A cramp startles me from sleep and my arm flails, sending the IV bag crashing to the floor. A gush of blood, another clot.
It’s the same whenever I wake up — push the button to ask the disembodied voice in the darkness for more morphine, reach down and feel nothing where the heaving mass used to be, and remember in a great rush where I am and what’s happened to us.
Liam Stewart and Benjamin Peter were born on Saturday, May 5 after an acute case of twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome and a possible placental abruption. We are in hospital and will be living here with the boys in the NICU for a few months. They are with us, but barely.
Will I ever be a big enough mother for such small babies? I have felt helpless, afraid to fall in love with them, barely able to touch them through this drug-fog and tangle of tubes, both mine and theirs.
They are doll-like, impossibly tiny. Liam, poor Liam, bore the brunt of the trauma and is very much a day-by-day boy. He is the bigger of the two at two pounds nine ounces, but suffered from almost no heart rate, not enough oxygen and a brain hemorrhage. He is a deep, shiny purple, and was very still at first, in a coma-like state.
After he was born it took them ten minutes to get his heart rate up, and the initial brain scan showed almost no activity. But today he gripped the end of my finger. These days, even a reflex is hope.
And then there is Ben. Just two pounds, but a healthier pink and more suitably ticked off with all he has to bear. This is appropriate, says his nurse-mother. This is good. He kicks and fights and opens his mouth as if to cry, but the tubes in his throat are in the way of what would be the sweetest music in the world.
The morphine is pressing my eyes shut. I need to write about this more than I need food. But I need sleep even more than writing, even if it means I wake up confused again, forgetting where I am, that I was ever pregnant with twins at all.
“I’ll take the tube out now,” says the nurse. “But we’ll just cap the IV needle, in case we need it again for more antibiotics. With a crash section like you had, it’s likely.”
Crash section. Yes, I remember.
Liam and Ben. Liam and Ben. Liam and Ben. I’d closed my eyes in an attempt to dampen my senses, push all my energy through my body to the babies rather than having it disperse in panic. The inside-wind rushed past my face. A dozen voices yelling, the slap-slap-slap of shoes running down the hallway, the wheels of the stretcher squeaking. Liam and Ben.
I heard my wrists being strapped into place, a voice close to my ear saying, “Make a fist Kate, make a fist…” while hands splashed a liquid on my belly, rock-hard now with too much fluid. I’ve never seen so many people move so fast in unison. As someone else shoved a tube between my legs I could hear more running in the distance, things being shoved out of the way and a voice yelling, “Get the neonatal team in here, stat!” and then another in my ear, a mask over my face: “Four deep breaths, Kate, give us four deep breaths, then you’ll feel cold…” and then I was out.
I awoke somewhere else, teeth clattering, shaking uncontrollably. I remember telling the doctors that the boys had to be okay because they had to go out someday in the canoe. Then I was in fog again.
For what feels like a long time I’ve been afraid to go and see them. I was terrified of my sons. I felt I should be stoic, never leaving their sides… but the gravity of them and their new mechanical wombs has overwhelmed me. I reach my fingers through the holes to find a wire-free spot of silky, puffy flesh through the stifling heat, and it strikes me: I don’t know how to be a mother in this place. I don’t know how I fit into this. Sometimes I’d start to cry, wheelchair tucked in beside Liam’s incubator, wracked with pain from the incision. Other times I’d almost pass out from the morphine, not lucid enough to even sit with them.
They need to hear your voice, they tell me. But what do I say?
I’m sorry you aren’t still safe inside my belly, where you belong… even though it was that same, clever belly who knew something wasn’t right, who tried to tell me by pushing you out too soon. I’m sorry we were all wrong about being safely beyond the chances of TTTS. And I’m sorry I resented you for being two. I’m most sorry about that.
Even though I’m starting to come out of the fog now, two days later, I still struggle with what to say. So I whisper the same thing I whispered to Evan during fitful nights: mama love, mama love, mama love. And as we are able to see more baby and less machine we’ve started to talk to them about skipping rocks in frog ponds, and finding treasures on beaches, and about a big brother who will teach them all kinds of tricks.
I feel guilty for how I worry for their futures, especially for Liam. If he does pull through, past the bleeding brain and jumbled organs and oxygen deprivation, what will be left of him? How can he be functional? It is greedy of me to want him healthy and normal, given that he’s started his life tagged with a ‘do not resuscitate’ order?
He is sick, so sick. That I have the nerve to want him to be like any other kid… maybe that’s just too much nerve. They need fresh air. Not to be stuck, unmoving, in a hot plastic box.
All of a sudden I am superhuman. Today I made milk. The nurses and doctors were all shocked, the day after such c-trauma, but my boobs are my gift. Never have 15 mls of anything meant so much. Triggering my milk supply makes me feel like there’s a purpose for me in all this mess.
Then I did something else that felt amazing — I stood in the shower unassisted, washing away grief and sweat and two days of blood and tears. Heat and heavenly steam, and all by myself. Hunched over and cramping, but still, one step back towards ordinary.
Making milk and getting clean, standing on my own. Two things that have restored me, convinced me that I can be strong for these boys.
Addendum: superhuman but still pretty messed up. One of the nurses let a volunteer into our room from the ‘Read to Me!’ program, all smiles as she stood at the foot of my bed with cheerful little duffel bags, one in each hand.
“Congratulations on your babies!” she chirped, reciting her script. “I’m here because you should be reading to your babies right from birth, because reading is what gets the brains of your babies all connected, gets the brain cells working. Let me show you all the books we’ve put together for them…”
I lost it. She shuffled out of the room as I sobbed, clutching the incision (which hurts like a bitch when I cry). It wasn’t her fault no one told her it might not be so simple for us. I guess this is how it’s going to be. Superhuman one moment, on the brink the next. For all of us.