I watched as she looked through the Plexiglass enclosure at the poor little being with tubes down her nose, eyes taped shut, a large bandage covering her chest, wearing a diaper that seemed ten sizes too big.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her palms flat on the clear encasement. In the back of one hand, her own IV tubing led to a near shrunken bag of saline hanging from a portable stand.
“Do you want me to bring you a chair?” My voice sounded foreign among the sounds of the pumps and machines that filled the room. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just watching from the door. You must be tired from your own surgery?”
The woman didn’t seem surprised by my voice, her attention drawn to the child as if they were the only two beings on Earth. She never took her eyes off the baby as she spoke. “I’m okay. She’s the one who’s suffering, and it’s all my fault.” Her words were flat. If she felt guilt over the pre-term delivery of her baby, it didn’t show in her voice… or maybe it was the lack of emotion that worried me the most.
“Don’t say that, Mae, you were lucky you were near the hospital when your labor started.”
She nodded her head towards the doll-sized being, the heart monitor rhythmically sounding in the back-ground. “Lot of good it did her. I’m the reason she had a hole in her chest. Her poor little heart wasn’t ready to—” The dam of emotion burst through her passionless veneer, preventing her from finishing. Mae groaned as the tears flowed from her face onto the incubator glass.
I called out to a passing orderly, “Bring a rocking chair to this room, stat!” I went to her side where she all but collapsed into my arms. “There, there, Mae. The doctor said surely you both would’ve died if you had delivered anywhere else.” The orderly returned with the chair. “Now, here, sit in this rocker and take a breath.” The orderly looked at me as if awaiting further instructions, but I just gave my head a quick little shake as if to shoo him off.
“But the doctor also said, he couldn’t do anything more for her.” She grew solemn as she stared at the incubator. “He also said he would be surprised if she made it through the night.” Mae wiped her nose with the back of cuff of her hospital issued bath robe. She sat up straight, not taking advantage of the curved back of the rocker. Her feet, clothed in the flannel socks that came with the robe, were held together tight along with her knees.
I checked the readings on all the monitors that were keeping this child alive. The doctor’s notes, scribbled in that special script only a medico could read, said as much. It also gave instructions that maintaining her status on the machines would be her mother’s decision, and he would speak with her in the morning about turning them off.
I looked at this poor woman, not much more than a girl, and knew it was going to be a long night. “Do you have anyone you want me to call? The baby’s father perhaps?”
“There is no father, or at least that’s what he told me when I said I was expecting. He didn’t want anything to do with either of us in life, I doubt he’ll want anything to do with us in death.”
“And, no other relatives—your parents or siblings?”
I handed her the little box of tissues the hospital kept stocked in the rooms.
“Thank you. No, I have no one else. My baby girl, my June, was going to be my family.”
“June, that’s a lovely name.”
“My mama’s name was April, and she named me Mae. I just thought it’d be nice to keep the tradition going.”
I smiled. “April, Mae, and June. That’s sweet.”
Talking about her plans for her baby made Mae smile, but that smile faded when the beat of the heart monitor changed. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong with my baby?”
She started to rise from the chair, but I blocked her way as I went to adjust the monitor. She was right, the baby—June’s heart was failing. The alarm on the monitor silenced as I made my adjustments and Mae fell back into the rocker, the look of panic still on her face. Then from out of the blue, she confessed, “I’ve never seen anyone die before.”
I noted what had occurred on the chart replaced it back into the pocket at the end of the incubator. “What about your parents, are they alive or dead?”
“I don’t remember ever having a daddy, so I don’t know there. But, I was in school when they called me out of class to say that Mama had died. The school counselor arranged for me to stay with a friend’s family until Child Protection came and put me in a foster home. I saw Mama’s coffin before they buried her, but I didn’t touch her or nothing.” The used tissue in her hand was all twisted and shredded as she wound it around her fingers.
