Dark Places

November is Prematurity Awareness Month. I’ve been participating in a 30-day photo challenge, with a list of photos from our NICU time….everything from photos of him with all his tubes, to his feedings, first outfits, and so on. It’s been something of an emotional haul, going back through his baby scrapbook and all the other photos we have from those 93 days. Most days these days, I can recall his early birth and NICU time without getting caught up in the horror of that time. I have a normal, healthy 17-year-old young man. I have much to be thankful for, and he miraculously came out the other side, so those bad memories can take a backseat for the most part.

Here’s the thing….once you’ve lived that, you’re changed forever. There are deep scars that remain. And once in awhile, something will happen…a song, a sound, a smell, a photo…will take me right back to that time. Once in a greater while, something will really get to me, and I go to those dark places I rarely allow myself to go. It’s like a punch to the gut, my breath catches, and my heart races with grief and fear.

Those dark places are pretty intense and painful.  I hate that I fully believed my son was already dead the minute I saw that toilet full of blood. I feel I’d lost faith in him, his life, his will to fight. It messes with my mind, brings up all the what-ifs, should haves, could haves, would haves.

I was away from him for five days following his birth. God those days haunt me. Logically, I know it was completely out of my control, and it could have been so much worse. There was one point, due to the need to properly treat the severity of my staph infection, the doctors discussed keeping me where I was for four weeks so they could monitor my recovery closely and administer the strong antibiotics I needed in a controlled environment. I can’t even imagine what that would have been like…four weeks locked up in that hospital, ten minutes away from my son’s hospital, unable to see him. As it was, five days nearly drove me insane. I wasn’t there for him. Spouse saw him, touched him, held him, knew how to find him in the NICU, knew his doctors, knew the routine, knew what our son’s face looked like. Spouse had to show me all of that when I did get out. I still feel guilt over that. Stupid guilt, yes, but guilt nonetheless.  I hate those five days. I hate how they make me feel when I let myself go to this particular dark place.

When I did get out of my hospital and went to his, they could have told me any boy in that NICU was mine and I would have believed them. I had only seen him for a few minutes before he was transported to his NICU. Most of his face was covered in tape. I hate knowing I wouldn’t have recognized my own child if  you’d lined up five boys in their isolettes in front of me.

I didn’t spend 93 days and nights in the NICU with  him. The world continued outside, and I was encouraged to take care of myself…..go home at night, get rest, do life as much as possible. I dreaded leaving him every evening. I hate that I left him to the care of doctors, nurses, and machines while I went home and did normal stuff….bought groceries, made meals, cleaned the house, fed the dogs and cats, watched tv, and slept. I hate that the world went on, that I participated in any “normal” while he lay there battling to live.

There was one point he was developing an infection of some sort. They needed to do a clean blood draw, and then transfuse him. I broke down and fell completely apart. He was maybe three weeks old. I’d only been in the NICU for a little over an hour that day, but I left. I couldn’t take it. I could see his tiny face, red with anger and hurt. I could hear his muted cry, and I couldn’t take it. I went home and just cried…I’d failed him again. I wasn’t there for him again.

See…..dark places. They, as much as anything else, are a part of premature birth. It is rare I let myself go to these dark places. They are my worst memories, my worst fears, my deepest pain from his prematurity. They shouldn’t matter anymore, shouldn’t affect me anymore, but they do……very rarely, but they do.

Reach Back

When Big Man had been in the NICU just over a week, and it felt like we would never bring him home, his neonatologist introduced us to a family whose 26 week baby boy was just getting ready to go home.  Dr. S wanted to give us hope, let us know it was possible, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. That was the first clue we had an amazing doctor taking care of our boy. I am forever grateful to him for that introduction. It did give me hope – hope that carried me through so many bad NICU days. Later, close to the end of our own NICU stay, Dr. S brought a new family to meet us, to let them know there was hope, there would be an end to their own NICU stay, that they could make it, and our journey was the impetus for their hope.

