John came to Kem with a tall glass and sat by her side on the couch. “Here, drink this,” he said. “it’s apple juice.” She sat up awkwardly—nothing is easy when you’re nine months pregnant—she took the glass he offered and sipped at it.
“Have you done your kick counts this morning?” he asked quietly.
Their child is already dead. That much is suddenly crystal clear. Juice is just juice, just a drink, just a kind gesture from a man to his lover. But a cold slug of juice is also what the doctor prescribes to a mother who hasn’t noticed any movement and is beginning to worry. And kick counts? They’re just a low tech way of monitoring fetal activity. Put the two together in an opening scene of ER and you have a tragedy.
“Oh, no,” Tanja said, taking my hand. “Oh, no.”
This show rips us up routinely—the drunken, dying father begging his son’s forgiveness; the firefighter with full thickness burns, able to joke now, but condemned to die in 72 hours; the old man who knows he has to let his wife go but can’t—there are a thousand heartbreaks and just when you think you’ve got it under control, they’ll find a new way to twist the knife. So it was just a matter of time before they got around to this scenario.
Usually on ER, the drama that is unfolding is alien to one’s experience—a drive-by shooting, a spill at a chemical plant. Still, it’s not hard to understand the issues and emotions that are behind the particulars. It’s kind of like those three-dimensional posters that were all the rage a while back—at first it looks totally foreign but if you just project a little, try to see into it, let it happen, boom, the thing jumps out at you and you get it—dolphins leaping from a fountain, or heartbreak tearing through a family.
But now here we were watching something very much like what we’d been through not so long ago—a late-term stillbirth. A baby, days from being born, whose heart has stopped beating.
They did well, the ER crew did. They conveyed the apprehension. They captured the way the hospital takes over, the way you become a patient. They got the fear you feel when the ultrasound image is resolving, as the idea that “everything is all right “ goes from being a given to an article of faith to which you cling despite mounting evidence to the contrary. They even got that panicked feeling of “Wait, surely something can be done.” After all, we’ve seen these very doctors crack open countless chests and start still hearts to beating again. Surely they can do it now. Surely they’ll do it for Carter.
But the baby is dead.
The ribs are an empty cage. There is nothing there. No bright pulse on the screen. No spark.
And the question we asked ourselves, that was the same too: Why did this have to happen? By which we meant, in this case, why did they do this? Why did the writers of ER deem it necessary to drop this bomb on the stalwart and beloved character of John Carter just when he seemed to have gotten himself together.
Carter, despite his vast riches and boyish good looks, has had some issues with love over the years, but here, with Kem, he seemed to have a good thing going. True, they had conceived this child out of wedlock and, true, this may have pushed their romance along quicker than it might otherwise have progressed, but it was easy to see they were meant for each other— See? Hell, you could tell just from listening to the music on the soundtrack, swelling each time they laid eyes on one another—these two were in deep love.
Of course, in the world of ER, to enjoy too much love and luck is to fly into the sun. You will come down. ER doesn’t answer to actuarial tables--County General has got to be the most dangerous place to work in the history of film and television—anyone, anytime can be struck down dead, dismembered, diagnosed with cancer, or, as it turns out, worse. And being happy or lucky or too beautiful is like smoking three packs a day in the real world—it doesn’t guarantee disaster, but it sure ups the odds.
In this case, the death of this baby was the plot twist necessary to keep Carter interesting in his last season. It added that dose of pain that spices up a story, it drove a narrative wedge between him and Kem—they got that right, too; the way such an intimate tragedy, which you might expect to bring the concerned couple closer together, actually isolates them. Without the child that had spurred their engagement, Kem began to question what was left of their love. Had it all been a mistake? She returned to Africa without John. They fell into other romances. It started to come apart.
But over the course of a few episodes, with the help of a team of writers, Carter triumphed. Despite years of passive gestures toward unclear goals, he suddenly saw what he wanted in Kem and he went to go get it, leaving the ER behind forever, except for the occasional cameo.
Watching him go, it was hard not to feel like, “Well, Carter’s all set now. He’s all off in Africa being all in love with Kem.” It is, I guess, just the classic happily-ever-after scenario. We don’t wonder at the obstacles they still face any more than we wonder if Sleeping Beauty will plump up, lose interest in sex, start bickering with the Prince about how much he drinks and cry herself to sleep at night. We don’t worry about whether Carter and Kem will try again, will this child survive and, if it does, will it make them think of their first child and if it does, how will they deal with that? All we know is, Carter is ok now. Carter is all set.
Now, Tanja and I didn’t have a team of writers to blame for the way our story went. It was hard not to ask, “Why me? Why us?” and to wonder if we weren’t somehow being punished for being too happy and too fortunate. But I’ve never been able to maintain any serious belief in God as the head writer of this earthly show, so I can’t look for meaning there. Why did this happen? Because the umbilical cord got trapped between the baby’s arm and his ribs. Here is the bruise in the cord where it was crushed. That is the end of that story.
But I often think of that child. He never got a chance. And sometimes the unfairness of that stings so that I want to fight something or someone. Unfairness? That suggests there was a judge of some sort, weighing options, making the call one way or the other. I have to remind myself there was no judgment, only chance and a slim cord caught under a tiny arm.
So he didn’t live. But he also didn’t feel any pain. He never suffered. He never cried. Tanja remembers feeling, the day before we went into the hospital, one great movement, and she wonders now if that was his last effort at untangling himself. Did he know something was wrong? Was he frightened in those final moments? I find these questions too difficult to truly consider.
This is where I need to be careful. I don’t ever want to forget this boy, and my time with him was so brief, the glimpses of him so few, that sometimes it seems just the memory of a memory.
And at the same time I don’t want to remember him too much. I don’t want him to become nothing but a feeling to me, nothing but a cue for sadness. I am someone for whom depression comes like a unemployed uncle, arriving without notice and settling in for an indeterminate stay. I didn’t invite him and yet I can’t really send him away either—he’s family—so I wait. And sometimes when I am stuck on the couch listening to his tales of woe for the umpteenth time, the subject of this boy will come up. It almost lifts me, in a way I can’t quite explain except to say, if I’m going to think of this boy (and I am) then I am prepared to feel sad because, after all, there isn’t much else but sadness to be had there. I would do anything to spend a little time with him, in other words, and if this is as close as I can get, well so be it. But I won’t have him be an excuse for something. I won’t have him be my permission to draw the shades and bar the door.
He was quite beautiful after all and when I held him I caught myself, time and again, rocking back and forth, from foot to foot, the way you do with a sleeping baby to encourage him to go ahead and sleep.