Leaving my baby behind was one of the hardest moments of my life.
Her tiny frame only had a chance to grow for 31 weeks 4 days before she joined the world. Her lungs were too weak to take in the oxygen she needed. Her suck reflex was underdeveloped, prohibiting her small mouth from taking in the nourishment she so desperately needed. Her body temperature plummeted when she was outside her clear plastic box. Hooked up to machines, wires, monitors, and wearing nothing but a diaper small enough to strap on to a Beanie Baby, she lay there and slept. Unaware of how our world took a sudden turn in the scariest of directions, she slept with a peacefulness reserved for meditation or death.
Each step down the white-tiled hallway lead us a mile away from her. The fluorescent bulbs highlighted my contorted face as I unsuccessfully twisted my cheeks to dam the tears. Even if she were crying, the wails would be stifled by the plastic that kept her safe. I doubted she was crying.
Dread of returning to her room the next morning set in the moment we hit the parking garage. After a surprise premature birth, a death scare when her heartbeat was undetectable for several minutes, and an unplanned C-section that left me battered, simultaneously sore and numb, and bloated inside my elastic-band yoga pants, this hospital was the last place I wanted to return.
But she was here. Denied discharge, it would be five more weeks before she broke free from the shackles. She needed to feel our soft touches while holding her tenderly on our bare skin. She yearned to hear our voices while we read her stories, told her about her new family, and softly sang “You Are My Sunshine.”
We found ways to maintain our sanity when the nagging beeps, chirps, nurse chatter, and stories overheard from our roommates through the thin curtain wall were just too much to bear. Volunteer professional photographers came through booking appointments to catch our precious little one in brief moments when her eyes were open, her mouth agape. After weeks of our love being met with a perpetually sleeping baby, she finally appeared awake, alert, alive.
We joined other parents for craft time in a largely undecorated conference room despite neither of us being crafty. Family meals in the NICU waiting room, as awkward as possible, gave us a chance to eat more than bedside peanut butter crackers for dinner.
We chatted with other families in the Ronald McDonald room, where volunteers provided lifelines through fellowship, snacks, and windows to the outside, all while we sat in the coveted void of noisy alarms.
As our baby grew, so did her chance at life. Breathing on her own came within two days of birth. Several times a day, we ignored the feeding tube running down her nose and presented a bottle, begging her to find her suck reflex. Mindful of finding the balance between providing her the opportunity to feed with the extreme energy she spent on having to eat, we did not want to inhibit her growth by burning the precious calories she managed to coax out. But she learned. Half-hour one-ounce feedings were the goal, and like a champ, she got it. Her body swelled all the way to a size finally big enough for preemie clothing, which loosely hung off her slight shoulders. One-by-one, the tubes, wires, and sticky tape left her body. She became free.
That first night, I could not understand how I would leave her. It did not take long to realize we did anything but; our lives revolved around the NICU. We spent more waking hours within the sterile hospital walls than we did with our confused pug at home. Sitting by her each day, the ability to leave at night to sleep was a much-needed reprieve. Sustained by knowing we would be back in a few short hours, we had a place to breathe, rest, and attempt to relax. The relative quietude was welcomed and unsettling. And when we found our racing minds from the day prevented the respite, her latest update was only a phone call away.
The last time we walked away, each step down the hall was accompanied by a squeaky-wheeled cart which carried our baby’s car seat to freedom. Out the doors and into the elevator, it felt scandalous and exciting all at once. The two of us, my husband and I, walked past the NICU front desk countless times; it had become our new normal. This last time we walked away, we had an entourage. The nurse that came along made sure we made it to the car okay. The orderly helped carry our belongings as we had more personal things stashed around her room than I had realized. We had, after all, practically moved in.
As we drove away, we finally left behind the constraints of the NICU and welcomed the indulgence of the open air. Fighting the daily dread of the hospital walls, we learned how to care for our daughter. We discovered she was stronger than her three-pound body revealed. We earned the strength that preemie parents require.
Walking away that first night was the hardest thing I had ever done. But now I see it was also just the beginning of one of the greatest achievements of my life. The night we walked away was nothing but a brief moment in time. It was all the rest that occurred that mattered.