David, Sammi and I slid into the hospital the morning of her first surgery the way a reluctant toddler comes down a slide. All sorts of practicalities handled, bags packed for a hospital stay, all that remained was the hour of waiting in a room with a baby we might never see again.
If that sounds maudlin, that’s because it was. The risk to this surgery was smaller than most cardiac surgeries, but there is always a risk to surgery. The doctors would slice into my smooth, perfect, luscious baby’s back, pull her ribs apart, and decide which branch of her aorta to clamp and remove. The very thought of it made me weak. And yet, my job was to hand her over to these doctors who didn’t know anything about who she really was. They didn’t know she could sing. They didn’t know how much her four year old sister adored her. They didn’t know about my ambivalence about her for the first months of her life, ambivalence that I worried would make the universe believe that I didn’t want her, after all, and maybe it would take her away from us to punish me for it.
We passed Sammi around the pre-operative room — David and I, his mother, his sister, and her husband. After I refused to give her to a strange doctor to take away, screaming for me, they gave her a shot of Versed, an anti-anxiety drug that made her loopy and cross-eyed. When the anesthesiologist came to take her away, she waved at me as she was carried down the hall in his arms.
Once she was out of sight, I fell sobbing into the arms of my sister-in-law. She and I had never been close, but sometimes, the right person at the right time becomes a lighthouse. She was solid and soft at the same time. I think I fell on her because she was the very nearest person, and all my hold-it-together just dissolved once Sammi was truly and in every way out of my hands.
The details of the day — the waiting, the surprise visit with pastries from David’s aunt, the moment when the surgeon came to tell us that everything went well — these are the uninteresting snapshots of someone else’s life, the ones we look at politely but cannot connect to our own. The universal is in the humanity of kind people when you need it the most. That hug. Those pastries. David’s hand on my shoulder when we learned that they were closing her incision, and my memory flash of his hand on my shoulder as Sammi had been born, with me flayed on an operating table, paralyzed, unable to help her. She’d lived through that. She would live through this.
I couldn’t do anything to keep Sammi alive except to go and find the people who knew how, and to lay her in their arms.