They told me he might not cry. Same with her. Both times, in the moments before our son Jack and then our daughter Ella came into this world, I was down the hall while they prepped my wife Leisha for the C-section she’d have to have.
They had me signing forms. I agreed, memorably, that I understood that they might not cry. Jack, first, and then Ella, arrived early, weeks early. The possible problems were many, the warnings worse. I dutifully signed – officially asserting that I understood that every disaster scenario might become real.
Then I went to Leisha.
Unlike so many of the people who face prematurity in our corner of the Deep South, we had been blessed with excellent prenatal care. In fact, starting with Jack, Leisha had spent the last weeks of each pregnancy in and out of hospital rooms. They told me that every day meant we’d better our chances for having a healthy baby. Every day could have brought darker news, too. With Jack, I memorized the streetlights on the way to one hospital, read every magazine in the waiting room at another, got to know the lunch ladies at a third.
I’d stop to check in on our house, which sat silent and sad. The dogs were worse, confused and alone. My wife and I weren’t much better off. They won’t give pregnant women medicine. They reminded me that this only made sense.
So in my small ways, I tried to help — even though I knew I couldn’t. We got a beeper, so she could call me when she needed the small gifts I could give: trivial items like juice or antacids. Then, eventually, I just tried to stay out of the way. Her stomach was a mess. Her blood pressure, with Jack, was worse. That was of real concern. I was, often, just the dad. The thing that we had wanted so much had caused her heart to speed up, had turned our lives inside out. We just wanted to get to 40 weeks, both times.
So, I walked the halls of three different hospitals, avoiding the windows with the babies on the other side. We never knew. We just never did. Was all of this happening because she was having her first child in her 30s? Would it be worse the second time? Could it be? Was it something we did? We turned to God, we turned to the doctors, we turned to each other. We waited.
The final week with Jack was the longest. They eventually were forced to give Leisha mild medications, as the balance between her life and Jack’s came closer to level. Both times, with Jack and then with Ella, the doctor (a bright young man who had worked hard to keep us informed of the risks) burst in one night and said: Tomorrow. It was that simple. If he didn’t take one and then the other child, Leisha might not survive. Jack was seven weeks early. Ella was 10.
They did not know what that meant for Jack, or for Ella. We were told they might not cry. But that, the nurses weakly assured me, didn’t mean they weren’t alive. Both times, I put on the funny hat. I put on the apron. I never stopped wondering what would happen. I never stopped holding Leisha’s hand. They told me our children might have trouble breathing. That they might have trouble eating. Seeing. Talking. Learning. Growing.
The first I saw of Jack was his rear end. We should have known from his posture what that meant: He came screaming into this world – already doing things his own special way. He wailed and wailed, a bending bright-red sound, a trumpet signaling our own happy relief. I’ve heard it a thousand times in the years since, as he’s mapped out a legend of expected bumps and scrapes. It takes me back. The doctors shook their heads. The neonatal nurses marveled at this three-pound rebel in drooping drawers.
He spent the next month ripping his cords out, refusing to eat while the feeding tube was still in. He couldn’t be stopped from scooting down to the bottom of his incubator, where he was more comfortable. Our daughter wasn’t silent, but she was jarringly quiet by comparison. She was smaller still than Jack. We thought she’d be this sweet little lady. We were just happy she was there. But, even as the news seemed to get better, that unit humbled us. We saw kids who’d been there for months, kids who couldn’t breathe on their own. We watched as couples lost a child — even while Jack and then Ella began to find their own footing.
Most of the nurses were nameless saints, lost as we were in the intense emotion of that place. There are 40 rotating faces, people who deal with a kind of soaring joy and descending heartache that was once unimaginable. Every personal moment is diffused throughout the NICU. A nurse took a special interest in us, with Jack, someone who had had her own premature baby. She was a landmark in the uncomfortably confusing terrain we traveled. Jack kept crying, of course — much to her delight.
She was more confident than we were, more hopeful than we would allow ourselves to be at that point. Her words guided us through the journey with Ella, too, though by then she had moved into another department at the hospital. We still needed her experienced calm, because things got much worse with our daughter, and very quickly.
At first, we could only see Jack twice a day in the NICU. The things that would save his life would keep him, for a time, from Leisha — who was often too weak to come. Then, after almost a month, we were all in the car, speeding away to the house. I could hold him in my right hand and work at the computer with my left. He slept on Daddy while Mommy got better. He got better, too. But we never stopped worrying about him, never forgot the eye patches, the IV, the heating lamps that couldn’t fight off a darkness that sometimes gripped our hearts.
I said I’d never be back. But I was, of course.
Ella, having arrived earlier and somehow littler, was locked away in the very same hospital, and for much longer. We had more setbacks with her, including a staph infection that left her clinging to life minute by minute, but she was stronger than whatever came her way. You just knew she was going to keep pushing back, her whole life. And she has. Starting with her brother Jack. Our sweet little lady has her own ideas, even now.
The same grit that helped her emerge from that first summer spent in an intensive care unit, I guess inevitably, leads to arguments these days over a pair of possible dress options these days. Believe me, I’m learning the differences. Jack, meanwhile, went on to win a parish-wide essay contest with a paper on volunteerism, to hit a home run, to play trumpet. These are small things turned into blessings by adversity.
They are, outside of these memories, like every other kid siblings. They hug, the fight, they slam doors and they sing along — right now, in the other room, it’s this perhaps forgotten Motown side. Each has no idea — probably never will — that we once feared we’d never hear those voices.
Two children who I could carry, five years apart, like a quarterback’s handoff have since grown into Band Aid-wearing suburban stereotypes. They have had no trouble with breathing, reading, learning, growing – and certainly, certainly, no trouble talking.
What were once wordless cries have become, most often, this one: Mommy. And in that chorus of reply — mommymommymommymommymommymommy — we still find our truest, most precious love.