Nineteen years ago, when the hashtag was still the pound sign, you surprised us all and came two months early. Your due date was New Year’s Eve, your grandfather’s birthday, but instead you were born just after election day. You weighed 3 pounds, 11 ounces, far less than the bottle of champagne that we had hoped to pop. We couldn’t take you home. To my horror, we had to leave you at Nic-U, which stood for neonatal intensive care unit. This abbreviation was a euphemism, an attempt to soften the reality that you had been transplanted from the safe haven of my womb to a trauma unit.
Inside, we were instructed to put on scrubs and wash our hands religiously. I learned the art of washing hands–using warm water while singing “Happy Birthday” twice. We walked through the rows of diminutive hospital beds and incubators, a medical jungle filled with draping transparent tubes, red beeping lights, itinerant humming machines and wailing alarms that set the whole place on alert. Tiny babies were placed inside their cribs like squirming specimens on glass slides. They looked misplaced and grotesque, their complexions all off in some way–jaundiced, blue or fiery red, revealing the mixed up, confusing cocktails of their blood levels.
Even as respirators were saving infants’ lives, the primal, ancient art of swaddling remained fundamental. The technique reminded me of origami. In elementary school, my paper cranes were always huge fails, but I perfected the infant swaddle; it was the least I could do. We placed you in the middle of the blanket and wrapped you tight, like an eggroll, to keep you warm and snuggled. My perfect folds couldn’t change the fact that I had to set you back down, alone and vulnerable, in that chaotic environment.
There was no way to shelter our new babies; you all were helpless and helplessly exposed to the torturous ordeal of it all, and yet the nurses remained calm and caring. Their measured, professional attention soothed me. I watched how unruffled they were even as they pricked scrawny babies’ tiny feet to get blood samples. I’ve shown you the small constellation of pricks on your heel. Their presence remains like the faint memory of some scary fairy tale that I read to you as a child.
I had to pump my breast milk and feed it to you with a bottle that was not much bigger than a syringe. Your father and I sat in a small, darkened room off to the side and rocked you, held you close on our chests, warm skin upon skin, before we would have to place you back into a bed the size of our kitchen sink, with plexiglass sides and anonymous hospital bedding, pastel blue and pink striped that could apply to any Jane or John Doe.
We couldn’t wait to start our lives with you, but each day we had to leave. One night, as we pulled up to pay for the hospital parking, we were feeling drained and sad, going home without you again.
“How are you?” your father asked the woman inside the kiosk.
“I’m blessed,” she replied.
The authenticity of her gratitude charged her voice so that we instantly felt it with her. Blessed? Yes! So were we. We didn’t know her story, but her response was enough for us to consider our own. Intensive care still carries the threat that a prognosis may change in an instant, but for the moment, you were alive and you were going to be ok. We had to leave you there, but we could afford the medical care and we had access to it. You weren’t born 4 months early with a messed up digestive system like the child we always saw when we visited. You hadn’t lost your twin, or been born addicted to drugs.
We have the choice to make a decision, along the way, to adjust our perspective, and the assured inflection in her voice was like a signpost that told us, “turn here.”
May she be healthy, may she be happy, may she be safe, may she be free.
This was the mantra my mother taped to the side of your bed (everybody brought pictures and cards, in lame attempts to personalize the infants’ surroundings). Powerless and unable to make things alright for you, I repeated this over and over. It was a letting go, but with willful hope attached.
“She is an old soul,” my mother proclaimed, because as she reached down, you wrapped your tiny hand around her finger and gripped it, staring back at us with your jewel-blue eyes.
Together we built this resolve, made from strong will and enforced with gratitude, to face our inchoate future, but it was always buttressed by the kind reply of the woman who had handed far more than a handful of coins back to your father. In the dark, fleeting moment, I didn’t catch her face. There was nothing remarkable about her response during what is normally a trivial exchange of words. Yet the fortitude of her voice still drives me. I just wanted you to know this story, because that’s what I remember when I see #blessed.