Science has tried to understand the mind and its inner workings for hundreds of years. And let me tell you … I don’t think we’ve even come close to a full understanding. For example, why do some moments in our lives become memories that we latch onto forever, while others fade away into unconscious thought? There are many moments in my life that I will remember forever: the moment my husband proposed to me, when he kissed me for the first time as his wife, the moment I found out I would be a mother. All of those moments will stay with me as long as I live. However, for as many of the happy, rosy memories in my life, there are now many more horrifying moments that will never leave my mind as well.
The moment my doctor looked up at me over my 24-weeks pregnant belly and shook her head, telling me that I was in labor and there would be no way to stop it. The moment I locked eyes with my husband over the shoulders of the six medical professionals trying to get IVs and monitors attached to me and we both stopped breathing, fearful beyond measure. The moment my son was born and immediately whisked away from me to be taken up to the NICU, leaving me a new mother without a baby to hold.
The days you think will be your biggest days are never as big as you make them out to be in your head; it’s the ordinary days that turn out to be the days you remember forever.
Saturday, October 28, 2017 started out like any other day. I was 24 weeks pregnant, so just like every day, I woke up sore, already tired, and desperately needing to pee. I sat on the edge of my bed feeling particularly bad from a rough night of what I thought were Braxton-Hicks pains. I hadn’t been feeling well the previous week, but I had been thoroughly checked out by several doctors and since I was a full time middle school teacher, I attributed my discomfort to simply overdoing it. The comparison to my normal Saturdays ended there. I got up and crossed the room to head into the bathroom to get ready for the day and felt a rush between my legs. I remember looking down at the large, bright red stain in disbelief. I knew instantly that this was bad. Dangerous. I screamed for my husband who ran to the back of the house, took one look at me and immediately got dressed to race to the hospital.
I will remember the terrified, shaken look on my husband’s normally-calm face for as long as I live. We made it to the hospital in record time and half-ran to the OB triage unit. We were whisked into a room and my doctor walked in, ready for battle. I should’ve known then that this was worse than we thought; but I really loved my doctor and so I felt a slight sense of relief at seeing her enter the room and take control over the situation. She looked up at me after the briefest speculum exam known to man and shook her head.
“Lauren, I have to tell you something.” I remember nodding and saying I could take it. “You’re in labor, your cervix is dilated and I can see bulging through it.” So I asked as calmly as I could what the plan was. Another head shake. There was no plan other than to try to buy as much time as possible and keep my son inside for every minute we could. That moment became instant memory, though not the kind you want to remember.
Something happens to you as a parent when someone tells you your child is in danger, something visceral and elemental.
I was only 24 weeks and 2 days gestation, yet my baby was coming. I learned later that the doctors fully expected me to give birth to my son that very morning, they even had a room in the NICU prepped within the hour. Instead, after many doctors and nurses and techs poked and stuck me, we were moved to the antepartum floor of the hospital. I was given my first steroid shot (yes, they do give you a shot in the butt, and yes, I swore like a sailor), which was supposed to mature my baby’s lungs more quickly and give him a better shot at survival. Then, I was put on a loading dose of magnesium. Anyone who has ever had this particular drug understands exactly the level of discomfort I immediately felt. I’ll spare you the details.
I was in labor. It still hadn’t sunk in yet, despite the horrible pain and gut-wrenching fear. Despite the “no eating” rule, the mandatory bed pan situation (my poor nurses … I have a notoriously small bladder!), the routine crushing of my husband’s hand. None of that fully registered until the NICU team walked in. Now, on the other side of the NICU life, I thank God every day that those people exist. But then, scared and in pain and still carrying my tiny tiny baby, I hated them. NICU is a fearful word to a pregnant mother, and I wanted nothing to do with knowing these people. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t going to need them because I was going to keep this baby inside until he was full term if it killed me.
What happened during that conversation will haunt me for a long time to come. I was told that my child, my sweet boy, only had a 40% chance of survival. I was told that he had an 80% chance of having a disability, with at least 30% chance of that disability being a severe neurological issue. I was told that he would likely have chronic lung disease, heart defects, could be blind or deaf; the list goes on and on. And throughout it all I could not cry. Not in the way that a mother deserves to cry in that particular moment. If I started crying, I could possibly push my baby into the world much sooner than I wanted. So I asked the question that no parent wants to … what should I do? Do I let my baby go or do I fight a pitched battle that could cause him pain? The neonatologist asked my husband, Aaron, and I if we wanted full resuscitation measures or if we wanted to withhold care. He explained that of course the decision was ours and that our son was over the age of viability so it was possible that he would survive. Another moment that will be a forever memory.
