Today Liam turns eight. Often on birthdays, parents trot out the baby pictures – here you are with mommy in the hospital; here you are the day you came home. But with Liam, as is perhaps the case with other preemies, we’ve hesitated to show him those pictures because – well, frankly, some of them are a little scary.
Take this picture, for example:
I mean, despite the caption printed on the bottom, he’s really not adorable. That camera, with its ridiculous captions, gave us all a few giggles in the dark days after Liam was born – someone had gotten it in a hurry at the hospital gift shop, not realizing that all the alarming photos – of Liam with tubes and monitors and bandages – would be automatically printed with “It’s a boy!” and “He’s so cute!” and so forth. Added a note of the absurd to an already surreal experience.
After ten days on bed rest and two days in the hospital, I’d been delivered of Liam in an emergency c-section – the doctors had seen his heart rate decelerating and so bam! we were zoomed into the delivery room. So while on the one hand, Liam wasn’t particularly adorable, he was, on the other hand, alive.
Liam spent two months in the hospital after he was born and none of the dire predictions we were confronted with in the first weeks after his birth came to pass: no liver failure, no kidney problems, no vision problems, no respiratory problems, no infections. He became a “grower and a feeder” – a baby who simply needed to achieve the magic weight of four pounds before he could be safely discharged. But let me tell you, when your baby starts at one pound, ten ounces, four pounds seems utterly unattainable – seems huge.
Clearly I wouldn’t be nursing right away, so I bonded with my Medela breast pump, a machine designed to remind women of their links with the bovine world. I hated that machine but I was determined that Liam would get breast milk when they were ready to wean him off the IV nutrient line in his arm. I pumped and pumped, freezing the small plastic bags of breast milk and carting them up to the hospital in an insulated satchel. I found those frozen bags, like little popsicles, in the freezer for months afterward.
Liam started taking breast milk in a tube through his nose, which the nurses insisted didn’t bother him (I never believed them), and then, when he was a little older, in a tube down his throat – starting with 2cc. Do you know what an infinitely small drop 2cc is? Like a flyspeck – another reason why four pounds seemed light years away.
Drip by drip, ounce by ounce, Liam gained weight and after he’d been in the hospital about six weeks, they let me try to nurse him. It was damn near impossible – Husband was sure I was going to suffocate the poor thing. The proportions were all out of whack: imagine a cantaloupe. Now imagine a tangerine. You can see the problem.
(Things got so bad that after Liam came home, in fact, that we had a woman from the La Leche League come over for a consult – now there’s a weird job, hmm? Travel around the city fondling women’s breasts in order to help them nurse their babies? I’ve always thought there’s a sitcom premise in there somewhere…)
We spent hours in the surprisingly noisy confines of the NICU (monitors beeping, intercoms squawking, babies crying, timers buzzing) doing “kangaroo care”: swaddling baby Liam in our shirts, next to our hearts, holding him close to give him some semblance of the stillness and calm that he missed out on by being born so abruptly. We held him and marveled, like all parents do, at the perfection of this new being, but somehow his tiny-ness made him all the more remarkable: he had none of the soft creases and rounded folds that most new babies have. We could see where his bones joined together, covered by a layer of skin so thin as to be almost translucent.
He came home on the dot of four pounds, the day after an operation to repair a double hernia. We plopped him, still swaddled in his car seat, in the middle of our living room floor, then plopped down next to him and just stared. Home. Dubya had been declared president, but we didn’t care (much) because Liam was home.
Eight years later, my formidable son gazes at the world with wit and intelligence, and a certainty of self that I don’t think I found until somewhere in my mid-thirties, after years of therapy. I know Liam can’t consciously remember those two months in a plastic shoebox, being stuck with needles on an almost daily basis (red blood cell count, white blood cell count, electrolyte levels, infections, on and on). But sometimes, when I smooth back his mop of hair, I remember that tiny, oddly wizened little baby, and I can see the same thin web of blue veins in his temples that I used to trace with my finger when I reached through the little door of his isolette to say good-night.
Sometimes, when I think about Liam, I remember the closing lines of a poem by Robert Frost, “Putting in the Seed,” which is ostensibly about a farmer doing his spring planting – but is also about birth:
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
Liam came into the world too early, but his tenacity and grace have rooted in our lives; I watch him, wide-eyed and curious, to see what he will become.