Henrietta was fifteen minutes late for her first all-night shift alone as the hospital chaplain. In another fifteen minutes, the Spiritual Care Department Chair would be notified and she could lose her privilege to be on the on-call list. She had been training for this job for three months, shadowing the staff, learning to handle all sorts of emergencies, as an intern without pay, and now it was an ordinary traffic jam that was going to take it all away. Ordinary, at least, for the west side of Los Angeles. A caravan of ambulances had screeched ahead of her on Wilshire Boulevard, and now blocked the way into the UCLA Medical Center’s main parking lot. Henrietta bowed her head in allegiance to the sound of the sirens—a childhood reflex—praying for the hurt people inside, their families, paramedics, and finally, hospital staff including herself, a spiritual family privileged to heal their wounds.
This had started as a family ritual. At the sound of an ambulance siren’s wail, her mother would slow the car down, pull off to the side of the road, and stop the engine cold. Then she would hold out her hands to hold her children, crushed soft tissues flapping through her fingers like prayer flags. She would remind God, ever so politely, “Please pay extra attention to those suffering strangers, and all their caregivers right now, this very minute, and thank you very kindly in advance.”
She had never wavered. “It is the law,” she would solemnly tell Henrietta and her two sisters, when their heads had popped up too quickly, and she had caught them looking before the sound had died down. “And I could, the responsible driver, with precious burdens in this car, get a ticket for not following it—many points and a large fine,” she would add, squeezing their hands hard as one last emphasis.
Henrietta had believed her, of course. It was not until she took her written driver’s license exam that she had found out that the motor vehicle laws were not so generous-hearted, that the maximum effort required of a driver was to attempt to slow down and get out of the way of the speeding ambulance to prevent accidents.
“Well, it should be the law for my children,” her mother had replied when Henrietta had confronted her. “It is the law of looking out for one another.”
This had been Henrietta’s introduction to group intercessory prayer in that mobile confessional, the family station wagon, as it evolved into a makeshift roadside chapel. They never dared break their mother’s commandment to hold hands with one another, whether they wanted to or not, hated each other or not, three girls and the adored baby brother, always fighting for that most treasured battle turf, the front passenger seat by the window. They had sat obediently, sighing loudly and dramatically, their only protestation, but always offering up their hands, forming a soft, warm circle of humanity inside the hard metal rectangle. Through many years, they had gone on family vacations this way, round and round, in a seemingly endless series of prayer circles, until they had turned beyond the comforting straight line of childhood, curving around the dangerous, surly U-turn of adolescence, back again to the familiar friendship with one another as adults, one sister older than Henrietta, one sister younger, but all adults.
Had they prayed enough times to make any difference? Did her mother know now—or did God with His panoramic vision know back then—that despite all their generous prayers for others, their own magic circle would be broken? Her mother had outlived her only son, yet was not there to hold him when he had been dying, not even within the siren’s range of a prayer. It had been his accidental killer who had held him, a distraught stranger, whispering words of reassurance, of apology, holding him close in his arms, flesh against flesh, heart against heart. “Not alone,” her mother would repeat later, like a calming mantra, “at least, my son did not die alone.”
Henrietta bowed her head one last time at the steering wheel altar before she left the car. She no longer prayed the way her mother had taught her, the way they all used to pray together before her brother was killed. She didn’t pray for other people first anymore. She prayed more economically and efficiently, starting with a prayer for herself at the center of the circle and then praying her way out to the others.
“Please, God, don’t let me be too late for work,” was her first prayer as the hospital front doors opened. Her on-call shift had started ten minutes ago, at 5:30, and there was only a half-hour grace period where the day chaplain could report on open cases.
The day-shift chaplain, Maurice, looked up as Henrietta came through the door.
“Finally!” He tilted his dimpled chin towards the gigantic clock that covered one entire wall of the office, its second hand ticking loudly and relentlessly, as if it had been taken from a nineteenth-century train station but still remembered its past importance. Maurice was impeccably dressed and looked wonderfully fresh after eight hours of work. He always looked as if he could handle any possible contingency, the full spectrum, the “carry, marry, bury” cycle of ceremonies with a showman’s style. Henrietta had heard that he had once had a successful career as a professional ice dancer.
