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Growing up in Northern Michigan, with Lake Huron visible through my bedroom window, I’ve watched the slow suddenness of dawn breaking over the lake.  At first, the dark appears impenetrable.  On nights without a moon, the dim starlight barely illuminates the outline of the roof, the house, the tall oak and maple trees that surround me.  I would sit and try to focus on the dark shapes, willing them into clarity.  Slowly, the trees become more familiar.  There’s the slope of the hill where we go sledding every winter.  And the gentle pitch of the roof under my window.  If I try very hard, I can direct my gaze out, looking between the trees, down to the lake, only recognizable as a black smudge—a large nothing that lets me know the forest has ended and the water begun.  For a long, long time, I focus on trying to distinguish shapes, one from the other.  Though I fight the urge, I still find myself looking frequently at the clock next to my bed.  Even as the minutes steadily tick by, I can’t believe that the dark remains this persistent.  Shouldn’t it be dawn by now?  I wait and watch.   Perhaps I hear the click of dry branches and leaves.  An animal is close by.  I try to decide if the sharp snap was just the magnified sound of a twig breaking underneath a possum, or the efficient cut of a deer’s hoof on a branch.  I look down at the backyard, thinking I should be able to see, amazed by my own blindness.  Awed with the potency of the night.  I am repeatedly surprised by the failure of my eyes to penetrate.

Then, without warning or anticipation, it is morning.

I look across to the black nothing, and clearly see the grey line of the lakeshore.  The shingles on the roof become distinguishable, visible.  I see a rabbit, nibbling on a fallen apple in the backyard.  The blue morning has come.  Night is over.  With a finality and a suddenness that I was never able to predict, it’s over.  The night held on with tenacity, but then quickly submitted to the light.

The day has begun.

It was our last test.

Maddie had already started gaining weight again (she took to breastfeeding immediately, and wanted to nurse constantly, making up for the first four days of her life when she subsisted on intravenous fluids and milk dripped into her stomach through a feeding tube).  She was growing.  Her nasal cannula had been removed.  Her oxygen levels were steady, never dropping below 98, even in the deepest sleep.  She wasn’t on any medications.  There was no sign of infection in her lungs.  She was still jaundiced, but there were signs that her bilirubin levels had already peaked.  She slept on a biliblanket, but that was something that we would be prescribed by our local pediatrician.  My husband and I had dutifully attended the newborn safety class that was required of all parents before leaving the NICU with their children.  Our bags were packed.  We were ready to go.

There was just one more test to pass before we could be discharged.

Maddie's biliblanket gave her a blue glow down her back.

Maddie’s biliblanket gave her a blue glow down her back.

Children in the NICU, especially children who had been admitted with respiratory distress, had to pass the “car seat test.”  Maddie would have to be strapped into her car seat for two hours, her vitals monitored regularly, to ensure that she could tolerate the pressure sitting up would place on her chest and lungs.

The night nurse decided to run the test from midnight to 2am.  My husband and I carefully lifted Maddie, with all of her wires and monitors, out of her warming table, and put her in the car seat that we had propped up on towels on the hospital floor.  I laughingly apologized for the blueberry stains on the cover.  The seat had just recently belonged to her big sister, who loves to eat blueberries on the drive home from daycare.  I was planning to wash it before Maddie came, but the unexpectedness of her delivery meant that the seat was still dirty.  Cheerios fell out of it as my husband lowered the straps down to the newborn setting.  The tiny messes from the car seat were reminders of home, of our older daughter, who was a big sister without realizing it.  My husband and I left a Cheerio on the floor, somehow liking the way the small, childlike mess looked in the sterile room.  We tightened the straps down, smiled and cooed at Maddie, and the nurse started the timer.  Two hours.  If her vitals remained stable, then we were cleared to be discharged the next morning. If not, we had the option of running the test again, but we had to wait several hours in between.  We were prepared to stay up all night.  We were prepared to do anything.

Home.  Home.  Home.

It ran through our heads, consumed our thoughts.  “C’mon, Maddie.  Just do this, and we get to go home!  Don’t you want to go home?”  We do.  We all want to go home.  You’ve never been home, but trust me, it’s wonderful.  Come on, Maddie.  You can do it, Maddie.

