In the quietest and darkest hour of the night, when bone weary parents have laid their heads, the machines continue their unrelenting tango with delicate souls. The tiny children with whom they dance have arrived into this world with something missing: their chance to share a lusty cry, to suck with fervour at their mother's breast, to look into their father's loving eyes...lost.
These are the babies in Intensive Care. The soft curls of wispy hair, the marble skin like gossamer wings, the tiny birdlike hands that are trussed up in the bondage of the very things that maintain their tenuous link to life. These babies belong to the machines, the humidicribs, the doctors and the nurses before they belong to anyone else.
The hand that touches them most often is strong but worn; a tired soldier, living in the dimmest trenches. She is clean, always clean, and she is careful, as she reaches in to give care, food and life, hour after hour. Her most regular companion is just as world-weary, but full of fearful tenderness. The mother. Together, they stare through the plastic barrier at the wisps of beauty tangled amongst the tubes, night after night, day after day, locked in hope and despair.
One night, there is a new nurse. Despite generous time in water, getting scrubbed and clean, her hands and nails are stained with ink. Her eyes are bright like a bowerbird, seeing past the wires, through the tubes and beyond the bandages, looking for the jewels that are lost. She sees what others are desperate to find. She sees the new baby, free and independent, small and perfect. She has come to show them.
Humble and shy, with a saintly gift, she works her magic when all are sleeping. This gentle guard, armed only with a pencil and notebook, is mindful and alert. Her hand is steady and true. The flawless curve of a downy cheek slowly appears on the plain white page, freed from feeding lines. A hand emerges from nowhere, carved in graphite, pure and perfect without the IV tubes and bandages. With the finishing pencil strokes, the child is finally freed from pain and suffering under the magic spell of the artist, who steals the darkest part of the night to bring this gift of love.
As dawn’s early light enters through the blinds, casting ethereal shadows over the sleeping ward, the nurse completes her other duties, washes her patient, tidies the tubes and checks the machinery. She is tired now and aches for her own bed as she straightens the sheets on the crib. Before she leaves, however, a silent gift appears for the family on the table beside the child.
She is gone before they wake. She is the ghost of the night who sees what others cannot and shows it to those who need it the most.
She is the baby artist.
Sue Fernandes is a midwife who started sketching babies in Intensive Care in 1980 at the Royal Women's Hospital in Brisbane, Australia. Her selfless talent lead to her work with the Social Work department, doing portraits of babies who were not so fortunate. At all hours, she was called in to draw the babies who had passed away before taking their first breath, leaving beautiful pictures of perfect babies for parents who had never seen their child alive. For the last 33 years, Sue has worked with SANDS, helping thousands of families deal with the loss of their angels, by giving carefully and discretely drawn portraits to display proudly and openly on their walls, on their websites and in their hearts.
This piece is a tribute to my mother, Sue Fernandes. The baby artist.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem