To My Preemie on Her First Birthday

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I remember it like it was yesterday, though the memories are fragmented. Disjointed. Like a scene out of a low-budget indie film, cutting in and out of focus.

We were on the way to the hospital, speeding a bit faster than advisable; blood emptying out of my body, as it simultaneously filled with dread. The harsh lights of the emergency room stood in stark juxtaposition to the dead of night just outside, highlighting the streaks of red now adorning my trembling legs. Just a day earlier, I had been diagnosed with Placenta Previa, and today, I was being wheeled up into Labor and Delivery, with my world seemingly crashing around me, as your life hung in the balance. I had never bled before in my prior pregnancy and couldn’t fathom how it could result in anything positive. So when the nurse told me that they were unable to find a heartbeat, my worst fears appeared to be all but confirmed. Flashbacks cycled through my mind’s eye at rapid speed, cataloging the pregnancy test, the ultrasounds, the kicks and hiccups. I couldn’t believe that our time together was coming to an end, before it had ever really begun, and as I paused to reflect on our new reality, I started to weep.

Thankfully, my cries were interrupted by the reassuring sound of a steady heartbeat. There you were in all your glory, fighting right alongside me. Foreshadowing the will and strength that you’d display for the next 7 weeks of bed rest and for the year to follow.

But our fight was far from over.

Born at 28 weeks, 6 days, we had a long stay in the NICU ahead, and it paralyzed me in a way that I never could have imagined. Every time your heart rate dropped and the monitors sounded, my heart dropped right alongside yours. Every time your breathing slowed, triggering the alarm, I stopped breathing too. I didn’t even want to touch you, my precious 3 pound child, because I was scared I’d break you, and the resulting feeling in turn broke me. I felt lost and alone, during a time when I was supposed to feel full. Full of love; full of joy; full of hope. And yet all I could feel was fear.

I remember the night we got the call that you were having to be transfused, and when I rushed to the hospital to see you thereafter, I realized that I wasn’t strong enough to see you at all. I cautiously approached your bedside, ready to shower you with the love you so desperately needed, but when I looked down at your tiny face, I purposefully avoided your eyes. I was so scared that if I looked into them, I’d fall even more in love with you, and I didn’t want to do that if I were going to end up losing you. I was subconsciously trying to keep you at arm’s length, and it resulted in an impossible amount of guilt. As you were trying to survive, I was trying to survive too, and those defense mechanisms played on my heart strings, as I tried to navigate this new and strange world. There was vocabulary to learn. So much vocabulary. PICC line, apnea, bradycardia, CPAP, NG tube; it was all an overwhelming lexicon to which I was a stranger, and while I’d consider myself a career student, this was an area of study I never wished to conquer. Nonetheless, I dutifully learned every word, pumped every hour and a half in order to increase my pathetically low supply, and engaged in kangaroo care as often and for as long as they’d allow, hoping a mother’s touch would hasten growth and healing. But I couldn’t look at you. Not really. Not as a mother is supposed to look into the eyes of her newborn child. And I quickly spiraled into a deep depression.

So today, on your birthday, I have one thing to say to you: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that you were born so long before you were ready.

I’m sorry that the stimulations you felt most often those first 44 days of life were the piercing sensation of a needle or the touch of a woman not your mother.

I’m sorry that you cried and nobody was able to come to you.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t spend eternity by your incubator, having to split time between you and your sister.

I’m sorry that I wasn’t strong enough to love you the way I wanted to.

I’m sorry that I was scared.

So today, on your birthday, I make these promises to you:

I promise that we will do things at your pace, when you are ready to do them.

I promise that you will feel the loving embrace of your family, far more often than anything else.

I promise that I will comfort you when you cry and wipe away the tears I couldn’t previously reach while shielded behind glass walls.

I promise that I will spend eternity by your side, if not physically, at least emotionally.

I promise to love you the way you want me to — probably sometimes even more.

I promise not to be scared or to let myself fill with worry (okay, that one’s a lie — I’m a mom).

I’d promise to teach you will and strength, but the truth of the matter is, it’s you who’s taught me. I’ve watched you flourish since your release from the hospital, leaving your adjusted age behind in the dust. You’ve grown into the most beautiful, intelligent, batsh*t crazy little girl, and you’ve made the struggles of our past feel like a surreal and distant memory. For that, I thank you. For that, I love you.

For that, you are my greatest inspiration.

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