The Half-Life of Salvador Barbary


Tinka Barbary didn’t have to push at all. Her baby slipped from her on a pink amniotic stream into the bright, warm lights of the delivery room, at 8:07 p.m.—without a sound. Tinka gulped air, though she had no need to, because for weeks that’s how she’d imagined herself after the ordeal of birth: gasping for air and life, so exhausted in her bones she didn’t fear death. The band of light on the flaking, white ceiling struck her as a ribbon at a finish line and, seconds later, a starting line. She was a mother now.

“Boy or girl?” she asked. Until then she’d didn’t want to know her first-born’s sex for fear she might bear, as her grandmother insisted the expecting mothers of her day believed, a monster or a saviour. Tinka asked again, a little louder, but the obstetrician stared at her from behind his surgical mask as if she’d posed a metaphysical question. Even the electrocardiograph fell silent. “Won’t someone tell me? Daveed?” She meant her husband, who was unable to turn away from the newborn the obstetrician held at arm’s length as if it were a sacrifice. “It’s—” stammered Daveed. “It’s—” He pulled down his surgical mask and showed his wife a broad smile. “It’s wonderfully—it’s beautiful.” Tinka couldn’t see her baby from her angle on the hospital gurney. “Bring him to me,” she said, but then realized that Daveed hadn’t said the baby was a boy or a girl. He’d said it. “Why isn’t she—why isn’t my baby crying? Daveed?” The obstetrician handed the newborn to a nurse who marched straight to an incubator and, with the baby safely inside the transparent plastic container and everyone else and their questions safely outside, whisked the incubator from the room. “Complications,” said the obstetrician. “Complications?” asked Tinka. “What kind of complications?” “Tests.” And before Tinka could quiz the obstetrician about the tests, Daveed said, “little routine ones,” and the obstetrician nodded a little too quickly. Tinka had never read on Lullabies for Baby, her favourite mommy blog, of a birth, a normal birth, in which anyone’s newborn had been whisked from the delivery room for routine tests. There was always something terribly wrong, a heart or brain defect, or the baby had been born not breathing or born in a country rife with corruption and a trip to the incubator was a pretense for a kidnapping and an international sale to hopeful, Western parents. But Tinka gave birth in Canada, in Vancouver to be exact, a city and country tainted with only minor corruption, so she concluded something was wrong with her baby’s health. “The doctor’s will tell us as soon as they know,” said Daveed. Tinka now lay in a hospital bed, in a private room, though she and Daveed couldn’t afford a private room on his warehouse job at Future Shop. The hospital, Daveed said, gave them the room gratis. “He should have my milk,” she said. This was her first child and every maternal obligation weighed on her like a commandment. Daveed tried to laugh. “Your milk will keep. It’s only been nine hours.” They tried to watch the little TV that the hospital had given them, but the news was all about the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake, the Fukishima nuclear reactor belching radioactive water into the ocean, nearby cities and countryside. Daveed thought of the village of Pisky, just outside Chernobyl, where his father had lived until 1986, until the plant exploded. The strange, stunted oaks and scotch pines that grew from the blackened soil. The cesium-137 atoms his father must have absorbed and passed along to Daveed in 1987, when he was conceived. What other explanation was there for their baby, who looked so unlike the ultrasound photo that they’d sent to their parents and friends? There are your baby’s fingers and his spine, see there’s his lips, the technician had told them. Where were those things now? Had someone searched the placenta for the flung off disguise? “Ms. Barbary, we want to take you to neonatal care,” said a new nurse, who was dressed head-to-toe in a light green, surgical gown. She stared at Daveed with cool, matter-of-fact eyes accustomed, no doubt, to the abnormal. “Can’t you let her sleep?” he asked. The nurse shook her head. “My wife, she is falling apart.” Tinka stirred. “They want to take us to see—the incubator. I think you should rest.” The nurse said something about a wheelchair for Tinka and Daveed wondered what kind of wheelchair might accommodate his abnormality. A little one, perhaps, or a tiny wheelbarrow. In the next moment, he was pushing Tinka down the corridor to an elevator that had but one destination, with no possibility of escape. The nurse left them in the corridor outside the neonatal unit and went inside without a word. What was there to say? Nothing in English, thought Daveed. Maybe something in German, because he remembered the sack of words his uncle brought back from Berlin in the back of his Lada, two years after the Wall fell. Schadenfreude was his uncle’s favourite—to delight in the misery of others—because the Germans had a long word to capture every existential twist and turn in life and sometimes after life. A brief, flickering horror; a cosmic joke, a burden that pleased enemies; a sad and bitter calamity that enlarged the liver and deadened ardour—what was the German word for all of that? “This way,” said the nurse. What other way was there? Daveed pulled against the handles of Tinka’s wheelchair as if it was