“I was just on my way to the Neonatal Unit for an emergency baptism. Now, you’ll have to do it. I don’t have that kind of time,” he sighed. “All yours, my dear.” He handed her a clear sandwich-sized baggie. She could see a tiny white satin hat, a scrolled up piece of paper, a plastic white rosary necklace, and a vial of Holy Water.
Maurice’s back was turned away from her. He was sliding the magnetic button beside his name from the on-call column to the out-of-range column.
She touched him lightly between the shoulder blades, and he spun around.
“Wait, Maurice, please. I know I’m late, and you need to leave. And I’m sorry, but I can’t do this without some help. I’m not Catholic, you know.”
“I can’t do a Catholic baptism. I’m a minister, not a priest.”
“Yes, I already gathered that much.” He waited, grinning at her.
“But it’s not the same kind of…”
“Oh, for God’s sake, please spare me the personal details. All that doesn’t matter here,” he interrupted, his smile vanishing. “Haven’t you read the On-Call Manual? You don’t need to be anything—not Catholic, not ordained, not even flying around with angel wings. In fact, it’s not about you, my dear.”
He faced her and looked at her closely for the first time. His eyes were deep-set, huge, pale green, and hauntingly beautiful.
“It’s the situation, not your credentials, that gives you the authority to baptize,” he said.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake! Why do I always get the newbies?” He shook his head. “Dying Infant Exception. All chaplains can baptize babies who have no chance of making it out of here.”
Henrietta stood there, staring at him, her hands clenched around the plastic baptism kit.
“I can’t see how I can do this. I’m sorry. It’s just too much.”
“Please don’t tell me… this is your first dead baby?”
“Well, yes,” she confessed. “Of course, I’ve done baptisms but never like…”
“I know, I know,” he said, fluttering his perfectly manicured fingers at her. “You have only baptized those lucky babies that get to grow up. Oh, well, better put that all out of your mind right now. It’s a horse of a different color, here. Think of this as a two-fer sacrament. You are baptizing the spirit and commending it to God all in one fell swoop, so they say. It can be a very healing moment in its own weird way, really, you’d be surprised…”
“I’ve had enough surprises,” she said.
He flashed her a radiant smile. “Oh, now, honey, don’t be saying that. The night is still young.” He looked at his watch, sighing dramatically. “All right. I can give you fifteen minutes. That’s all. I’ll walk you up there, and I’ll brief you on the way, but I’m sneaking down the back elevators to the parking garage before those nurses see me. They just love me up there. And like I said, I just don’t have that kind of time.”
He disappeared out the door. She caught a glimpse of him skating down the corridor to the staff elevators and ran after him.
“Here’s the deal. If you don’t remember anything else, at least remember this…” His voice trailed off. And then he turned a corner.
When she finally caught up to him, he let her take his arm, as if they were dancing partners. He was whispering, now, so that the others waiting for the elevator could not hear him but it came out more like an ominous hiss.
“Vital stats—listen up. Single mom—barely legal age and not married to Dad. Baby’s got to have her mom’s last name on the certificate, okay? They are sticklers here for that stuff now that we are up for accreditation this year. You can put down the first name Bozo for all they care, but only Mom’s last name—got it?”
“Got it. Are both parents up there?”
He slowed down as they left the elevator on the fifth floor, and patted the hand that was gripping his arm. His skin was soft, his thumb rubbing her skin was gentle, familiar, not sexual, not sensuous, but intimate, as if it were her own hand.
“All right, I might as well give you the bad news first. Dad and Mom are not together at all—crappy deal, believe me—these babies having babies. Anyway, keep them apart at all costs. Mom’s up in the unit right now. She’s the Catholic. But as soon as that baby dies, you need to bring the body to the viewing room for Dad’s turn to say goodbye.”
Now she understood why Maurice had been so relieved to see her show up to take over the shift. “Maurice, I don’t think I can do this by myself. Could you…”
He stopped moving and pulled his arm away.
“Stay later? Not on your life.” He laughed, as if the question was preposterous. “I know how to set my boundaries. I am my own Border Patrol, my dear. And nobody makes me cross the date line. Theater date, that is. And, speaking of that. You better keep your own clock running. Make it short and sweet…you should have that baby baptized, viewed and at the morgue inside an hour from now.”
“You’re kidding! An hour?”
