The Only Constant is Change

charlie seeks the lightI curled on my side, snuggling into the nest of down created by my feather bed cover. The pain was sharp now. I moved my book closer. “Braxton hicks are common at twenty-seven weeks of pregnancy. Try a warm bath or a glass of wine and relax.” A glass of wine? What happened to no alcohol? Nausea surged through my body. I looked at the clock; one o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t call the doctor in the middle of the night. I was sure I was over reacting so I relented and opted for the wine.

Moving through the dimly lit hallway I made my way to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out the glistening bottle. The elegant, golden liquid slid into my glass, emitting a familiar oaky aroma. “Only three ounces,” I read, measuring carefully. I felt like a teenager sneaking a drink. I closed my eyes and I swallowed. A gentle warmth oozed down my arms and into my belly.

Opening my eyes, I looked into the face of my cat, Pesky. “Don’t look at me like that – I’m following directions,” I whispered. Her purr signaled the approval I needed and I picked her up and held her close, smelling her cat smell. I made my way back to the bedroom, dropping Pesky in her “nest” and snuggled back into bed. Within an hour the pain subsided. My eyelids grew heavy and I drifted off into a relaxing haze. It was Braxton Hicks after all.

I woke up to red hot pain tearing through my body. They were back, the terrible spasms, more insistent now. Dear God, something is terribly wrong. I looked at the clock – it was 3 a.m. My husband was softly snoring in the bed next to me. I knew I shouldn’t wake him as he needed to get up for work in a couple of hours. What if it’s nothing, just the Braxton hicks?

Suddenly, another wave of pain overcame me, and I reached for the phone and dialed my obstetrician’s number. The doctor’s exchange answered. The tired, bored voice on the other end of the line held no empathy. “Is this an emergency?” I’m sure she’d had many false alarms dialed in the middle of the night. I was probably one more. But she took down my name and number and said the doctor would call shortly.

I sat listening to the beating of my heart, breathing deeply to overcome the pain. I was trying to remember the instructions in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”. It had been my bible during my pregnancy. Closing my eyes I visualized serene seascapes, beautiful sunsets and babbling brooks.

“Awwhhh!”

I searched the room for the sudden noise and realized it had come from me. I felt myself detach, pulling back from the real possibility that my baby boy might be dying. Growing numb, I sat staring at the phone, the silence reverberating in my ears. Suddenly the telephone rang, the sound exploding in my head.

“Mrs. Strickland?” The doctor sounded groggy and I suddenly felt ridiculous as I said “I’m sorry. I’m in a lot of pain. I’ve done everything the pregnancy book suggested and I just can’t get it to go away.” There was a silence at the other end of the phone. I could almost hear the doctor weighing the odds – give it another hour or get me right in.

“How long has the pain been going on?” he asked.

“For a couple of days, but it’s getting much worse. I called your office yesterday. The nurse told me it was Braxton Hicks, and to put my feet up.” There was another tense silence. Finally the doctor said, “Meet me at County Hospital.”

“County? Don’t you mean Community?” I was sure he had his hospitals mixed up. Charlie was going to be born at Community Memorial, not the County Hospital down the road. “No, County” he said. “They have a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit there.”

Ice filled my veins as I hung up the phone. No – he wasn’t going to be born yet. He wasn’t due to come for three more months. Not my son – not my baby. I knew Charlie like he’d been around my whole life. “It’s okay, buddy,” I whispered to the life inside of me. “We’re going for a ride, but it’ll be okay.”

I couldn’t let my little boy feel how scared I was. I caught my breath to quench my fear and set my mind to work. Get busy. Get active. I’m okay, I told myself. As I made my way back into the bedroom to wake my husband, the doctor’s words rang in my head – Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. NICU. What’s going on here? He’s not ready to be born today.

Sitting on the bed, I shook Fred’s shoulders. “Fred, you need to get up. I have to go to the hospital.” He jolted upright in bed. “Are you alright?”

