I have written before about wanting to submit for the 2013 Listen to Your Mother show.
After the experience I had in the audience last year, I knew I HAD to be a part of it.
My goal, like so often happens, evolved over the course of the year. First it was “Write something I love enough that I could possibly submit it to LTYM.” That quickly, at the urging of my amazing friends, became “Submit to LTYM” I made that jump without having written a piece. Without an idea in my brain.
Then I had 2 ideas; the one I didn’t use, and the one I did. Sitting around a table, with dinner and wine and the kind of friends that make you a better person, I was talking through it, trying to decide which idea to develop.
“I keep coming back to this opening line,” I explained. “‘I didn’t believe he was real. I didn’t believe he was mine.’ and I think I need to write that story.”
We were several glasses in by that point, and getting louder as the evening passed.
Until I said those lines.
“Um, Lizz? You HAVE TO DO THAT.”
“I have chills. Seriously! Look at my arm hairs!”
“You have to write that.”
So backed by my friends’ faith in me, I went home and wrote. I wrote in longhand, in a notebook, and dramatically ripped and discarded a dozen pages before I found my rhythm. But the opening was always the same. “I didn’t believe he was real. I didn’t believe he was mine.”
When I finished my piece, I was proud of it.
I’ve been calling it “the best thing I’ve ever written”
I walked out of the audition content that I’d done my best.
I walked into the first rehearsal nervous and overwhelmed.
And last night? I walked on that stage and shared it.
So now, I share it with you.
I didn’t believe he was real.
I didn’t believe he was mine.
The photo in the plastic frame, hastily printed and put on my bedside table? I thought my sister had gotten it off the internet.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I didn’t believe I’d ever really been pregnant at all.
The giant bandage on my still-swollen belly was just another remnant from yet another procedure, in a long string of “just another procedure,” in my 7 years of dealing with kidney failure.
I thought I’d been in the hospital, in Florida, for several weeks. In reality, it had been only three days since my face and hand had gone numb while sitting at my desk, and I was in Walnut Creek, only blocks away from my office.
A stroke, they told me. The diagnosis? “Sudden and severe pre-eclampsia”
I was 28 weeks pregnant.
I missed the first 3 days of my son’s life. They’re just gone.
Lost in a cloud of magnesium sulfate, ativan and decreasing kidney function, I didn’t know I was a mother for days.
“This is your son!” my sister said, holding the photo close to my face as I lay in bed. “Max needs you! He needs you to get better!”
Unable to process this reality I turned my back on her and went to sleep.
As I slowly came around, as the medication cleared my body, I started to remember. I had been pregnant, it wasn’t a dream, and mostly importantly, I realized that the tiny person surrounded by tubes and wires, all 2 lbs, 4.8 oz of him, was indeed mine.
The little boy that my husband and I had made, dreamed about, named and loved from the day we found out I was pregnant, was now fighting for his life in a giant plastic box, relying on machines and doctors to help him win this battle for his life.
These first days were his hardest days, and I had failed him.
My body had failed him.
My body, made to do this, to carry this child, had been unable to do just that. It’s this incredible thing that women have done for a millennia, and my own body had lost the fight to keep my baby safe inside me. My very own self, which had been already come through so much: CT scans and plasmaphereis, med infusions and dialysis, a parathyroidectomy and a kidney transplant… was not able to carry my baby to term.
Forget the classic mother-to-be debate about c-section or natural. Epidurals or not. Breast or formula fed. None of these things had even been left up to debate. I (we) were too busy fighting for our lives.
The first few days were the hardest; being in the NICU, visiting your baby, isn’t like they show you on Private Practice. Your inclination, upon reaching into that plastic box, is to caress and comfort your baby. Nope. Even that smallest movement is painful to their tiny nerve endings; there’s no fat to cushion overstimulation. I could merely rest my hand on his back, covering him from his diaper to the nape of his neck.
This was the extent of my parenting for the first week of his life. For a few minutes at a time, we’d be able to raise the blanket that shielded him from the brightness of the NICU, and rest our hands on him. That was it.
Watching him breathe, counting how often his chest rose and fell, trying to block out the beeps and the buzzers and the ringing phones and just be with my baby.
We didn’t get to hold him until he was 7 days old. The nurse carefully arranged his tubes and wires, snugged the tiniest little hat on his head, and placed him carefully on my chest. Instantly, his heart rate steadied, and as I felt his breathing ON me, the rise and fall of his body against mine, I knew.
We spent 91 days in the NICU. For 3 months, Max’s entire world was a 1500 square foot room. Station number 17, right next to the doors of the operating room where his life had started. “Front row parking,” the nurses called it.
Life in the NICU is a dance; two steps forward, one step back. Good labs and good feedings one day, followed by bad labs the next. While Max rode his rollercoaster of life, so did I.
There were days I couldn’t bear to look at him. Not wanting to miss a visit, I’d sit with my back to his isolette. So much guilt over letting him down. Watching him struggle; the IVs and the bandages and the oxygen. I was his mother, I’d brought him into this world, and now I could do nothing but watch.
I remember sitting in the NICU one afternoon, watching the minutes tick away on the clock, but still being acutely aware that one day, this would be over. I knew that this would all be a distant memory someday, but still each 24 hours seemed an eternity, each night a lifetime.
I could get through this. Max could get through this. WE could get through this.
And then we suddenly turned a corner. Doctors started saying things like “When he’s at home…” or the nurse who said “If you’re gone when I get back from vacation…” And then there was that day.
I rang the NICU; “I’m here to see Max Porter, please,” and the door buzzed to let me in. I scrubbed my hands at the stainless sink (that part is just like on Private Practice!) and walked into the familiar nursery. Nodding at the fellow parents, greeting the nurses, stepping around crash carts and rocking chairs, I headed back towards Max’s isolette, just like I had for the previous 80-something days.
But something was different.
The isolette was empty.
Confused, I turned around and came face-to-face with Sherry, one of Max’s nurses. The grin on her face was outshone only by my beautiful boy, cradled happily in her arms.
Mr. Nakedface, I called him.
I had never seen him like this, ever.
I gathered my baby into my arms and just reveled in him. His skin was still red and raw from adhesive, a but there he was, breathing on his own, looking at me, his fingers wrapped around one of mine.
It wasn’t until that moment, for the first time, that the joy outweighed the fear.
That I dared to let the happiness take over and shove the terror out.
In that moment, I knew just how much my own mom loves me.
It was in that moment that I knew, I was a mother, and nothing would ever be the same.
He’s five now. And perfect. (No, seriously. I’m not exaggerating! Perfect.)
He sings and tells jokes and farts and loves Star Wars. If not the constellation of tiny scars on his arms, and his spring-not-summer birthday, you would would never guess the fight this boy had won.
That WE had won.
Just to get to here.
And here? Is pretty freaking great.