A Ruby Well of Lips

Topher and I had taken to pacing the hospital’s waiting room, seeing as both our computers and phones were out of batteries and we had exhausted our abilities to entertain ourselves. Night was turning to earliest morning, and there was still no word. We could just see the hospital room from where we sat, behind a glass paned door. Nurses ran in and out with towels. We had, I think, both thought we would have heard something by now.

I went up to the nurse at the reception desk and asked if she’d given birth yet.

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Can you give me a hint?”


“Why not?”

“I could lose my job.”

“Just nod your head if she’s given birth yet.”

She pressed her lips tight together and looked down at magazine, which I took as my cue. Topher look at me inquisitively and I shrugged my shoulders. Just then, Jon came out of the hospital room and wordlessly motioned for both of us to follow him. I had seen him tired before, but I had not seen him like this. But then, his wife had just successfully completed a 32-hour labor. That will do things to a man.

And then he told us the rest of the news, which began with him saying, “there’s no way to sugar coat this.” And a good many things that had been simple were suddenly complicated. And things that had seemed important became less so.

They named the baby Navy, but I did not get to see her till the next day. By then, her mother was all new mom, smiling and sleepy in her hospital bed, hopelessly in love with her new child. Nearly unmindful of her visitors. She stared at Navy with that all-consuming devotion of new moms that is beautiful to see and a bit sacred. There were flowers and cakes, of course. Little pink shoes. Lots of visitors. Everyone endlessly congratulating and, far more noticeably, reassuring. This will be okay, they all said. Everyone seemed to know someone who had survived it. I, myself, called my father – a medical professional – and quizzed him. He admitted that it is a hard thing, but far from untreatable.

I held Navy, and my first thought was, “it looks like a flower.” It truly does, her mouth. Her lips come nearly together and then shoot upwards in a fine, sudden arc, meeting somewhere in the red recesses of her sinuses. This is a cleft palate, her birthmark, a ruby well of lips, for the first few months of her life, until the doctors feel it’s safe to cut her open and dam it up. Until then, a flower. It surprised everyone involved. In all the ultrasounds, she’d shyly held her fist over her mouth.

For right now, it is not so unsightly but it is unwelcome. She cannot nurse, or even eat particularly well. Feeding her is an exercise in the most extreme patience, as the milk pools in the divet in her mouth and gets choked up and spewn out. Whatever milk happens to sneak down to her stomach is what she will survive off of, for now.

And what are we to think, of a child who gets brought into a world so violently, with violence strewn across her face clear as a prophecy? What is her life now but a burnt offering; beautiful, sad, and utterly necessary? And who is Navy, except a young girl chosen before the foundations of the world, knit together in her mother’s womb, fearfully and wonderfully made?

Oh, Navy, it is a gracious and cruel world. You will not remember the flower on your face, but when you look in the mirror, perhaps you will see just a trace of it. A little nip below your nose. The faintest porcelain trace of a scar along the lines of your lips. And maybe that will be the reminder you need that most of us spend our lives learning – that grace and violence tumble about together, indistinguishable and inextricable. That there is no wound that can not be healed, but there is no healing that is final. Not in this life, anyhow. This very strange life in which babies like you come in like pillars of fire to lead us all.

Oh, little Navy. It’s going to be alright.

Navy is undergoing a lot of corrective surgery so that she will be able to eat normally and, eventually, live normally. It will take a lot of money and here is a place where you can help.

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  1. I was Born Cleft! She’ll be Fine! Probably better than me! Congratulations!


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