Baby Emily lay on the hospital bed, dwarfed by a sea of crisp white linen. I held my breath, my fingers gripping the cold metal railing by the side of her bed, relieved to be this close after my isolating hours alone in the small “family room” outside the morgue, where I had made the necessary phone calls.
Shocked by the tracheal tube still protruding from her mouth, I stared up at the doctor and nurse standing shoulder to shoulder like a human wall, two feet from where I stood. The doctor shook his head, his words directed towards the floor. “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.” I expected them to leave to room, but they didn’t. Couldn’t they see we needed to be left alone?
I looked down at Emily’s tiny naked body, at her beautiful belly and long artistic fingers. She looked cold. Why hadn’t they covered her up? I extended my arm toward her body. “May I hold her?” I hated that I had asked.
I scooped her up and held her to my chest. Cradling the back of her head with my right hand, her un-diapered bottom in my left, a position so familiar, yet now alien. Curling forward like a cave in the forest, I protected her from the blinding fluorescent lights; the silent yet hovering machines and humans. They no longer had anything to say. But I did.
I whispered a story just for her, as my lips touched her pillowy earlobe; a lifetime of things were said. I don’t recall how much time had passed, but at the fidgeting of the nurse I realized my time was up. As I kissed Emily’s head, the fluff of her downy hair brushed my skin. My last memory of her.
Today as I rummage through her memory box, another year having gone by, I count 54 letters from family and community members, finding some I don’t remember reading before. Struck with how her death touched others, I wondered: Do any of them think of her now? Would they think me insane for keeping up this decades-long vigil? I imagine Emily tall and artistic, her elegant hands moving along the piano keys, playing Ravel or Satie late at night.
Her sisters would sing with her, too. Jazz and show tunes. Did Emily know that every Christmas we find her stocking and hang it on the front of the tree? Of course she does. Emily changed all of us. Especially me.