You know it’s over when they let you enter without first scrubbing your hands.
Safety precautions are no easier in intensive care, just clearer.
The ventilator, translucent skin, the unsteady beat of the monitors–all scream vulnerability and so, of course, of course you wash and gown and mask. That’s obvious.
The dying parent. The tiny babies. Every cell in your body wants to shield them from danger, even – especially – the invisible danger clinging to you from outside, hitching a ride closer to them. Looking for a way in; their vulnerability an invitation.
They can’t protect themselves.
Protecting them is obvious even when it’s not easy. You respect the barriers marking the threshold between the menace outside and the relative (hoped for, prayed for) safety here, inside.
When you can see blue blood rushing beneath translucent skin, it’s not hard to wash your hands.
The line used to be hard and sharp. Maybe it was imaginary, but it seemed straightforward. Safety is here: danger is there.
Now, the ink has smeared until that line becomes earth, becomes air encircling each of you and what does it mean to be safe now?
Ah, but you know what it means to keep a distance, so that you can protect.
You remember. It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
How do you love through panes of glass? With a heart beating so hard you’re certain your tiny babies must hear it, too. When you touch them with a gloved hand, is it warm? Do they know it’s you?
Only your voice can touch without danger. The soft lullaby you sing into the incubators when you have to leave them. And the way his heart speeds up when he hears you coming into his hospital room.
On that final morning, they let you in without scrubbing. You touch your father’s hand with yours, unwashed and ungloved, because that line doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how you know it’s over.
All those years before, you got to take your babies home, drawing a new line around them, hard and strong for as long as you possibly could until you cracked it open to take them out. Out there. Unwashed hands and air travel leave them with bronchitis, but they’re stronger now and recover. You gave them time to grow and for their lungs to heal.
And you know it isn’t over.
It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
And now? Now you will stay away for as long as you must if it means they will be safe.
You will love them again through a pane of glass (or a computer screen) when they are six-thousand miles away instead of in your kitchen, cooking and bickering, where you wish they were (where they’re supposed to be) instead.
You will send your voice through the telephone and hug over a video link and listen through a window for the music you know is out there because the line defining dangerous and safe has shattered, and you will protect them with the distance that you keep because this is what you do when you love.
– Visual Media and Poem by Dr. Mara Tesler Stein