I can’t say if you’ve ever heard your own voice come over the radio, but I will tell you it’s not always cause for joy. When I heard my voice from the radio in the nurses’ lounge, no one else knew what was in it but me. What I heard was like the sound of my own ghost come to haunt me from somewhere she was trapped. She spoke from someplace between this world and another, someplace far and near, flesh and spirit, come to slap the piss out of me.
The day the radio reporter had visited—two months ago—was the day they brought Deborah in. While I sat in Infant Care, on the east wing of the hospital, speaking rushed and breathless answers into a tape recorder, Deborah lay on the opposite wing, in the burn unit. The woman I have hated and envied and feared for four years, lying there mostly without skin. I had prayed actual prayers to God that he would kill this woman. Just kill her and be done with it, I had said in prayer. But by the time all this happened, I was long done with pettiness. That’s what I told myself back then, on every holiday, their kids’ birthdays, the time I was nine days late—don’t be petty. Now she lies there dying anyway.
Today, when I heard my voice on the airwaves, my words carried every bit of it: fear, shame, exhilaration, and something more, too. The words may have been mine, but the voice I heard speaking was my mother’s.
The public radio reporter from Chicago had come down to our small college town hospital following a slew of articles on the sharp rise of drug-addicted babies in East Tennessee. Sharp Rise everywhere, really. But an ugly epidemic sweeping Appalachia always makes for good copy. I didn’t think up that line. Martin said that to me one afternoon in the park during last summer’s slew of articles about Mountain Dew rotting all the hill people’s teeth. He has that kind of dry humor. I’ve often thought that must be the reason his history majors follow him around like pups. He used to affect that he didn’t take pride in his humor, like his jokes were just tossed off. I knew better. I absorbed his charm through my skin, in place of promises for the future.
Those late summer afternoons in the park, we’d lie together on the banks of streams and stare up into the green glow of the tree canopy. My mother’s people once lived all over those hillsides, working and divining according to the subtlest turns of the seasons. They read signs I could never hope to recognize or interpret. Then again, I’m not convinced the old signs are lining up right anymore.
This afternoon before the broadcast, my friend Monica, a Burn Unit nurse, came up to Infant Care. I’ve found ways of asking after Deborah’s condition, but today Monica didn’t want to go near any details. She shrugged as though pushing away the grimness involved.
She said, “As soon as the weather breaks, they’ll move her. Hospice. You and I both know it’s not going to end no other way.”
Monica stirred her coffee and turned the subject away from Deborah. She’d come up to complain about the snowstorm. “My mama and her sisters back in Georgia used to call this a stump winter. Hangs on so long you even got to chop up the stumps to keep warm.”
This stubborn winter is why, in April, we’re stuck at the hospital. Hardly anyone can make it in or out. Ugly mash of snow and ice, none of it forecasted. The weather people firmly assured us the start of spring. I suspect that, with all the patented technology they enjoy describing so much on-air, they started thinking they could cause spring to happen simply by announcing it.
I was still thinking of how to ask about Deborah while I prepped a small dose of morphine for one of the newborns. This week, there’s a boy in trouble—mother and baby are both bad off, purging something wild and strong from deep within themselves. She cannot be with him, and I’m told that fact is all she’ll say out loud, keening and delusional in another part of the hospital. Every time she speaks, she gives him a different name, so we’re holding off the paperwork. He’ll stay Baby Boy for now.
We are all protective of these babies, and of their mothers, too. But Monica’s company is a good break from the other Infant Care nurses. They can be fussers and too quick to sermonize. Monica takes what we’re doing in stride. Decades ago, her family left the Georgia mountains behind and settled in D.C. She remembers the years of panic and crack baby jokes on TV, while at night she listened as her sister’s voice trembled over the phone, afraid for her sons’ safety on their block. To Monica, Sharp Rise articles and radio reporters showing up around here signal something different.
