A Good Day

I watch our nurse, Brenda, taking Maddie’s measurements.  She weighs her (still losing weight), checks her length (surprisingly long for her gestational age), and measures the circumference of her head (50th percentile.  Perfect).  It’s been long enough that I feel more comfortable asking questions.

“What does the head measurement tell you?  I don’t even actually know why you do that.  To make sure she’s normal?”

The nurse smiles, “No, not really.  There’s a big range of ‘normal’ when it comes to babies.  Measuring the head lets us know if her brain is growing.  We compare the size of her head from two days ago to today.  There’s an expected percentage of growth that we’re looking for.”

“And if it doesn’t grow?”

Brenda sighs, “It could mean a lot of things.  A birth defect.  A neurological problem.  Or that there’s just,” I was starting to get good at seeing when the nurses struggled for words, when they tried to soften what they were saying to the frazzled parents around them.  “Just, not as much brain activity as we want to see.  We want to see everything growing.  Especially in preemies.”

I nod.  I’m looking down at Maddie, squinting at me over the tube that’s covering the bottom half of her face.

Brenda sees my look.  She winks, “It’s growing.  Don’t worry.  She’s doing great.  She’s perfect.”

I chuckle, “Except for those lungs!”

“We’ll get those.  Don’t you worry.”

The NICU, Day 4.  Wednesday.

I woke up around 7am.  Woke up? Perhaps that’s too definite.  I shifted from one state of semi-consciousness to another. The niggling pain in my back told me that I had been on the armchair in Maddie’s room for far too long, giving me a sense that it was now morning, even though I couldn’t see any trace of daylight in the carefully-lit NICU.  While fumbling around in my suitcase (it was still the suitcase that I had packed for what I thought would be my four-day hospital stay after my C-section.  Mostly contained robes, yoga pants, empire-waist dresses, and a few soft nursing bras.  No real outfits. Nothing appropriate for meetings with doctors, or for camping out on an uncomfortable recliner in an aggressively air-conditioned ward) I stumbled across a rare gift.  A clean pair of socks. Still folded in a little ball.  I gave a small cry of delight when I saw them.  I actually hugged them close to my chest.  I had packed this bag expecting to wear hospital-issued compression socks in a maternity ward just an eight minute drive from my house.  I didn’t even remember throwing in a clean pair of socks.  After four days in the same pair of socks, the small, while ball of clean laundry looked like a gift from the Almighty.  I smiled at my husband, and waved the socks in his direction.

“Today’s going to be a good day.”

He stuck his lower lip out in a pout, “I’m so jealous.  I want clean socks.”

“Hey, at least you have clean underwear.”

“You’re still wearing those enormous maxi pads.  It doesn’t even matter for you.”

“And that thought is the only thing getting me through the day, trust me.”

He stretched.  He was sleeping on the small fold-out couch in Maddie’s room.  His feet hung over the edge of the bed all night, and I could tell by the way that he groaned as he got up that his back wasn’t doing any better than mine.  “Think I’m going to hit up the shower.”

I jumped, “No.  No, let me.  Let me go first.  I haven’t had a shower since I left the hospital.”

He smiled.  That smile.  His smile.  The smile that can make me lose track of how many toes I have, or whether or not I’ve eaten today.  The smile that derails me, unmans me, in the best possible way. “Sure, baby.  You go first.”

“If I miss rounds—“

“I’ll let you know what the doctors say.”

I took a forty-five minute long shower.  I stood in the small, tiled stall, and just let the water run over my body.  I played with the knobs.  First scalding hot.  Then goose-pimply cold.  Maddie’s nurse, Brenda, upon hearing that my husband and I had neglected to pack any toiletries, had managed to sneak in two small, travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner.  Real conditioner.  Not the off-brand two-in-one that the NICU provided.  But a real, dedicated conditioner.  I used almost the whole bottle, combing through my hair with my fingers until it lay, perfectly smooth, plastered against my head and neck, and the water fell away from it in one sheet.  I ran my hands along its smoothness over and over again.  At one point, I heard a knock on the door.  I immediately thought that it must be Maria (there are so few other parents here, who else could possibly need the shower?).  I almost got out.  Almost yelled that I’d just be another minute.  But then I didn’t.  I pretended that I didn’t hear.  There’s only one shower in this wing, but I decided that it was all mine that morning.  All mine.

I took another half hour after my shower to dry my hair and style it.  I even put on a little makeup before I got dressed.  I didn’t have any clean pants or underwear, but I had that fresh, small ball of socks.  I pulled them on, being careful to avoid the damp puddles on the floor where I had stood.  When I slid my sneakers on, I sighed from the delight, the joy, of the soft, clean socks.

“Today is going to be a good day.”

I got back to Maddie’s room to find my husband.  He smiled, surveying me. “You look normal.”

We both knew, especially in this place, it was the ultimate compliment.

I had missed rounds, but my husband reported good news.  Maddie’s lungs were open enough, and her breathing was stable enough that they were going to take her off her ventotherm today.  Instead of a large tube taped over her mouth and across her cheeks, she was going to be placed on a small, nasal cannula.  We’d be able to hold her today.  For as long as we wanted.  And, even better than that, I would be able to try breastfeeding her for the first time.  I laughed and bounced up and down.  My husband smiled and left to take his shower.  I stood at Maddie’s warming table and chatted with her until he came back.

