It's been almost thirteen years but the memories are always fresh. They're right under the surface and a sound or a smell can bring them rushing back. There I am sitting in the cramped operating room rubbing my wife's cheek as the doctors are trying to save our daughter's life. I'm watching them cut her open and reach into her, pulling out this tiny fragile pink infant two months early, and then the room is absolutely still, everyone waiting to see if she'll cry.
I remember the long endless days sitting in the NICU, wanting to squeeze her but afraid to touch her sensitive skin and hurt her. I remember the smell of the soap as we stood in the scrub room washing our hands and arms up to the elbows in scalding hot water so we could sit with our daughter. I remember sitting there listening to each rhythmic beep of the heart monitor, and saying a silent prayer between each one: "and another, come on sweetie.”
I remember standing in my boss's office as I got "laid off" because I was "distracted" after her birth. They needed "focus and commitment.”
I remember walking with my wife down the long hospital hallways when she was finally discharged, but our little girl was still in the NICU and we had to leave her behind. We tried so hard to keep on a brave face as we went to the car, but once it was just us sitting in the parking garage alone we bawled for thirty minutes.
I drove home so fast from the hospital that we didn't even see the cop sitting on the side of the road. When he came up to the car and saw us both weeping and exhausted he just let us go. I don't even know if we said a word to him.
When she finally came home, she had to wear a breathing monitor and neither of us slept because she kept forgetting how to breathe, so we sat up with her, sat with her in the dark, just listening and waiting. I was so stressed I started having seizures at night when I did eventually drift off.
Three months later we found out my wife was pregnant again, a complete surprise to us both. We sat in the doctor's office and he promised "If you want to keep the baby, we will do everything we can to keep you both healthy, but you have to understand the risks..." We sat and listened as they explained everything, and looked down the chance that my wife could die. No, we were going to do this. We were going to have this child.
Within two months my wife's blood pressure was uncontrollably high and she was bed-ridden. She ended up losing sight in her left eye. Again, two months early, he came roaring into this world, just like his sister. And there I was again, sitting in th OR, next to my wife, as the surgeons sliced into her. How would we manage an infant at home and another in the NICU? Compared to her, he looked so plump and healthy already, but again we had to leave him behind, and again we cried and cried. We wanted to give him all of our love and attention and sit with him like we did his sister, but she was at home, waiting for us, needing us, and so we juggled.
People tried, from the very beginning, to comfort us or "prepare" us. "They're going to have trouble their whole life," and "Don't be surprised if they're not as smart as other kids." We worried when our daughter wasn't crawling yet at ten months, and then suddenly, she pulled herself up and started walking. At twelve months she was chasing grandma's dog laughing "It's woof woof!" and telling us that she loved us. At eighteen months she was tall and strong, and kicking a soccer ball around on the grass. Her brother was right behind her, chasing her, never quitting. Anything she did he did it too. She learned how to ride a bike without training wheels then he did it too. She learned to swim then he did it too.
They chewed up the world, climbing, laughing, wrestling. They still are.
This week our daughter, the one who almost died in the womb, born two months early, who couldn't remember how to breathe on her own, made Honor Roll in sixth grade. She just finished eighth grade math, and she's been training with US Soccer coaches this year, trying to fulfill her dream of playing for the US National team. She says she's going to work for NASA one day, help people live among the stars, and she wants to make it possible for everyone in the world to have clean drinking water.
Our son just finished fifth grade and he dreams of being in the Coast Guard, of helping others, saving people, and living a life of service. Everyone asks him if he's going to play football, his strong powerful frame and broad shoulders make him look like a linebacker already, and his friends swear he's the fastest kid on the playground. He tells us that all the teachers ask him for help with their computers, when they can't figure something out, and he launched his own YouTube channel so he and his friends can share videos of them playing Minecraft and building things.
Our "distressed babies" didn't come into the world in the best of ways, or under the greatest circumstances, or facing the best odds, but that hasn't stopped either of them from living their lives to the fullest. Being preemies, coming early, it's not who they are, and it hasn't defined them. It's just part of their story. They are, and will continue to be so much more.