My sons spent the first three months of their lives in the sterile environment of a hospital. Whereas, babies their age would have still been happily swimming in the warm environment of their mothers’ wombs, mine came too early and had to learn to do things too soon–from breathing, to regulating their own temperature.
As surreal events occurred one after the other, I became no more than an observer. I wasn’t an active participant. Rather things happened to me, to my children, without my own volition, without my permission. Our lives hurled into a space of uncertainty that we were powerless to stop, or even mitigate. One minute I was pregnant, the next I heard footsteps running outside of my hospital room. People rushed me to the operating room for an emergency c-section, asking me for a medical directive. My last image as I was wheeled out of the hospital room that was my home for the last month, was my husband still groggy from sleep, confused at what was going on. I craned my neck to look at him, to make sure he was following me but my view was obscured by fear. Part of me was horrified, yet fascinated at the precise and purposeful movement of each individual in that operating room, all of them strangers but all of them trying to help me and my children. But there was no comfort from that so I looked around, asking for my husband. I wanted no one else but the familiarity of his presence. Trying to stifle my rising panic, hoping that my child’s cord hanging outside my body–the source of food and nourishment for him wasn’t also the source of his distress or worse his death.
There was a certain perversity while I laid there, numbness quickly settling in, when I managed to make a joke or two. It was a coping mechanism. Doctors introduced themselves to me, reassured me that it was going to be ok but I was fast losing grip on reality as the medication quickly made its way through my system. I tried to hold on to wakefulness as much as I could but I was fighting a losing battle.
When I came to, it was with this strange sensation of nothingness. Of lightness and heaviness at the same time. Of anxiety and relief. For the first time in months, I was alone. There were no six pairs of arms and legs fighting for space within me. Suddenly, too early and too fast, they were gone from my body. Taken so quickly, all were born within thirty minutes from start to finish. Two of them were born in the same minute as the doctors worked furiously to rescue three babies born eleven weeks too early.
There was something utterly heartbreaking going home with my arms empty, leaving very sick babies behind in the hands of strangers. My body had given birth to three people, but they were not with me. What was equally distressing was that for the first week we couldn’t hold them, too fragile they said that any touch was painful. For awhile, to me they weren’t babies, rather they were these beings, covered in tubes and wires, looking less human with none of the images of happy, fat babies. It was like staring at strangers, rather than the lives whose hearts beat under mine for months.
The first time I saw one of them cry, I was standing beside his incubator, staring at him but not really seeing him. I turned to the nurse and said, “I can’t hear his cries. Is he ok?” Her response and the image of his silent cry would remain with me for a long time: “The ventilator makes it impossible for you to hear his cries.” That single memory is frozen in frame in my heart that guaranteed to break my heart for years to come every time I remembered it. But it wasn’t the only one.
The next came one late night, when I saw Baby A stop breathing. I was standing beside him, trying to find some features I could recognize as mine or my husband’s in his too-thin face. It was one of those long vigils I spent beside them because there was nothing to do (except bargain and beg with God, or sometimes get so filled with anger, I blamed Him). His breathing was so ragged, his skin too thin that I could see the quick rise and fall of his chest, until one moment when his stomach fell but didn’t rise up. I looked at the monitor above him. It took a moment before the screen would tell me what I already knew. He wasn’t breathing. I turned to the nurse to tell her. Calmly, she opened the incubator and gave him a pat to remind him to breathe. Yet he didn’t. As the monitors started beeping, numbers starting going down, green lights turned to red, she took him out of his incubator. Still the vigorous tapping didn’t help. She mumbled, encouraging him to breath but nothing happened. So I watched, standing in the corner as she tried to revive my son. It was in that moment, which probably lasted less than a minute that I saw how quickly life could slip away from me, from my child, and how utterly powerless I was.
