I remember 16 years ago.
At this time, dinnertime 16 years ago, I was barely able to stand, afraid the hole that stretched across the bottom of my belly would rip open and spill my guts out if I did. I had only just returned to my hospital room after my first trip to visit my babies. I was still groggy from my two days on magnesium sulfate and a surgery that ended without anesthesia and the aftereffects of a failed spinal.
It was after sunset when I made that visit. I remember the darkness outside the windows, and the super bright bili lights over each open warmer made an island of light at each baby’s bed. I remember being wheeled in to the room, rolling from one island of lights and beeps to the next.
Their heads had little knit caps on, their eyes were covered with shields to protect them from the lights, and the tubes and connectors for the high-frequency ventilators covered their mouths, noses, and cheeks. IV lines ran into the stumps of their umbilical cords, a silver pad on their chests monitored their temperature, and a pad wrapped around their feet measured the oxygen levels in their blood. Their red skin had been covered with lotion to stop it from drying out. They had no nipples, and their ears were just flaps of skin with no cartilage. If I touched my finger to a palm, the only amount of touching I could do, their fingers would grasp, reaching barely halfway around my finger.
I could see their chins, and I remember even at that early age being able to see my grandmother in David’s chin.
It would be two more weeks before I would be allowed to hold them, the nurses carefully transferring one baby from the warmer to my waiting chest, a two man team required to move the baby and the CPAP tubes, the feeding lines, the monitor lines, a third nurse waiting with a warm blanket to cover us both. Two more weeks before I could change a diaper. Over a month before I could even try to nurse them. Three months before I would be able to bring them home, away from the beeps and the tubes and the nosey nurses and infuriating doctors. (Yes, I also know they saved my babies’ lives, but if you have never been the NICU parent, you don’t know what it feels like to have absolutely no say in the care of your newborn babies, to be reprimanded for so much as touching them without permission, to only get to talk to the doctors because they’re participating in a research study about communication, to be ordered to leave your children’s sides because the doctors are coming.)
I read something recently that explained human menstruation as a strategy that evolved to weed out our embryos, the thick lining of the uterus intended not to nourish a baby but to make it as hard as possible for each baby to connect their placenta. I have incredibly heavy periods, so my first thought was that all my children are rock stars just to make it past that first, most hostile barrier to life.
My first children also had to pass a second, even more dangerous proving ground when my uterus said, “Three?! That’s over the occupancy limit! You’re evicted!” and dumped them into the world three months early, unable to breathe, unable to eat, unable to maintain their own body temperature, without functional eyes or fully-formed skin. Each baby individually had roughly 70% chance of staying alive at all, and only a 30% chance of remaining free from disability, free from brain bleeds and retinopathy of prematurity and necrosis of the bowels.
As a group, we had only a 34% chance of bringing all three of our babies home alive, and almost no chance of bringing them home entirely free from disability.
My little superstars beat those long odds. They came home around their due date, healthy and whole. Today, I have three 16-year-olds. They participate in cheerleading, parkour, and wrestling. They play games and draw and write and sew, and two are even learning to drive. They are smart and determined, each of them with their own unique interests and friends. They are perilously close to leaving my home, just as they left my body 16 years ago, and I know they will do well in the world.
Rock on, Brenden, Tamara, and David. You are amazing. Happy 16th birthday to you all!