running away down a steep slope, and still the chair slid forward into the path of the whirling blades. “If he’s a boy, I like Salvador,” said Tinka. “Salvador Barbary, the great tenor. Because he will be a singer—all of my family sing. My grandfather sang in Bayreuth. If a girl, I like Verbinia, like the flower. Verbinia Barbary, not a florist, but a botanist, a cataloguer of natural beauty. Tell me the name you want?” She was babbling at Daveed, as if they’d never discussed what to name the baby. She knew they had a final list of six names, three for a boy and three for a girl. Seeing the child, they had thought, would seal the final name. But they had nothing for the liminal option, the unclassifiable infant, the formless clay. “I like—” Daveed glanced about the room as if his gaze would fall on some object that would trigger a new name. A row of manila folders sat on a desk. Perhaps a file number, something you wouldn’t mind misplacing in a bureaucracy. The nurse took them to a glass window and showed them a row of babies in incubators. The closest child was a scarlet ball with soft, brittle limbs and the sagging wrinkles of a Sharpei puppy. A tube, sealed to his face with two pieces of surgical tape, disappeared up his nose. There was another couple in the room and they were pointing at the second incubator and grinning. “Which one is ours?” asked Tinka. “I think it’s number five. His little arm is waving up and down as if he’s saying, Mummy! Here I am! He wants to sing.” The nurse pointed at the farthest corner of the neonatal unit, where there was a single incubator separated from the rest by a thin, beige curtain. Daveed glanced at the couple and their grins vanished. “Is something wrong?” asked Tinka. “Haven’t you spoken to Doctor Eiger?” the nurse asked. Tinka looked at Daveed and shook her head. “I’ll page her. Please wait in the lobby.” They waited, or rather Daveed waited. Tinka asked question after panicked question and speculated what might be wrong and pumped her husband for answers. He said nothing; he suffered in the long shadow of Chernobyl and the cesium-137 atoms that had lodged in his testicles and, on a cold December night last year, after a momentous internal struggle to a barely achieved climax, his body had ejected into the womb of his wife. Dr. Eiger, the resident pediatrician, told them about their little John Merrick in a hushed, matter-of-fact tone. Your baby has severe deformities, she said. Machines are keeping it alive. The prognosis isn’t good. You have a hard choice ahead of you. I’m sorry. “But the ultrasound, it showed a healthy baby,” sobbed Tinka. “We can’t explain—” said Dr. Eiger, “—the reversal.” “Who can?” “We’re re-examining your complete history and file.” “We are progeny of the Cold War,” said Daveed, as if this explained everything. Dr. Eiger and Tinka looked at him and then each other. “I’ll take you in now,” said the nurse. The nurse dressed them in hospital gowns and masks and ushered them into the neonatal unit. It smelled of strong disinfectant and the buttery sourness of fresh feces. They went behind the curtain where their baby was kept at a distance from the others. “Maybe in the morning—” Daveed began to say. Maybe in the afternoon. Maybe in the night. Maybe never. Tinka rose up from her wheelchair and stared looked into the incubator and, two seconds later, sank back down and took on the look of a catatonic. “I read that babies dream in the womb,” said Daveed. “I read in another book that these dreams program the baby’s behaviour, so it is ready for outside.” His voice trailed off after Tinka slumped back down, but in his head he kept speaking. “I think our baby had a nightmare, a nightmare so bad it reversed everything.” Sometimes Daveed had nightmares. And what would a cesium-137 atom do to the first dreams of a child? “A total reversal,” he said out loud. The Barbary’s baby looked more like a hairless seal pup. A tubular head on a tubular body that came to a flap of skin where there should have been feet at the end of legs. It had one misshapen arm that ended in gnarled, claw-like digits. There were two closed eyes, a small mouth and on its back, near where an anus ought to be, a hole. Nothing resembled genitals on either side of their baby. “I remember how scared I was when I understood my father had been near Chernobyl,” said Daveed to his wife. “I begged my father to dig a deep hole for a shelter, to stockpile food and water, when the next nuclear plant or bomb exploded. But he said nowhere on this planet was safe. Not even in the deepest cave. The womb is not safe for our children.” The nurse said I am sorry as Dr. Eiger had said I am sorry as everyone in the halls on the way back to Tinka’s room said sorry with their downcast eyes. He helped the nurses put Tinka in her bed. “She’ll come out of it with a good night’s sleep,” said Dr. Eiger. “In the morning, we can talk about your options.” Daveed’s eyes filled with tears. Options? What options were there other than to disconnect their baby from the machines that kept it alive? They couldn’t keep it in a series of progressively larger incubators for the rest of its life, and it didn’t look as if it might live a minute outside of one. There could be no first attempts at walking or unwrapping presents at a birthday or kisses with boys or girls. Daveed sobbed himself into tear-filled laughter. Their baby looked like it belonged in a tank at the aquarium, the little grey monster