Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Remember This
by Karen Collier

We have only one photograph of Mitch as a newborn. It's not displayed in a frame on our mantle, and it's not in any of our photo albums. It's tucked away in the bottom of a dresser drawer, under a stack of reading club certificates and swimming ribbons. Sometimes when parenthood pushes me to the limit, when Mitch's teacher calls to tell me he hasn't turned his school work in again, when I can't open his bedroom door because of the mess on the other side, or when I've heard one too many fart jokes, I like to take out that photo and remember how I loved his ruined little face.

I hear it's normal for expectant mothers to worry about their unborn children. Will he have five fingers, five toes? Will her lungs be fully formed? Will he have cerebral palsy, spina bifida, autism? But when I was pregnant with my son, I never gave it a moment's thought because I had been so careful.

I avoided drinking or eating anything questionable, from caffeine to alcohol, from hotdogs to chocolate bars. I went to a movie while Dave painted the nursery so I wouldn't inhale the fumes. I cancelled our lawn service so my bare feet wouldn't come into contact with fertilizer on the sidewalk. Dave and I trained in the Bradley method of natural childbirth and agonized over the pros and cons of circumcision. Through it all, it never occurred to me that my baby would be anything less than perfect.

It wasn't until my son was being born that I realized something was wrong. Earlier that morning I had been awakened by what I thought were the worst gas pains of my life. When we finally decided that I might be in labor, we headed for our two-room suite in the hospital's alternative birthing center. I spent the afternoon whimpering and moaning while the nurse encouraged me to walk, to take a shower, to sit on the bed cross-legged, and Dave followed me around, keeping my face cool with a washcloth. Every now and then, he whipped the washcloth around in the air like a lasso to cool it off again, just as our Bradley teacher had demonstrated. Finally the nurse pronounced me ready, and I climbed onto the bed to wait for my doctor to magically appear and say, "Push!"

Dr. Gunter's masked face appeared between my knees as I was finally starting to push my baby out. The nurse and Dave were encouraging me with a chorus of, "Keep pushing." Finally, I could feel him slipping free.

"It looks like he's got a cleft lip and maybe palette, I can't tell," Dr. Gunter calmly said.

Dave moved quickly to the end of the bed to take a look. My body went on autopilot. I couldn't have stopped the pushing if I had wanted to, so my mind was free. I tried to remember what "cleft" meant. I looked for alarm in either Dr. Gunter's or Dave's face. Dr. Gunter was focused, clearly concentrating on her job. Dave just looked curious. I thought, "Thank God, it's not something bad."

"It is a boy," Dr. Gunter said as she looked up at me. "I'll show him to you quickly and then I'll have to hand him over to the pediatrician to suction his lungs out. He's got meconium in his lungs because he had a bowel movement in the sac."

Another doctor had materialized with a warming bassinet and a crew of nurses. Dr. Gunter raised my baby up gently in front of me. In that brief moment what shocked me was his brown skin from the meconium. I hardly noticed his face.

The pediatrician grabbed my baby and carried him to the bassinet; immediately he was surrounded by nurses. As they huddled around the bassinet, mumbling, I could see the quick movements of the pediatrician's arms, but I couldn't tell what he was doing. For all I knew, he could have been performing heart surgery. Finally the pediatrician stepped away and announced, "He's fine, and it's just his lip that's cleft, not the palette."

It meant nothing to me. I'm sure I stared at him blankly.

"Just a little plastic surgery in a few weeks," he said, "and he'll be good as new." The nurses smiled and nodded their heads in agreement and handed my son to me.

Then I noticed it-the gaping hole where much of Mitch's upper lip should have been. His right nostril spread from the center of his face almost to his ear. I wasn't prepared for the shock. He didn't look like any baby I had ever seen. And then I remembered what the doctor said. It could be fixed. He'd have two chubby cheeks and a button nose, just like any other baby. It was hard to believe, but in just a few weeks, everything would be fine.

For the rest of the evening I was so high on adrenaline and the victory of natural childbirth, I couldn't sit still. While my parents and Dave passed Mitch back and forth between them, I sat on the couch fidgeting and calling all my friends on the phone. "I did it. No drugs!" I told each one proudly. When they asked about the baby, I told them how much he weighed and how long he was and then added, "He has a little cleft lip, but it can be fixed." Each friend paused for just a moment, as if she had a question, but then thought better of it and replied, "Great!"

After I finished my calls, I ate four trays of hospital food. Then the nurse came in to show us how to give Mitch a bath. I told her that was Dave's job. As she showed him how to bathe a baby in the sink, I paced back and forth across the room. What I really wanted to do was run a victory laps through the hospital halls, but the nurse nixed that idea, so I had to content myself with pacing.

When I finally paused to watch what was going on with Dave and Mitch and the sink, my mother whispered, "Don't you want to hold him?" I could see the worried look on her face. She thought I was rejecting him. She thought it was because of his face.

"I just want you to have a chance to hold him while you're here," I said.

She didn't look like she believed me, but I had to get back to my pacing. I promised myself that later, after the adrenaline wore off, I'd prove to her what a loving mother I could be. I was going to breastfeed and use cloth diapers.

When my parents decided it was time for them to go home, my mother handed me the baby. By this time, exhaustion was finally settling in and I was winding down. I held Mitch as I dozed on the couch and watched the Tonight Show.

