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The Early Birds

Sam is breathing like a frog. I show my mother. I tell her, "I gave birth to a frog."

She says, "They are going to be beautiful boys."

I tell the nurse that Sam appears to be heaving more than Gus. "They push the preemies here to see what they can handle," she says. "He's working hard, but we'll see what the doctor decides to do during rounds. He might want to put Sam back on the respirator. They have to keep testing the babies to see if they are ready to come off."

My mother wheels me back to my room, and when she and my husband, Dan, go down later to check on the twins, they learn that Sam is indeed back on the respirator. One of his lungs has collapsed.

"I knew it," I say. "I knew it. How could those nurses not have seen that something was wrong with him? Why did the doctors wait so long? They were pushing him too hard."

Dan paces around my hospital room. "Dr. Vanderbilt said you have to start walking," he says. I don't even try. I do not want to recover. Later that night, I am lying in my hospital bed sipping ginger ale. Dan is flipping through TV channels when Alex, a nurse-practitioner from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), knocks on our door. He says that Sam has taken a turn for the worse and we need to sign a release for a blood transfusion. Sam is in bad shape; his system has shut down, and his oxygen levels are low.

Alex tells us that we probably want to come downstairs.

Partly because I am disoriented from painkillers for my c-section, I still have no idea which turns we make to get to the NICU despite having made this trip several times. Dan wheels me through the glass doors. The head nurse-practitioner says, "Sam is very sick. He is not responding to our treatments. We are going to try him on an oscillator, a machine that will shake air into his lungs. It may be our last resort."

Dan wheels me back to the elevator, through the maze, to my room. I rest all my weight on my arms and push myself out of the chair and into my bed. I slide away the tray with its stack of unopened puddings. It is two weeks until Thanksgiving. The cribs I ordered haven't even arrived, and now I don't know if I will need two. I begin to cry uncontrollably.

I believe Sam will die. Over and over I keep thinking, Terrible things happen, there is no protection from them. I am beyond anger, beyond the dread of having to go home from the hospital tomorrow leaving one of my babies here clinging to life and the other fading fast. He should not be here yet. He has arrived and he will leave in a flash, without being hugged by his mother or father, without laughing or speaking, without our ever knowing who he really was.

I've had no more than a glimpse of Sam's fair hair and remarkably symmetrical face. He is the restless troublemaker, Baby B, who kicked a hole in his sac, atypically breaking his water ahead of Baby A and hurrying his brother out. He is a heartbreaker who struggled mightily to breathe, until he collapsed. My love for him is both unconditional and nontransferable. I love Gus equally and separately. If Sam dies I will be left reaching out for a baby that I never even held.

From the book The Early Birds, by Jenny Minton. © 2006 by Jenny Minton. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.