Happy (unlikely) first birthday, my sweet James.
There is a story about your first year that hasn’t yet been told. It’s a hard one for me. But one day you will want to know about your birth, and since I can’t remember how old I am most days, I must record this for you. But, despite the nearly unbelievably painful events of the past twelve months, my feelings about this day in particular are still raw. Forgive me if I’m more emotional than usual.
Very early in the morning of December 3, 2013, I woke up and I knew something wasn’t right. I still can’t really explain it – you were moving, I still felt physically fine. But I had a terrible feeling.
An obstetrician appointment was already scheduled for that day, and I walked over from my office. When the unflappable Dr. R. asked how I was doing, I answered honestly: “I don’t know. I can’t point to anything specific, but something just doesn’t feel right.” She responded that since I hadn’t actually complained to her about anything yet (despite a rather stressful pregnancy), she just wanted to hook me up to the fetal monitor for a few minutes to confirm everything was okay.
It wasn’t. I was having contractions that I couldn’t feel, and your heart rate was dropping every time I did. Not yet an emergency, but she packed me into a taxi and sent me up to the hospital for more monitoring. ICU Dad came to meet me.
After lying around completely uneventfully for 4 hours, your dad and I thought everyone was overreacting, and we were both anxious to get back to work. The attending doctor agreed to discharge. The nurse was just about to take the probes off my belly, when I had a major contraction and your heart rate went dangerously low, and was sluggish coming back up. Suddenly, where everyone had been happily chatting before, they were mobilizing, acting like they were about to perform an emergency caesarian in the triage room.
So we didn’t get to leave. We got admitted. On December 3, you were 34w5 days. Every doctor in the unit was focused on keeping me pregnant for two more days, as 35 weeks is an important milestone for infants born prematurely.
The monitor was wrapped around my massive belly. I got steroid shots in my butt to help your lungs prepare for life on the outside. The decelerations got much worse. Initially, I could still get up and move around, and go to the bathroom by myself. After a few more hours, I was actively contracting (still couldn’t feel anything) and it got to the point where I could only lie on my left side – any other position would send you into distress. I lay in that position for more than 24 hours. The smallest movement would cause your heart rate to drop.
Obviously, that was not sustainable. We halfheartedly entertained the idea of trying to induce labor and deliver vaginally, but as the contractions got more serious, it was very clear you wouldn’t tolerate it.
So off we went for the C-section. Your dad and I were excited. We couldn’t wait to meet you. And, after everything that had happened, we were both nervous. We wanted so desperately for you to be healthy.
I’ll say one thing about urgent C-sections – they happen fast. About 20 minutes after the spinal anesthetic was administered, I’m lying there not feeling a thing, listening to the surgeon and anesthesiologist chatting, and wondering what they were waiting for. I piped up: “uh guys, you know he’s in distress, right? What’s going on down there?”
I’ll say one more thing – spinals are effective. Just as I was telling the surgeon to move it along, he pulled you up and out. You were here!
You had a loud and beautiful cry. You looked just like your older brother did when he was born. You were perfect. 9/9 Apgar score. 4lbs 6 oz., pretty respectable for a 35 weeker!
I called out incessantly, asking to see you. And when I did, I wept with both joy and profound relief to finally meet you. (Your father was dismayed at my urgency, as he was forced into a bird’s eye view of my intestines while carrying you over to the operating table.)
The doctors had warned us in advance that they would be taking you to the satellite NICU right away to do a full exam. So you were whisked away, and your dad and I proceeded to have a rather bizarre discussion with the surgeon while he closed me up. Who, it turns out, lived two blocks away from your father in Detroit, and was the doctor at Camp Tamakwa in Algonquin Park in Canada, where an old friend of mine from high school was a camper. New York City is like a small town sometimes.
Anyway, I digress. Actually, I’m procrastinating because this next part is hard to talk about.
Once all my insides were returned to their proper location, the OR nurse wheeled me into the recovery area. Where we waited for you (and for my lower body to wake up). Waited and waited. Until pretty soon the recovery bays, separated only by curtains, were filled with women cuddling with their newborn babies. We asked the nurse again and again how much longer it would be. She was kind, and she kept calling the satellite NICU, followed by the refrain “just a few more minutes.”
Finally, a resident clearly coming to the end of her call shift came into our curtain area. She appeared completely exhausted, hurriedly told us she had examined you, and then bluntly and without warning ran through the litany of issues identified: pelvic kidney (at least that one we expected), cleft palate, imperforate anus, etc. I don’t really remember what happened after that, to be honest. It was all a lot of white noise. I know I asked questions, but she might as well have been responding in Swahili for all I was absorbing. I did hear clearly that you couldn’t leave the NICU, since you required corrective bowel surgery within twelve hours.
Dad was standing beside me, holding my hand, when she arrived. By the end of the discussion, the color had drained from his face and his knees gave out. He abruptly sat down among the absurdly numerous bags, briefcases, and baby gear that we had been hauling from room to room for two days, and put his head between his knees.
We sat there in stunned silence. Waiting for my frustratingly useless anesthetized legs to wake up so we could get out of the recovery area and to our room. Listening, unbearably, to the neighboring happy families experience those euphoric first moments with their babies while we sat there. Without you.
Your Dad was finally allowed to see you. (Since he was, you know, able to walk). Bless his heart, he brought me back many photos to pore over – fingers, toes, ears – every bit of you, as though he could anchor you to us through his iPhone.
Eventually, I just could not keep it together any longer. It had been over four hours of this torture. I utterly and unreservedly broke down, sobbing and crying out to whoever would listen that if I couldn’t see you, I had to get out of there. I didn’t care where I went, but I couldn’t be in that recovery torture chamber for one moment longer. I could hear the other families in the neighboring areas go silent. Sound carries pretty well through curtains, of course. The rational (and Canadian) part of me felt guilty for intruding on their special moments, but the mother in me had been pushed past all reasonable limits.
That OR nurse knew exactly the root of my desperation, thank God. She rushed away and returned with a wheelchair, loaded my semi-functional and still uncooperative and hysterical body into it and pushed me into the satellite NICU where I wasn’t technically supposed to be, even though every instinct was telling me I couldn’t possibly be anywhere else.
Finally, after hours and hours of waiting, I touched you. After the resident’s report, I was honestly expecting some kind of unrecognizable entity. Instead, I saw your beautiful face, you grasped my finger, and I watched you turn to the sound of my voice. Felt your impossibly soft skin. Knew you for my own.
I was changed.
Not in the peaceful transformation of a woman into a mother meeting her baby for the first time kind of way. There is very little peace in the modern medical horrors imposed on newborn babies struggling for life. Nor is it found in the heartbreaking realization that your child may be different, and the terror of not knowing what different might mean.
No, your first year has been transformative in a different, but no less fundamental way. It was the beginning of ICU Mom, ICU Dad and big brother Max. Now, we find laughter in unlikely places. We are thankful for small blessings. We are, as your brother so often says, “best pals”. We have perspective. We don’t hide from things that are painful to hear and accept, we stare them down and then start planning our solutions. We are unafraid.
ICU Mom and Dad would never zone out when a resident delivered painful news. They would never let anyone tell them they couldn’t see their baby. They wouldn’t sit there and cry, they would ruck up and demand action.
You did that, James. You brought out courage in each member of this family we didn’t know we possessed, and I will be grateful to you for that for the rest of my days. There is something in you, my boy. I don’t know yet what it is, but everyone who encounters you feels it too. There is still so much uncertainty ahead for you, but I know at least this for certain: you were meant to be here, and you were meant to be ours.