Life in NICUland, Part 1
September 3, 2010

Imagine you woke up one morning unable to breathe. And you looked over across the room, and there were your lungs, sitting in a plastic box. You’d panic, of course, because how are you supposed to breathe without your lungs? And how are your lungs going to function without your body and blood? Now imagine that when you went over to the box, someone stepped in between you and the box and told you that you couldn’t have them right now, that your lungs were sick. But they’re my lungs, they belong with me, you’d want to say.

“Well,” the person would reply. “You can have your lungs back. But only for thirty minutes every three hours.”

Can I preface this by saying that the NICU is an incredible place staffed by incredible people? That the compassion and wisdom of the staff, from the neonatologists to the nursing assistants, still astounds me, even in my memory? And can I also say that I think NICU parents are allowed to have more than one emotion about their experience? Teagan’s stay was short and pretty uneventful, but the bundles of joy, hurt, loneliness, regret and longing are heaped in piles higher than I can see.

They wheeled me up to see Teagan over three hours after she was born. Nothing had hurt more than seeing her rolled away in the isolette after only one caress of her cheek. Nothing hurt more, except maybe having to give her back after we were finally reunited. I missed her first few hours, her first meeting with her grandparents, her daddy and her brother. That still makes my eyes sting–I missed the moment when Josh held Noah up to see her and he said her name. And now, when I finally got to hold her and try to nurse, after a few minutes of her apathetically nibbling and licking (Josh said in the hour right after birth, she was like a little bird, mouth open and searching for mama), now I had to give her back. The nurse tucked her back in her plastic box, and I went downstairs again.

The second visit was the hardest. Because this time, she latched on and nursed like a pro. This time, I was less groggy from drugs. This time, I unwrapped her from her never ending swaddle and explored all of her silky, tiny body. She was so little in my arms, with these sad wrinkles on her legs and arms. She had perfect lips, like a rosebud, and eyes a dark, dark blue.

Only the parents were allowed to hold her, and I was glad. I wanted to be selfish with her and hold her forever.

Friends and family started piling in to see us and her. I already had my parents and a friend in the booth with me, then several more people arrived at my postpartum room down stairs. The nurse came in and murmured noises about checking Teagan. I knew I had to leave, but as soon as I eased her into the nurse’s arms, I started sobbing. Not crying, where tears sort of leak out, but the sobbing where you can’t breathe (and yes, you make those awful sounds) and there’s snot and did I mention the sounds?

I felt like I was being cut open again, like my baby was being stolen from me, and that her being packed away in the box was the most unnatural and depraved thing that the universe could inflict.

Then my mom said to the nurse, “She’s just emotional, you know, being hormonal.”

I could have spit, I was so mad. Here I was, completely undone (and I don’t get emotional very often…the last time I cried in front of an audience was in 2006 at Krista’s funeral), and my own mother was dismissing my very real pain. I kept crying as Josh wheeled me back down to our room, where the visitors were waiting, and it was all I could do to keep those sounds at bay while everyone talked. I just wanted to hold her again, press my lips to her chest in thanks, thanks, thanks that she was alive and breathing through those little rosebud lips.