“It looks like the cavalry, but before you know it, you just got more enemies,” she said, leaning over the boy, “What’s that got to do with this little one?” He was too worn out to cry, but drenched in sweat after hours of tremor.
“What do you think, sweet pea? When the suits come for you and your mommy, how about we sick some Killer Bees on them?” She shook her head and smiled, stroking his wet brow, her voice the softest baby talk. “I hear they need the work these days. We’ll fight one plague with another.”
In years past, we always transferred truly ill babies to the big children’s hospital in Knoxville, the place profiled by all those articles. Now that the trend looks likely to stick, administration takes a different view. “We’re a teaching hospital,” they sometimes say, right before announcing a change that makes our job tougher. Now we keep the drug babies here when we can. We got grants for better equipment, more supplies, and the new dark room.
When the world first comes at those babies, it’s too bright, too much. They’re strangers here to begin with, come to us empty-handed. They need to be held tight in the dark sometimes. Of all the nurses, I am the best at dealing with those babies. Everyone seems surprised since, unlike the rest, I have no babies of my own. What I don’t tell anyone is that I’ve come to like those babies’ company, even when they’re clawing themselves, even when they’re inconsolable. I find myself missing them. These past two months, I’ve been picking up extra shifts, just to be near them. I take them into the dark, hold them close while they howl, and I listen.
Burns like Deborah’s set a ticking clock, one that always takes longer to wind down than you’d wish. Longer than what seems endurable, or allowable. There comes a point when all the body’s machinery seems wound down, but the ticking keeps on, beyond sense. Deborah’s clock is especially puzzling, what my mother used to call “a bad baffle.” To hear Martin tell it, Deborah’s never shown much will to live. She has been careless in her habits of life, more so as years of bad marriage piled up, the children grown and gone to real cities. Pills, wine by the box every few days, no sleep or all sleep, illnesses neglected until they’d bloomed into secondary infections. Martin always said she’s never believed in her life—I mean, she’s never believed her life was really happening. He said it was like she was constantly lingering in the doorway, scared to come in or go out. He said all these years of it were grinding him to dust.
Did Deborah really want out of her life? Nobody knows. The accident looked suspicious—a garage fire that spread quickly, but not so quickly that she hadn’t had a chance to escape. Now she lies there, breathing on, to everyone’s amazement. They call it a will to survive. Silently, I wonder if she’s still just clinging to that doorway, unable to decide.
I got pleasure from being her opposite, I’ll admit. You can’t fake that kind of regret, and I don’t feel it, though some days I wish I could. My pleasure came from being willing to choose him completely. Choose him over everything else, when she never would.
Since her accident, Martin and I have crossed paths here a few times here at the hospital, but otherwise seeing each other is too complicated and ghoulish to consider. He’s grown thinner, smaller, his eyes hollowed and dry. This morning, I ran into him in the cafeteria. He was getting coffee for his drive home after an endless night with Deborah. He looked haggard and strange, and he squinted at me for a moment before speaking. His voice sounded as though it were traveling a far distance.
He said, “You look different. You look good.”
I do look good. Perverse as it sounds, her accident, knowing right away that she’d die—it has livened something in me. Changed circumstances can do that. I wake earlier in the morning. I’m out the front door quicker. You’d think I’d be distracted and careless on the job, but instead I feel on-call all the time. My hands itch to stay useful.
There’s plenty to do in Infant Care. Last month, we had three drug babies at once. The volunteers don’t stay long, and I can’t blame them. Those babies are in pain no one can reach. They suffer. There’s no helping that. It’s just something they’ve got to go through. We used to have it pretty easy here, before the Sharp Rise. Births mostly turn out fine, so much so that sometimes it amazes me. That’s a better baffle. The violence, high stakes for everyone involved, so much fear and pain—by all rights, things ought to go wrong way more often than they do. But no matter how sophisticated our machines get, or how many new medicines we cook up, we can’t ever know what a new human being will bring into our world. They are signs we’ll never be able to read.