That was the night I was convinced I would lose one or all of them. There were nights that followed when I would curl into a ball at midnight, after having spent hours in the NICU, convinced that the cribs we bought would never be used, that I would never take them home. I would wake up after a restless sleep, where I would hover between irrational fear and logical rationalization. Once fully awake, I was convinced the hospital would tell me one of them had passed away. Those thoughts, those possibilities took me to dark places I never travelled before. There were times I willed myself to crawl out of those depths, and there were days I simply wallowed.
My only comfort during these times, was my husband’s unwavering belief that they were going to be fine. He created a world in his head where the babies not making it was an impossibility. Sometimes, I envied that conviction. Other times, I resented, even disdained it. But in the end, I clung to him. Because I knew there was no one else in the world who knew exactly what I was going through, that understood that hopeless, helpless love I had for these tiny creatures.
There was no other way to put it–it was a roller coaster ride. The swinging of emotions, of grief that wouldn’t come full circle because I still had them, and because I still had hope, then there were uglier ones–anger, jealousy, bitterness. It was rolled into this thing inside me that couldn’t quite get a grip of what was happening. In some moments of self-loathing, I would resent my body’s inability to carry three babies. Even though I was warned over and over again, even after miscarriages, I had approached my pregnancy with a certain naiveté that made me cringe because now my children were paying for that lack of awareness. I followed the doctors’ orders, there was no doubt about that, but I also had this hope that “it” couldn’t happen to me, to us. But it did. There was a certain amount of arrogance involved in there too, I think.
Eventually, we took them home. It was better than the hospital. It was a small triumph. At least for awhile because eventually I was beyond exhausted. So tired that I had one searing moment where the sleep depravation threatened to drive me insane–literally. I’m forever grateful that when I needed it, my mother, father and mother-in-law helped out. Then later on a nanny. Meanwhile, on the other spectrum of my life was a 5-year-old whose mother disappeared into this woman balancing the insanity of three, sick newborns. Fortunately, he had (has) a father who was available, loving, and in so many ways capable of caring for him more than I could at that moment.
But being home didn’t end the journey. It opened a new chapter. For the first two years, all three had at least fourteen specialists between them, that included a gastroenterologist, a retina specialist, pediatric oncologist, hematologist, neurosurgeon, neurologist, developmental pediatrician, general surgeon, urologist, ophthalmologist and the list went on and on. Then the surgeries, the endless appointments, the follow-ups. These were between the early interventionists, the visiting nurses, followed by 40 hours a week of therapy–physical, occupational, feeding specialist, later on speech therapist. Then there were the diagnosis of medical conditions that sounded more like Greek than English. But we kept plugging away. Until one day, the boys’ pediatrician had said to me after one was diagnosed with having autism: “You’re taking this better than I thought you would.” My response: “If this is all we have to deal with, I’ll consider it as a gift. I have all my children with me.”
I suppose it was strange, to be grateful for such a diagnosis. But in spite of my selfishness at the center of the journey that my children alone owned (for I was nothing more than a bystander, maybe a cheerleader, at most a facilitator), my priorities shifted. I was happy I could stare at their laughing faces. I was happy I was tired while they were sick or teething because it meant they were alive. I was happy that my house was (still is) a mess because I had active children who made a mess. But more importantly, my gratefulness comes from becoming a better person. My children made me better. I became more patient, more open to differences, more trusting in the world. My faith in God grew. I was less judgmental, less temperamental, more forgiving, kinder, softer. I became less self-centered, more centered to the world and to my children. I learned to let go of this ideal that I had in my head, that had nothing to do with being a better person. God knew I needed them in my life, and He gave me these wonderful children to look after. In some instances of clarity, after the fitfulness of the early years ebbed, I became more and more grateful my arms were not empty. I’ve moved away from the self-pitying woman who thought her arms were empty just because her children coming home was delayed. I laugh at that woman I was back then, that lacked a certain level of self-awareness. Because, in spite of my personal challenges there are millions of women every day, around the world, whose arms are truly empty, who will forever continue to wonder what their children would look like today, what they would sound like, what they smell like. I have the luxury of not (and hopefully never) ever having to experience that. That alone deserves a lifetime of gratefulness.