A nurse's choice. A daughter's search for answers.
New York City, 1926. Nurse Althea Anderson's heart is near breaking when she witnesses another premature baby die at Bellevue Hospital. So when she reads an article detailing the amazing survival rates of babies treated in incubators in an exhibit at Luna Park, Coney Island, it feels like the miracle she has been searching for. But the doctors at Bellevue dismiss Althea and this unconventional medicine, forcing her to make a choice between a baby's life and the doctors' wishes that will change everything.
Twenty-five years later, Stella Wright is falling apart. Her mother has just passed, she quit a job she loves, and her marriage is struggling. Then she discovers a letter that brings into question everything she knew about her mother, and everything she knows about herself.
The Light of Luna Park is a tale of courage and an ode to the sacrificial love of mothers.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.46(w) x 8.19(h) x 0.69(d)|
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Althea Anderson, June 1926
No baby is happy about being pushed into this world. But never have I seen one so entirely unprepared for its entrance. Three months premature, the infant before me contorts her shiny face to scream. Her tiny lungs convulse with the effort, and the skin on her chest stretches and snaps back to make room. Her matchstick legs kick; her coin-sized hands twitch. The girl's mother wails, and I fear her deep, gurgling gasps may snatch away the oxygen so craved by her infant. I fix my eyes on the newborn as if I can send her what she needs.
Keep breathing, I will the baby girl.
Her torso is the size of two fists, the size of two beating hearts.
Though we both know it, the doctor is the one to say the truth aloud. He puts down the forceps and sets his mouth in a firm line. "She won't live." He does nothing to sugarcoat the truth.
The father's neck tenses, tendons like claws. The poor mother's eyes widen, and she wipes her left as a drop of sweat drips into it from her brow line. Yes, the doctor's words are blunt, but he leaves out the perspectives that would render them downright cruel. He doesn't reveal that the medical term for a baby like this one is weakling. He doesn't suggest, as many doctors would, that such infants are better off dead. But still the reality stands stark. Already, the girl is struggling to breathe; she is unable to suckle. Her body temperature and weight are low.
Three months early, two pounds, two ounces. She has little chance of survival.
"Cybil," the girl's mother breathes. Her voice comes out half whisper, half sob, but it echoes in my mind like a scream. The baby has a name now.
"Nurse Anderson." Dr. Bricknell breaks through the litany of my thoughts. "The hallway."
I trail obediently after him, nervous. I've rarely had direct conversation with the doctor, but our head nurse is out today.
I look one more time at the family clustered together as I go. However much my medically trained hands itch to do something, anything, for baby Cybil, the parents deserve a moment alone with their infant.
In the corridor, Dr. Bricknell checks his wristwatch and grunts. "I can't stay."
I wait. The doctors never bother speaking to me unless orders are coming.
"But you'll need to make sure the parents see her suffer as little as possible."
I nod, mentally running through the list of small mercies I can provide: a heated water bottle, a blanket. I only wish there were something I could do to save the baby rather than merely ease her transition into death, and I ball my hands into fists at my side. They brush against the scratchy fabric of my uniform, and paper crinkles. I stiffen. The article! I'd cut it from the paper when I began my obstetrics cycle weeks ago, hoping to ask the doctors about it once they came to know me. As Dr. Bricknell has proved himself a rather stuffy, unapproachable sort, I'd completely forgotten. But with the head nurse back tomorrow, this may be my only chance.
"Doctor." I pull the crumpled newspaper clipping from my pinafore. "I do wonder if there is a way to save the baby."
Dr. Bricknell's brow creases. More in annoyance than interest, I'm afraid, but I press on. "It's about the incubator wards at Coney Island. There's a doctor there who takes premature babies free of charge-"
The doctor interrupts. "Free for the parents, but it costs ten cents a person to get in and see the babies."
"They're part of a freak show, Nurse Anderson. That 'doctor' is nothing but a quack."
A freak show. I picture Cybil lost in a woman's bristly beard or held in the grip of a man with three arms. I see her trampled under the feet of a giant or squeezed between the two heads of conjoined twins.
No. I'm a nurse, not a dime novelist. I deal in information, not imagination. "The article reports that Dr. Couney has saved thousands of premature infants," I say, "some of them as tiny as Cybil at birth."
"The baby." I gesture behind us, struggling to hide my disgust that he's already forgotten her name.
Dr. Bricknell sighs. "I'm sorry, Nurse Anderson, but that baby simply isn't fit to live. No freak show or circus man can change that."
"Should I ask the parents whether-"
"No, Nurse Anderson. It is not our place to question God's plan. Now"-he checks his wristwatch again-"I really must go. I trust you will do as I have asked of you-and not do anything to jeopardize your job?"
He leaves me standing in the hallway, crumpled article clenched in my fist.
I purse my lips and fight tears as I fold the paper to put back in my pocket. A nurse does not cry on the job. However much she may wish to.
My expression softens as I reenter the hospital room. Cybil is cradled in her mother's palm, her tiny arms the length of her mother's bloated pinky but half as wide.