After the respiratory therapist (a small, pretty blonde who looked far too young to be as sure and competent as she was) had wheeled the ventotherm out of the room, Brenda came in and told me it was time to try breastfeeding.  I could see her choosing her words carefully, preparing me for failure.  Maddie’s never breastfed before.  She’s only been fed via IV and then feeding tube.  She’s never even swallowed before.  She’s never been held, skin-to-skin.  Never suckled.  She’s a newborn, and all of her energy has been focused on just breathing up to this point.  She might not have the energy, the musculature, the ability to latch.  It might take awhile.  It might never take at all.  I had to be prepared for all of that.

I nodded as I took off my shirt and put on my robe.  I tried to look serious and somber.  But I looked down at Maddie’s face, at her dark, dark blue eyes.  Almost purple.  Almost violet.  Almost grey eyes.  She looked back at me.  I saw the strength in her eyes, the determined little frown that crossed her forehead.  Both of her cheeks had been rubbed raw by the tape holding her ventotherm on, and her lips were swollen from having been pursed around it for four days.  She looked like she had gone through a fight.  And her eyes told me she was ready for more.  I nodded resolutely at Brenda, then smiled a smile just for Maddie. We’ve got this, little girl.

I sat in the armchair, surrounded by pillows, and offered Maddie my nipple for the first time.

She latched immediately, and tried a few, tentative sucks.  Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she took long, slow, deep swallows for five whole minutes until she fell off, exhausted and barely conscious.

I couldn’t stop laughing.  I finally felt like Maddie’s mother.  I finally felt it.

Normal.

Today is a good day.

Breastfeeding_1

Later, the neonatologist came into Maddie’s room.  I was surprised to see her.  She usually checked in during rounds, then didn’t come again unless something was needed or if there was a problem.  I was feeding Maddie again while my husband was getting us dinner.

She held up her hands, “Oh! I’m sorry to intrude.  Please, don’t stop.  I have a meeting across the hall in a few minutes, and I just thought I’d drop in.  I just wanted to see how everything was.”

I was too proud of my girl to be embarrassed.  “That’s okay.  Everything’s great.  She’s latching like a champ.  Even better than her big sister was at this age.”

We chatted about breastfeeding, and those first, difficult weeks, trying to learn about our selves, our bodies, and our babies all at once.

The neonatologist paused, and cocked her head to look more closely at Maddie, snuggled in my arms.  “You know, I love coming to this room.  Because every day is good news.  Every day is progress.  This is my favorite room.”

I smiled, holding those words down inside of me.  Letting them warm every part.

“What would you think about taking her home soon?  Like Friday?”  She had shifted her smile from Maddie to me.

My breath caught in my throat.  Home.  Home.  Home, home, home.  Yes, home.  Yes.  “Really?  Really?  Oh, my God.  That soon?”

“She’s doing great.  No promises, but she’s doing really great.  She’s pretty perfect.”

Today is a good day.

The neonatologist dimmed the lights for me as she left, and I wrapped Maddie up inside my robe, our two bodies hot and snug together.  I put my face in Maddie’s hair.  Funny.  Even after four days in a hospital, getting nothing but sponge baths, Maddie still had that incredible, newborn smell.  The smell of a brand new person.  Of a brand new soul.  I wanted to sit there and smell her forever.

Breastfeeding_4

Brenda was across the hall with the neonatologist and another doctor I didn’t recognize.

“. . . No, no change.”

“What was her gestational age?”

“30 weeks.”

They’re talking about that little girl.  The one across the hall.  I focus on the top of Maddie’s head.  I hear a sigh.

“So it’s been a week since her last change in head circumference?”

I hear Brenda click a few buttons on the laptop she brings with her everywhere.  “Yeah.  Well, six days.”

The other doctor speaks up, “I’d like to order an MRI to test for brain activity.”

I still don’t look up, but I know that the neonatologist is nodding.  The room is somber.  They ask about the little girl’s responses.  Brenda will have to retest her hearing and vision.  I hear the words “macular degeneration?”  Asked, like a question.  There seems to be no change.  No improvement.  No progress.  They can’t promise anything.

When the doctors leave, I look up and into the girl’s room.  Brenda is performing her “care.”  I glance quickly at the little girl.  I know she’s a girl because she wears a tiny, pink cap over her head.  She’s so small.  She doesn’t move when Brenda wipes out her mouth, changes her diaper.

She looks like a movie prop.  Like a doll, but less real.

I scan the room.  It’s empty.  Neat.  Perfectly clean and organized.  I see a package on the small table next to the untouched fold-out bed.  I recognize the package from the Riley welcoming staff.  It’s a knit blanket.  They brought Maddie one two days ago.  I have it draped across the arm of the recliner.  It’s soft and warm.  Pale, neutral pastel colors.  Across the hall, the little girl’s blanket is untouched, tied with a string, a note of welcome still attached to the bow.

I realize that I have never seen anybody but medical staff in her room.

I realize that the blanket draped over her incubator is not one of the bright, cheery blankets from home, but a plain white one.  Issued by the hospital.

I think about my first day here, when an administrative staff member pulled me aside, asked me if my child was a ward of the state. If I felt for any reason that I couldn’t care for her.  If my home wasn’t safe for her or for me.  Were there problems at home?  Was my husband safe?  Did anybody have any substance abuse issues?  Should they contact a social worker, or protective services?  I was shocked by her questions, thinking about my husband and his gentle, disarming smile.  No, no, of course not, no.  Do you really need to ask these questions?  Really?

Why hasn’t anyone opened that little girl’s welcome gift?

Why does she have a white blanket over her incubator?

Why isn’t her head growing?

Do you really need to ask these questions?

I put my face in Maddie’s hair, breathing deeply.

Today is a good day.

Today is a good day.

A good day.

Today is a good day.

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