The last time I saw my mother alive, I was distracted by what I needed to conceal. Martin was waiting for me at the park. It seemed miraculous that the summer could eke out one more day of warm, exquisite light. The last thing I wanted to do that day was bring my mother medicine refills and take out her trash. Days like that, I would curse my brothers for moving away. Hurrying through the chores, I yammered about Monica canning pickled peaches and about the Indian summer weather. She sensed my rush and dug in her heels. She insisted I sit down for coffee. She told me to stop looking at my watch. Nerve troubles, mini-strokes—all the shorts and glitches in her circuitry had taken a toll, but it was still my mother with her sharp stare, sizing me up across the table.
I made a nervous joke about it being for the best I was too old to have kids—no patience.
“Oh, hell. I had you when I was forty-two.” When I rolled my eyes, she said, “I know, I know, you’re supposed to worry about that these days. That would be bad now.”
“Point taken. I turned out okay. But that ship has sailed.”
“Lord, you could make a noise. Cried so much louder than my others. But we’d just got this brand new fridge—the olive green one. If you were real upset, I’d carry you over to it. Soon as that fridge door opened, you’d go silent. Every time. You’d stare in there forever like you had a window to another planet.”
I slurped down my coffee, got up, and made excuses to leave. As I passed by her chair, she gripped my wrist tight and looked me deep in the eyes. Her voice, always warbling, went snagged and urgent: “Your friend, the one with Georgia people? She shouldn’t put up peaches now. You got to tell her she can’t—not until the signs are right. You got to tell her.”
Next thing my mother was gone. She slipped away during that blank stretch after the last of the green and warmth, but before the first flashes of autumn color. When the days are nothing at all.
Everyone was milling around the nurses’ lounge, drinking coffee and counting minutes until the radio show started. We were on bare-bones staff, no volunteers and nearly every visitor snowed in at home—all because winter wouldn’t take the hint. Monica wasn’t in the lounge. She was on her own in the Burn Unit.
Not much to talk about except the weather, which everyone—even all the Baptists—agreed is a stone bitch this year. Out the window, snow was coming down as the gray daylight faded quick.
When the host announced that our episode was titled “Welcome,” I started to get queasy. We listened to the two cheerful opening segments about nervous coastal-city dwellers confronting unresolved slights and blunders from their pasts. They were witty about these matters, and a touch remorseful. Then moody guitars rolled in, echoed by small lapping waves of feedback, as our segment began.
Like I say, maybe you’ve never heard your voice come through the radio, but I did. The Chicago reporter described the dark room—piercing baby cries, seizure risks, the brutal statistics, the despondent volunteers. Feedback swelled.
She asked me: “I understand most of the nurses here are mothers. Are you a mother?”
“Is that a hindrance?”
“The mothers listen for something else. Problems they can fix. They think the drug babies’ cry is like the others, like an SOS. But they’re wrong.”
The voice sounded like my mother’s, but altered like that guitar with its feedback, some effect making me say things that sounded crazed and untrustworthy.
“Those babies are saying something else.”
The guitar sounded like it didn’t run on electricity anymore. It sounded like waters rushing. My voice tensed and warbled, like it was carrying the charge instead: “They are passing through a gate no one else can see. But I’m starting to see it now. The gate we all pass through.”
While the show wrapped up, everybody in the lounge stared at me. Some of the mothers looked like they were fixing to claw my face. I got up without speaking and stumbled out the door.
When I reached Infant Care, I relieved my co-worker, Kelly, a newbie nurse with daughters in pre-school and the kind of bone-china manners that never last in this job. But I like her. She’d been monitoring Baby Boy for tremors so I could hear my big radio debut. Her thin arms spreading wide, she asked, “How does feel to be a star?”