Then when Big Man was four, I found an online community for NICU families. I knew I had to make sense of his early birth, and one way to do that was to reach back, and help families just beginning the journey. I shared our story repeatedly. I was honest about our journey to that point, and the challenges we were still facing. It became a mentor-and-be-mentored opportunity…..moms with preemies older than mine reached back and helped me; I reached back to pull up moms with preemies younger than mine. We built a community, and some of my closest friends today were formed then. And among family and local friends, I am the bedrest/premature birth/NICU “expert”.

My days were dark when Little Man was first diagnosed on the spectrum. It seemed there was an entirely new language to learn, new processes to develop, a new routine to become acquainted with. I was overwhelmed. I was heartbroken. I was terrified. It all seemed too much. But once again, there were people in my life further into the autism journey who reached back, shared stories, gave advice, suggested resources and different therapies, and offered a shoulder to lean on.  I still lean on them to this day, as they are still ahead of me on this  particular path.

We are six years into this life on autism street. We have some experience under our belts. We know what usually works. We have our toolbox. We know what to avoid, when to push, when to hold back. We know we can’t parent him out of being autistic, but we can parent him through it. Do we have absolutely shitty days, as we’ve had recently? Oh heck  yeah. Being an expert on MY autistic kid doesn’t mean we don’t still face many difficult battles and challenges.

Again, though, I feel a responsibility to reach back to those just starting this journey, to once again share our story, mentor, suggest, provide resources, let them know what we’ve learned and used to get to this point. In that reaching back, I find hope, and I find a purpose I can handle. It doesn’t make me happy he’s autistic, but it just helps me make a little bit of sense out of it. I wouldn’t wish autism street on anyone, but if we have to be here, we may as well help each other through it, right?

This Boy

My dear, sweet, precious boy…..How can it be you will be seventeen years old tomorrow? I’d swear it was yesterday I heard your tiny cry for the first time. But here you are, taller than me, voice deepening, you’re driving, we’re talking college plans. You’ve grown up when I was busy being a mom.

You made me a mom first. I’ll never forget the first time I heard you, and knew you’d be a fighter. I won’t forget the first time I saw you, and it seemed impossible you were the same baby that had been inside of me just a few hours earlier. I won’t forget the first time I touched you, and you held on with all the strength in your tiny hand. I won’t forget the first time I held you, finally at peace, finally able to breath after five days of watching you through a 2-inch video camera screen. Was I scared? Oh yeah…I was terrified. I wasn’t ready. You certainly weren’t ready, but there you were. You taught me from day one things were going to happen on your terms and in your time. You’ve taught me more patience than I probably cared to ever have. You’ve taught me how it feels to live with my heart outside of my chest. You helped me learn to let things go, those little things that just don’t matter as much.

I love watching you, even still.  You walk into a room, and own it, whether you believe it or not. I love the way you connect with people.  I love watching people’s faces light up (especially your grandmothers, aunts, and great-aunts) when you give them one of your famous hugs. I love your quirkiness, your laugh, your spirit. I love that you’ve learned to battle your way through challenges, how to pick yourself back up and keep going. You will always be my first baby. You lead the way for your brother and sister.

I’ve walked those sixteen days over and over each year…..those days leading up to your birth. Your life is a gift. Your journey gave me a strength I didn’t know I had. You taught me how to be a fighter, even against the biggest odds.

Do you make me crazy sometimes? Uh, yep, ya do. Trust me, I thank God for even that.

Tomorrow is your birthday….seventeen. I don’t know why that seems to be a milestone, but it feels big to me. Big changes are coming, and you’re just on the verge of adulthood. I’m almost done the biggest part of my job as your mom. But know that no matter how old you get, or how tall you get, I will always see that little baby boy when I look at you. I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m honored and blessed to be your mom. Happy Birthday!

What this day means

It’s been seventeen years since that day, and no matter how far we’ve come, this day is a sucker-punch every single year.

The minute we found out we were pregnant with Big Man, after more than 18 months of trying, a year of fertility treatments, and one early miscarriage, I started dreaming and imagining. I knew exactly how it would go…..I never thought anything would go wrong. That just wasn’t even on my radar, not for one second.  I firmly believed once we were past the first trimester, we were in the clear and it would be smooth sailing from there until the day my newborn was laid upon my chest.