I rested my hand on the top of the incubator and looked at little June. “There’s no need to fear death. It’s just another stage of the process of living.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we are either here or we’re not. You must be born to live. You must have lived before you can die. You have to die to move on to a greater place.”
“You probably feel that way because you are a nurse. You must see death all the time.”
“I’ve seen my share, working in the hospital, but I didn’t understand it until I worked as a volunteer in Africa.”
“Africa, what do you mean?” Mae stopped crying, but never took her eyes off her daughter.
“I was working at a field hospital and had become quite good friends with some of the local staff. One day, my friend Salla, invited me to a Sending for her great uncle. I thought she meant the man’s ‘going away’ party, because when we got to his house, there was food and drink, and people wearing their finest clothes.”
“Sounds like they were having a party.”
“You’d think, but when the last of everyone who needed to be there showed up, we all sat quietly and said a prayer. Well, I didn’t, I just sat and listened, but Salla told me it was a prayer. Then a decorated bed was carried to the middle of the room, and on it was a very old, and obviously near death, man.”
“Yes. His color was ashen, and his breathing slow and erratic. He was obviously dying. I asked Salla what this was all about, and she said that this was the Sending.”
Mae’s head tilted as she listened, her eyebrows drawn. “Well, what did you do?”
“What could I do? To leave would’ve been rude, so I stood back and watched. I’ve never seen such a thing. The people were standing in line to touch and talk to the old man. Others were standing around talking, some were laughing or eating. It was a regular party, only with a dying man in the middle of it.”
By now, Mae’s attention was for me only. I had taken her mind off the impending death of her daughter if only for a short while.
“That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard of. Why would they do something like that?”
“You see, Salla’s people believed that life is something to cherish, but death is the doorway the uncle had to cross through to make it to the next plane of existence—heaven you might say. They were all happy for him and wanted to tell him while they could—you know, before he was gone.”
“By gone, you mean dead.”
“Don’t you wish you could’ve said, ‘I love you’, to your mother one more time before she died? Well, by having a Sending, all the uncle’s loved ones got to do that, so no one would have a regret after he died.”
“And did he die?”
“Yes, later that night with all of his loved ones there so he wouldn’t be alone when he crossed the threshold.”
“Do you think the old man knew they were there, doing that—having a Sending, I mean?”
“Maybe, maybe not. I think the Sending was just as much for those left behind as it is for the one who is dying.”
Mae went to the incubator and looked down at her daughter. “Those machines are the only thing keeping her alive, aren’t’ they?”
“Yes, they are.”
“And without them, she’ll die. My June will die, right?” Mae looked at me with a fierce determination.
“Yes. I won’t lie to you.”
“Then take her off. Take my baby girl off those machines and pull out those tubes. I want to hold my daughter while she dies.”
“Are you sure, Mae?”
She nodded her head but remained looking down at the still baby. I walked to the door and called for the orderly. Once he was there, I asked her one more time, “If I remove all the life-support your little girl, your June, will probably die. Is that what you are instructing me to do?”
She turned her head sharply towards me. “Yes, I said yes. Just do it please.” Then she turned back to the baby and whispered, “Before I change my mind.”
I nodded to the orderly who walked around to the backside of the incubator. I instructed Mae to back away to the rocker and wait while we worked. In tandem, we shut down the various machines, and I opened the incubator and slowly pulled out the tubing. I nodded to the orderly to pass me a receiving blanket. June’s little body barely moved as I lifted her up and then wrapped her in it. The up and down motion of her chest ever so slow.
Mae sat back in the rocker. I turned and placed June in her mother’s outstretched arms. I stepped to the back of the incubator to pick up the chart. The orderly had been standing there watching. I indicated with my head that we should both leave the room, as Mae rocked back and forth, humming to the motionless bundle in her arms.
Once in the hallway the orderly asked, “I know the prognosis for the preemie, it probably only has minutes to live. What is she doing in there?”
“She’s having a Sending.”