I once spent my birthday in a fighting hole in California during school of infantry training. Another one was spent in The Congo during an evacuation mission. I’ve spent birthdays (and other holidays) working in a jail and running after people working on the streets. And now I can say that I have spent a birthday in a place worse than all of the others that I mentioned, but I did it for a better reason.
When I arrived at the hospital yesterday morning I was already an emotional wreck. Earlier in the morning Maddie had wished me a happy birthday and then asked me what I would like to do to celebrate. I told her that I wanted to take her shopping for toys and some school clothes. She didn’t argue. While I was more than happy to be taking her shopping for such things what I really wanted to do was take her to pick up her baby sister and then let her show Avery how ice cream should be eaten – nice and messy like. More than that I wanted to let her show both Avery and Sienna the finer points of coloring, but of course that will not ever come to be. And I wanted to be a strong enough man to actually tell Maddie that we no longer have Sienna. I still haven’t been able to come up with the right way to tell her that we lost her sister three weeks ago. And every time she asks me about bringing the babies home I have to pause because that lump in my throat will lead me to the point of tears again, and every time I start to cry in front of her I have to make up another lie about how my eyes hurt or I’m feeling more pain in my hand again. I hate to tell her those lies.
So after we bought a(nother) horse toy and five outfits (two of which had Tinkerbell on them) I took her to daycare and I drove that same route that I have driven at least twice each day since Robin was released from the hospital. I parked in the same garage that I have parked in more than sixty times. I walked the same route and rode the same elevator, filled out the same form and used the four fingers on my right hand to scrub my left hand so that I could reach into Avery’s isolette. At her bed I cried again, too. Avery was having a good day but I was hating that I was spending my birthday there with her. She wasn’t even supposed to be here yet, but I was there among the beeps and flashing lights that I hate so dearly, to spend my birthday with only my left hand being able to touch that precious and perfect little baby. Icing on that cake? I was also dreading the fact that my birthday fell on the eve of a Wednesday-a day I have grown to really hate.
Then, as I was leaving to head home, I ran into a couple whose son is only a little older than Avery and while I was telling them about Avery’s progress and getting the update on their son, two new admissions to the NICU were wheeled in right in front of us. I started crying again and mentioned to them that I hate the need for such a part of the hospital. God, how I wish that there was no need for that place.
Later, after resting for a bit and my wonderful wife taking me to have Mexican food (my favorite) at my favorite Mexican restaurant, we went back to the hospital. As a special gift I was allowed to hold “Baby Avie.” This is a real production, even when Robin is the one that holds her. It usually requires at least three nurses and a respiratory therapist. They must prepare the area and then disconnect her respirator. Then the nurses put a manual respirator (bag) on her tubes and transfer her to our arms. The isolette is moved and then the respirator is moved closer to us, leaving one nurse trapped between our seat the isolette and a wall. But when I hold her the production is even more intense as there first must be a bag wrapped around my casted right hand and then a clean, sanitary gown wrapped over the bag. This leaves me without any way to touch her beautiful face. It was worth every bit of the process.
Avery laid there in my arms, her beautiful little eyes wide open and looking from side to side as she examined her new surroundings. She managed to “hi-sat” the whole time. (For those who are lucky enough to be uneducated in the NICU language, a hi-sat is when the baby is enjoying itself.) As Robin leaned over my shoulder to get close enough to kiss Avery’s head we witnessed another beautiful miracle. Each time her momma got close the little one began to suckle, seemingly by instinct, as though she was trying to feed on the smell of Robin. I began to cry yet again, this time out of joy. Although Robin clearly wanted to take her turn holding Avie, she declined my offer to switch. Despite the circumstances that have brought us to this point, I am blessed.
Tomorrow is not a given for any of us. No matter how much we plan or how easy the future seems, none of us knows how long we have. So we have to live for each minute, which is exactly what Avery is doing and what Sienna did for sixteen days. How is it that a man of thirty-seven years is learning from a baby who spends her days in a plastic box? It wasn’t such a bad birthday after all. I hope she teaches me life lessons for the remainder of my days.