The baby was taken from the lake just before dawn. What had caught the rescuers’ attention in the early light was the tip of a red blanket, and they had run toward that small spot of red like a tiny flame in the ice.
“Give me a pick!” the captain shouted and his men handed one over. “Get ready to grab him if he shifts or to jump in after him if he starts sinking.”
And the sound of the picks hitting the ice was the only sound until a space opened up and one of the men could grab the baby’s leg.
“I’ve got him!” the man shouted, and they rushed toward him, pulling at the ice with their hands, making the hole bigger, until finally the baby came out and was in a rescuer’s arms.
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“Wrap him up, wrap him up!” the captain shouted, and they brought the thermal blankets and rescue bags.
“Mouth-to-mouth, captain?” a rescuer asked.
“Get him warm first. He might have ice in his mouth and throat, maybe even his lungs.”
They wrapped the baby up quickly and gently—big men in large firefighter uniforms, tears in their eyes as they saw no signs of life in the baby whose skin was such a deep blue that he almost didn’t look human.
Then there was a burst of noise and movement. The paramedics were there, taking the baby from the rescuers and racing him to the edge of the lake where an ambulance waited.
Now the worst part—the parents, who were in one of the police cars, waiting. The captain dreaded this moment. The truth was too brutal, and so was a lie. He had been through this before, and the baby had not survived. It had broken his heart to see her, so small and so damaged, and to deal with his own guilt at not saving her.
He came toward the parents, trying to tell himself it was an accident, the parents were not responsible. But he was angry because they were. They had put the baby in his crib, and he had climbed out. The back door had been left unlatched, and the baby had ventured out, his red blanket in his hand as his greatest treasure. How can you have a baby in your house and not lock the back door? the captain asked himself. How, for Christ’s sake?
He reached the car, opened the door. The parents were in the back, staring up at him. The mother screamed, “Where’s my baby!”
“He’s on his way to the hospital.”
“Is he alive?” she asked, her voice catching in a deep sob.
“I don’t know,” the captain said. It was the best truth he could come up with. “We won’t know until they work on him. The body can go into a type of coma when it has been exposed to cold for so long. I’ve seen it happen that people survive this—and it’s easier with children.”
The father’s face was gray, and he had bitten his lip so hard that a chunk of skin was hanging loose and trailing dried blood.
“Guys, guys!” the captain shouted. “Get these people to the hospital so they can be checked and be with their baby.”
Men, his best men, swarmed to the car and helped the parents. Then he realized he was shaking, a wave of nausea overcoming him, as he wondered if anything could save the baby, bring him back to life.
The captain waited at the hospital until the doctors told him they wouldn’t know anything for a long while. “We’ll call you,” they told him.
The captain left with a sense that his heart was no longer beating. Outside, he could hear a bird chirping even in the bitter cold that confronted him. He remembered the words of the minister at the funeral of the other child he could not rescue. He remembered his despair that any child could die that young and that alone.
“You okay, captain?” one of his men asked. He was the one who had pulled the baby out, and he looked exhausted and pale.
“Yeah. Can you give me a ride?”
“Just do it.”
They rode in silence. Neither one wanted to ask about the baby. Finally, the man said, “They had to medicate the mother.”
“I figured as much. The father?”
“I don’t know.”
“Poor bastards. Neither one of them will ever get over the guilt, even if the baby survives.”
When the captain entered the station, he smelled chili cooking, and his stomach tightened. He poured himself a cup of stale coffee and thought about the red blanket and how it was all the baby had in the world to hold on to. We let him down, he said to himself, the coffee tasting as bitter as he felt. The call came around eight that evening. The baby was showing signs of progress and might make it through. Three days later, almost at sunset, they called to tell him the crisis was over, the baby was in good condition—no brain damage or other physical limitations—and he would make a full recovery. For a moment, the captain watched the sun flaming orange against the horizon, and he felt time begin again.
On the one-year anniversary of the rescue, a beautiful boy with bright blue eyes sat on his mother’s lap and was introduced to morning TV viewers as “the frozen baby.” His parents, looking older than they really were, said the guilt of having almost killed their son was a terrible weight on their souls, but they were so grateful he was alive and healthy. The doctors who had saved the boy said it was a true miracle, one in a million odds. It was amazing to see such a happy and energetic baby, considering the condition he was in when he was brought to the hospital and as he fought for his life during his recovery.
The captain watched the interview at home. He had saved the newspapers from that day announcing the rescue. “Frozen Baby Saved” with a picture of the captain on his knees, scooping snow away from a little form barely recognizable as a child. The look on his face always moved him. His tormented eyes were fierce, determined. He would not let this child die—one life saved for one child’s life lost. A life that would go on in the midst of other tragedies, other failures, and the miraculous rescues that free the heart to forgive.