I thought for sure it was just the abundance of BBQ ribs and an ungodly amount of creamed corn from the night before that was causing all of the “gas pains”. After all, my due date wasn’t for another 9 1/2 weeks. I had been up all night with fleeting stomach tightness and unexplained anxiety that seemed to drift in and out of my body like the tide. Then I called my mom. She listened patiently to me complain about all of my current ailments until there was a moment of silence as I stopped to take a breath between mild cramps.
“How far apart are your gas pains, sweetheart?”
I was perplexed. Who times gas? “What do you mean?”
“I think you might be in early labor.”
That just seemed ludicrous. There was still 9 1/2 weeks but I decided to call the doctor an hour later after a potty break when I found a small amount of blood on my tissue. I wasn’t panicked. I just knew that I wasn’t going to have that baby today. I was checked at the OB’s office but then was admitted to labor and delivery right away. I hadn’t even showered or brought a change of clothes because I really thought I was just going home. Then things started happening rapidly. The gas pains turned out to be contractions and I was already dilated to a 2. My mom and dad met me at the hospital to await the doctor’s plan of action. We all listened in silence as he gave us scary details about delivering a baby 9 1/2 weeks early – lack of lung development, possible eye problems or even partial blindness, delayed motor skills, hearing impairments etc. The list was just too long. Each word gauged my heart like pounding nails into a board. How does this happen? I was almost 25, active and healthy, I ate all the right things, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink while I was pregnant, didn’t work long hours…and yet I was being told that my baby girl was going to start life out struggling.
The plan was simple. We were going to start a series of steroid shots to help boost her lung development and a cocktail of drugs to try to stop the contractions. After a few hours my heart rate was racing so high from the drugs, that the doctor was afraid I might go into cardiac arrest. My whole body felt like it had just run a marathon even though I had been lying still. Then plan B. Try something with magnesium sulfate. That slowed everything way down, but the contractions kept coming. The first night was exasperating – nurses came in every couple of hours to check monitors. I was exhausted by the morning, but thankfully still pregnant. This went on for about a week and my dilation seemed to hang at a 4,the contractions started to cease. We had made it one more week and 2 rounds of steroid shots. My mom stayed with me in the hospital most of the days and my dad came to visit in the evenings.
Finally the doctor decided that there really wasn’t much more we could do and sent me home. I worried about going back to our two-story town home that was 30 minutes from the hospital, so I decided to spend the night at my parents. They lived less than a mile from the hospital and were in a small ranch home. It was almost 10pm when I was finally discharged. Physically and emotionally exhausted, the pull-out bed seemed like a 5 star hotel as I snuggled down between the covers. Dreams had barely begun emerging when the contractions came barreling back with the force of a fist to the stomach. I awoke with a start and we headed right back to the hospital a little after 6am. The sun was still yawning, the spring sky speckled with star light.
It didn’t last long. My water broke by 7am and The Tortoise was delivered about an hour later. It only took a few big pushes. She weighed 4 lbs 6 ozs., was 16 3/4 inches long and was whisked away to NICU. I didn’t get to see her or hold her. All I was left with was an empty belly. It was utterly surreal. Since she was so early, I hadn’t even had the opportunity to feel her move inside me – I had no idea what it felt like to really carry her. She was like a ghost – a whisper of a future I could not fully grasp. I lay in stillness, listening to the delivery music that my mom had remembered to bring for our special day – Camille Saint-Saens Oboe Sonate op.166. My fingers gingerly flexed in remembrance of each note from hours of practicing this very piece.
Hours passed and finally a nurse brought my sweet Tortoise to my room to hold for the first time. She was perfect, and she was really here and I was in love. It was 15 days before she was released from NICU. There were no signs of breathing problems, hearing or sight impairments and her reflexes all seemed right on target. It was amazing – her only struggle was learning to nurse. It took 15 days for her to get strong enough to latch on, but once she did she suckled like a champ.
The Tortoise came home on Good Friday. Easter always makes me think of bringing home a small piece of heaven. Every day she was in NICU, I sat by her incubator, watching. I held her tiny hands, stroking them, singing as softly as I could near her ears. The nurses gave us space since they had many other babies that were really struggling. I learned how to change diapers amidst tubes and monitors. I fed her my breast milk through a tube several times a day. The nurses seemed to like the help. In fact – it was at their insistence that the doctor finally released The Tortoise as early as he did. I will be forever grateful for their encouragement and belief that I was a capable mother.
Twelve years later I still catch myself looking at her through the eyes of a scared first time mom – stroking her hand, singing softly. Only now I’m not worried about sleep apnea or motor skill development. I worry about puberty, boys and her emotional well-being. I worry about what college she will go to or what career she will choose. But what I don’t worry about is our relationship. We talk more now than my mom and I ever did when I was growing up. It took adulthood before I started to really get to know my mom. My mom has always shown me in her actions how much love there is between us, but now we actually talk about our fears, our joy and our futures.
I live with a fear, the fear of what if today is the last day I get to hold my child – or say good morning – I don’t want to miss an opportunity to really talk to her, to really know her. I’m sure she is tired of some of our long, drawn out conversations but they were put into motion since the day she was born.
I sat for hours talking to her in NICU and I just never stopped.