It is not our place to question God's plan, Dr. Bricknell said. But surely God cannot want this baby to die. I swallow the urge to burst out into the hallway, chase the doctor down, and shake him. God brought Dr. Couney to Coney Island, I want to scream. This is his modern miracle.
But it is not my place. If I defy Dr. Bricknell, I will lose my job, lose everything I've worked for my whole life. Without nursing, I would have nothing; it's my lifeblood, my purpose. With each infant I safely help to deliver, the debt I owe my mother eases.
But I'm not the only one who might suffer. If Dr. Couney is the con artist the doctor believes, Cybil would die despite it all. Her parents would lose their hope and their daughter a second time. Could they survive that?
I cannot give them hope and then destroy it, not when I know nothing about Couney beyond what's in the papers.
So I gather the blankets as Cybil's cries turn into desperate gulps for air. I tuck her bony legs under the fabric and swaddle the girl's shivering body. I think of Dr. Bricknell's words, circuses and freak shows, and I bite my tongue.
I nearly swallow it as I watch the girl die.
I have seen babies die before. I've helped deliver the stillborn and seen infants' hearts stop before the expulsion of the afterbirth. Is it wrenching every time? Of course it is. But when those babies have passed, they have done so because we were unable to save them.
Not because we decided not to try.
Stella Wright, December 1950
December 15: Mom's been gone three months to the day. It's not the date's reminder that stings, for it's not as if I have the luxury of forgetting her on the 11th or the 13th or the 27th. Every day, I grieve her.
What burns is the fact that it's been three months: that three months after Mom died, I still haven't "gotten over it." Foolish me; I thought a month would be enough to start waking up with a clear head. Instead, I'm lying here after ninety-one days with a skull that feels as if I've stuffed it with weights. I wonder sometimes if I cry in my sleep, the way my skin feels so tight and stretched in the morning, but I'm too afraid of the answer to ask my husband.
On cue, Jack enters the room with a tray. His silhouette in the light of the hallway glows, and his curly blond hair is ablaze. I never thought I'd marry straight out of college, if ever, but this right here is exactly why I did. Jack's barely cooked a day in his life, but here he is with his first pancakes: lumpy, misshapen, and made with care. Somehow they make me chuckle despite my pain. That's Jack's gift-he can always make me smile, make me laugh. Our second wedding anniversary will be in June of next year, just as I finish my second year of teaching, but his easy laugh and sense of humor never get old.
Jack sets the tray down beside me, almost spilling the glass of orange juice balanced precariously on its edge.
"Jack." I chuckle again to see the pancakes up close. "I'm almost afraid to eat these."
He shrugs. "They're good, I had one." He licks his lips and then turns briefly serious. "I thought it might be a tough day for you."
I squeeze his hand. He is thoughtful in a way that I'm not, my husband. If only I knew how to be as supportive of his episodes as he is of mine.
But it's different. He knows what I'm feeling and why, whereas I don't have that luxury. I've witnessed dozens of Jack's war flashbacks over this first year and a half of our marriage, but I can't see inside his head. I watch him thrash, tangled in the sheets of our bed; I watch him collapse under the weight of a thunderclap. But I cannot see past his reactions to what's inside, and I'm left to imagine the worst. Is he reliving near misses from his time in France? Maybe he just avoided crawling over a land mine at Normandy, a comrade blowing to pieces in his stead. Maybe a spray of bullets grazed his chest, so close he couldn't breathe.
Maybe, had he moved a fraction of a second earlier or later, I wouldn't even have him.
The alternative is almost more frightening. My husband-sweet, light, always armed with a joke-could be mired in guilt rather than fear. How many men did he kill? Could he see their faces as he pulled the trigger?
I shake my head to rid myself of the image. I sleep next to Jack every night, our bodies cleaved together. I don't want to imagine him a killer.
I look at him now. I'd be able to support him so much better if he would just tell me what he sees, but I don't have the energy to coax him out of his stubborn silence today, exhausted as I am by my own grief.
My mother died at forty-eight. We should have had decades left together. Her death robbed us of a future.
"Damn cancer," I whisper.
"Damn cancer." Jack squeezes my hand.
I take a sip of the orange juice. It's fresh and tangy enough to dispel the fuzz in my brain, and I exhale with relief. I gulp down the whole glass as Jack dresses, but I can't stomach more than a bite of the pancakes. Too heavy on a day I already feel like I'm dragging. Too sticky with syrup when I already feel stuck and immobile.
I force myself from bed and dress for school as Jack brushes his teeth in the bathroom. My kids' lives are hard enough without my looking like a zombie, so I make up my face and curl my hair. I eschew my typical dresses for a green blouse and cigarette pants; let the principal say what he will. Today is not a day I want to worry about whether I can cross my legs reading a story.
Jack pops up like he's reading my mind. "Am I allowed to say your legs look good in those?"
I swat Jack's hand away as he reaches for my waist and tugs at my tucked blouse. "Even breakfast in bed can't get you that far." I raise an eyebrow at him. "Not right before school."