But, placed in the new and uncomfortable position, Maddie began to panic.  She screamed.  Her heart raced.  Her breathing rate leaped back up to the frightening numbers we saw on the first day.  100.   95.  98.  101.  89.

We weren’t allowed to stop the test once it had commenced.  Weren’t allowed to take her out of her seat, even for a minute, and the nurse told us that if her vitals remained elevated like this, she wouldn’t be able to pass us.  She wouldn’t be able to send us home.

I held Maddie’s hand.  I stroked her face.  My husband spoke low, calming words to her.  It was the same low, calm voice that carried me through the pain of preterm labor, and my first delivery.  Her legs kicked off her blankets.  We replaced them, tucking them around her so she felt snug, safe, being careful to not jostle her, to not disturb the monitors and send her vitals on even greater spikes.  The nurse saw our desperation.  Please, Maddie.  Please.  Just relax.  Just nap.  If you sleep for the next two hours, you get to go home forever.  Please.  She tried to time it so that she came and recorded Maddie’s vitals during moments when she was relatively calm.  Maddie’s tiny, sharp, papery nails gripped me, leaving small, crescent moon indentations in the flesh on my fingers.  She was red, staring at me, willing me to pick her up and cuddle her.  I started to bite my upper lip, focusing my sight on a spot somewhere underneath the rolling table full of newborn diapers.  My husband, always keeping an eye on me, saw me tense up.  “It’ll be okay, baby.  They’ll let us go.  There’s no reason to keep us any longer.”

I shook my head, still sucking on my lip.  If you just looked at Maddie’s numbers at this moment, they weren’t good.  Taken out of context, the numbers made it seems as though Maddie was still sick.  I was mad at the test.  How else could she respond?  She went from a tall, warm table from which she could see her parents’ faces and all of the activity of the hallway, to a stiff, low chair on the cool floor, able to look at nothing but the underside of medical equipment.  No soothing movement or rocking.  No music or conversation.  No cars or scenery whizzing by her window.  I was mad.  Mad that this was the silly, small thing that could keep us here, trapped.  I was mad that I couldn’t hold my baby.  Mad that I had to subject her to this.  Mad that she was strapped down, tight, with wires fished through her clothes and pressed against her soft, thin skin.  We’re going to have to stay.  We’ll never get out of here.  It’ll never happen.  We’ll have to stay here.  Forever.

“Somebody else is going to need this bed way more than we do.  They’re not going to make us stay because of this.  She’s a baby.  They understand that babies cry.”

I glanced occasionally at the clock, amazed by how quickly the two hours passed.  Maddie dozed for about 20 minutes the entire time, worn out by her own screams.  The nurse took the opportunity to quickly record her vitals repeatedly during that time, hoping, I assume, that the lower numbers would drive her overall averages down.  My husband and I never moved.  When the two hours were over, we stood up with creaking bones and numb feet.  I had been leaning on my left hand, and had to convince my fingers to stretch, to move out of the claw they had formed.  We unlatched Maddie quickly, and I nursed her to sleep.  It was 2:30 in the morning.

“She passed.”

The nursed smiled at my look of disbelief.  My husband squeezed my shoulder.  She passed.  The final test.  She passed.

It was over.

We were going home.

After Maddie and my husband were both asleep, I used the excuse of getting a glass of water to wander, once more, around the NICU floor.  It was the middle of the night.  The lights were dimmed in all of the rooms.  The few rooms that housed parents had curtains pulled across the fold-out beds in the back.  The incubators covered with bright, patterned blankets and the curtains thrown over the cots made for strange, mirror images in the rooms.  It’s a Mommy Bed and a Baby Bed!  One big.  One little.  For some reason, I found this thought hilarious.  A loud, inappropriate, bark of a laugh escaped my lips.  The nurses at the closest station looked up at me, and I sheepishly smiled as I hurriedly walked by.  I filled my water bottle in the lunch room, half hoping, half dreading the thought of running into Maria or one of the other parents.  But I saw no one.

It was 3 o’clock in the morning.

I smiled the entire way back to the room.

