In honor of the Fight for Preemies, I am posting another short excerpt from Ready for Air. This section comes just after I have seen Stella for the first time. D has wheeled me through the long tunnel back to my hospital room, and we’ve decided to use BabyLink, a system that allows you to watch your baby on the television from your hospital bed.
D calls the NICU and then turns on the television. For a moment there is only static, but then Stella appears. At least I think it’s Stella, but how can I be sure? It’s a baby, naked except for a miniature diaper and goggles over her eyes. Her skin is mottled—yellow, red, purple. She writhes on white blankets, thrashes back and forth, pulling at the tape on her mouth, like a wounded animal in a trap.
D climbs onto the bed next to me and pulls me to his side, but I’m still cold. He draws a blanket over our shoulders and we sit there, legs dangling over the edge of the bed, transfixed by the small creature that has been transported through wires and satellite signals into the square of our television. It’s as if we’re hovering above her, floating through the warm air of the NICU.
No sound comes from the television. That’s not part of the deal. But we wouldn’t be able to hear our daughter anyway; the ventilator has reached its slender arm down her throat and fitted itself snuggly between her vocal cords, so she cannot scream or cry.
D and I lean closer together. “Oh no,” he says, and presses his face into my shoulder. And for a moment, I’m reassured by his distress. This is hard for him. I’m not the only one.
Stella arches back, struggling. She can’t see because of the goggles, but even if she could see, she wouldn’t know that we’re here, watching her. She wouldn’t know that she’s not alone. And I wonder whether she will remember this. Somewhere deep in the folds of her brain, etched into her neuromuscular reflexes, will she remember this? If she survives, will she remember thrashing under the lights in the NICU, alone?
Dr. Anderson said Stella was better off out here, but how can that be? How can my daughter be better off on a warming bed, baking under phototherapy lights, a ventilator tube taped to her mouth? How can she be better off beamed through a television rather than inside me?
You can only watch your baby for twenty minutes at a time. I don’t know why, but those are the rules. But after a few minutes, I’ve had enough. I don’t want to see our daughter, not like this. “Turn it off,” I say. “Turn it off.”
I still—not often, but occasionally—wonder whether this or that thing that Stella does is a preemie thing or just a Stella thing. I watch her and wonder if somewhere, deep in the folds of her brain, that month in the NICU exists for her as an absence.
I know I’m not alone. One in eight babies is born prematurely in the United States. Some of these babies die. Some survive with disabilities, varying in degree from mild to severe. Some preemies end up doing just fine. Regardless, every year hundreds of thousands of parents across the globe hover over their tiny babies, wondering what the outcome will be. They hope and pray and fall apart. They grow numb to the beeping of alarms. This is no way to start life and no way to enter into parenthood.
What can you do?
Donate to March of Dimes. Donate to a hospital NICU in your community. Volunteer. Raise awareness. Write a blog post.
This is dedicated to all the preemie parents I know. For their bravery and their love.