I shrugged off her question and went straight for the boy. He was gearing up to cry and fight and tear at his own skin. Doing the job—weaning him off the chemicals, giving him a smaller dose of the morphine and knowing it’ll cause him pain—it can feel like cruelty. I can feel like an abuser. So now, I make a beeline here to the dark room, where I can hold the boy tight and settle in to listen while he cries.
At first, I am grateful just to have my own thoughts drowned out. But as his voice falls into waves of rage and keening grief, I begin to listen into the crying like I never have before, so far inside it that I seem to go with it somewhere else. I start seeing in the dark.
I step into the weather of another lingering season. The woods are balmy, in early October, the last warm day we can expect. We walk up the park trail slowly, stopping at every bench and stream, until we reach a clearing where we can see miles of untouched mountains and fields. I set the boy down, and he is running: not away from all that he’s lost, but toward his beautiful mother. He already knows where to find her. They had made a plan, in case they got separated on the trail. Martin speaks to me without jokes, without the bittersweet. But I keep missing what he says. I am wandering away from him now, distracted by the bright summer green. If I could look closer, I would see that the woods’ glow is already dimmer than it was in full summer, that it is withering along the edges. But I can’t see that because my eyes are darting everywhere among the trees for my mother. It isn’t possible that she’s gone when all I can see is glowing green future.
Now my shift is over, but winter won’t let me go home. Kelly and I trade off. I leave Infant Care and pass through the corridors with my eyes fixed somewhere knee-level, looking purposeful and unwise to interrupt. I can make it all the way to the far west wing, where I’m headed now, on the strength of this expression. It’s a Do-Not-Disturb sign that doctors really know how to wield. I save that face for emergencies, and it always works. I make it down to the first floor of the east wing side door, to cut across the hospital courtyard. I slam both hands against the OPEN button, wait while the seal around the automatic door releases, and then inhale the chill night air rushing at me.
All the spring daffodils lining the courtyard have snow on them. Wiggling in the breeze, they look stunned, indignant mouths opened skyward. I look up, too. The snowstorm has cleared, and the sky is a gauzy field of stars. I try to read it like you would an ultrasound—a picture made of echoes, which is just what the night sky is.
My mother’s voice has travelled through wire and machines, electricity and air, up into the black, through the satellites, back down again, then more machines. She’s come back to me, this voice. When the seasons don’t know when to begin or end anymore, are we still meant to understand them? How can anyone know when it’s time to stay or go? More and more, I don’t know which outcome we are supposed to be rooting for.
Monica is the only person I see when I walk into the Burn Unit. She looks up from her computer monitors. She seems to know why I’m here. I can see that she has read me correctly, probably has for weeks. She knows I need to be in the same room with Deborah before she dies. Maybe Monica feels sorry for me. I don’t know what she heard in my radio voice. She nods, and she doesn’t stop me.
Passing by her desk, all I manage to say is, “The signs aren’t right.”
I step in the anteroom leading to Deborah. It’s made mostly of glass, and it’s where everyone must follow the protocols of intensive care, washing their hands and donning paper gowns, face and hair masks, goggles, and shoe covers before entering her private room.
My hands tremble as I scrub them with soap. I scrub them again with an alcohol solution, and for a moment my eyes sting with tears. I struggle with the rubber gloves, wondering what kind of exchange this woman and I can possibly have when I sit beside her. I stop what I’m doing, put my hands against the glass to brace myself, and look up. I watch her lying there, unconscious, surrounded by a bank of machines. What is it passing through them all, keeping her alive? Is it more than oxygen, blood, urine? What gate is she passing through that no one else can see? Some balmy late summer wood, maybe a clear mountain stream? I have no idea. This is a window to another planet. I throw away everything I know. I want to be empty so I can listen. I want to know what she will leave behind, what remnants in the machines, and what she will take with her wherever she is going.
Emily Choate’s writing appears or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Chapter 16, Late Night Library, Yemassee, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a runner-up in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition. Emily lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.