Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Education

I got my first real job when I was 22. I had just moved from Houston to Columbia with my B.S. in Physical Anthropology. Setting my sights on graduate school, I was still aching to be a forensic anthropologist. When I stumbled across a job in the Columbia Tribune for a histology technician (hours 5:30-2:30) I mailed my application. It didn't matter that I didn't know what histology was, exactly, but I couldn't resist the job's description: human specimen processing, microscope slide staining, embedding specimens.

Making 9.20 and hour and getting health insurance, I spent my early mornings at work listening to music and learning how to put colon polyps, breast lumps, moles, and pieces of cervix into melted wax to harden...and then be cut into slides by someone else. The precise, quick movements took skill, say, to get 10 colon polyps into wax before it hardened. I felt like I was doing something, really doing something at that job.

The best part, though, came in the afternoons. Our lab would get in its daily shipment of specimens. Though most of them were the above mentioned items, we sometimes got more exciting things: foreskins, fingers, gangrenous legs, placentas, and fetuses. My job was to line them for the pathologist to cut. Big things went last, so sometimes there were two fetuses a day. They came in plastic, Central Dairy ice cream tubs. Tiny babies floating and rocking in formalin. I found them the most fascinating. In fact, in my free time, I'd sneak into the back room (where we stored the fetuses for up to a month--in case the doctors wanted more tests run), pop the lid on the bucket, and just stare.

* * *

The past three weeks have been numbing. I have no other way to describe them yet. When we went into the hospital, I kept picturing Mindy having to give birth to one of those fetuses. It was horrifying to the point of absurdity. My mind just kept playing that scene over and over: Mindy crying and a teeny, tiny baby just slipping out and lying still. The problem is, we knew and understood too much.

On Sunday, when things were just hazy and Mindy went into labor after blood just spilling out of her, I kept hoping that Cyrus would be gotten by c-section. I couldn't bear to think of his birth. He was complete breech, and within 10 minutes of the doctor saying this, I was sitting on a stool in a surgery suite, behind a blue sheet, talking to Mindy about the stupid idea we had about getting pregnant. "This is the worst decision we've ever made," I said to her. Through her teeth chattering from cold and hormone surges, she smiled.

Minutes before entering the surgery, a nurse had shoved a disposable camera in my hand with my hat, mask, booties, and gown. I stared at the camera. What in the hell did she think I'd like to have pictures of?

I waited at Mindy's head, watching her body shift as they cut her and pulled her uterus onto her stomach...though I didn't see any of that. I just saw her shoulders being moved and knew what was happening behind the curtain.

When they pulled him out, I heard a little squawk. Numb. Numb. Numb.

The only way I can explain the feeling is relief. I was relieved that that part of the journey was over. I was elated because I knew that no matter what happened, Mindy would be coming home in a few days. I imagined, while she tried to keep her teeth from chattering, us having a drink and eating out. Us sitting on the couch watching SVU.

* * *

You see, in college I took a human osteology class. I loved it more than anything I'd ever learned. After that class I signed up for an osteology lab. I spent 120 hours that semester trying to glue 3,000 year old bones back together. At one point my teacher gave me a bag full of dirt and asked me to "find the baby." I thought she was joking.

After I dumped the dirt into a mesh kitchen colander, I saw what she meant. A fetus. It was probably 5 inches the most. It had a tiny penis and it's head wasn't attached. I spent the next couple of hours trying to get the skin off the bones.

* * *

Nearing the end of the c-section, I was summoned to a small room off of the surgery suite where Cyrus was whisked away. I walked in and 10 people stood staring at me. One doctor put out his hand and said, "Congratulations." Thanks. I peered into the incubator for only a moment; I didn't want to leave Mindy on the table like that, all alone. I saw a small baby with a small hat. The doctors stood frozen in mid-stride, waiting for me to stay or leave. "Did you see him?" someone asked. He was 14.5 weeks early, ripped from his mother's womb. And I just kept picturing Lady, our cat, decomposing under the pine tree in Mom and Dad's yard. I opened the door, nodded, and walked back to Mindy's head.

That was 7:32 p.m. We weren't allowed to see him until 1:00 a.m. That was after an hour of two neonatologists talking at us about all of the things that could go wrong. As if we didn't know. As if we hadn't read. As if I hadn't already numbed myself to it all.

I rolled Mindy up beside his little table. She touched his tiny, red hand and he squeezed it. Reflexes, you know. I was afraid to touch him; he was smaller than some of the fetuses I'd seen in the histology lab. I did though. I put my pinky into his palm and started when he squeezed my hand, too. You can see all the veins in his body, the little muscles, the smallest toenails. I swore I could see all of the four sections of his fetal skull.

Our baby is a live fetus living in plastic womb.

I'm still numb. He could die any second. We could bring him home as healthy as any kid in three months. Until one of those happens, we'll stare into his incubator. I'll keep being amazed at how he has Mindy's nose and toes. We'll speculate over his hair color.

I'll watch as my wife becomes a mother and I slip into another skin.

It feels like my heart is made of pure steel; It's just so heavy all the time.


  1. Tears are falling...stay strong!!

  2. Remember scary pap lady?? (I realize that has nothing to do with Cyrus, but you know how I am about emotions...). And now you are a writer, teacher, archaeologist, and mother! Pretty cool, huh?

  3. I knew it was Mindy's nose. I suspected as much about her toes, but why I wonder?

  4. Hang in there river rat. "You will be strong, Life carries on" (Blue Oct)

  5. No matter what happens...we are ALL better for your having shared this with us. Every last one of us...including you and Mindy.

    Hoping to meet him soon.


  6. Amazing. Everyone's perspective in each and every event is so very different. You truly cannot begin to have even a small insight into a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes... or perhaps read such a personal, well written story. You all remain in my prayers. I certainly hope Cy comes home in 3 months as a normal healthy baby boy and you and Mindy can enjoy parenthood in a more traditional way. Lisa Britt