Martha Phelan Hayes
It is early December, still late afternoon, but already we have sunk into the blackness that is high-tide deep and all consuming, a cold that numbs. You could drown in a night like that. Inside the house we are warmed by the oil furnace and each other. I feel safe here in the golden lamp-lit living room, tucked into the couch corner, guarded by the paned window. I am seven and too young to understand its fragility, just that it makes my side of it seem to glow beyond its wattage.
The new baby is sick. He has been getting worse, and now my mother swears his chest is starting to rattle. The doctor has been in and out, and tonight my parents have phoned him again. They need to bring him to the hospital. I hear them in the kitchen, their voices unclear through their efforts to keep their worry to themselves and the convenient din of the television and my siblings’ play provides them. But through the muddle of sound, I hear my name. It comes out of their sea of talk and is said as if it is a resolve. “Martha can go with you,” my mother concludes. There is a certainty in her voice, a hint of optimism. As if this minor decision promises some resolution, some hope.
In the car I hold my brother on my lap. We have faced the cold with sweaters and winter coats and an extra blanket for the baby. The used Ford takes a while to heat up, and so we are as good as outside as my father backs out of the driveway, his right arm across the top of the front seat, his concern passing by me as he peers out the rear window, backing the car into the road. He is our driver when a friend calls, or my mother needs a ride home from the grocery store or to the library, or on long trips to Boston to visit our grandparents. On Sunday all of us cram in to attend Mass, in the summer sometimes stopping for daisies from the girl who sells them on her front porch.
The heater relieves us as we enter the highway, the headlights boring through the thick onyx night, and as we exit into the city, we seem to descend into a pool of light. The hospital is bright with starched white florescence that hums the same chord as my classroom lights when we are taking a test. Everything seems to have grown larger, a checker-box of dark winter clothes and sterile white walls and uniforms. The night rests on my father’s tongue when he checks us in, his throat clearing the cold as he says his name. I sit on a blue, vinyl chair, hold my brother, and wait. I smell the despair and dependence on the other heavy faces sitting around me, a swamp of sick and broken in this antiseptic stench of chlorine.
And then it is our turn and my father takes over. I stand beneath the charcoal of his suit, his tense limbs, as the doctor examines my brother. He taps his infant back and listens to his lungs, looks into his eyes with a piercing light. He asks questions that might come out of a dark closet with answers that doom us all. The baby is quiet. He lets him poke his body as if it is some lifeless thing they have found in the dark. I am certain he will die, and death is a sooty shadow that has followed us here.
But then the doctor removes the stethoscope, pulls out a prescription pad, and looks up at my father. The baby will live. My father’s shoulders drop and there is a handshake, a warm breath of relief in the room. He smiles, my father, with ripples of delight, as if someone has dropped a pebble into the pond that is his mouth. Suddenly he becomes the salesman he is and remembers me, joking about the antics of our ride here with a story that seems to have been written while I was somewhere else.
My mother takes my brother the minute we are in the door. And soon I am burrowed in my own bed. I fall asleep to the whirl of his vaporizer, the smell of wet walls, and my own thoughts of death and eternity, the claustrophobic terror of my soul living on and on and on.