He smiled at her. “Even less, if you can manage it. Believe me. Every minute in there will seem like an eternity to you, and a blink of an eye to them.” He frowned. “Or the other way around, but you get my point.” Again, he looked at his watch. “Well, my dear, don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Listen, I really do have to go. It’s already six—curtains up at eight.” He winked at her as he back-stepped into the elevator, waving goodbye.
Henrietta slid the plastic bag into her pocket next to her portable Book of Worship as she headed toward the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She looked down at the Case Status Report and tried to decipher Maurice’s tiny, perfect print handwriting as she walked. As it turned out, she did not need to look at the paper to find the room.
She could hear the mother singing. What was it? A hymn? No. But something very familiar and then she recognized it—a song her mother used to sing to her.
Baby’s boat’s a silver moon,
Sailing o’er the sky,
Sailing o’er a sea of dreams,
As the clouds roll by…
Sail, baby, sail,
Out across the sea,
Only don’t forget to sail
Back again to me…
It was a goodnight song for singing a child to sleep, but Henrietta had never heard the wrenching plea in the refrain until this moment.
She leaned back against the nurses’ console, and closed her eyes, trying to remember the second verse. It drifted back to her, and she entered the room singing the words softly.
Baby’s fishing for a dream,
Fishing near and far.
His line a silver moonbeam is,
His bait a silver star.
She could see the back of an oily blonde ponytail bobbing up and down as she entered the room. Henrietta moved past an incubator. It was empty. All the machines were next to it, all the tubes inside, but the monitors were blank, shut down, and only bloody bandages were on the floor under them. There were snapshots of an infant taped all around the inside of the incubator. Henrietta was struck by how healthy the baby looked, plump, a huge gummy smile. She couldn’t tell the baby’s gender by the photos. There was one of the baby in a bunny costume holding a tiny Easter basket. It was only the second week in April. The baby’s illness must have moved fast.
She walked over to stand in front of the rocking chair and was startled by what she saw. The mother was a young teenager, with fresh acne on her cheeks. She looked up, tears glistening in her eyes, which were a pale, washed-out blue, almost an exact match to the faded blue in the flannel blankets of the swaddled shape she held against her chest. She leaned over and grabbed Henrietta’s hand. Unlike Maurice’s, her touch was both rough and clinging.
“Sing more, please,” she begged. “Nobody else would sing with me. It’s his favorite.”
Henrietta nodded, and sat on the floor beside the girl’s feet, which were in sandals, bright pink with butterflies at the opening between the toes—the kind of sandals Henrietta’s four-year-old niece wore.
Sail, baby, sail,
Out across the sea,
Only don’t forget to sail
Back again to me.
There was a nurse standing in the corner of the room, who waited until the refrain was done, then cleared her throat loudly.
“Lacey, this is Henrietta, our hospital chaplain. She has come to help baptize your baby, all right? Just like we said, right?” Only the lilting Jamaican accent and her huge liquid amber eyes, filled with tears, warmed the nurse’s chilling words.
Lacey clutched her son close, her head bent over his body. Then she started to wail, her body rocking back while the chair squeaked loudly on the floor.
Henrietta stood up suddenly, her knees aching, almost letting out a wail herself. She walked around behind Lacey and put her arms gently around both of them. A tiny foot popped out of the bottom of the blanket. Instinctively, Henrietta reached down to caress it. The foot was cold as ice. The baby had not survived long without the machines. How much longer before Lacey realized her baby had died?
Suddenly, Lacey sat up straight and stopped rocking. She looked at Henrietta. “Want to see him?”
Henrietta knew that she could not pause. She nodded and lifted the covers away, praying that she could look without noticeably flinching. She was relieved to see that his skin had retained some color, not yet dusky gray, and his hair sparkled synthetically, like doll’s hair, gold filigree wisps around his face, a shiny small circle of light in his child-mother’s arms.
“He’s beautiful,” Henrietta said.
“Yes, he is,” Lacey answered, tugging the baby’s hair playfully into a point above his head, making him look like a troll doll. His head did not flop, did not move an inch, the neck already stiff. They were running out of time. Now Henrietta understood Maurice’s admonition.
She reached inside her pocket, opened the plastic bag one-handed, and groped for the baptism cap with her fingers.
She kept it folded in half, placed it tenderly behind his head, like a pillow, without moving one gossamer strand. She winced at the way it looked—his head resting against white satin, like the lining of a coffin.
“His name is Michael Patrick O’Toole,” Lacey whispered.
