On Helping A Mother In Need At The San Clemente Imaging Center: An Essay

"I turned into a good Samaritan by accident."

Illustration by Erin Maala

Sometimes I think my husband and I are the last “double income no kids” couple in Orange County, an anomaly living in the land that birthed Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. We’re both the babies in our respective families, the youngest kids in our clans. It’s a well-cared-for position that even now at 50-something I’m loath to give up. We go to Pixar and DreamWorks movies in the middle of the day, and any popcorn we buy is ours alone.

My womb, it turned out, was not that receptive to growing babies, and neither Michael nor I were keen on going through the emotional rollercoaster of infertility treatments, preferring to bring home ice cream instead. Over the years, we’ve spent our pent-up parenting energy doting on our family and friends, our two cats, and each other.

Which is why I was indoors at the San Clemente imaging center on a warm spring day, waiting for Michael to complete a heart scan. From where I sat, I could see that a young woman carrying a baby on her hip was in a pickle. She was talking to a lab tech and looking more alarmed by the moment. Something he’d said? The center was mostly empty that morning, making it easy to overhear their conversation as I pretended to play with my phone.

Tech: “Is there anyone with you who could hold the baby?”

Woman: “No, I didn’t realize.”

She must be here for an X-ray—the placard above them was my first clue—and he’s not letting her bring the munchkin with her. I could empathize since I’d just been kicked out two doors down where they were prepping Michael for the procedure. “Safety precaution,” they claimed. More likely it was because I was hovering. Either way, I’d been benched.

Mom was looking more frazzled, anxiously scanning the waiting room as if Mary Poppins might appear. I raised my hand. “I can hold the baby.”

This caught their wary attention.

“I’m waiting for my husband,” I explained. “He’s getting a heart scan, so I have the time.”

The woman considered me and my black yoga pants, which fortuitously matched hers, before turning to the tech. “Would that work?”

He shrugged. “Sure, if she doesn’t mind.”

Sold. I stood up and strode over, reporting for duty.

I half expected to be handed the wee one right away. Instead, we were led into a dimly lit lab room. That’s when it got interesting. One minute I was planning my carry strategy—classic hip straddle should work—the next, the lab dude was approaching me with one of those protective lead aprons.

Now, others more observant than I would’ve realized what was going on, but honestly, not until that heavy apron was ceremoniously draped across my shoulders did comprehension start to kick in. The clincher was when the technician asked the woman how far along she was. She smiled, placed a hand over her deceivingly flat tummy, and said six weeks.

Glory be, Mom wasn’t getting the X-ray, the baby was! Suddenly, “Hold the baby” might as well have been, “The call’s coming from inside the house” for all the chills it sent down my spine.

Mom stripped the littlest patient down to his Superman diaper (ha, cute) before the tech gently placed him on the table and motioned me over. “Like this,” he said, pressing the bottoms of the tiny feet together. Chubby little legs splayed out like a frog. “It’s important he stay still.”

I admit I almost broke then. I wanted to blurt out, “Gosh, a funny thing … I misunderstood, and I don’t have much experience keeping babies still during normal waking hours, much less important medical procedures—and by the way, this suit of armor is really lighting up my hot flashes, so someone needs to hit the AC, stat.”

But, no. Mom seemed nervous enough, clasping and unclasping suddenly empty hands. I gave her my best “Why, I hold kids getting scans practically every day!” smile. “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK.”

The tech ushered her out. Go time. I reached over and held the tiny ankles like I’d been shown, marveling that it took only one of my hands to clasp both of his cherubic feet. The tech gave me a thumbs-up then disappeared behind the thick safety door, the coward.

Big brown eyes stared up at me, surely sensing I was a rookie. I stared back, trying to channel my inner Barney or Big Bird; still, a crying storm seemed imminent—and not just from the baby. Although … something about his frightened gaze and trembling chin seemed familiar.

Years ago, I worked at Sears Portrait Studio in the Cerritos Mall where I learned how to pose a family of five plus pet golden retriever, and to operate the camera quickly before toddler Susie pulled the bow out of her hair. My point is, no child under 3 was immune to the faces I’d perfected.

Indeed, this little prince was mesmerized into stillness as I produced every funny expression in my arsenal while the big bad machines softly whirred overhead.

Afterward, the grateful mom asked me, “Do you have kids?”

Just then my husband came bounding in, no doubt eager for the tacos I’d promised as an after-scan reward. Fair’s fair. Last week he treated me to In-N-Out after my mammogram.

“All done?” I asked him.

He grinned. “Yup. Longest I’ve ever held still.”

Mom and I laughed. Inside joke.

“Well, thanks again,” she said, touching my arm before turning to walk out, her son’s fuzzy head bobbing above her shoulder. Bye-bye, little one! We had some fun, didn’t we?

I grabbed my purse. “Come on, strong-heart. Let’s get you those tacos—and wait till you hear what I did while you were napping.”

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