand him to a tan, blonde nurse with a wet face. Holding my son with both arms, she wipes her dripping nose on the shoulder of the nurse next to her and I laugh. I see that is wrong when my husband vomits on the floor behind me. Teal people scurry to help him, rags, bags, chair.
The snake in the tree drips the Demerol into my vein and I want it to drip forever.
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Shelley Blanton-Stroud Artist Statement: This is an excerpt of a longer piece telling the story of my first son’s birth and death. This focuses on my impressions of his birthday, though the longer piece encompasses twenty years of birthday remembrances.
Shelley teaches college composition at California State University, Sacramento. Her
stories appear in Brevity Blog, Eunoia Review, Mamalode and, forthcoming, in Cleaver
Magazine and Soundings Review. She has brought pieces of her novel-in-progress to
Bread Loaf, Napa and Squaw Valley writing conferences, where nice people have tried to
teach her how to be a fiction writer. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Northern
California, where she erratically tends her vegetables and obsessively texts her adult sons,
who live too far away.