That moment, on September 6, 2000, when I looked down into a toilet full of blood, my dreams were shattered….dreams of a picture-perfect, full-term pregnancy and birth. Those dreams were gone forever, replaced by fear, guilt, the possibility of death for my child as well as myself…..reality became steroid shots to help my baby’s lungs develop sooner than later, multiple ultrasounds, strict hospital bedrest, being away from home for who knew how long, and the lovely effects of magnesium sulfate. Reality became long, lonely hours in a hospital room. Reality became odds and percentages. Reality became praying every day for one more day. Reality became the knowledge that our baby was likely going to come too soon, too small. Reality became knowing I would never, ever take pregnancy for granted again…not for myself, nor for anyone else.

My son is here, seventeen years later. It was a battle, but he’s here. And prematurity does not end when you leave the NICU. His physical scars are minimal. My emotional scars are forever. I know exactly the fight my brave boy has inside of him because I watched him fight every single day. I know just how stubborn  he is, because it’s been his timeline from day one for every single milestone.  I know how tender-hearted and caring he is because I see the hugs he gives everyone, how he connects and relates to people. I truly believe that comes from him being handled by so many caring, loving nurses for three months. I know his eyes don’t close all the way when he sleeps, and I know he holds his hands in loose fists, with his thumb out, because I spent 93 days watching him intently, especially as he slept.  I know the long, narrow shape of his head is due to him laying on one side or the other in his isolette and then crib for months on end (and is a common look for preemies who do extended NICU time). I know more medical terms than most lay-people, because we lived in the medical world for a long time.

September 6th, especially when it falls on a Wednesday, will always be a pitfall for me. It will always bring back the worst of the memories. It marks the beginning of a journey……

When the days line up

We have a whiteboard calendar above the desk in our kitchen.  I was super late getting around to updating it to August, so it was just two days ago I finally managed it. As we’re already well into August, I started with that day, and went into September. And then I wrote down  Big Man’s birthday, and it hit me…..the days line up this year. His birthday is on the same day of the week as his birth day.

I mentally count down the events leading up to his birth every year. That’s nothing new. The day I started bleeding and was admitted into the hospital, the day I found out I wasn’t going home until I reached 32 weeks or he was born (whichever came first), the day they discovered I’d lost 8 pounds in six days and the feeding frenzy began, the days I got my first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth steroid shots to help his lungs develop early, the day I had the fetal fibronectin test and no one would tell me the results, and then the night I started running a very high fever courtesy of the severe staph infection which would result in his birth the next day at exactly 26 weeks gestation. I feel those days coming every year. I’m not as emotional as I used to be, but it still hits me. He’s come so very far…he’s perfectly healthy and “normal” in every way, but that doesn’t take away the toll his premature birth took.

There’s just something about the years the days line up exactly. It makes it that much more of a journey to navigate because it’s all the same as it was seventeen years ago. I started bleeding and was admitted on a Wednesday. I was told on Saturday I wasn’t going home. I was weighed on Monday and they found out I’d lost too much weight. It was on consecutive Thursdays and Fridays I received the steroid shots. It was a Friday when I had the fetal fibronectin test. I was a Friday when the fever started. It was a Saturday afternoon when he was born. I’ll relive that exact journey this year. It’s like a punch in the gut.

Don’t get me wrong – I feel incredibly blessed we came out the other side with the miraculous outcome we’ve had. He’s my amazing boy – my first born, nearly seventeen years old. But none of who he is or what he does nor how he is takes away the guilt, fear, pain, and sense of loss from his premature birth. NONE of it. I will always relive those days in my heart and mind, each and every year for the rest of my life.  And when the days line up with the year he was born, it makes it that much more difficult.

The End

While I’ve talked about the frequent weight checks for Big Man, I haven’t really talked about all  he’s been going through the last few years, and part of the reason for all those weight checks.

