My Son and the NICU at the Center of the Universe

On the day my boy was born and put under the lights in the NICU, my notions of time and space changed forever.

by Shane Cashman
A drawing of a man in a space suit flying through the universe

My one-day-old son’s eyes are covered with gauze and he’s been placed in a glass box. The hospital calls the glass box the HALO–– short for Humidity, Airway, Lines, and Oxygen. The gauze protects the lens of his eyes from the ultraviolet phototherapy––a steady wash of purple light to clear the jaundice. He’s been brought to the ninth floor of the hospital in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or NICU or nick-you hovering over midtown Manhattan.

The words isolation and quarantine repeat in my head. It’s August. It’s twelve-noon. Neither my wife nor I have slept or eaten in 39 hours. Earlier this morning, they had discharged her from the maternity ward and for a few hours we were the only couple on the tenth floor without a new child in our arms.

There are five other babies in five other HALOs. A chair sits at the side of each. Parents huddle. It looks like we’re in an aquarium. I overhear someone say there’s the same amount of salt in amniotic fluid as in the sea. I do not know yet that this is not true, but this myth that the womb and the sea are in some way connected, gives me strange solace.

My first day of fatherhood has been spent doing reconnaissance for my son. Everything is more beautiful when I imagine the way he might see it for the first time. Even simple things become new and beautiful from our limited vantage in the NICU: rooftops, an overcast sky, the sounds of traffic, smokestacks across the East River. Still, there are things in this place that I‘d rather him not see: the suffering of new mothers, like his own, struggling to learn to breastfeed a newborn through a web of wires connected to a glass box. They bring in a new baby whose skin hasn’t yet developed. You can see the blood traveling through her veins.

Our son is a giant among the preterm infants. He was born six days after his due date, but must remain in the HALO until the Jaundice clears and his irregular heartbeat steadies. When it is dark and he is sleeping, I watch for the rise of his chest. His ribs show when his lungs suck in for air.

Sitting in an auditorium amongst a hundred babies floating in a hundred women, I felt claustrophobic.

I have yet to walk beyond our corner of the NICU into its recesses, but I listen for the footsteps of hurried nurses clicking past us down the dark hallway. The footsteps echo and keep echoing and it makes the place sound endless.

There is a large window on the far side of the NICU. The sunlight stops just short of the room. It’s as if the sun chooses not to step foot in here. There was an ample amount of sunlight just above us on the tenth floor––the maternity ward. I nearly trick myself into believing I could smuggle some of the tenth floor’s excess sunlight down through the elevator and into the NICU.

The Meditation Room is on the ground floor across from the gift shop. I do not meditate. Nor do I pray. It’s a small rectangle of a room. Frosted windows give the illusion that the room is locked away in the arctic. There is no one here, save for a slight hum. Soft lighting. Prayer rugs. Pews. The security cameras here are the closest things, at least for me, to a higher power.

Past the elevator bank, past the revolving doors that spit you outside, in the courtyard in the heart of the ground floor, there are bright orange Koi swimming in a Koi pond. I stood here a few months ago when one hundred expecting mothers set to deliver at this hospital were asked to attend a PowerPoint presentation in an auditorium down the hall, past the large portraits of the founders––chemists with muttonchops who were known for a steady hand before the age of anesthesia.

I can’t remember how I cut his umbilical cord, if it was with a pair of scissors or a scalpel, but ever since, I had begun to feel my own kind of phantom umbilical cord linking me to my wife and our child.

The PowerPoint presentation featured the haunting image of a three-foot-tall computer generated baby head scanning the crowd. Its eyes moved. I think it smiled. Sitting in an auditorium amongst a hundred babies floating in a hundred women, I felt claustrophobic.

Toward the end of the presentation, the host mentioned the neonatal intensive care unit. She said most of us won’t have to worry about going there and I hadn’t given it another thought until the doctors came into the maternity ward and said they needed to take my son from my wife’s arms, breaking stride only to ask, “would you like to kiss your son goodbye?”

I can’t remember how I cut his umbilical cord, if it was with a pair of scissors or a scalpel, but ever since, I had begun to feel my own kind of phantom umbilical cord linking me to my wife and our child.

I feel the tug of this phantom cord the way a deep-sea diver might feel the tug of their oxygen line as they roam the sea floor or an astronaut stepping into the vacuum of space.

The Local Volume is what NASA calls the space surrounding our galaxy and the several hundred known galaxies that neighbor our galaxy.

I swear I knew this city before my wife was admitted, but my sense of place had already malfunctioned the morning she gave birth. I had driven to the hospital numerous times in the last nine months. But when I drove to the hospital the morning her water broke, the hospital had disappeared. I circled the block. Perhaps it had somehow relocated, I thought. Then I realized I was on the wrong avenue.

I am cautious to press the soles of my shoes to the hot sidewalk. This will be the farthest I’ve been from them in two days and it doesn’t feel good.

Through the revolving doors: a rush of diesel and steam and cigarette smoke. The sound-hive of anxiety: taxis driving like warheads and construction and important people speaking into Blue Tooths and all the sirens.

I smell the East River. I dodge entrepreneurial pigeons pacing the street. I squint in the daylight. Was the sun always this severe? Can this atmosphere even sustain my family? There are giant silver tubes running out of the hospital and into the sky. Patients in hospital gowns stand at their windows and watch the city.

