Within moments of Ryley’s too-soon birth, his initial neonatologist returned to the delivery room with a Polaroid picture of our tiny son, and a comment on Ryley’s nature. He informed us as he handed us the photo we had a “feisty fighter on our hands.” He said that was good news. Ryley would need to be a fighter to overcome the challenges that lay ahead. We saw that feistiness in the months to come. Ryley was off the ventilator within 36 hours of birth….almost unheard of for a 26-weeker. Ryley was trying to extubate himself within hours of being intubated. Ryley fought off his own staph infection in less than a week. Ryley had no vision, no hearing, no heart problems. He became a NICU rock star whom all the nurses adored. He continually let us know his opinion on everything….what position he liked to be placed in, how he preferred to be held, his true dislike of having a wet diaper, his frustration when he was done with stimulation. We knew early we were living life on his terms.
Ryley remained feisty through infancy and toddler-hood. He battled through a mild speech delay and high muscle tone on his left side. He pushed on constantly. By three, the specialists determined him to be developmentally caught up. He ran me ragged. I could not mentally keep up with him and all the things he and his sister would get into. He had the most amazing belly laugh.
When Ryley started school, he took off. He still had challenges, which he faced head-on. He made friends easily. He just had this way of going about life. He was unafraid, completely outgoing, fearless.
About fourth grade, things started to change. He became less confident, less outgoing, had fewer friends. He would not speak up in class, terrified of making a mistake or being wrong. His perfectionism kicked in. His insecurities began to surface. In some ways it has slightly improved in the past year, but when I look at him, I have to search to find that feisty fighter I used to see all the time. It kind of breaks my heart. Nothing horrific has happened. He hasn’t been through any huge trauma since the NICU. He is at times confident, but those periods are fewer and further between.
I worry. I know I’m paranoid. He is fine. He has good friends. He is active. He gets good grades. He is a smart, healthy, happy child. But this I would change. I would keep that feisty fighter around. I would have him go back to that tiny baby who wrapped all the NICU nurses around his tiny finger. I would have him be that toddler who raced boldly into life. I would have him be that little boy who took kindergarten and first grade by storm. Where did he go, that boy? And how do I encourage him to come back?