that darted out from amongst the gentle white belugas to frighten school children in the viewing gallery just as they dozed off on their sleepover. At dawn, Tinka awoke and asked how Salvador was. Daveed didn’t have the heart to tell her it was pointless to name it. He said that Salvador had a good night’s sleep and Dr. Eiger would be coming by to discuss options with them. “Options?” asked Tinka. “You mean when we can take him home?” “Salvador won’t be able to come home with us.” He didn’t want to add that Salvador was the distillation of the Cold War. The sacrificial one who precedes the herald of the new age, a perfectly formed child from cranium to toe who would usher in a benign, non-radioactive peace. Daveed didn’t want the herald’s herald in his Eastside apartment. “Not come home with us?” Doctor Eiger explained that Salvador wouldn’t live for a moment without machines to keep him alive. “My beautiful boy can’t die,” said Tinka. “It will be painless,” said Dr. Eiger. “He won’t even know.” “For the best, honey,” said Daveed. Tinka couldn’t imagine a world without her Salvador, no matter how hideous his condition. Their friends and family would grow accustomed to his deformities, as surely as they grew accustomed to everything else: pollution, global warming, and drug addicts paraded on the nightly news. After a time, they wouldn’t notice that Salvador had one limb and no nose or hair or words. Cruel children might tease him, but he could be home-schooled. He could take private Bel Canto lessons. Tinka sobbed. “Why can’t he live?” Daveed held her in his arms and after an hour, another nurse in a surgical gown gave them a form to sign. They could come and be with Salvador when they turned the machine off. Tinka lay mute on her bed and Daveed stroked the small of her back and forehead. After two hours, she asked him to sing to her, and when he sang “The Dream Passes by the Windows,” one of the lullabies his mother sang to him as a boy when he faced a feverish, sleepless night, she asked him again to sing to her. “Can’t you hear me?” asked Daveed. He sang louder and she mumbled, “No, I can’t hear you.” He filled the room with Oy khodyt’ son, kolo vikon/ A drimota kolo plota. “I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you.” The nurse took them up the elevator and this time they went to a room in the nuclear medicine wing because there were no other private rooms in the hospital. They certainly couldn’t perform the operation (the nurse’s words) in the neonatal ward—amidst so much burgeoning, normal life. The incubator had been placed in the centre of the room, beside a gurney. Air hissed like a slow leak from a tire. A monitor beeped. Daveed guessed by the regular rhythm that it was Salvador’s heart. One hundred and two beats per minute, well within the range of a newborn. But if you listened through the stethoscope, said Dr. Eiger, you could hear Salvador’s arrhythmia, that his drum beat in irregular time, that his music signified a species far away in time—long ago when creatures crawled from the warm sea to warmer land. He and Tinka had summoned it. And now they had to send it back. Dr. Eiger joined them and Tinka cried softly. She grasped Tinka’s hand reassuringly and invoked the ancient clichés: “He won’t suffer. It’s for the best. You’re doing the compassionate thing.” Tinka shuddered and nodded. Daveed took her other hand, but she pulled away and asked, “How can you do this to me?” Dr. Eiger turned off the machine that gave Salvador air, because he couldn’t breathe for himself. Daveed expected to hear choking, but the creature made not one sound. His heartbeat was at 102 according to the small screen in front of them, uninterrupted by the lack of air. There was a second or two, where a surge of excitement passed through Daveed: the boy is going to make it! But it was replaced with fear—the boy is going to make it. Then what? What for him and Tinka? The world? But Salvador’s heartbeat turned irregular: 87, 69, 53, and 31. Their wait for the high-pitched whine when his pulse hit 0 was interminable. Tinka sobbed and howled. Salvador’s tawny skin turned black in patches on his torso, as if someone held a butane torch to a piece of fresh lumber. Their baby’s arm gripped at the sheets. Daveed shouted at Dr. Eiger. “Give him something.” The doctor pressed her stethoscope against Salvador’s chest. She listened as if sifting through the notes of a school choir for the one child on key. Her eyes widened. Salvador’s pulse went back up to 40 and then 50. “He’s breathing on his own,” said Dr. Eiger. “Heartbeat 97.” Tinka cried, “Daveed, he’s going to live!” She pulled him down into the wheel chair and clung to him as if she hung over a gaping chasm. “Salvador is going to live! I’m going to live!” Daveed remembered when his father went back to Chernobyl, decades later, to see how things were. He said he’d talked his way past the guards at the checkpoints to see the house where he used to live before fleeing to Canada. The house was a burnt shell, but there was a scotch pine, maybe twenty feet high, its black branches perfectly preserved as if it had been dipped in creosote. The radiation destroyed the microbes that should have turned it into soil. It was a mummified tree. “He will sing at Bayreuth,” said Tinka. Salvador would sing at Bayreuth for a thousand years, Daveed feared. Because he could not die. He could not decay, as everything born into time decayed. He had been preserved.