"The kids would never know." Jack raises his eyebrows in return.
He pretends to pout as I brush my teeth, the toothpaste sour after the juice. Jack's cute act is pretty persuasive, but he ruins it with what he says next.
"Too bad, since I heard that mornings are the best time to make mini Jacks or Stellas."
I spit my toothpaste violently into the sink and turn to Jack in exasperation. "Where on earth did you hear that? A television ad for breakfast cereal?"
"Sorry." Jack puts his hands up as he backs away.
I wince as I rinse my mouth. My tone was sharper than it needed to be. But Jack should have known better than to bring up babies on a day like today. I was reluctant to have kids before my mother died; now that she's gone, I don't know how I could possibly become a mother myself.
The kids at school are enough for me. They're practically too much for me. When I decided to be a teacher, it was because I appreciated the way kids were so honest and fresh. I thought I could help little girls like me keep their voices as they grew older, not try to quash them like most every teacher I'd ever had. I never planned on taking this job in special education-special education hardly existed when I was in school-but that was all that was available here for a newlywed. And Jack couldn't bear to move to the city after the war; he wanted to stay somewhere familiar: the place he'd always called home, the place we'd both gone to college. Slow, suburban Poughkeepsie. Maybe I'd understand better if I knew what he saw in France-but no. God forbid he confide in his wife.
I haven't returned to the city since my mom's funeral, either. Jack is afraid of its noises: the bomb threats from anarchists and terrorists, the roar of trains like the roar of artillery. I am afraid of its memories. We're selling the old apartment-where I grew up, and where my mom spent the last five years of her life alone-in February, and Jack helped me arrange for it to be cataloged and cleared by a company in the city. I can't bear to do it myself.
I sigh as I stare into the mirror. Blue smudges the space below my eyes, and I massage them gingerly. It's not that I don't love my students. I do. But I'm not trained to teach them, and it shows. They're run as ragged as I am. Some days, I have to grit my teeth and force myself to walk to the school building in the morning, because I know that nothing will be easy once I'm there. It's not the kids that make me drag my feet, though-it's the principal.
The principal. Today is the final day before Christmas break, and while I'd normally be relieved to have a vacation, the end of this semester is different.
My hands start to shake as I twist my hair into rolls, remembering the strange smirk on Principal Gardner's face after our confrontation over supplies two weeks ago. The fight had been long overdue; in our basement classroom, I have eight desks for eleven kids, three reading primers, four notebooks. God only knows what possessed me to suffer in silence for a year and a half; it shouldn't have taken my kids fighting over a pair of scissors and nearly stabbing their eyes out for me to demand a change.
Whether it was really the scissors, the exhaustion, or the grief over my mom, I don’t know. But whatever it was, I locked the steel scissors in a drawer two weeks ago today and marched straight up to the principal’s office. Channeling all my fury at Gardner and the universe, I gave the principal an ultimatum. If he didn’t provide me with at least the basics by the end of the semester, he’d lose me.
I’d returned home exultant, sure I’d have a well-stocked classroom in two weeks’ time, but Jack was more hesitant. He was afraid I’d been rash, acted out of grief rather than reason. But I know Gardner, and he won’t do anything to make his life harder. Where on earth would he find another woman willing to teach the very same kids that the rest of the district sought to abandon? He’ll never fire me.
At least, I hope not. My hope is tempered with nerves now that the day is finally here. The fact that it’s the anniversary of my mom’s death only compounds my anxiety, and it was foolish of me not to realize earlier what the date would be. But then, I haven’t been thinking clearly.
I hate myself for wondering if Jack could be right after all.
He inches back into the bathroom now, briefcase in hand. “I’m sorry for upsetting you, honey. Good luck with Gardner today.”
“Thanks.” I look back at the lumpy pancakes and smile gently. It’s not Jack’s fault that I’m not like the other women we graduated with, many of whom have already replaced work with children. It’s just that I want to make the world a better place before I bring kids into it; I always have. “I think it will be good.”
I’m trying to convince myself as much as I am him. I want my rashness to have helped my kids, not condemned them; I want to see their faces shining with delight when they return to a classroom in January stocked with colorful world maps, construction paper, books and more.
Jack gives me a peck on the cheek as he goes, and I wave. As I finish getting ready, my thoughts remain on the things I love about my job: the hugs, the smiles, the constant business that keeps my mind from returning to the hole left by my mother’s death.
Her dying didn’t leave just an emotional hole but a physical one, too. I no longer pick up the telephone to call my mom every weekend. That stiff pillow that only my mom found comfortable lies unused in our guest room. The kitchen cabinets are a mess, Mom being the only one who ever bothered to organize them. It took me five minutes to find paprika the other day.
Now, I root through the messy pantry for bread, check it to make sure it’s still good, and smear it with peanut butter to take with me for lunch. It’s time to go.
“Wish me luck, Mom.” I look up at the ceiling, and march out to meet the day.