solace, for now

What must have that have been like, I’ve always wondered, for those men who stormed the beach at Normandy?

Knowing for certain that guns would be aimed at you, that you had little chance of getting through unscathed. The impossibility of navigating a hailstorm. The realm of shit-luck, in which faith or deservedness count for nothing. Not a matter of if you’d get shot, but where and how many times, and to what end.

For the next few days we’re living in a bunker down the hall from the NICU, a windowless room with one fluorescent overhead light and a crinkly plastic mattress cover under the sheet. Every time we leave the bunker we’re afraid of getting shot. We know it’s going to happen. This is life for us now, NICU parents. Not if but when. We can only hope that inevitable setbacks are offset with enough progress to keep the boys on a steadily improving curve.

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So far, time passes quietly. Both boys are on various degrees of drugs and ventilators and life support, and each day the doctors test their limits a bit more, coax major organs and body functions towards regeneration and independence. Tiny steps forward and backwards, determining boundaries, striving for comfort.

Liam, finally out from under the lights, is now free to be tucked into a wee groundhog nest like Ben’s, enclosed tightly in the way that all babies crave. No more sunglasses, no more sprawl.

The nurses asked us to pick up a small stuffed animal for him, to prop him in a side-lying position. Both boys are positively blissed out this morning, bugs in rugs, sleeping contentedly despite being poked at, wired, transfused. We’ll soon take Liam a new friend to replace the washcloth-roll between his arms—a teensy frog.

No brain activity scans yet for Liam. They’ve decided to wait until tests can be more conclusive. We’ve got many other mountains to scale to make sure he has sustainable life before we’ll have the luxury of assessing the quality of that life.

We may even get to have a cuddle with him today, the first. He has turned out to be one determined little sprite, working his hardest to get one eye open. It’s exhausting for him, but he’s dogged. He is Popeye, face screwed up with concentration, brow furrowed and then crrrreeeak.. we see a spark of him, straining to see us. Joy.

Ben is small but steady. Each day he’s given a drop of breastmilk via a feeding tube, and a little on his lips. A touch of tutti-frutti to wake up his pipes. I psssshhhht alone in the pumping room every four hours… to breastfeed him, either of them, is a dream.

To have them pawing at me, next to my skin, to hear them gurgling and swallowing… all that I took for granted with Evan. Never again.

Pumping is like depositing in the clinical bleakness of a sperm bank as opposed to having sex, but it’s my calling. I rustle up the sound of Ben’s mewing cries in my head, the feel of Liam’s firm grip on my finger, close my eyes and think milk, milk, milk for my boys, willing it to gush, the one thing I can do.

Both boys make us so proud, so very proud. We can only hope to match their perseverance. With each day intimidation fades and words come more easily. We talk to them of concrete mixers and wheelbarrows and digging in the dirt, keeping them apprised of the construction at home, making sure they know that Evan has it all in hand.

Evan, our sunshine. If it weren’t for him—if this had been our first pregnancy—we would all be slipping into a very dark place right now.

Yesterday I went outside for the first time in a week, made the trek back home to surprise him at playschool, eat supper together and put him to bed.

He is all boisterousness, dirt under his fingernails and sand in his shoes. He smells like peanut butter and says Hi, Mama! You take pictures Evan. Evan busy day. Evan play bikes, play trucks, Evan dig. Mama hold hand. I show you. I make funny faces and the giggles spill out of him, and I am restored. I can be a regular mama. No matter what happens with Liam and Ben I will always be a regular mama, making grilled cheese and hiding and seeking. He beams at me, full of goofiness, and I feign horrified disgust at the radioactive boogers that peek out from the depths of his two-year-old nose. He squeals with delight, runs away, dares me to chase him. If I want to steal a wipe, I’ve got to earn it.

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One week ago this morning Liam suffered a post-birth cardiac arrest and I struggled to see (yet not wanting to see) through the morphine fog. Denial and regret and hysteria and love and fear of love all tangled up in my head.

Still attracting warm stares and affection while out in public, people thinking I’m pregnant. Sometimes I explain, sometimes not. Rehashing when not absolutely necessary feels like indulging total strangers with trauma porn at my expense. So I try to scale back, try to at least go for one day without having to tell the story again.

Trying is one thing. Succeeding is entirely another.