The next morning, while Dave slept in the other room, I held Mitch as I sat in the rocker and really looked at his face. I started to cry softly, but within minutes I was sobbing. I told myself I was crying for him... for the pain of surgery, for the agony of being scarred, for the humiliation of being teased by other children. When my delivery nurse stopped by to check on me, she put her arm around me and said, "You deserve a good cry." And I did cry. I cried and cried until my head was pounding and the crying made me feel worse, not better. Of course, I was crying mostly for myself. I had done everything right. I deserved to be able to show off my new baby proudly. I thought about how I would feel when people gasped in horror and then forced themselves to say, "Oh, what a cute baby."

"This isn't fair," the nurse said to me. "Especially when you consider all the women who come in here hooked on drugs and alcohol and have perfectly healthy babies. But," she continued, "maybe you've been given this baby because you're able to take care of him."

I looked at Mitch again and thought, "But he is beautiful, just look at his blue eyes and long black lashes."

And that was that. We took Mitch home and, as parents of a newborn, had little time to ponder the unfairness of it all. Dave's natural stoicism had worn off on me for once. Our pediatrician said the ideal time for the repair would be when Mitch was eight to ten-weeks-old, so we had to immediately begin the search for the best plastic surgeon. In the meantime, I enjoyed my maternity leave. Mitch was such a great baby. Within days he was on a four-hour schedule, waking up only once in the night. I was getting plenty of sleep, so I had the energy to meet friends for lunch and go Christmas shopping at the mall. When anyone approached, I gave fair warning, "He has a cleft lip." But no one ever drew back in horror. In fact, the comment I heard most was, "Look at those blue eyes... those long black lashes!"

Ten weeks later, the day after Christmas, we left Austin for the hospital in San Antonio. I spent the first night in a recliner in Mitch's hospital room. Every time I woke up, I looked at him sleeping soundly in his huge hospital bed, his little socked feet peeking out from the bottom of his too-large hospital gown. I wanted his face fixed, and I tried to convince myself it was all for him, not for me. I was torn between fear and excitement and guilt. He was only ten weeks old. What if something went wrong with the anesthesia? Would he come out of the surgery looking like other babies? How could I subject him to pain he wouldn't understand? If I loved him enough, wouldn't I be able to accept him just as he was? Then again, wouldn't I want the best for him?

The next morning the plastic surgeon dropped by before the surgery. Dr. Smith asked me if I had taken a "before" photo, and I said I had. During one of our office visits, he told us to be sure and take a photo before we came to the hospital. He said we would want it later, when the surgery was over and we couldn't remember what our son had looked like. Shortly after Dr. Smith left to scrub, the nurse wheeled Mitch away to the operating room. We cried as we watched him go, and then we went to the waiting room to watch the clock.

A nurse brought Mitch to us after the surgery, swaddled in a blanket and sleeping in her arms. When she handed him to me and I saw his repaired face for the first time, I cried out of joy. He looked so perfect with his chubby cheeks and button nose. But I also cried out of unexpected grief. The imperfect little face I had grown to love was gone forever.

In the nine years since, Mitch has had several more minor surgeries and one major bone graft last summer. We've had difficulty getting him to swallow the tranquilizers before surgery and the pain medication afterwards. He hates medicine.

Mitch understands why he has a small pink scar running from his nostril to his lip. It's so faint that most people don't notice it, and when they do, they don't know what it is. When someone asks him what happened to his lip, he tells them bluntly, "I was born with a cleft lip." Adults usually respond with embarrassment, and kids usually just shrug because they have no idea what a cleft lip is and aren't interested enough to ask. I don't think about it very much any more, but he knows that I worry about him being teased. Every now and then, when he's looking for a little sympathy, he makes up a story about how some kid called him a name. Some of his stories may be true, but I think most aren't.

Shortly after Mitch's surgery, I threw away most of the photos we took during those first few weeks. I kept only the ones where we successfully captured him in profile or where his face was pressed against a blanket. The one exception was the photo the surgeon told me to take, the one where Mitch is facing the camera head on. I don't know if I'll ever show Mitch that photo, but it's come to mean a lot to me. Before Mitch's first surgery, we were so anxious to see our child with a normal face, I failed to notice I had fallen in love with his imperfect one. In the years since Mitch's surgery, I've experienced many moments when I thought, "Remember this, it won't last forever." And I do remember those moments, but what pains me are the moments I failed to take note of, the ones I thought I'd rather forget and now can't quite remember. Looking at that photo now reminds me that the things I'll later come to miss are the unexpected ones.

Some day soon, I think, I'll pick up the phone, hear a recorded message about low-cost health insurance, and wish it was the voice of a teacher who's frustrated and worried about my son. I'll open a door in my house to find a neatly furnished guest room and think it looked better with green plastic army men all over the floor. And I'll overhear some young boy in the grocery store line telling a fart joke while his mother turns red with embarrassment and the cashier and the other customers pretend they didn't hear him. The boy will look at me and smile, because I'll be the lady behind his mother in line, laughing like it's the funniest thing I've ever heard.
Karen Collier has lived in Austin, Texas for 13 years and is the mama of a wonderfully imaginative 10-year-old son. She makes her living as a freelance technical writer and is eternally grateful to her husband, Dave, Laurie Drummond, and the women of her writers' group for their constant encouragement while she pursues the more creative side of writing.