A Letter to my Daughter

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My last post was on “being well.” The lapse of time between then and now is because I have been. I’m finished with all required clinical hours for medical school and currently at the beginning of a required vacation time for interview season. This winter, I will continue doing rotations simply for further education before my third daughter is born. Until then, I’m just a wife and mom who occasionally travels for an interview, and I am well. I am reading and writing a lot–you just haven’t seen most of it here. I’m approaching a more contemplative time of year for me as daylight hours become fewer and the air chills, and I have a feeling you’ll find me here more often. After all, I’m spending my days with a great source of inspiration–my husband and children.

One of those children turned two this weekend. Today marks two years from the day that she become very ill, and I feared for her life–it’s so hard to believe when I look at her now. She is unbridled joy in human form. She is the comic relief to her sister’s intensity. Time spent with her gives my heart rest, but never my body. I wrote a letter to her one year ago on her birthday (you’ll find it below), and I don’t really have much to add to it this year, except to say that this year with her brought me even more joy than her first.

A few details about her NICU stay remain seared in my mind. One is watching her nurses perform “neuro checks,” which included assessing her response to pain. There wasn’t one for a time. As a parent, it seems natural to feel relief when your child doesn’t wince and cry in response to a painful stimulus. As someone with medical knowledge, it is terrifying. I remember crying tears of joy the first time she pulled her ankle back in response to the discomfort of a blood draw–she was coming back to me.

My journey with faith has been painful…but pain usually has a purpose. Sometimes it is to warn us of danger or pathology. At other times, pain can be a comforting reminder that we are still alive enough to feel. And–as in labor and childbirth, which are only 14 or so weeks away for me–pain is sometimes necessary to bring forth something completely new and miraculous. Then comes the different, less intense but longer-lasting pain of adjusting to the newness and grafting it into your life. I think there are times when the purpose of pain does not justify its intensity, and in those times I am thankful for that there are limits to our lives on earth.

My heart still feels pain on this journey, and I’m not sure what kind of pain it is or what stage of the journey I’m in. I am only sure that the pain has a purpose, and my precious daughter’s life reminds me of that.

Dear EK,

We’ve been waiting to celebrate your first birthday for so much longer than a year. I remember when I discovered that you existed. I cried, and they weren’t tears of joy. They were tears of fear and of grief over losing you. Two years of hope and then loss and then more hope and more loss had taught me that sorrow follows swiftly behind joy–so I skipped the joy altogether and went straight to grief over a loss that hadn’t even happened yet. “The numbers” didn’t look good at first, and they told me to wait through the weekend and check again Monday. I don’t remember anything about that weekend except praying for you and wanting you. Monday came, and the numbers were perfect.

A six week ultrasound showed us a beating heart, and I was moved from the care of my infertility specialist to the regular clinic. Another ultrasound at 9 weeks showed a growing child–reassuring, because my only symptom of pregnancy was a daily nosebleed. At 16 weeks, we discovered that your daddy was outnumbered 3:1, and that EM would have a sister. From that point on, you had a name. From that point on, EK, I allowed myself to believe that this day would come.

We still had a long way to go, but the rest of the pregnancy was uneventful. I only knew you were there because of your movements, 35 extra pounds of weight (twice what I gained with your sister–I craved oranges with her and hot dogs with you), and the daily nosebleeds. One year ago yesterday, we decorated the Christmas tree, not knowing that it was my final act of “nesting.” I went into labor 2 hours later and it continued with perfect steadiness until you were born 13 hours after it started–at exactly midnight on November 7th. You weren’t even a minute late to your birthday. You were 7 lbs, 4 oz and 19.25 in long, born at exactly 38 weeks. When they held you up to let me see you for the first time, your eyes were wide open–and they stayed that way all night long. I had declined all forms of pain medication during labor so I could have a more alert baby for early nursing–by morning, I questioned the wisdom of that.

Your sister met you later on that day. EK, she was enthralled with you. She still is. She stayed home sick from school this week, and you went. I found her in bed snuggled up with your stacking cups yesterday morning. “I miss EK,” she said, “and these remind me of her. They’re her favorite things.” I know you feel the same way about her, because of how you squeal and smile when she comes into your room with me every morning. May it always be so.

Over the next day we had visitors and vitals checks and videos about not shaking the baby we had been wanting for two and a half years. And then they set us free as a family of four, and we went home.

And then you got sick. I went from feeling relief that you were a “good” baby to feeling paralyzing fear that you were “too good.” No healthy breast-fed baby sleeps 12 hours straight on her third night of life. An ER visit turned into a week in the NICU, and for the first half of it, we didn’t know if there would be a celebration of your first week of life, let alone your first year. I lost all sense of time during that week. It could have been hours; it could have been years. I don’t remember eating a single meal other than crackers and cheese in the parents’ lounge–although I’m certain I actually did. You wouldn’t even respond to pain for days. The day you finally did is the day they said the words I’ll never forget: “She will pull through. You’ll bring her home.”

And you did pull through. And we did bring you home. And you continued to be “too good”–but with time, my nerves calmed down, and it brought me joy instead of fear. There have been mornings when your unbridled enthusiasm over seeing me has brought me to tears. It would be enough for you to just be alive, but you are so much more than that. That smile, that laugh, those squinty eyes, those out-of-control squeals when you see someone you love. The way you patiently sit while I clip all twenty nails. The way you smile and wave when I drop you off at daycare, as if you’re the one reassuring me that it will all be okay, and that I will be back soon. All of these things compel me to adore you. All of these things go so far beyond what I require of you–which is simply that your heart beats, that your skin is warm, that your body grows.

One of my favorite things about you is that you’re not in a hurry. You didn’t sit until 8 months old. You didn’t crawl until 2 weeks ago. You have still never rolled over, although now I suspect that your body type prevents it. You eat and eat and eat, sometimes half an hour after the rest of us have finished, even after the meal has been cleaned up. You nap a total of 6 hours every weekend day when we have you at home. You enjoy life more than anyone I’ve ever known.

There’s one thing you did too fast–you turned one year old today. I wasn’t ready for that. But isn’t it what I wanted? Didn’t I pray next to the isolette of the most beautiful baby in the NICU, begging your Creator for a first birthday? And here we are. And although I wish I could slow down your growth, I am so thankful that you are healthy and growing. I am so thankful that we now celebrate every year that passes, instead of every breath you take. And although I wish I could keep you from all pain, I’m so thankful that you are alive enough to feel bonked heads and bug bites–and that you are no longer familiar with deeper pain.

We finally made it to a year–a milestone we’ve anticipated for your first twelve months of life, for the pregnancy preceding them, and for the two years prior to that when we waited in hope for you. A milestone we feared we might never see during the days when your number of respirations mattered so much more than your number of days. For so long we waited for this baby who is never in a hurry–yet somehow you still reached one year too quickly.

And one year has never meant more to me. You are worth it all–worth thousands of dollars in hospital bills, worth anxiety and tears, worth delaying my graduation by a full year for more time with you in the early days. You were worth the wait.

So now we move on to year two. Some days the time will pass quickly, and some days I’ll feel like we’ll be stuck in this stage of life forever. So on the days when we’re stuck, I’ll take the time to know you, to memorize you at that age. And on the days when time laps me over and over, I’ll be thankful that you are growing as a healthy child should, and that my NICU prayers are being answered–prayers for the celebration of years instead of breaths.

Happy birthday, EK. You were worth everything it took to get us to one year. I pray for many more years of the joy of knowing you. Whether they come quickly or slowly, with the peace of easy days or with the triumph of overcoming great difficulty and with pain that reminds us that we are alive–my prayer is simply that they come.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

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