Ice in a Warm Place

by | Jun 11, 2024 | CNF, Issue Thirty-Nine

They had a little baby, their second together. Thirty years from that moment, I’d find out that he hadn’t wanted more babies, not after his first two with another woman. I’d find out she’d left him many times, hauling her giant television in and out of their apartment. Back to her parents’ house, the house in which her father called her princess, not in the good way. She tells me this as she drives me from the airport, the first time we’ve seen each other in weeks.

“Your hair is much nicer this way,” she says, “the blonde really lightens your face.”

“Thanks,” I say, “your hair looks really good, too.”

“It’s good you’re getting highlights now. You were starting to look like Lucy with your natural color.”

Lucy is her brother’s girlfriend. I know that she thinks Lucy is ugly. I know she thinks Lucy is everything that is wrong with a woman.

We’re stuck in traffic. Calmly, I offer “You know you just called me ugly, right?” I say it laughing, because I know she loves me and I know she was her family’s castaway. Her father was jealous of her opportunities. Maybe it angered him that the system from which he benefitted sometimes benefitted the very people men like him had built the system to contain. He might’ve loved her right if she hadn’t been a threat. She might’ve loved me better if she hadn’t been a threat. I might’ve loved myself better if, and the cycle goes on.

Thirty years before this highway, she’s in a Venezuelan hospital with her baby. Her and the family she dreamed of live there, fourteenth floor, oceanfront. She cannot stop looking at this baby who is so beyond perfection that her heart trembles. She wants to die in her baby’s eyes, her baby’s cheeks, her baby’s easy sleep and achievable appetite. She brings her baby to the beach, she kisses her baby, tells her she wants to eat her. She lies her baby across her thighs. She has never been happier and she will never be happier, either.

It happens in an instant, she’ll tell me. One minute she is smiling, sitting in her chair, doing what babies do, and the next her fever won’t stop rising. I think the worst part for my mom is that her baby doesn’t cry even though she is burning alive inside. Instead she fixes her questioning eyes onto her mother’s, trusting her to answer: why is this happening mom can you make it stop? The baby’s eyes search and search and search for reasons why a comfortable place is no longer, why the world has darkened, why she is losing sight of it.

At the hospital, the doctor says she will try a medication but it’ll take three days to see if it works. If it does, her baby might be saved. If it doesn’t, it will be too late to try something else. Dad is flying in from Miami when mom has to make this decision. Dad loves the baby too. They both need this baby alive.

The doctor begins the treatment and part of it involves Mom dunking her disembodied heart into ice baths every hour to get the fever down. Each instant of pain draws the baby further from her mom. She looks at her in disbelief, cold, wondering why she is being punished, why she can’t be warm again, why her mother won’t just hold her and let everything else fade away.

Dad arrives and probably charges through the tropical, light green hallways towards his baby. When she was born, he got to see and hold her first. He had a long time with her all to himself. He wants the baby on a medical plane right away, to Miami, where she’ll have the best chance at surviving. Mom says no. The treatment has started, the doctor says the baby won’t survive the transport, mom says no. He won’t hear it. Knowing him, he probably stands there aghast for a few moments, not wanting to say something he’ll regret. Not wanting to react in a way that will bring his children further away from him. Knowing him, he knows he is right, he wants his baby safe, he wants his wife to let him make the important decisions. Their deal is he works and she cares for the family. Their deal is he is out in the world deciding on the fate of huge swaths of wild land, and her world is their girls. What happens to the deal when he knows the world better but she knows her girls? The baby wails and wails when she is awake, then slips in and out of troubled sleeps. She winces at nothing, eyes closed. When her eyes open she sees the yellow and orange pastel walls around her, the white lining around the window. She sees the ice bath waiting against the wall under the window. She sees nothing outside the window.

“We’re going to Miami,” dad says. A medical helicopter is on the way.

The doctor is calm. She reiterates that the baby will most likely not survive travel at this point in time. Mom is frantic, she says over and over in an unmeasured voice that she has been here the whole time, that she knows what has been done and what is left to do, that he can’t just come in and decide what to do when he has not been here, not like she has. She needs this baby to survive. He has made up his mind. She goes quiet and walks away. She has never seen him more enraged than he is now. She doesn’t know this man. She doesn’t know he is the one she dragged her television around town for. She doesn’t know he’s the one who flew her to Paris for thirty six hours on the weekend. The one who brought her to the Dominican Republic to live three adventurous years in a tropical jungle. She only hears the baby under her hands on the bed that is too big for her, the bed for adults who can writhe in pain and know it’s not their mother’s fault. Not all the time, at least.

But this baby does not curse her mother. This baby is lost in the depths of its short existence, unaware of the beeping on the machines becoming increasingly irregular. She is not aware of the fight exploding around her. She only feels the lightning jolt of ice and water surrounding her too fast. Her screams are not helping, her mother holds her there, she has to. So she screams less and less each time. She learns quickly what people need from her.

“Did you get everything?” Dad asks. He is a philosopher, a nostalgic, sensitive man who does not get agitated easily, or often. At least not with his daughters. I can imagine however, when the door closes behind them in the bedroom, how he might walk away slowly from our mother, indifferent to the fire that burns within her, knowing how deeply silence can wound a princess. Men know so much and care so little.

“She’s not leaving,” Mom replies, “she’s staying here.”

“Give me her passport.”

“No.”

They are unaware that their voices are raised, that there are medical professionals around them who have never seen a woman so close to being carved into a wall. They don’t care that a nurse has her hand on a phone in case she sees the man raise his hand.

“Helen, get it, now,” he says. Every breath he takes brings the baby further away from him. This baby that he can picture sitting on the side of pools in warm places, or running across a basketball court, enjoying long car rides to and from the places this baby would shine once he brought her to a good hospital where she would heal immediately. 

“I don’t have it,” Mom says. She is no longer on fire. She is a pile of ashes that simmer and spark, a log turned black, burned already but still sparking, refusing to disintegrate. She can’t disintegrate. There is a baby there who needs her to dunk her in ice even though her screeching howls will haunt her for the rest of her life. She needs to hold on to each and every single ash that composes her so that she will be able to welcome her baby home from school with her whole pelvis, belly, and chest, her arms around the body that will be so little, made of these embers that burn now with a need to stay alive.

“Give it to me.”

“You won’t find it,” she says, without apology. And she looks him in the eyes. And the nurse picks up the receiver. And he stares at her and will never forget this moment. Never forget that when it really, really mattered, she did not trust him.

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