Lies of Encouragement

hospital-921034_1920A teenager named Tara arrives in the ward today; caked blood from scratching marks her like war paint. I walk her to the cot closest to the bathroom and close the straps around her wrists.

The detox maternity ward is housed in the basement of the hospital and holds two dozen coveted clean beds for women with little means, fewer resources and no choices. They’re so close together two women cannot sit facing each other without their knees overlapping like interlocked fingers.

Track marks speckle Tara’s hands and feet; pinned eyes too dead for her age watch me. The straps keep her from further hurting herself, they’ll come off once she’s settled.

Research suggests methadone mitigates the stress of withdrawal on a fetus. The diocese funding this ward eschews medication. The goal, however misguided, is to birth babies clean of addiction and thereby break the cycle. Some days it borders on torture the way we allow these women to suffer.

I fill a bowl with lukewarm water. Tears leak from the corner of Tara’s eyes through the oily film on her skin into thin hair pasted to her scalp. Women shuffle past us holding their barely distended bellies; gowns soaked through with sweat.

The night shift is long and filled with cries coming out of bodies too thin to sustain one, let alone two humans. At the end of each shift I punch out upstairs and walk past the nursery window where the newborns sleep during their first days. A quote takes up the entire far wall of the nursery and in perfect cursive Mother Teresa proclaims the importance of their work.

I soak a towel and wipe mucus from Tara’s nose and whisper lies of encouragement. The noise around us swallows my words. She leans up as far as the tether will let her and in a hoarse voice pleads, “Can you give me something? Please?”

This morning one of the babies had a seizure and her heart stopped. They were unable to revive her. I knew she was a girl because her mother screamed Where’s Jocelyn? as she turned over gurneys and cots and basins. She had to be sedated and will be released in 24 hours with a referral to a social worker in the main hospital.

Each week the rules become harder to follow. I have access to the medication upstairs where I fill in. If I dispense anything and get caught, it jeopardizes my scholarship.

I ring out the towel and wipe down Tara’s arms, avoiding the open abscesses. She spits in my face; it lands on my mask. She falls back onto the pillow and weeps. I finish cleaning her up.

RITA HICKEY writes fiction and some poetry in NYC. She is currently an MFA candidate at The Writers Foundry of St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn.