"It pains me to say this, but..."
Oh no. Not again.
"...her lungs haven't developed as much as they should have at this point of development. Now, this is not a death sentence - there have been cases where babies with defects like these have been able to survive and lead relatively normal lives, but I don't want to give you false hope..."
After the doctor had awkwardly shuffled out of the room, my wife Maple and I exchanged a look of uncertainty amidst a heavy silence. One which I finally broke.
"Should we name her now?"
Our first child would have been a boy named Harley. He was born 2 months premature though, and had defects in his bone marrow that caused complications with his blood circulation and oxygen intake. He died after two weeks and a day; he never even left the hospital. We had tried to cling on to some hope during those agonizing days, only to break down in tears when we saw those hopes take their last strangled breath.
Our second child would have been a girl named Nikita. She was born with my dark brown eyes and her mother's tender features. Just a few hours after her birth, she died in her sleep for reasons we may never know. The doctors called it "Sudden Infant Death Syndrome", as though giving it a cold and sterile name could numb its torment somehow. Looking back, I can only remember feeling hollow from the shock that day.
A rose by any other name may smell just as sweet, but by giving it a name it becomes more than just a rose. A stray dog on the road is a mere mongrel; a stray dog you adopt and name Rover will become your closest friend. By naming something, or someone, they take up a space inside us; their roots grow into our hearts. And when they disappear from our lives, those roots painfully rip out a piece of us as they go.
Maple and I had been torn up enough. I didn't think we needed to go through it again.
Maple thought differently.
"I feel like we still should. If we don't name her now, it's like we're not even giving her a chance to have a life."
"But do you really want to go through this all over again? After what happened last time?"
Maple looked away, furtively clutching the faded scars on her wrist.
"We don't have to do it now," I continued, as rationally as I could, "we can wait until she's born, until we're sure she'll live. A lot of couples don't even name their baby until weeks after birth."
Maple took a while to respond.
"But we don't. And it feels wrong to stop now. We gave our - we gave them a chance. We shouldn't leave her out."
I couldn't look into those pale brown eyes and argue any longer. I sighed.
"Alright then. So, any ideas?"
"We should name her after someone stubborn. Someone with a forceful personality."
"So we're naming her Maple then?"
I got a reproving glare for that one. But it came with a smile - the first smile we shared that dismal evening.
As though the Gods would never stop toying with our emotions, Hazel was given birth to six weeks premature. The doctors had to immediately place her in an incubation unit and plug an oxygen tube into her wrinkled little mouth. Even then, her fragile little lungs seemed doomed to fail - she couldn't even whimper, let alone cry. Maple and I could only stare with tear-stricken eyes as our little girl lay inside her high-tech little cot, a mass of tubes snaking in and out of it.
Every tick of the clock was a stab, chipping away relentlessly at our resolve. The beeps and murmurs of the machinery around the cot were cold, unfeeling. As I sat beside Maple's bed day after day, the shadows would crawl menacingly across the room as they heralded the restless spring nights. I couldn't help but shudder as they crept across Hazel's incubator, like spidery fingers slowly stealing the life from her fragile little body.
The flashbacks began about two nights after Hazel was born. I would look towards Hazel's cot and see Harley, his pearly eyes staring bleakly at me, the life draining out of them far too rapidly. I would see blank figures mull around him, their faces vague from a hazy recollection. And then, always, the visions would end with an empty cot - the worst flashback of all.
The pain I was feeling was nowhere near Maple's though. When she wasn't gripping my hand like a vice, she would bury her head in her arms and moan. Those moans were terrible, the soundtrack of a haunted asylum on an evil night. It took all of my strength to be there holding her, trying to keep us afloat in the storm of misery we were floundering in.
One night, when Maple had somehow drifted into an uneasy sleep, I walked out of the room to the nearest vending machine. Caffeinated cola in hand, I tried to make it back to the door, but slumped against the wall outside instead. I must have looked a pathetic heap, collapsed there while slurping despondently at the cola.
I couldn't hear the words Harley and Nikita anymore without feeling a stab of pain at my insides. I didn't want to add Hazel to that list - it was far too many names to mourn.
It was the morning of the thirteenth day. The doctor walked in with an air of finality. I sleepily looked up, saw him approach the incubator and feared the worst. Maple was in a state of semi-drowsiness, so she didn't seem to have noticed the doctor enter.
He stood beside the incubator with his white-coated back to us for what seemed like an eternity. When he turned around, my heart tried to prepare to be torn apart one more time.
But he was smiling. Faintly, but smiling.
He gestured for me to walk towards the incubator. Hesitantly, I approached him to find that he had removed Hazel's breathing apparatus. My heart stopped at first, thinking Hazel wasn't breathing anymore. But it was the opposite. She was breathing. Without the tubes.
Her lungs were working.
I had to sit down to process this. The doctor, in the meanwhile, gently lifted Hazel out of the cot and carried her over to Maple. It was then that we heard it.
Actually, it would have been a cry for a normal baby. For Hazel, with her feeble lungs fighting against all the odds, it was a whimper. But it was enough. I gasped with relief, and ran over to Maple, who was cradling Hazel in her trembling arms.
As we both stared at the little girl, her soft mustard-colored hair atop a peaceful angelic face, the tears began to flow again. But these were the best kind of tears.
We were going to have a baby daughter. She was going to survive and grow up to become a proud and stubborn little girl.
Her name would be Hazel. And she wouldn't be mourned.