The NICU: A Day at the Beach

Whether you’re plunging toward rock-bottom with your lips wrapped around an amber-colored bottle, or you’re registering for a seminar on how toxins feed thetans to Lord Xenu, it’s usually agreed that “life changing experiences” are steps on a journey to somewhere predictable. And yet, while having a baby in the NICU is a crucible that entirely deconstructs and reforms parents’ sense of self, it does so without giving them any kind of compass or chart. In fact, more apt than the metaphor of the crucible is that of a forming wave. It wells up slowly, drawing in and up with a whooshing intake of air. It feeds on indignant fear, culminating in a thundering tidal wave of resolve. It teeters and curls, finally forming a crest that rushes out, bare and naked seaweed in its shadow. This is when it finally strikes a vast rock, pouring thousands of gallons of primal, uninterrupted force into the blow, rendering the stone wall inevitably, irrevocably…

Wet. The rock is wet. And the wave gathers again. Just a reminder: you are the wave, the NICU is the rock. Don’t bother keeping score.

Granted, this is hardly unique to having a baby in the hospital. Indeed, this is true for any tragedy that doesn’t have the good manners to bring finality, or at the very least hopelessness. Unknown to the fortunate and naive, there is a sliding scale to life’s highs and lows, and its origin pivots about the worst, yet most mundane thing in your life.

When our daughter Ella was born at 28 weeks, we learned quickly that the NICU breeds good news as readily as a petri-dish vibrating under the influence of Barry White’s lowest vocal register. Phone calls come several times a day, and you’re reaching and surpassing milestones you never knew existed. But it’s all appreciated. Plunged suddenly into a dark hole, you’re scrabbling up a steep slope and any handhold is welcome. However, in exchange for daily pick-me-ups of “good news, the bile pumped from your baby’s colon contains barely any blood today”, you are forced to redefine what exactly good news is.

What was once your worst case scenario is now your home, familiar and somehow safe. And there are always other parents across the hospital bay, tending to deeper wounds, hoping and begging for worse “good news” than yours. And you allow yourself to feel pity, stalwart in your own place in the implicit hospital hierarchy. “Thank God,” you say, slightly hysterical. “Thank God we don’t have those kinds of problems”.

There but for the grace of two weeks and a late night phone call, go I.

Of course, the human mind isn’t really duped so easily. Its protestations are muted, stuffed as it is down into the pocket of your subconscious, but still it mutters. “Weren’t we having a baby?” it asks. “I don’t remember having strong opinions about nasal cannulas and picc lines,” it says suspiciously. “How is all of this OK? Am I the only one that sees something wrong here?”

“And I’m pretty sure,” it says, “that we used to play Xbox”.

This is when it launches a campaign of action, rousting your limbs instinctively into a ready stance. You are poised, a thing of beauty. Sadly, this means you are beautifully poised next to a miniature hospital bed while half a dozen people gaze meaningfully at clipboards filled with conjecture. Thankfully your action pose keeps you from being entirely redundant, because you are at least ornamental.

The truth is that there is nothing concrete to be done. Your child is too young for reason or comprehension, beyond the reach of your comfort in every conceivable sense. Your wife is your turbulent, mirror image, sometimes within reach but always coping based on the mystery of her own internal mechanisms. And your “to do” list can only be filled with things that seem within your power: items of self improvement, an assault on your outlook on life.

And yet even these are as impermanent as the state of your personal tragedy. One moment you’re cobbling together a zen-like detachment and patience, custom designed to ride out a period of interminable waiting, the next you’re coping with a devastating setback. Eventually your personal base becomes so volatile that the onset of cedar season, an allergic and cranky city in its wake, makes you suddenly question the evolutionary wisdom of selecting mates for love rather than for those without itchy eyes and snotty noses. You build and rebuild, unclear whether any progress is being made, but no more likely to stop than you are to halt your breathing, to will your nostrils from flaring and your mouth from gasping.

My daughter is coming up on four months in the NICU and nearing her discharge. My latest personality is a mix of optimism and apprehension, riding a swell of triumph following her last serious complication. I suppose what I’ve learned is that no matter what happens, I will reassemble on the other side, persevering. But I can no longer guarantee directional change, an increase or decrease of personal strength, although I will no doubt be different.

Returning to the conceit of the wave dashing itself against the rock, I have to admit that it stops short of fairness. Although a single wave makes a stone wet, a billion waves turns mountains into undulating dunes of sand, their form mirrored onto the earth. But when I think about that beach with its millions of grains, each representing a trillion dismantled waves, a trillion fragmented, locally futile identities, I can’t help but breathe a little faster.

I pray that the metaphor is not apt, or that at least we stumble onto a giant shortcut.