I am a red thumbtack on the NICU map of parental distress.
The meeting room was set with a fruit plate, muffins and a tableful of 'Are You Stressed?' pamphlets. After some chit-chat with the other parents I absently chose one, a 'Checklist of Cognitive Disorders': Do you see unfavourable events as a pattern of defeat? Instead of recognizing that we all sometimes make mistakes, do you believe you are a failure? Do you feel the world has done you wrong?
Check. Check. Check. If I answer yes to all these, do I get a prize? They all chuckle. A sidelong glance from the counsellor sitting next to me.
"Have a look at this," she says, seeing through my lame attempt at humour. "This is our 'Booklet of Normal Feelings'."
Inside my head I snort, ever the cynic. You can’t help me. Then, the first thing I see: Grief at the Loss of a Normal Pregnancy
I can't breathe. My eyes well up. Not here. Please no. I can share, but only when cloistered. Spoken words clog my throat. Written words put chaos into manageable packages—but don't require me to look into your eyes and see discomfort there. I mumble a painfully awkward run-down of the prognosis of last week. With every word I am naked on stage in front of a thousand, then five thousand, then ten thousand people. What was supposed to be an offhand "Phew! Sorry, it's just been a rough week, never mind me…" has now become uncontrolled sobbing in front of a captive audience.
The other parents suddenly fixate on their shoes, regretting the joviality of just a moment before as they compared notes on their textbook preemies, relative hippopotami next to Liam and Ben. Not to claim a monopoly on NICU stress. They don't need to regret. We're all in this together, and everything is relative. We'd all rather be home.
I dreamed you were sitting in the NICU at the edge of their bassinets, and there were these endless printer readouts of heartbeats or other bio-info cascading to you as you sat on the floor, and you and your older son were using large amounts of bright washable paint to paint pictures on the readout paper. Next I saw your older son again, lying down in a photo with Liam and Ben on either side of him, they were all smiling. Three happy boy-heads. The colours in the photos were phantasmically vivid, like in your other photos.
A friend speaks to me of dreams I have to co-opt. I don't have dreams like this. I wish I did, but I'm blank. I could accept if Liam doesn't make it. 'Accept' as in rationalize. I would be forever gutted, but I could distill meaning from it. The only other outcome I can accept is that Liam will defy everyone, completely unscathed. What if he lands somewhere in the vast gulf in between? This is most likely, by a long shot.
Unfamiliar territory, when a child's life veers off the parallel of your own. Such a complicated mess. Anyone could be hit by a bus tomorrow, they say. Having a healthy baby doesn't give you any guarantees. I know this. We've all seen it happen. But I'd much rather have him start his life with ability, not a lack of it. It's shameful to put this out there, this darkness. But I have to put it in a package, label it, find a spot on the shelf for it. So that someday another newer, neater package can be placed in front of it, demoting it to the background, dusty and irrelevant. Some form of acceptance.
Liam's beaten the odds, day in and day out, consistently surprising all the various experts who've poked and prodded him. Let him surprise you, said a friend. Another bell rings, cutting through the static.
Blindfolded, we are standing either at the edge of a cliff or the curb of a sidewalk, waiting for time to nudge us into the void.