September 23, 2016
Things I Learned From My 1-Pound Daughter
Juniper—the little girl and the book named after her—has an impossibly happy ending. Our daughter is 5 years old now, happy and healthy and just starting kindergarten. She cuddles chickens in our back yard and talks about Hermione and Harry in her sleep. She hurls herself into handstands and scales walls at the rock-climbing gym. She is ferociously, wildly, insistently alive.
Even so, I often think about those long months in the neonatal intensive care unit, when Kelley and I had no idea if we could keep her with us for another hour, much less another day. What I think about, more and more, is everything my little girl taught me even before she could speak.
You are never powerless. Parents of micro-preemies often feel paralyzed because they can’t hold their babies or rock them or do many of the things that mothers and fathers do. Kelley and I were overwhelmed, but once we got past our initial shock, we found ways to bond with our daughter and help her. Our wonderful nurse Tracy taught me how to reach through all the wires and tubes keeping my daughter alive so that I could change her diaper, take her temperature and brush her hair. Junebug’s diaper was the size of a playing card, and if I was clumsy, I risked pulling out one of her IV lines. Tracy talked me through it like I was defusing a bomb. Soon enough, we were reading to Juniper and singing to her and holding her close. It mattered.
You are never alone. Our neighbor Pat mowed our lawn. My colleagues Jacqui and Brad and Michael taught my classes. Our pals Cherie and Lane and Leonora stocked our freezer with lasagna. On the worst day, Roy Peter Clark, the older brother I never had, came into the NICU to baptize Juniper. My dear friend Patsy Sims listened patiently through my sobbing, and always knew what to say. Susan Todd, a mother and a teacher who understands more about life than I will ever learn, offered wisdom and sent me “Morning Song,” a book of poems she had collected for her children when they were little, so I could read those poems to my daughter. The hospital doctors, nurses, social workers and therapists were an army at our backs.
Keep breathing until you gain some perspective. Before Juniper was born, the worst medical emergency I’d experienced as a parent was when my son, Sam, then 10, nearly cut off his little finger with a pocketknife. At the time, it made my heart race. But now I know that many crises are not as dire as they seem. I didn’t want Sam to lose his finger, but even if he had, I knew that he had nine more to spare. During our stay in the NICU, Kelley and I sometimes wandered downstairs to the hospital’s chapel and read through a book of messages parents had written in their worst moments. Some of them had just lost a child, and yet they were thanking God for granting them whatever window of time they’d had with that child. These messages humbled us and reminded us that as awful as Juniper’s situation was, we needed to be grateful for every minute.
Are you the parent of a micro-preemie? What advice has helped you? Leave your comments below.
Hear more from Thomas and his wife, Kelley, in our Sept. 21 interview.