I’m calling the day after the girls were born Day Two, although they technically weren’t yet a day old.
I finally did manage to fall asleep at about 3:30 am but awoke when Robin’s parents called to say that they were on the road. One of those important phone calls that I explained that I had made was obviously to them. They would have a six hour drive ahead of them as they were coming from the western edge of West Virginia. Because I was awake I didn’t see any use in trying to go back to sleep, so I tried to help Robin cope with what had happened.
As a father I was clearly hurt but I cannot begin to imagine the pain that was inside my wife. For months we had joked about how big she was going to get and how much we looked forward to all of it. Now, twenty-three weeks after it began, her pregnancy experience was over. I feel sure that by week thirty-three she would have felt more than ready for the pregnancy to be over, but at such an early point and with our kids being in such a fragile state she was devastated. I tried to remain strong. I tried to be her crutch-her rock-but I, too was having problems dealing with the fact that Avery and Sienna were in this world and not still in her womb. I was having issues with facing the reality. I was having problems being her rock. With the help of our wonderful nurse we decided that we would go to the NICU together to see the girls.
I had already been in that unit twice, although I could only remember one of the times, but Robin had not and I knew that this experience would be a shock to her. I pushed her wheelchair through the halls and doors and into the elevator then up to the front door of the NICU. I announced our arrival and was told by the receptionist that while Mom was allowed to wash her hands inside the unit I would still be required to scrub in the main wash area. We were then told that we could go to room 201 first, Sienna’s room. Inside the room I was again taken by the lights and sounds above beds. I was shocked by the smell in the air that was emitted by the intense ultraviolet glow of the lights. And I was scared. Shortly after she washed her hands, Robin asked where Sienna was and I pushed her toward the baby’s bed. (At the time of this writing I am still unsure as to the correct name for the bed-it is actually a clear box with two doors on each side so that doctors and nurses can reach inside to give care. There are also strategically placed openings on the corners for the routing of the cables, wires and hoses that breathe for and bleed for and feed the children. With the blankets placed around the preemies, they are artificial wombs.)
“Honey, she’s so beautiful,” Robin said. Who was the rock now? I had tried to remain strong in spite of my fear. I had failed. This wonderful woman who had been robbed of the babies she wanted to protect was holding me up. She was keeping her wits about her while I was in the middle of a nervous break-down. But anyone who knows Robin knows that, that is just who she is. She is strong. She is loving. And above all else she is not a quitter. I took strength from her at that moment. Facing these odds, and looking into the foam eye patches laying over Sienna’s eyes as if they were the eyes that I’m sure are beautiful (they’re still fused so we haven’t yet seen their eyes), Robin was seeing the best of the situation. We were given a good report (a relative term when you consider the situation-there were multiple issues) about Sienna but warned that preemies usually have what’s called a “Honeymoon.” Just as when we adults marry we are in bliss the first few days because everything is new and wonderful, so are preemies in a state of bliss because a bit of the care they were receiving in the womb remains in their little bodies-hold over nutrients from the mother. The report in room 203, Avery’s room, was similar and although we were encouraged, we remained cautious of allowing our feeling of happiness to soar. After we adults actually start to live with our spouses and notice the little annoying things that happen we then have spats. Preemies have spats with survival. That’s why their boxes are created to simulate a womb.
We made our way back up to Robin’s room and were met by her parents and older sister. We tried to explain the events that had led us to that point and how the girls were doing. Then Robin was seen by another of the doctors in her practice, Dr. Walker. She asked about how things had been and told Robin what could be expected for her own recovery in the coming days. But our focus was on Avery and Sienna-not Dr. Walker’s field. Then I observed Robin’s Achilles heel in all of this, she did not want to be congratulated. I felt the exact same way. Despite the fact that our children had been born we both felt that congratulations were not really in order. We both felt that something had gone terribly wrong and we were afraid.
Day Three—The blame game.
