“In the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit” by Catherine Freeling

Catherine Freeling


She asks, Would you like to hold your grandson?
and I answer, Yes, but I’m terrified.
If I touch him, his skin could tear. 
She hands me a blanket, moves the heat lamp
and lays him on my arms. 
Then arranges the feeding tube which runs through his nose
and all the wires that connect him to the monitors.
Call for help if this one beeps
or if the lines change on this one, she says,
then joins the other nurses at a nearby table.
I try to breathe the way I learned in meditation class.
But my brain isn’t working.
What’s it like to lie in these rigid arms? I wonder. 
His tiny wrinkled face beneath the preemie cap.
Barely born, something about him seems almost ancient. 
With a miniscule hand, he grasps my finger.
I listen to him breathe, feel the small warmth of his hand,
keep glancing up to check the monitors.
The nurses drink coffee. One asks the others,
Where do you like to drive when you’re not working?
An older nurse with a purple streak in her hair thumps a fist
against the table. Wherever the action is. Everyone laughs.
I think, How can you laugh?
When I was young, she says,
me and my girlfriends would drive around town.
When we spotted a carful of cute boys,
we’d honk and follow them. I’d always roll my window down,
lean as far out as I could, and wave.
And, right there, by the table, she stands up and leans,
as if out the window of an imaginary car, lifts her head,
smiles in a flirty way. I can’t stop laughing.
She winks. My arms unknot. 
The nurse straightens her body, shakes her hair.
Even now, I can put a lot of miles on my car
following a good-looking guy.
She looks right at my grandson and waves. 

from Rattle #48, Summer 2015

[download audio]


Catherine Freeling: “Recently, I discovered hiking up mountains becomes easier when you speak poems. Thanks to Adam Zagajewski, D.H. Lawrence, and Jane Hirshfield, if I say, ‘You must praise the mutilated world,’ or, ‘What is the knocking at the door in the night?’ or, ‘Table be strewn with pleasure,’ I forget the weight of the pack. The fact I can barely breathe. That’s what I love about poetry—how it takes me to a place where even the steep parts are magical.”

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