I could not have been more unprepared for what I saw on the first day of my pediatric neurology rotation during residency. And I could not have been more profoundly affected by seeing it.
My team had just walked up stairs to the Neonatal ICU to make rounds. Since the first time I had set foot in an NICU as a medical student, I had found the environment unsettling. Baby cries were drowned out by the noises of machines designed to support their life functions. Many of those little bodies were as sick as human beings could be and still remain alive. It didn’t seem right for lives so new to be in such peril. The sounds and smells drove one to fight or flight.
In essence, many of those babies were in a state of fight or flight as well – the children of addicts, withdrawing from the chemicals which used to drown their mothers’ sorrows. No longer anesthetized, their developing brains seized in the terror/panic of a new reality without drugs, a reality in which they did not choose to find themselves. And there was no Mama or Daddy to hold them; none to calm the torment of those God-forsaken moments.
As we passed through the entrance, then through columns of hospital cribs with their death-denying attachments, I saw another row which looked as out of place as baby beds in a nursing home. There, between two lines of newborn patients was a stand of old wooden rockers. That’s right – rocking chairs like those out front of any assisted living facility you might have visited. And they were adorned with well-worn quilts and blankets and seat cushions, just like the ones at grandparents’ homes. And what I saw next stole my very inhalation’s breath.
Pot-bellied and balding with a halo of gray, and bespectacled in granny readers sat the surrogate, rocking his precious babe who twitched periodically through the dying down time of a fit. An eighty-something retiree, he and others volunteered several times each week to take a sick, abandoned little person in their arms and sit and rock with them and show them that the whole world is not the frying hot cauldron of Hell that was the airless tank into which they had been locked. And when the shaking finally stopped, and even before, something in the beating cells of each child had known that there is a warmth that does not fry, a voice that does not scream, a movement that does not tremble.
The serenity in the faces of those elders as they rocked reached out and drew my soul into a place where the fullness of peace permeated all. What I saw there was so right and true that it obliterated all hatred, death, decay, destruction, abandonment, poverty, addiction, forsakenness, shame, hopelessness, hunger and despair. It was Love in action, the kind of Love that had lived and lost, died and risen again in one great infinity of “YES,” and it sat itself down in hard wooden seats with arthritic backs and it didn’t mind. Because that’s what Love does. Despite the cost or pain it just loves the least of all these children ’til they feel it. ‘Til they rest. ‘Til somehow, they’re well.
As I left to tackle the work to be done that day and night, I took a last long look at those old folks, draped in their yellow gowns, gently moving to the rhythm each thought would calm their patient best. And I knew that every desperate child had reached for something. Perhaps they didn’t even know they had. But they reached.
And needle tracks turned to age spots. And Mama came and rocked them, and made everything better.