After I took Robin’s family to our house I returned to the hospital. Once there Robin and I began talking about the concerns that we each had and soon decided that we needed to try to sleep. Shortly after I laid my head down I awoke because our nurse, Liz, had come into the room to check on Robin and provide medication. Liz allowed us to take time to express our feelings of fear and helplessness and tried to provide comfort to us. She came back multiple times through the night and each time was the same; she acted not only as a nurse but also as a counselor. And she warned us that preemies usually have their first bad day on day three.
Later that morning I decided to go to the NICU to visit the girls. Once there I was told that Sienna was not doing well. Her doctor as well as Avery’s doctor met with me and told me that they were at the limits of what they could do for the girls. Each of them told me that the girls had begun to “de-sat” and that they were having serious concerns with their chances of survival. I was told that both girls had serious brain bleeds and that there are serious long term risks with such an issue. It was further explained to me that each of them was requiring significant oxygen support. With the patience of a worried rat I looked both of the doctors in their eyes and told them that I needed them to push through their limits and find a way to help my daughters, and that I was not going to give up. They told me that they wouldn’t give up either but that they wanted to be certain that I knew the risks and possibilities. I broke down again and had to leave.
In Robin’s room I tried to maintain my composure but lost it and broke down. I explained what had been told to me and then cried more. Robin, her family, and I decided that we all needed to go see the girls. I was with my mother-in-law at Sienna’s bed when the news we had received earlier was echoed again by the doctors and made worse by the news that Sienna was suffering from the most severe grade of brain bleed on both sides of her brain and that Avery was in about the same condition. Additionally, one of Avery’s lungs would not inflate and the one that was inflated was bleeding. Strange words like hematocrit and blood gas were thrown around with me having no idea how they applied. My mother-in-law and I both cried. We left that room and met with Robin and her father. The news they received hadn’t been much better. We had basically been told that our daughters were not expected to survive.
That night I asked Liz to call a chaplain for us. She asked if we wanted a Catholic or Non-denominational chaplain. Robin and decided that we wished to speak to the latter. When she arrived the chaplain heard our story and tried to comfort us. She then asked us if we would like her to baptize the girls and we said that we would but that we did not wish to go to the NICU. Liz asked another nurse to cover for her and she escorted the chaplain.
While they were gone Robin and I held each other. We talked about the possibility of Avery and Sienna never leaving the hospital and we talked about how much we loved each other. We talked about how no matter what happened we had to not let it come between us and that we had to dust ourselves off and keep going. And we vowed to take each positive moment as a victory and use them to fuel us through the hard times that we both knew would come. But in order to reach that epiphany we both began to lay blame, not on one another but on ourselves. Robin said that she should have called the doctor when she first began feeling the cramps. She said that if she had we wouldn’t be there, or at least it would have been easier to stall the labor. She blamed herself for not taking care of herself enough and said that she wished she had taken things easier over the preceding days. Because we had been in a silly, marital argument a few days prior, which led to us hardly talking for two days, I blamed myself. I then revisited what I had said when asked if I wanted boys or girls or one of each-I had said that I didn’t care as long as we had healthy children. Deep down inside, though I really had hoped that we would have one of each and in fact when we were told that one of the children was a girl I prayed that the other would be a boy. When we were told that the doctor couldn’t tell, I held hope for a boy. I tried to will a penis and testicles onto the mystery child. For the lie of what I had wanted, I blamed myself.
When the chaplain and Liz returned they showed us the pictures that Liz had taken with my phone and handed us two bags in which were sea shells-appropriate for the theme we had chosen to paint the nursery, a beach-and a hand written name tag for each girl. We, both crying, explained our self blame to our audience and were told that none of this was our fault. Both the chaplain and Liz continually told us that nothing we could have done would have stopped what had occurred. It was just one of those unexplainable deliveries that could not be predicted or stopped. We then prayed together.
When the chaplain left, Liz continued to comfort us. She told us to rest and Robin and I agreed with her; we would have a long road ahead of us. We slept on the same hospital bed that night, each of us with one of the plastic bags containing a seashell and a handwritten name tag tucked into our shirts on top of our hearts. For us we were holding our daughters, comforting ourselves and them as we slept.