Aaron and I looked at each other and I could see utter devastation on my husband’s face; what should we do?
Ultimately, we asked for everyone to leave the room. It had been nearly an entire day and our world had been torn down around us and yet I had still not been able to talk with my husband, my partner, my best friend about the fate of the tiny life that we had created. We held each other and cried, stricken with grief at the swift curtailment of our previously nearly-perfect life. We told each other we loved each other, trying to ascertain what the other was thinking without asking. Eventually, we came to the decision that we wanted to give our sweet boy the best chance we could. We asked for full resuscitation, with the understanding that if at any point we felt that we were being selfish and that our little boy was in too much pain, that we would stop and simply cherish the time we had with him.
The NICU team came back to ask our decision and assure us that we were in charge of how much would be done to keep our son alive. Cold comfort, but there it was. They asked if we had a name in mind. Aaron and I laughed for the first time that day … we could only agree on one boy name the entire time I was pregnant: Turner. Our baby’s name could only be Turner.
After three and a half days of a painful, bedpan-and-magnesium-induced hell of a labor, my body finally failed me and my son was born. Turner made his dramatic entrance in one fell swoop at 2:44 a.m. on the morning of October 31, 2017. A Halloween baby. He weighed 1 pound 7 ounces and measured exactly 12 inches long from the top of his tiny head to the tips of his perfect toes.
I am often asked, “What was it like when Turner was born?” This is a question that I am still not great at answering; there are too many emotions and terrifying memories wrapped into something that should have been exciting and joyous. When you have a premature baby, especially a micro preemie, the fear is paralyzing. When I felt my son leave my body I asked the doctor over and over if he was okay, if he was breathing, if he would live.
Emotion number one: pure unadulterated terror.
Then, instead of a smiling OB placing my new baby on my chest to do skin-to-skin after my husband cut the cord, my baby was taken to a warmer and had an ET tube shoved down his throat and was whisked off to the NICU without me ever laying eyes on him.
Emotion number two: searingly bereft. I was a brand new mother, with no baby to fill my arms.
Finally, after my husband followed our son up to the NICU, I began the business of trying to recover, to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess that had suddenly become my life. I was in bed unable to move thanks to my epidural (that only worked on the left side), and I had a nurse helping me squeeze my boobs to gather enough colostrum to give to my tiny bundle in an isolette three floors above me.
Emotion number three: failure.
I am a woman. Literally the one thing that my body is supposed to be able to do, the thing that it was made for, I couldn’t do. I felt as though I had failed everyone around me, my family and friends, my husband, my son, and myself. I’ve never experienced a worse feeling of failure in my life. Another moment for the “Memories I Never Wanted” box in my mind.
In the hours that followed, I regained feeling in my legs enough to be moved to a wheelchair and taken upstairs to meet my son for the first time. That is another experience I have difficulty putting into words. Aaron wheeled me out of the elevator and up to a counter where I had to practically bathe in hand sanitizer and through a door that I would eventually enter hundreds of times with hundreds of different emotions running through me. We wheeled past several small rooms until we came to Room 4. The room that would be my tiny bundle’s home for the next 122 days. The room where I would learn to become a mother. The room where I wished a thousand different things and cried for a thousand different reasons. Room 4 became our home.
As we entered, we had to re-sanitize and then the adorable night nurse lowered Turner’s isolette so that I could see him. Finally. After hours of imagining what this moment would be like, I was still not prepared. I had never seen anything so small and fragile. I didn’t realize in that moment though, that while my tiny son looked fragile, he would end up being the toughest, strongest person I had ever met. As I sat there aching and exhausted, they asked me if I wanted to touch him. I can’t remember ever wanting anything more. I opened the door to that plastic box and felt a rush of heat and humidity. The nurse was explaining various things to my husband and I about what to expect and how to touch Turner without hurting him. I could barely force myself to hear her.
I reached in a shaky hand and touched my son for the first time. In that moment, I knew that the only job I had in the world was to protect this tiny little life. In that moment, I became a mother.