I walk north, parallel with the river. It is louder than I remember. I see a gold dome through the low fog. A cathedral. It must be quiet there––the one place in the city that might actually be empty. Its entrance is made up of two tall, heavy, arched doors that have a handle shaped like a two-headed dove. I sit in the pews and marvel at the blue painted ceiling, the holy symbols, an evil eye, the inverse of the dome, the chandelier, the stained glass, and the echoes of my every movement.

The Deacon hears the door close and comes to take a look at me. He seems surprised anyone is here. He joins me in the pew. He says it’s his lunch break.

“Should I leave?” I ask. He says no. Am I the only traveler he’s seen in a while?

He considers my face. Unshaven. Bags under my eyes. He sees my wristbands. One from the maternity ward. One from the NICU. Two from vaccinations. I must look like someone who’s either been out all night clubbing or a hospital patient on the run.

The Deacon’s name is Adam. A Syrian immigrant. His city was destroyed. He has lived in Manhattan for three years. I feel bad that his cathedral is empty and make sure to tell him how beautiful it is.

Everyone who passes through the NICU experiences time differently than anyone else in the city

I open a Bible to be polite. Genesis. We talk about the way meaning can morph through time and translation.

He tells me that God didn’t really take seven days to create Earth. If it is an attempt to endear me to an imperfect God, it will not work, but I appreciate his candor. I want to ask if he means God did it in one day or two days or if it’s all just metaphor. But I do not wish to challenge the Deacon in his empty cathedral.

He asks me if I mind sitting alone. I do not. He returns to his lunch.

Alone in the cathedral, the gold painted eye in a triangle stares down at me from the ceiling, and this is the first time I consider sacrificing myself, if it meant my child could get out of that hospital. The logic side of my brain says, I should not worry. Many children go into the NICU and they leave and have full lives. The animal side of my brain thinks of ways of stealing my kid from his HALO. We could climb through the giant tubes and up into the sky. I remember that they’ve put an anklet on my son that is hooked up to an alarm system. The three of us should have been home by now.

But I must return to the hospital. Even though the nurses said they’d feed our son every two hours, we both want to be there. My sense of time begins to warp. We orbit around the rhythm of our newborn and the NICU in such urgent circles that it’s almost as if everyone who passes through the NICU experiences time differently than anyone else in the city. I think of the theory of time dilation and how if humans could ever travel at the speed of light around the edge of a black hole, they might remain the same age while everyone back home will have grown old without you.

One of the nurses tells my wife that she should sleep in a bed. We need rest and our son is in good hands. But we live over an hour away. We don’t want to leave his side.

We are grateful to have loving friends, generous friends, who happen to have an apartment twenty blocks from the hospital. They allow us to set up camp in their guest room. While my wife builds the medieval breast-pump we rented from the hospital, I walk back to the hospital with what milk she has already pumped by hand. It is two in the morning.

I walk through the night of a thousand strangers. There are people watching the Olympics on small TVs in bodegas. There are teenagers in tight dresses passing a bottle of Jack back and forth in the shadows.

I see the homeless facedown in the street. One man sleeps in the gutter next to a dead pigeon. The man looks both newly born and long dead. I wonder when his birthday is. I check to make sure he’s breathing. The whole city is a NICU and now I look at everyone sleeping along the dark sidewalk as if I were a nurse. No matter how far I am from the NICU, I hear the electronic sounds of HALOs. Even the beeps of the CVS self-checkout registers are the same pitch and frequency as the beeps of the machines in the NICU. One machine that can’t read a barcode says, “please wait, help is on the way.”

We worship our nurses, who give us a crash course on how to change diapers, breastfeed, swaddle, cope.

I remember a story my wife once told me. When she was a little girl she saw a walrus at an aquarium. Everyone called to the walrus for a photograph, but the walrus ignored everyone. But when my wife called the walrus’s name, the walrus lifted his big head as if to nod hello, and the people said, “hey! Do that again.” I take this to mean that your voice is an element that can impact anything.

We spend a week this way. Filling our hearts with love and spilling our voices into our child in his HALO. I remember the Alphabet. I must not have thought of the Alphabet in many years and I sing the Alphabet to him to try and form the foundation of the way we will communicate. I report to him the world he has yet to see. But will we even recognize the city beyond the perimeter of the hospital?

We notice one baby does not have any visitors. We see other families get to leave with their children. We worship our nurses, who give us a crash course on how to change diapers, breastfeed, swaddle, cope.

At the end of the week, we are told our son will be discharged and we are anxious and terrified to leave. There is so much time and love and sadness and fear outside the hospital. And we will finally be alone to be parents without the team of nurses. Our son is still somewhat yellow from the jaundice and they tell us to lay him in the sunlight by a window.

While our bags are packed and our car seat ready beneath the empty HALO, our son in my wife’s arms, a new, young family enters the NICU following their newborn in her HALO. They look as dismal as we did a week ago. I try to give him the same reassuring smile the nurses here have refined.

We make it outside for the first time as a family. There is a light rain. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is setting. The steel and the glass repeat the shifting red and purple sky. My son feels heavy. His weight anchors us to the ground as if it weren’t for him we might float away. I’ve never been so thankful for gravity and I say to him, “Welcome to Earth.”