By Lauren Fish
Fluorescent. That is the only word the father can think of as he sits in the empty waiting room. Everything is too bright, too harsh. The hum of the vending machine in the corner. The vinyl flooring. The lights pouring down from the ceiling, interrupted by rows of white-speckled tiles. A distant memory pulsates in his brain: the popcorn ceiling from his childhood, which was later found to contain asbestos. He remembers that announcement being broadcast in his family’s living room during the 80s. Popcorn ceilings discovered to have cancer-causing materials. Toxic dust linked to the onset of mesothelioma.
But he swats it away. His mind is already filled with too much. There is no room for asbestos.
A doctor emerges into the waiting room. Her glasses are slightly askew, but her auburn hair is slicked back into a neat ponytail. As she approaches where he is sitting, he notices how time has eroded her skin, forming frown lines around her mouth.
“Are you the father?”
The father nods, because words are universes away. Time has become a viscous liquid. He notes the use of the doctor’s present tense. A thread that he clings to in these moments that are glacial.
“We’re relieved to share the replacement surgery went well. Amazingly, actually. Your daughter is stable in the NICU as we speak.”
He closes his eyes. His body lets out a small exhale, relief weeping into his toes and fingertips. But there is a tension in his bones still. He thinks of the seconds and lifetimes that have passed since he saw the doctor last.
His wife: laying on the delivery bed, exhaustion crumpled between her and the hospital sheets; the nurses and assistants: running amok; the doctor: saying something unintelligible to him, something about a problem with a spine, something about how each second is critical, something about them needing to operate at once, something something something about getting out of the delivery room now. But all he could see was his daughter nestled in the doctor’s arms. She was shrieking, her screams engulfing all the available oxygen in the room.
He was ushered out immediately. Shown to the fluorescent waiting room. Given a cup of water and an assurance someone would be out to update him shortly.
A doctor – a different doctor, this one older, the erosion more severe – comes out to see him a few minutes later. “I know that must have come as quite a shock in there. Especially since that came as quite a shock to our staff as well.”
“What’s going on?” He breathes.
“Your daughter was born without a spine. But her spinal cord, nervous system, organs…they’re all intact.” She pauses, her mouth twitching to locate the right words. “In our history here, we’ve never seen anything like it before. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it.”
As she speaks, the fluorescence shoots rays into his retinas. His vision begins to spot.
“But one of our surgeons here has, thankfully. Apparently, this is a medical phenomenon that has been becoming increasingly common, especially in females. He’s operating on her right now. The procedure involves inserting a flexible bar into her back – something that will be able to expand as she grows.”
He stares back at her. When he doesn’t respond, she gives him a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “I can only imagine how stressful this must be for you and your family. We should be able to provide an update shortly. The procedure won’t take long.”
With that, she walks off, her white lab coat melding into the walls and tile floor.
The mother and father bring their daughter home a few days later. Disbelief settles over the house, sprinkling each room. They are shocked by her presence. That, despite the abnormal nature of recent events, she is behaving so normally. She sleeps most days and nights, uttering barely a sound, the soft rise and fall of her chest a reminder for her parents to breathe easily. It was as if the surgery had never happened, except for the crooked red scar corrupting the length of her back.
As the daughter ages, the scar fades and whitens. Like ink that’s been left in sunlight for too long.
She thinks about the metal rod in her back sometimes, even if her parents refuse to speak about it. One morning, as she’s sitting at the kitchen table and her mother is making breakfast, she can’t hold the question in any longer.
“Mom, why don’t I have a spine?”
The mother doesn’t turn around. She continues stirring scrambled eggs at the stove.
“But you do, honey,” she says. “It’s just not in your back, like it is for most other people.”
* * *
Lauren Fish is a science writer by day and insomniac by night. You can find her in San Diego, CA, where she sometimes gathers the courage to perform at live storytelling events.