“This is just what preemies go through, so expect a windy road, and try not to get too confident on the ups or too upset during the downs.” Mix this advice up with some “You’re a fighter, and so are your little ones.” Then add a smack of “It’s really quite common for preemies.” But this is what it’s really like: you’re at home, and after twenty minutes of ice on your breasts, you limp your way to the shower, to lean forward and massage the hell out of your solid buoy boobs beneath ropes of hot water. Pushing from your armpits, imagining a spray of release from your nipples that never comes. “Goddamn this sucks,” you whine aloud, but no one hears you because your husband is downstairs getting more water for you to drink, and your dog is locked up in his home so he doesn’t pounce onto your stomach. So you cry. Then you wail, sitting on a ledge, shaking.
You climb back into bed. It’s 11:30pm. Your husband is beside you now, trying to make you smile, calling you “sexy, sexy” in a silly voice, when you look like a zapato. You insist you smell like mildew. I love you so much, he says. And all you want is to fall asleep on him, which isn’t like you, because usually, you need your space. But now you need his touch, his hand on your back. The phone rings. But no one calls us at this hour. You exchange looks of panic.
“Mr. Klein,” a doctor says, “I wanted to give you an update on Abigail.” We turn off the TV. “It seems she has been having bouts of apnea and is listless.” I forget at this moment what listless means. “So we took a blood culture which indicated her white blood cell count was high, which indicates the grumblings of an infection. For you or me, it wouldn’t be an issue, but for preemies, it can spread quickly because of their lack of immune system.” I feel my lungs closing in. “We’ve stopped her feedings, increased her IV fluid and started her on antibiotics.” What kind of infection? “We’ll know more when her cultures come back, but we put her on antibiotics right away.” Something is wrong with my daughter and they don’t know what it is. Just then I get a whiff of her. She smells like a mild chicken soup. I can never quite place the smell, and sometimes I think it’s macaroni and cheese, but then I go back to chicken soup. Abigail smells yellow.
I want to be at the hospital, right then, to hold her. “You need your sleep, sweetheart.” So Phil goes without me, bringing my milk for Lucas, asking the doctor and nurses the same question six different ways. “In three sentences or less,” he demands, “tell me what I can tell my wife.”
“She’ll be fine,” the doctor says. “This is very common. It’s 90% a staph infection, from moving around her IV.” The next day we get another phone call, asking for verbal permission to perform a lumbar puncture. “Isn’t that a spinal tap?” I ask Phil.
“Nooooo!” he says, freaked by the words. But it is. Again, apparently it’s quite common and routine, not at all a big deal, especially with newborns. “It’s preventative,” he says, “to avoid her getting MENINGITIS.” That’s all I need to hear. There’s nothing common about MENINGITIS. “She doesn’t have MENINGITIS! It’s to avoid it.” Even mentioning the word, the stir of stress in all of it, even having to have this talk, makes me want to scream.
Why couldn’t they have stayed in me longer? It’s my fault. I’m a bad mother, and I can’t protect them now. I can’t do anything but pump nutrition from a distance, because my rest increases my milk production.
They don’t feel like mine. They’re not here beside me, to smell or hold. I want to protect them. I feel like a failure. What did I do wrong? They don’t feel like they’re mine. It feels as if I’ve had another miscarriage. I wasn’t ready to NOT be pregnant anymore. I wake up in a hospital bed, and I’m allowed to have Advil. I’m not pregnant anymore. And I cry at that. I should have had two more months of bitching. When you aren’t near your babies to hear them cry, it feels as if they don’t exist. It feels like a loss, like death, even though they’re fighting for their lives.
And that’s what it’s like, parenting two preemies. The words “quite common” are flung about, and we nod our heads and try not to google too many things. This is what these doctors do; we’ll let them do it. It’s frightening wondering what will happen. Replaying the last moments I held them. What if that was our last time together? What if that was all I had, that moment?
“I’m scared one of them is going to die,” I say to Phil.
“You can’t think that way. We need to stay positive and strong.” Why? Why do we need to stay positive and strong? I know people always say this, and when it’s your own health, I understand the benefits of visualization and positive thinking, but when it’s your children, when your thoughts from your bed don’t influence the health of your children, tucked naked in their isolettes across town, you should be able to think and worry as you please. “My heart won’t be able to bear it if one of them dies.” I say again. And we both cry in each other’s arms.
I just received word that Abigail is now doing great. “But Lucas has decided to act up,” the doctor added after giving me the good news. “His tests are actually fine, but he seems listless and is having more bouts of apnea, so we’re putting him on antibiotics too.” And I realize it’s all part of it, going from pregnant to visiting hours, seeing two wrinkled old men babies with wires in incubators with beeps and flashing alarms. We worry they’re getting too much oxygen, worry they’re not breathing, worry when their heart rates plummet, worry they’re not growing enough, aren’t lively enough. And that I’m not producing enough milk to nourish the two of them. And all we can do is give it time. It’s what the beans need. So we continue to visit, and I let them root around, looking for my breast, and I give my nipple to Abigail, and when she takes it and begins to suck, I smile and cry. It doesn’t feel quite common; it feels extraordinary.