A newborn’s heart is the size of a strawberry. It’s written on a poster I pass, clicking in my heels down the linoleum-covered corridor.
The family’s been moved from maternity into a private room. I hear a nurse talking so I sit outside the room on a plastic chair and wait. Her voice is the one we all use around a bereaved family: soothing to them but unsettling to ourselves. My nylon skirt crackles when I smooth it.
Then it’s just me and the parents and my job. The father signs automatically and hands the forms back. He turns to his wife who is staring at the bassinet. I don't look inside; I know what is there. By now the baby’s skin would be waxen and bluish like a doll. I look at the name on the front of my folio. It was a boy. I need to get back to my office, so I nod my thanks and turn to go.
‘Wait.’ It’s the mother. She’d been silent—exhausted.
She twitches her head towards her husband. ‘His mother made this.’
Twisted around her hands is what I thought was a handkerchief but when she opens them I see it’s a cotton jumpsuit with embroidered blue bears along the edges.
She looks at the hospital-issue swaddling blanket around her baby. ‘I don’t think I can.’
It’s not my job. Morgue assistants usually attend to this.
I put down my folder on the bed and take the clothes. Rigor mortis doesn’t occur in infants due to their small muscle mass, but still his arms feel rubbery when I pick him up out of the cot and unwrap the blanket. When I cradle him it’s like I would any other baby, crooked in my elbow so I can look into his face. There is no new-baby smell, just an iodine tang.
The pants roll over his chubby legs easily enough and I do up the buttons across the front. His chest is taped closed, no stitches, because there will be no scar. I do my best not to let the parents see that, but they are sitting on the bed looking at their hands in their lap, or out the window. The wobbly row of embroidered bears makes me wonder if it was done by a new grandma, relearning an old craft. I hold him up to straighten his little cap. His hair is thin and gingery. A gesture so natural that it happens without me even thinking about it; I kiss the very tip of his nose before I place him back in the crib. The parents don’t say anything. I’m not sure they noticed.
When I pick up my folio the mother places a hand on my forearm. ‘I’m sorry for the other baby too, you know; the one that got his heart.’
I nod, wanting to go into the nearest toilet cubicle, lock the door and just breathe for a minute. But I go back to my desk where paperwork for other babies wait. Their paperwork weighs more than they do.