Hope in Pain

Titus and I stood at the fifth-floor window, watching the morning rush on the highway below. “They are going to work,” I say, then point to a passing car and say, “zoom, zoom.” Titus smiles and points to the window too, runs his finger back and forth against the glass and mumbles “zum-a-zum-a-zum-a.” There are two women at the nurse’s station behind us. One sits at the desk in scrubs and reviews notations on medical charts. The other—a family member of another child in the hospital—rattles on as if the nurse is listening to her. She’s watching us, and when I notice, she takes it as an invitation to conversation.

“Ooh, he’s tiny,” she near-whispers, squinting her eyes and leaning into her words. She straightens, smiles, adds “cute too,” as if it were an apologetic afterthought. “How old is he?” she asks.

“He’ll be one on Saturday.”

“Lord!” she says, nearly jumping back into the nurses’ station. “That boy’s small!”

“I know. That’s sort of why we’re here.”

“How much does he weigh?” she asks, and now she wears a look of put-on concern. She pulls her glasses down and peers over the top of them as if straining to get a better look.

“About as much as a small six-month-old,” I say.

Titus’s cheek is framed by the feeding tube that runs up his nose and down into his intestines. His brown eyes are overly large against the backdrop of his diminutive frame, and he flashes them at the gawking woman before turning back to the broad window. The woman wishes me luck, turns back to her conversation with the nurse. Titus is unaware that he is the spectacle and points again to the cars hustling to work.

The woman begins to talk loudly about her grandson. He’s big, she says, “ninety-fifth percentile in height and weight. His mama was asking me the other day what ball we should use in his one-year portraits. She said, ‘Soccer?’ and I said, ‘Now, does he look like a soccer player to you? That boy’s gonna play football.’” She continues her pronouncements of grandeur—his size, his intellect, his devilish good looks. She is juxtaposing him against Titus, though perhaps accidentally. I wonder whether she’s hoping to paint her progeny into something less frail than he. I wonder whether she is perpetuating tall tales to enhance her illusion of stability.

She continues, and were she aware she would notice that the nurse is not engaged but instead only saying “mmm-hmm” and looking over the grandmother’s shoulder. She makes eyes at me as if to apologize, as if to say, “I feel sorry for this poor woman’s grandbaby.” I feel the tension and make eyes back toward the nurse as if to say, “At only one, that kid has some big britches to fill.”

Having heard enough about the woman’s future hall-of-fame presidential wonder-genius, I grab the pole to which Titus’s IV and feeding tube are attached and walk back toward our room. “Bye, honey,” she says to Titus, and he waves, oblivious to the heat of her insensitivities. People and their words lack intentionality sometimes. It’s the way we are