The next day, my husband, Maddie, and I walked through the front door just as our oldest daughter was finishing up her lunch.  A bouquet of flowers filled our kitchen table, and my parents stood, smiling, ready to greet us. My oldest daughter immediately kissed her little sister.  Though only 18 months old, it was clear that she knew, somehow, that this new, small, still very orange person was going to be someone she would love, protect, fight with and for forever.  I couldn’t stop touching my girls, my babies, my husband, my family.  I held everyone in the house, for as long as they’d let me.  There wasn’t a moment, a second, that day that I wasn’t touching one of them, feeling them, there, physical and present.  And all mine.

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Once she was in the car, listening to the Black Crowes, Maddie calmed down and fell asleep.

It wasn’t until the next day, at Maddie’s follow-up appointment with our pediatrician that I finally broke down.  We were given a biliblanket for her jaundice and told to keep her on it for a few days.  But other than that?  “She’s perfect.  She doesn’t need anything else.  Take her home and enjoy her.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“No medicine?  No more follow-ups?”

“Nope.  Her next appointment will be her regular two-week check up.  She’s just a normal newborn now.”

Normal. Normal.  Never before had I appreciated the gift, the joy of normal.

Normal.  It echoed inside of me, bounding off the walls of the strength I’d been trying desperately to show for the last week, and broke them down.  The avalanche started.

I cried.

I wept.

I sobbed.

I put my face in Maddie’s warm neck and cried until she was wet with my tears.

Normal.

It’s over.

Without even looking for it, it happened.

The day had begun.

Big Sister immediately kissed her sissy.

Big Sister immediately kissed her sissy.

Home
Home.

The stars in Northern Michigan aren’t like the stars anywhere else.  Growing up in a village, 100 miles away from the nearest mall, three miles from the only stoplight in the county, and 25 miles from the 45th parallel (halfway between the equator and the North Pole), the stars were some of my closest neighbors.  My family and I watched comets, meteor showers, lunar eclipses, found Mars and Jupiter, distinguished the pinkish cast of red giants and the sharp blue of white dwarfs, all from the vantage point of our front yard.  Every winter, at least once, we sat in awe, observing the beautiful dance of the Aurora Borealis.  My father would point out the sweeping band of the Milky Way, running East to West across our front yard.  We’d spread blankets on the hard, uneven ground, and gaze at the sky, every now and then flipping the blanket up to search for a rogue acorn that was digging into our backs.  While looking up at the stars, trying to not complain of the cold, even while my pinkie fingers turned numb, we would play with our flashlights, holding them above our heads and shining them up into the darkness, watching the beam for as long as we could until it vanished, out of our reach.

“That light will go on forever.”

My father was always fascinated with astronomy.  Physics combined with beauty, and a touch of the Almighty.  It was poetry for him.  He would tell us that the beams of our flashlights, the light from them, traveled out and away from us at incredible speeds.  The light was already above the Earth, past the Moon.  The light was out in dark, deep space even before we had picked up our blankets, given in to the cold, and trudged back to the warm, yellow lights of the house.  The light was traveling through the vast spaces, bringing at least a temporary something to the nothing that surrounded the stars.

He made me believe that, if I tried hard enough, focused clearly enough, and felt strongly enough, that my small flashlight could produce a beam of light that could travel for millions of years.  Through the cosmos, past galaxies and black holes and super novae.  I liked to think about my light, bringing an intangible something to the unimaginable nothing.  It wasn’t big or strong enough to erase the darkness, but it was enough to forever alter it.  My light could travel long after I was gone, and one day become as ancient as the stars themselves, stars that, already dead, were still shining brilliantly above me, marking this place, this spot on an old quilt on my front yard, as home.  Forever and always, somewhere, my small beam of light was reaching out, farther and farther, shining as a reminder of my having been here, on the almost-frozen ground, looking up.   Looking for a beam of light.

And maybe, just maybe, through the unlikely mathematics of nearly-impossible odds, my tiny beam of light could reach a far-distant stargazer, curled up on an old quilt in her front yard, her father and siblings by her side, also straining her eyes.  Also trying to fight against the dark of night.  Also waiting, impatiently, to see clearly again.

Also looking for the light.

Though it is small, I wanted this series to be a beam of light for others trapped in the dark.  Maria, this series is for you.  A good mother.  I hope, every day, that your dawn has broken.

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