“That’s lovely,” Henrietta said, pulling out the vial of holy water from her pocket.
Now, finally, came the familiar part, the part when she used to worry in front of a large congregation about waking a sleeping baby into fear and rage when the droplets poured upon its forehead. This baby was silent as a stone.
“Michael Patrick O’Toole, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Henrietta’s heart clenched at the word “ghost.” She reached for Lacey’s hand, and as she did so, she grasped the nurse’s warm hand as well. They formed a prayer circle around the baby in the smaller circle of his mother’s arms.
“Let us say the ‘Our Father’ together,” Henrietta said.
Lacey’s hands held their hands against the baby’s now hard, still form. The three of them whispered the prayer together, only a few words in synchronicity. Our Father. Heaven. Give us. Deliver us. From Evil.
“Thank you,” Lacey said. “And I know he is in Heaven, I know that! Now he is already up there. He went to sleep in my arms on this earth and the last thing he saw was my face. His own mother’s face! And now he is waking up in Heaven—you know that too—and he will open his eyes to see the baby Jesus’ face, right?”
She looked up at the nurse and then at Henrietta, waiting.
The nurse widened her eyes, but did not answer. She looked over to Henrietta for help.
“And at least he did not die alone,” Henrietta said, remembering her mother’s words.
“Oh, no. He was never alone. Not for one second since he’s been here,” Lacey declared. “Never, ever alone. And now he’s in Heaven with all the other angels.”
The nurse had turned down the lights. Lacey was a blurry figure in the darkened room. When she put her baby back into the incubator, and leaned over him for one last kiss, Henrietta bowed her head again. There was no need for the formality of the prayers or litanies. Henrietta was relieved that it was over. A mother’s kiss goodnight and a favorite lullaby committed her son’s soul to eternal rest.
The baby’s body, Michael Patrick O’Toole’s body, had been moved into the viewing room before Henrietta arrived. They must have needed that neonatal bed right away. The body was wrapped in a white plastic bag, rather than the adult-sized black nylon one, and it had a front zipper halfway down its length, with clear plastic on the bottom half, like an upside-down dry-cleaner’s suit bag. Henrietta walked over to the gurney and unzipped the bag, carefully tucking it back down behind him, and then pulling the white sheet up to his shoulders, like covers on a bed. She did not look at his face until the last moment.
One of the nurses had put his baptism cap upside down, affixed it with a hairpin, and Henrietta reached over to take it off, releasing the cotton candy-like swirl of saffron yellow hair. How could it be that hair, the dead part of all living things, always seemed so alive? She put the cap back in her pocket. Maurice had said the mother was Catholic but not a word about the faith tradition of the father, so it would be better not to make assumptions. She glanced at the baby’s face, now a solid blue-gray tone, devoid of any blood, under or on the skin.
She walked over to flip the switch that turned on a green light above the outside of the closed door. She waited for the knock of the Patient Escort, using the time to locate the supplies she might need, pulling out the pink vomit basin, extra tissues, antibacterial wipes. She couldn’t find a paper hospital gown to wear over her clothes, but she was wearing a black sweater and pants, which would hide a multitude of possible stains.
When she opened the door, the first thing she noticed was the anxious expression on the face of the volunteer, a boy no older than thirteen, who stood on his toes trying to look over Henrietta’s shoulder, wanting to look, but not wanting to see what might be waiting there. Behind him was a hospital security guard, who was holding the arm of a man who was handcuffed. The father did not seem much older than Lacey, definitely under twenty. Babies having babies.
“Coroner’s case,” the guard said, looking intently at Henrietta to make sure she understood.
Coroner’s cases could have the bodies viewed but never touched by anyone other than hospital staff, or the evidence of the case would be considered tainted. The body was the most important evidence to prove or disprove that the person might have died under suspicious circumstances.
The father took one glimpse of his son’s body and flung himself to the floor, bringing the security guard to his knees. He vomited at Henrietta’s feet, soaking her shoes. Another thing she had forgotten to find in the supply closet—shoe covers. The relentless sound of violent retching continued, filling the room with a foul odor.
She stepped back and tried to wipe off her shoes. The stench was stronger now.
She took a small bottle of essence of tangerine aromatherapy oil out of her purse and placed a drop under each nostril, to neutralize the smell, keep her from gagging.
The guard pulled the man up by his shirt collar, and dragged him in the direction of the bathroom.
