A clean-cut man tumbles into the emergency waiting hall clutching his child in his arms. The night’s breath is gentle, loose-limbed even. A woman bounds after him, her feet lightened by grandma duties. Sweat soaks through their eagerness.
“Nurse o! Doctor o!” the man screams, his voice nearly leaving an imprint on the walls.
The medical staff surges towards the newcomers. Other patients—the woman fanning the pink patches on her thighs and an elderly man nodding off on a wheelchair—thaw at the feet of this new emergency. A nurse shouts instructions. Fix a stand for the IV! The gaggle of blue scrubs dashes about in response. When was the baby born? Where is the mother? she asks the man. Call doctor! she tells her colleagues.
Two nurses bend and stand. One of them pokes the child’s limbs with a needle, urging sleeping nerves awake. One of them stamps a stethoscope all over the child’s body. The child is brown and unmoving. Their taut face does not wince from the needle jabs. Their chubby cheeks may depress into a well of dimples if they smile. Baby hair crowds their forehead. Such a button of nose! One touch on the child and the summoned doctor’s brows align in pleats.
“When was this baby born?” the doctor asks.
“It was yesterday o,” the grandmother says, pushing forward. “My daughter had prolonged labor. Since that yesterday morning, the baby has not been breathing well. Even my daughter is not strong yet.” She unties and ties her lappa. Her chest appears set to heave and crumple into a sob. “Why didn’t you come earlier?” the doctor asks the man.
“The clinic referred us here just this evening.”
The doctor turns to the nurses and murmurs, “You think asphyxia?”
“Yes. Asphyxia,” the nurses whisper back.
All the haste of seconds ago slows as they all look away from the child’s fruitless quest to fit in here. Soft-toned hisses dagger through the hall.
The room is a pursed mouth like the doctor’s, searching for words with which to break the news. Tense lips. Folded foreheads. Arms akimbo. It must be hard with children. It is always hard with children. Imagine all the moments now lost: not dabbing pepper on the child’s hand to discourage sucking; not throwing them up and watching them tense as they zap down into waiting hands. School graduations sawed off rashly. The grandmother’s nerve-ridden yet hopeful hands linger on the child’s covering. The father dabs his child’s forehead, fondles them with hands that will soon bury a child.