States of Permanence and Impermanence

Foam isn’t a substance so much as a state of being. When pockets of gas are caught in a liquid or solid, you get foam. It can be dense, like yoga mats, Halloween masks, and swimming noodles, or light, like flame retardant or the head of a beer.

Aside from high-school chemistry class, I’ve never given foam much thought. Not until now, anyway, as I sit on a foam-filled leather seat in a basement medical office, waiting for my infant son to be called. Tufts of yellow foam peek through a crack in the seat next to me. My fingers reach instinctively to tuck it in but I draw them back. I can’t remember if there’s hand sanitizer in the diaper bag.

Sebastian has been prescribed a custom-fabricated polyethylene foam cranial remodeling orthosis coated with a flexible plastic shell—otherwise known as a helmet. The helmet’s shell will be protective and decorative, too, says the brochure. But it’s the foam lining that will be molded to fit Sebastian’s asymmetrical head, treating the plagiocephaly—flattening—in the back. The foam will lie flush against the part of his skull where growth needs to be curbed but will sit away from the flat part, allowing the skull to grow out and round like other human heads. And it’s the foam that will be adjusted, since my son’s dome is growing at a speedy one to two centimeters per month. The orthotist will photograph, measure, scan, feel, and gently direct Sebastian’s skull where he wants it to go. Like a bonsai tree.

“Mrs. Smith?”

Yuri, the giant, blue-eyed Russian who will cultivate my son’s head, looks a little like Sam the Eagle, a little like a Pixar character, and a lot like my Eastern European relatives. Yuri says I can bring the stroller—“We have parking lot!”—and leads me to a small, windowless room outfitted with two chairs, a desk with a computer and printer, and an open, waist-high black case, about the size of a small coffin, that says STAR Scanner on the side. I park the stroller just outside the door where, I see, it will actually block much of the hallway.

“It’s very warm in here,” I say as I remove Sebastian’s knitted hat. Winter approaches, and the heater is on. I wonder if Sebastian will be able to wear a hat over the helmet. Should I buy bigger, stretchier hats? Yuri disappears. Moments later, a wall-mounted air conditioner cranks on and blasts Sebastian and me with a chill breeze. Yuri returns and launches into a practiced introduction. As he explains basic concepts—plagiocephaly, orthotic devices, craniofacial features—he weaves in and out of pitch-perfect humming, like he’s jazzing up the appointment with a snappy soundtrack. He reminds me of the guy who sits alone at the end of a karaoke bar on Saturday nights, drinking fruit brandy and grabbing the microphone at the first chords of anything Sinatra.

From OH, BABY! True Stories About Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love. 
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