His hands were gripping the steering wheel so tightly that he could feel every bump in the road through his wrists. His breath was raw in his throat and the tears were threatening at every moment. “Why us?” he kept thinking. “Why us?”
The doctors had been concerned for her mother’s health; pre-eclampsia, and the numbers were getting worse. The little girl’s father had watched helplessly as his wife was strapped down and wheeled away to a waiting ambulance.
“We ask you to not pay attention to any of the other patients or their families. It can be hard in here, because the stations are so close together, but we want to respect everyone’s privacy,” the nurse explained. The beeping of all the monitors was disconcerting, and the sight of all the babies in their boxes connected to wires and tubes made him feel sick to his stomach.
He had shaken himself awake; something in his wife’s voice let him know it was important. He had to remind himself that he was in a hospital an hour away from home, and there were a number of medical personnel in there with them. Through his exhaustion, he realized they were telling him that her numbers were continuing to worsen, and delivery had to start soon to keep her safe. He nodded. He didn’t have to understand everything, as long as the end result was a safe, happy, healthy wife and baby.
“He had a stroke,” he heard a nurse tell another nurse at the next NICU station. He reeled with the news that wasn’t meant for him. Someone’s baby had suffered a stroke? The nurses were looking at the tiny boy and shaking their heads sadly. He didn’t want to overhear that kind of news, but at least it hadn’t been about his baby.
He paced nervously, waiting to be brought into the delivery room. His wife had had the foresight to warn him that there would be a wait while they were getting her prepped for surgery, but he hadn’t realized he would be in a gown and a mask that made it hard to breathe. How long could it take? Was something wrong?
Another new arrival, and again he had overheard the nurses. “He was stuck,” one had said. “I mean, really stuck. And when he came out…” she had said, her voice catching in her throat. “…I didn’t think he was going to make it out of the OR.” He couldn’t help but glance at the baby they were discussing. The tiny boy was bluish and motionless, with a nasal CPAP machine helping him breathe, and as many wires as he had seen on any baby in the NICU. His monitor set off an alarm every minute or two. The room felt colder.
When his baby was delivered, his wife was mostly out of danger, but the little girl — born under five pounds — was in the NICU. He could touch her but not hold her. He leaned in close and sang to her the song he had been singing to his wife’s growing belly for weeks. Even though he knew that she couldn’t be expected to have a reaction, his knees wanted to give out when she lay completely still.
“He’s small, even for 31 weeks,” the nurse had told the newest parents to the NICU. “For a while, you’re not going to be able to hold him. His central nervous system is still developing, and any contact can lead to overstimulation. He’ll be in here for at least two months.” This time, it wasn’t even a matter of overhearing. The new father kept looking over for eye contact from another father — this one who had now been standing vigil with his tiny daughter for over a week. But he had nothing to say to the new father. What could he say?
The days passed slowly, and the rotation of nurses was almost familiar to him. None of them wanted to give him a time frame for when his daughter might take the next step. He didn’t want to recognize the other parents. He didn’t want to know his way around the hospital. He especially didn’t want to meet with any chaplains. Nothing they could say would make a difference anyway.
“I mean, it was a quality of life issue, and there were court orders involved,” one nurse had said. Another nurse was still on leave from PTSD. These were NICU nurses. There was only one explanation for any of that. He didn’t want to overhear anything anymore.
He parked the car in the garage. He had made it home without crying. He opened the rear door and carefully took out the car seat. Inside was his beautiful, perfect little girl, home at last. Healthy, happy, and two weeks old.
“Why us?” he still thought. “Why are we so lucky? Why do we get to bring her home when others will wait for weeks, or months… or forever?”
Inside, he unbuckled her car seat straps and held her up proudly for a photo.
He felt, for one of only a handful of times in his life, blessed. Out of all the people in the NICU, he and his wife were the ones who got to take their baby home today.