My eyes filled with tears and Fred instantly knew there was trouble. He snapped on the light and jumped into action. Without another word we pulled on coats and moved out into the cold January night. The rain fell with a soft drumming as we belted ourselves in the car and pulled out of the driveway. I glanced at Fred and our eyes met. A silent prayer passed between us as we began the twenty minute drive to the hospital. It was the beginning of the longest three months of our lives.

I was admitted at 4 a.m. and Charlie was born that night by natural birth – as natural as can be expected in an emergency delivery room. He cried when he came out, which was a great sign and then he was immediately frisked onto a warming tray and intubated. I didn’t see his eyes for three days because he had to wear bilirubin goggles. When I finally saw them for the first time I remember thinking I knew it was you! Charlie spent three months in the NICU. It was a rollarcoaster of an existence; one day he was doing great, another he was dying. He went through all the crises a preemie goes through – waiting for the PDA ductuss to close, NEC (a terrible intestinal disease), six weeks on a respirator, and finally bilateral hernia surgery.

I lived in the hospital. I went in at 7 or 8 o’clock every morning and came home at 7 or 8 o’clock every night. I watched the entire OJ Simpson Trial during the days. When I wasn’t in the waiting area I was in with Charlie kangarooing – this type of skin to skin contact was supposed to encourage growth and healing so I would put his little body on my chest. I pumped breast milk every two hours and filled every freezer in the hospital with milk as well as our fridge at home. Fred and I had a contest to see which music Charlie would grow up loving; singing into his incubator. I would sing 40’s songs and Broadway tunes and Fred would play rock ‘n roll and blues. Charlie is now a bass player who loves rock, blues and does musical theater!

He remained on a monitor when I finally brought him home. I felt overjoyed and nervous and happy and scared. I had written 150 thank you notes to all of Charlie’s nurses and doctors who had cared for him over the three months. Fred and I brought them our final gift of avocados and lemons, took pictures with the nurses and drove our miracle baby home. I remember the dogs barking at the gate… they knew something was up. I carried him into the house and felt at home for the first time in three months. It was heaven.

The three months in NICU were the most difficult time I have ever experienced in my life, and I never want to go through something like that again. However, it was also the greatest gift I have ever received. The experience stripped me down and rebuilt me. During those three months I had to deal with the possibility, on a couple of occasions, that Charlie might die. I got to the point where I couldn’t focus on that possibility anymore, because I needed to be there to help Charlie – whether he was to going to live or die I needed to make sure he knew that he was loved. It is very humbling to be taken to that place. I am so grateful that he lived and I consider it to be a privilege to have Charlie in my life. Had he been born under more normal circumstances, I may never have learned about the depths of love that one can attain.

Charlie is now a strong, handsome and healthy almost-eighteen year old man. He came out with no long term problems…. except he has a wonderfully unique deep and raspy voice as a result of the respirator tube being in place so long. I don’t mind his unique vocal style – in fact I love it. It reminds me every day how lucky I am to have him in my life.

Charlie is my miracle, and he brings me inspiration on a daily basis. Here is the poem I wrote to him on the day he was born.
“SO EARLY BORN”
by Patricia Strickland
An unexpected winter’s morn,
Today my little boy was born.
A tiny boy, a tiny sprite…
He’ll have to fight with all his might!
His life is hanging by a thread…
His tiny body on the bed…
He came to earth to stake his claim,
To share my life, to share my name.

A rainy, chilly Friday morn,
This thirteenth day my son is born.
I catch my breath to quench my fear
My finger wipes away a tear
My eyes are fixed as I begin…
My hope is strong, my nerves are thin
A constant watch upon his breath,
To ward off fear – to ward off death.

He’s come this January morn,
My precious child, so early born.
As sunlight fills the world with gold,
I touch his little hand so cold.
My lips part silently in prayer,
His fingers move, his skin so fair.
And in his grasp, I know this much:
I feel our future in his touch.

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