“For God’s sakes, clean your sorry ass up! You said you could handle this! Man up and face it, or I’m taking you back to County,” the guard yelled.
Henrietta gasped. “Listen. You don’t need to…”
“Don’t need to what?” The guard blinked at her. “Be so rough with him?”
“Yes—actually—he’s just lost his son. You know…”
“Didn’t they tell you how that baby ended up here? Didn’t they?”
“Well, no, but I don’t see how that matters,” she sputtered. “The baby’s dead—that’s all I think that we need to know. There are medical confidentiality rights.”
The guard stared at her.
“Shaken baby,” he said. “That trumps the privacy rights of that bastard in there, don’t you think?”
Henrietta reeled back as if he had slapped her face.
“I can’t believe this. I saw that baby up on the Unit, and saw all those photos. And I just presumed he had some horrible illness.”
“Not that his own daddy shook his brains loose and threw him against a concrete wall to shut up his crying.”
“No offense, ma’am, but I don’t think Jesus has had anything to do with all this down here. But I’ll still pray he’s got that baby in His arms right now.”
The toilet flushed, and she looked at the door and saw the boy was standing up. “Time’s up, you sorry bastard.”
He shuffled over to the gurney, his head down. Henrietta had not noticed the leg chains before this moment.
“I thought I could do it. But I can’t. It’s too much,” he stammered. Then he squinted his eyes, peering at her nametag.
“Chaplain? Reverend? Can you help me?”
“I don’t know that I can, actually,” Henrietta said.
“You can pray for me, can’t you? Forgive me, Reverend, forgive me and pray for me.”
His eyes were bloodshot, a muddy brown color, his face unshaved, with wisps of light red fuzzy hair on his chin. He stood and waited for her response.
The boy and the guard bowed their heads.
They waited for her to begin. But she couldn’t say a word. The guard peeked up at her.
“Every sorry soul deserves a prayer,” he whispered.
The prisoner fell to his knees then, his head cradled in cuffed hands. He began to sob in huge gasps. On the back of his neck was a scrolling tattoo, Michael Patrick in blues and greens. Henrietta closed her eyes and remained silent. Then the guard knelt beside him.
“Dear Lord,” the guard began. “Have mercy on this man, a sinner. And take your sweet baby boy back home, where he will have no more pain, no more suffering. We thank you for his brief time with us. We failed to love him as your Son showed us how to love. Please forgive us as we try to forgive each other. Amen.”
The prayer was exactly right. Henrietta kept her Book of Worship closed in her hands, and she was the only one in the room not on her knees. God would have to forgive her as well, for not being able to pray at a murderer’s request.
The boy kept his head down, even as the guard lifted him to his feet. Not another word was said, but Henrietta knew something had changed. Even the air in the room felt different.
Henrietta flipped the status light switch back to red after they left. It would be her duty to escort the body down to the morgue. She checked her watch. It had been forty-five minutes since she arrived for her shift. She would finish the case in under an hour.
She went over to the baby’s body, forcing one last look. Against the white of the sheet, his skin was now an awful shade of gray, and her stomach lurched. What a terrible thing for any parent to see, no matter what the circumstances.
Her own mother had been spared a viewing of her son’s body after his accident. But she did see something that would always be associated with his violent death. It was the bloody shirt of the man who drove the car that killed him, and who had been holding him during his last moments alive. Her mother had recognized her son’s dark red silhouette from across the police-station’s waiting room. She had run toward the man, hands outstretched to trace the shape of her son’s head with the tips of her fingers, softly and slowly. Then she had yanked her hands away as if burned, when the human map beneath them trembled and heaved into sobs.
“I’m so, so sorry,” the accidental killer cried out. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Give me your shirt,” her mother said.
He took it off and handed it to her. And then their mother held him, naked from the waist in her arms, rocking him, like a baby, absolving him with her embrace.
Henrietta walked over to the supply cabinet and took the small scissors out of the drawer. She snipped a large lock of the sunshine hair, Lacey’s son’s hair, and put it in her pocket, wrapping the baptism cap carefully around it. She would find Lacey’s address from the patient roster and send it to her with the baptism certificate.
She sealed the bag, being very careful not to let the zipper scratch his skin. Then she swaddled him in the blanket that was resting at the foot of the bed, and carried him like this all the way to the morgue. She would tell his mother that her little boy had not made his last trip alone.