It was the pain that woke me up first. The moisture between my thighs was something I had grown accustomed to. After all, it’s difficult to remember to take potty breaks once the high that you’ve been waiting for all day begins to take effect. This pain was different though. It wasn’t the same pain as when the other junkies stomp on your foot on the way to the bathroom, or the sharp slap from your bunkmate when you refuse to let him cop a feel in the middle of the night. It wasn’t the agony of missing the vein for the third time in a row, or the dry ache inside of you when the fourth man of the day uses your body to service himself in exchange for a crumpled twenty. No, this pain was sharp. Sharp enough to rouse me from my fitful sleep, and then sharp enough for me to cry out. This pain was worse than anything I’ve ever felt, and it was coming straight from the hard bulge in my stomach. Yanking up my dirty sweater, I can see the skin tightening around the bulge and could only say through gritted teeth, “Too early.” And it was. I should have at least three more weeks to go until I could figure something out. Until I could kick the habit, or more realistically, find a nice church to leave the baby with. The pain ripped through me again, the agony radiating from my stomach, and crackling straight up my spine and back down again. I began to crawl to the door of the shelter, bleating like a sheep in my torment. A thin film of sweat began to coat my face, and I felt another contraction tear through my insides. A scream bubbled up my dry throat and threatened to seep beneath my lips, but I clasped them shut, knowing that waking these people up would get me nothing but a solid kick to the gut. I was able to make it out the door before another contraction hit, and was calmed a bit by the cold winter air. Out on the muddled streets, I knew I had a better chance of getting to a hospital, but at this hour? Bile rose in my throat at the thought of being left to handle this alone. With supreme effort I managed to rise to my feet, but overconfidence in the sturdiness of my left leg, sent me sprawling down the concrete steps of the homeless shelter. The last thing I saw before the light left my eyes was a pair of black boots standing before me.
I opened my eyes and immediately regretted the action. The blinding white light was like a sledgehammer to the head. Of course I knew where I was. I had been in the hospitals enough times for overdosing, that it felt a little silly that they would have me hooked up to an IV for this long. The whole affair is usually over in a day, maybe two, with time for me to score some dope before noon. My real sense of awareness suddenly kicked in, and I bolted up in bed, ignoring the vicious pounding in my head. The baby. Where was it? Is it alive? The nearby monitor began to imitate the frantic beating of my heart, but before I could yell for someone, a nurse walked in. But I wasn’t focused on the nurse or the annoying cheery smile on her annoyingly healthy, unblemished face. No, I was focused on the tiny struggling mass in her arms, hid in a seemingly massive pink blanket. So it was a girl, then. Good. A girl would be able to survive out here if she were smart. The nurse stopped at the foot of the bed, she seemed uncertain of how to approach me. I couldn’t blame her hesitation at the sight before her. Homeless junkie, barely 19, with matted hair, and ugly needle marks. I was no mother, I was a mess. She mistook my tears as tears of happiness, and inched forward, extending the little bundle in her arms. I shook my head. “No”, I murmured. And I meant it. I didn’t want to see this child, I didn’t want to hear about all the health complications she would have because her good-for-nothing mother couldn’t stay away from the dope for a few lousy months. I didn’t want her to look at me. I wanted her to find a good, clean home where nothing evil could touch her. I didn’t want her to have anything to do with me. It was the most I could do for this tiny stranger. But whether it was the tremor in my voice, or the pitiful tears falling down my cheeks, the nurse ignored my refusal, and before I knew it, something very tiny and very soft was placed in my arms. The baby stopped struggling at once, and instead met my gaze with wide, curious eyes. Almost as if she recognized me, her tiny lips pulled up at the corners in a smile, and she nestled her little head against my breast. I had heard countless descriptions on the bond between mother and child, but no one could have prepared me for the feeling that coursed through me now. How could I have not wanted to see her? How could I have thought for a second that she would need anything other than me? Before now, the world had been unstable, constantly moving beneath my feet, leaving me dizzy and disoriented. But now, suddenly everything was still. There was nothing disorienting about this, in fact it was clear as a bell. She had been born for a reason, and that reason was to be with me. The baby began to move in my arms, and it took me a second to realise that the force of my sobs were shaking her. With an almost comical look of confusion, her eyes flew open once more. “I’m s-sorry little one,” I managed to whisper between my tears, “Mama didn’t mean to wake you.” I had almost forgotten the presence of the cheery nurse until she spoke right by my bedside. “She’s probably hungry. We’ve been waiting for you to wake up.” I stared at her blankly. I didn’t have the faintest idea how to nurse, or if I was even capable of doing so. The nurse seemed to have guessed so much, and she helped me through the process as patiently as she could. While the baby fed, I summed up the courage to ask the nurse the most pressing question. “Did I-“ I stopped short not knowing how to continue. I took a deep breath and tried again, “Is she alright?” The nurse understood what I was saying at once. The smile disappeared from her face. She eyed me sadly. “Heroin?” I nodded mutely. The nurse sighed before continuing, “Well you know she was premature. And the drugs did take a bit of a toll on her heart rate and blood pressure.” I hung my head in shame. “And you can probably expect to have some minor breathing problems later on.” Tears of remorse burned in my eyes. “But other than that, I’d say she’s about as healthy as can be.” Healthy? I thought of all the times I shot up, while trying not to think of the bulge beneath my shirt. Healthy. Impossible. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a miracle baby.” I nuzzle into my daughter’s soft little neck to hide my smile. “My miracle baby.”
