by Thomas Glenroy
~ for Nina ~
After you’ve pressed the yellow button on the callbox that alerts the nurses of your intention to enter, after confirming your identity by mumbling an assigned code you have to read each time from a scrap of paper torn from an envelope that you keep tucked into the coin pocket of your jeans, after you’ve been buzzed in and the heavy insulated grey metal door rumbles closed behind you… after all this, you’re still only halfway there.
The real price of admission to the neonatal intensive care unit is three solid minutes of intense handwashing standing at a high stainless steel sink. There are no handles to turn, just two large foot pedals with brightly colored plastic tips. The pedal on the left has a red tip, the other blue. Experience would dictate that the red-tipped pedal would release hot water, and the blue-tipped pedal cold. However, a laminated sign awkwardly taped above the sink advises “Left petal- cold. Right petal- hot.” The authority of the sign is somewhat undercut by the use of a homonym for “pedal” and the unwise choice of the font Comic Sans.
Once you’ve unbuttoned your shirt cuffs, rolled your sleeves up past your elbows, and achieved a proper water temperature balance, you pull a chain hanging over the sink that triggers a bright red LED timer to start the countdown. Three minutes can seem like an eternity when you are forced to do something as repetitive as handwashing, or in this case, arm-washing, as you are taught during your initial visit to the NICU to lather your arms up past the elbows, and then to scrub your upper arms, elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, and each finger and fingernail individually, using a small rigid plastic disposable sponge resembling a Brillo pad. No matter how thoroughly you think you are scrubbing, each second seems maddeningly slow as you continue to work the pedals and the water sluices over the tender skin of your newly exfoliated arms.
Once the timer expires, abruptly going dark without a sound, you shake the drops from your hands and arms into the sink, pat them dry with a thick blue fibrous towel, and wait at the interior glass door for one of the nurses to let you in. Keying open the door, she glances at your damp plastic wristband and motions you to one of the heavy wooden rocking chairs near the wall. As you adjust to the warm, heavy air and the hiss and drone of the various machines, the nurse crosses the room to a high, clear plastic case that resembles a futuristic fish tank. Gently extracting a small bundle, she crosses the room carefully, smiles, and places into your arms a tightly wrapped blanket containing an impossibly small child. Your child. Your son. Your Joey.