The words of the guy on TV sounded like pure wisdom. Which was par for the course. At seven months pregnant with my first baby (a girl, who was the biggest surprise of my life), I was doused in sentimentality courtesy of shitkicking hormones. Everything seemed to reflect back the complete wonderment that resulted from understanding that—as I sat there, at age 29, watching TV--my body was feeding and nurturing a brand new person. All on it’s own, with no special equipment: my body, just sitting there--watching TV and stuff—and bringing things to life. He could have been talking about nail clippers and washcloths and I might have sobbed tears of incredible force over manicures and thread counts.
So this guy—some random guy--had gone through a terrible hardship—which, now, almost 15 years after I heard his story, I’ve forgotten the details of—and the interviewer was asking him how he had managed to get through it and why—the interviewer had asked—did he think such terrible things happened to good people. And I’m sure I was expecting him to say that he had gotten through it because of his amazing network of family and friends. Or because his pastor or his fellow church-goers had comforted him by reminding him that even Christ suffered at the hands of inequity and injustice.
But he didn’t say any of that.
“Yes,” he said. “It was hard. And sometimes I questioned why it was happening, and whether it was fair. But then I realized that people always seem to ask God “Why me?!” when bad things happen to them; they never ask God “Why me?” when something good happens. I just didn’t think it was fair of me to question it when plenty of good things have happened to me and I never asked “Why” once. Not one time.”
And I didn’t know—until days later, lying in the hospital, having my baby early--that he was talking directly to me.
The whole thing happened so fast—home, calling the doctor, then admitted to the hospital at 33 weeks pregnant—that I wasn’t at all prepared, so my mom—an experienced Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse-- was on the hospital phone, and—from 3000 miles away--was calming me with clinical-speak.
“Your water broke, and they have to induce labor; they'll give you [this med] or [that med]; let me talk with the nurse; okay, they're going to do [this and that] and then see how you progress. You can’t use your midwife now because she’s a 33-weeker, and so it’s high-risk. Just take whatever doctor is on call. They don’t know what happened but they have to prepare for the worst. They’ll take her for tests right away; they have to see how developed her lungs are. They’ll have to take her to the NICU to start her IV.”
I had heard her talk about this stuff a million times, and the lingo was pretty familiar. So I was calm and focused and tearless until she said: "Amy. She's going to be scared. Try to talk to her before they take her so that she knows you’re there.”
And that’s when I lost it. When it segued out of surreal. Because I had done everything right, and just days before was watching TV and getting sentimental--amazed by life’s beauty--and somehow the ending to that story was that my baby had to be born before she was ready, was going to be scared and I wasn’t going to be able to comfort her. That her first experience in the world was going to be getting whisked away from warm, comforting, sweet Mommy-talk to strangers with cold, indifferent hands sticking her with needles and putting tubes down her throat.
It wasn’t freaking fair. Why me? Why her?
The labor was 27 hours long, and, after the birth--in that hospital bed--I shivered for hours, hungry, worried, waiting for an available nurse to wheel me in to see her. Thoughts scurried around in my head, as I tried to formulate my psychological game plan. For whatever reason, whatever chance event occurred that made my water break at 33 weeks gestation, for whatever uncontrollable, illusive, improbable, and untimely circumstance that started my baby’s life with hardship--needles, blood tests, oxygen tubes, bili-lights, IV feeding tubes, and electrodes--I felt accountable. Not accountable because of a failure or other unrecognized weakness of my body. But accountable for revealing an adequate answer to my suffering child about why she should remain hopeful when the life that she has just begun contains—even for the helpless and the innocent--such inexplicable and nonsensical hardship.
And as I lay shivering, I remembered that guy’s words. Then, just as quickly, squished them out of my mind.
The IV was in a vein in her head (they had had to stick her many times to get one started) and—asleep in the isolette--her face, chest, feet and arms were covered in tape and electrodes and tubes and wires. They couldn’t explain why my water had broken early, whether she’d survive, or what the level of her impairments would be. They couldn’t tell us how she’d do or when she’d be able to go home. She might be blind or severely vision-impaired, they said. She may have suffered minor neurological damage due to the trauma of her birth and the long labor. She may be here two months, maybe more, they said. “It depends.” For all the equipment and education involved in her care, the prognosis was vague and seemed to rest on whether she was or was not a “fighter,” and the fact that—statistically speaking--girls usually fared better than boys.
I was worried and scared, and they had nothing to comfort me.
Some program—unofficial, I believe—of Fairfax Hospital allowed mothers of NICU babies to flop in the hospital rather than commuting back and forth from their homes. I think that they wanted to give the babies a chance to develop a normal bond with the mothers, and for the mothers to be able to breast feed, when possible. I was officially released from the hospital—and off insurance reimbursement—after the normal two days, but was allowed—off the record—to stay in any room in the hospital—eating free meals and using their breast pumps—if there was a free room not needed by a patient.
When I was released and we went home to retrieve some things for my extended stay at the hospital, we discovered that a bird had somehow gotten into our townhouse and had been killed by our cats. Feathers and blood were strewn all over our bedroom. It was an awful thing to recreate in my mind: this poor helpless bird—scared and perhaps injured—struggling against multiple cats. It was so unfair, and the event infused everything with an aura of death, and seemed like a “sign” of what was to come for our baby.
I started crying, wailing to her dad—admitting my deepest fears--that I was afraid to let myself love her because I wasn’t sure if she would live or not. So afraid to love her when no one could tell us if there was even any hope. And I didn’t have to utter “Why me?!” to acknowledge that none of it made sense and that it wasn’t fair. Because it was obvious: she certainly didn’t deserve such an entry into life. And it certainly wasn’t fair that a parent should ever have to wonder about whether they should let themselves love their little baby.
And her dad—not known for sentimentality--said, “Love her totally and completely because—no matter if she lives or dies—if you don’t give it everything, you will always regret it.”
And what he said crashed right into “Why me?” And woke me up. And pummeled me into recognizing that when the crap hits the fan, the strong don’t freaking wail “Why me?!”; the strong clench their teeth, find something to grab onto, and summon the grit to see things through. That’s what we do.
“Yes,” the guy had said. “It was hard. And sometimes I questioned why it was happening, and whether it was fair. But then I realized that people always seem to ask God “Why me?!” when bad things happen to them; they never ask God “Why me?” when something good happens...”
Yes. I was afraid and it seemed unfair and it didn’t make sense.
But I was strong and had love to give. And she was in a progressive hospital. And the nurses glowed with the love of their profession. And I was an attentive, quick learner.
And I loved her. And I loved her. And I loved her.
And she was a fighter.