The next day the nurse entered the room with a sheet of paper. “The birth certificate.” She announced, seeing my puzzled expression. “Do you know what you’re going to name her?” I looked over at the baby, napping in her bassinet. “India.” The nurse seemed doubtful. “India?” “It’s where her father was born,” I explained quietly. The nurse was silent for a moment. “Alright. India it is.” My hands were shaking so badly, I could barely fill out the paper work. But I knew the worst was yet to come. Today would be 48 hours without heroin, and I was beginning to feel it. The tremors were the least of it. Soon to come were the headaches, the vomiting, body aches, and of course the insomnia. But I was ready to handle it. I knew there was a detox program at the hospital, and I was positive I would never touch heroin again. About an hour later a different nurse peeked her head in. “You’ve got a visitor, hon.” I sat up straight, my heart rate accelerating. A visitor? There was no one who would come to visit me. My palms grew sweaty as I tried to think of all the dealers I’d been in contact within the past month. I hadn’t stiffed any of them. At least none that I could think of…
My fretting was interrupted by footsteps entering the room. I was alert immediately, pulling India tight against my chest. A tall man in shiny black boots walked in. I recognized his shoes right away. “Hey! You’re the one who saved me!” And it was true. Though I was half unconscious, I would remember those boots anywhere. The man smiled, showing all of his teeth. He was handsome. “I brought these for you”, he murmured in a quiet voice, handing me a small bouquet of flowers. I took them cautiously. My upbringing had taught me to be very wary of men. Especially men with deep pockets. “Thank you.” I said stiffly. He smiled again. God, he really was handsome. He seemed to be in his thirties, but his thick black hair and youthful eyes suggested perhaps late twenties. It felt silly, but I couldn’t help but be embarrassed at my appearance. I tried to inconspicuously comb through my hair with my fingers while speaking. “Um, I don’t mean to be rude or anything Mister, but why exactly are you here?” He didn’t seem to be insulted and answered in a sincere enough voice, “I wanted to see how you were doing. How the baby’s doing.” I couldn’t help but smile at the mention of her. “She’s great. She’s real great.” “May I hold her?” I hesitated for a second before handing her over. He made a cradle with his arms, with just enough room for me to tuck her in. “She’s beautiful,” he murmured. I felt a flood of warmth. “I know she is.” He smiled down at my daughter “Little India. Such a pretty baby.” I frowned. “How do you know her name?” He glanced up, shamefaced. “Oh. I- Uh heard you talking to the nurse.” “You were out there for so long?” He flushed slightly, “I couldn’t think of what to say.” I laughed, then marveled at how odd it made me feel. Odd, yes, but not bad. I laughed again. He joined in, the rich baritones of his voice mingling with the dry scratchy tones of my own. This was how the nurse found us, as she entered the room with my lunch. “Oh- Am I interrupting?” “Oh, no!” I said quickly. Turning back to the handsome man holding my daughter, I made a realization. “I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name.” This elicited a small chuckle from the stranger. “Nathan” he said clearing his throat. “And yours?” How long has it been since a person asked my name? “Claire.” I announced. That evening Nathan stayed until visiting hours were over, with promises to return the next day.
That night was the worst. I was up vomiting all night, and in the morning, I could barely keep my eyes open to feed India. Despite all of that, I felt strong. Tomorrow I would start the process for joining the detox program, and start a new life for my daughter and I. A tiny part of me wondered if this new found strength had anything to do with Nathan, and I fought it down quickly. This was absolutely time to be acting like a giddy school girl. I needed to get my act together. But I still couldn’t help but feel as though I was floating above the clouds. Three sharp raps on the door the next day yanked me back down to reality with enough force to leave me breathless.
On January 23, 1996 at 3:04pm child services took my baby away.