It wasn’t something entirely unexpected, but it was frustrating nonetheless.  Back in late-seventh, and eighth grade, nearly all his friends started their growth spurts. While Big Man didn’t stop growing, he didn’t spurt. Suddenly, most of his friends were significantly taller, while he stayed much the same height. My brother grew late. Spouse grew late. So did my BIL apparently, so we weren’t too worried. But then he fell far off his own growth curve….like REALLY far off his own growth curve. It was enough his pediatrician called in the troops – ordered blood work, and started all the referrals to any specialist applicable. We’ve spent the last 2+ years getting follow-up testing, blood work, bone age scans, visiting endocrinology a few times.

What it came down to is the fact he is just constitutionally delayed – by a bit over 2 years. That means his body is two years behind his chronological age. That’s kind of a big deal for a fourteen/fifteen/sixteen year old. He took it in stride initially, but then when even the “small” kids in his friend group grew taller than he, the struggle began. He never said much about it, but I knew it was hard for him. It was miserable for me to see the difference, to see my little big boy walking around, significantly shorter than most of his peers. I prayed continually for him to grow. Like when  he was in the NICU, we began to celebrate every ounce gained, every part of an inch grown. We watched for any sign he was entering his spurt. Days, weeks, months passed, and nothing.

He’s nearly seventeen. He’s grown almost three inches since January 1st. I really have to look up to him now. His voice has changed. His face looks different – more adult, more defined. He sleeps constantly. He eats when he isn’t asleep. He’s shot up three lines on the growth curve. His ADHD doctor now says he can’t even guess how tall Big Man will be (just a year ago, he was telling me Big Man would maybe end up at 5’9″ or so).

I can’t express my level of relief – moreso for him than anything. I don’t have to see that look on his face anymore. He’s catching up to his friends. We saw his pediatrician last week and she was surprised, but not really surprised. We’ve reached the end of this particular medical journey. He is fully in his growth spurt. Whew. We do have one more visit with endocrinology in September, just to dot that final i and cross that final t.

I’m once again reminded of his NICU days…..in the beginning, in the middle, and even towards the end, it seemed we would never see the day he would come home. The last few years, it seemed we would never reach the end of this delay, we wondered he would ever grow. This child has always done things in his own time, on his own terms. This shouldn’t have been any surprise to me at all, yet it was. But now this too will be put behind us, and I will look up at my getting-taller-every-day big boy, and be thankful.

It’s his, but he doesn’t remember

I met with a  new local March of Dimes staff-person last week. As is typical, I shared why we volunteer, told our story – how we’re connected to the mission of the organization. She asked if Big Man does his own fundraising, tells his own story. Um, no. He walks, but when it comes to the talking, he leaves that to me. Why? Well…..it is his story,, but he doesn’t remember it, thank the good Lord. He knows my version of his story. He’s heard it a billion times. He did live it, but he has no memory of it. The baby in all the photos is him, but like any other baby, he has no memory of his early years, much less his too-early, dramatic entry into the world.

He does get why  his story matters. He does  understand prematurity was, is, and always will be part of who  he is, but all the emotions attached to his premature birth belong to others, not to him. Does that make sense? He lived it, but we lived the fear, guilt, pain of having failed him in any way. He was the feisty fighter who made it while we stood by, watching and praying. He did it, but we are the ones who remember.

He compared it to when people say I’m strong for having gone through all we’ve gone through.  My response always is, “You never know how strong you are until you have to BE strong.” He just lived – he doesn’t see anything amazing in that coming from him, but instead places the credit upon us, his nurses, his doctors. I say he had a strong will to survive right from the very beginning.

I keep encouraging him to own his story. I think he’s there now. He  had to write his own obituary in his psych class recently.  He did include his premature birth in his narrative. I was a little surprised by the inclusion. If you don’t know his story, you’d never guess his story. You can’t look at him and say, “Oh, yes, he was a preemie.” You can’t tell by looking at him, in other words. Well, I have to edit that a little bit – many preemie moms I know can tell by looking at a kid, but we know what to look for as we see it in our own preemies. The general population can’t look at him and know, without being told, he was born 3.5 months too soon.

I’m thankful he doesn’t remember at all, this story of his. I’ve always said I remember enough for both of us. But I’m glad he’s owning it, making it his, because it is his, even if he doesn’t remember one second of it.