This year, I had planned on spending Easter in the hospital – my second child, a boy, was due a couple days before that. On January 24, a Thursday nine weeks before Easter, I woke up at 4 a.m. to feel a low tick-tick-tick inside the bowl of my pelvis bone, the same ticking I felt before my water broke with my daughter four years earlier. There’s no way this is happening, I thought, said a prayer and fell back to sleep.
An hour later, I woke up, drenched in a sweet-smelling liquid – as I struggled up, I felt a gush and another. As my husband drove me to the hospital at 5 a.m., with our 4-year-old daughter chattering in the backseat, I held a towel between my legs, wincing at each new gush and feeling the not-movements. The baby had gone dark.
There’s a short poem that I have considered for years when it seems as though the things that happen during the night are too much to bear – it’s “Although the wind …” by Izumi Shikibu.
From the beginning, this pregnancy had been a series of baby, here, then not here, then here again. A few days after I found out I was pregnant in July, I bled heavily, red clots out, baby soul out; the nurse on the phone told me I was miscarrying and to wait for it to finish. We were on vacation in Gettysburg that week, and so as we walked the battlefield through high, hot grass and wildflowers, I waited. (I thought this: Oh God, always, I’ll turn toward the window when the sorrow comes, so no one will see/my grief – when just one word, one word, one blossom from your lips would heal me.) But, the end didn’t come.
As it turns out, I’d bleed throughout the pregnancy, and then after I delivered Zachary nine weeks early (3 lbs. 13 oz.), the doctor told me I had a misplaced placental cord – it was in a weak spot, so I was on borrowed time even as my water broke as early as 31 weeks. When we were almost at the hospital, I felt one tiny fluttering in my gut, a signal that it wasn’t the end again.
The next day, despite the plan to keep me in the hospital for three weeks (and keep the baby inside me), Zachary was born. Suddenly, here he was: in an incubator, fragile as a bird, wide eyed and aware in an ancient man’s wrinkled face, hooked up to a feeding tube, an IV, a breathing canula and three monitors. The name Zachary – God’s remembrance. (God, keep him safe here, because he was in your memory forever before he existed in mine.)
Zachary was in the NICU for 28 days, partly during Lent. I thought often of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert without food or water, parched and looking for consolation. Every day was the same: I pumped breast milk at home through the night into the day, and then went to the NICU to hold Zachary skin to skin, feeling his quick heartbeat, his fingers light on my neck.
Just as my body wasn’t good at pregnancy, it also wasn’t good at producing milk, and so the lactation consultant recommended I buy herbs to stimulate its production. One in particular – Blessed Thistle – kept reminding me of my time in this desert, in a sort of solitude, trying to grow this baby outside of me and bring him home.
Another one of my favorite poets, Franz Wright, captured what this Lenten time has awakened in me, in his poem “After Absence” in Wheeling Hotel. Consider this:
God’s words translated into human words
are spoken and shine
on a few upturned faces.
There is nothing else like this.
I will tell you what no eye has seen
and teach you to see
what no ear has heard—
You see, I haven’t yet found words to explain what it has been like to have a baby so early, and to have him survive and thrive – so a juxtaposition of fear and tentative hope. It’s the actions of the body I remember and feel – it’s how I lift him from sleep to feed him, bathe his warm skin, kiss the base of his neck, sing a song into his shell-shaped ear. It’s how I cradled him the day we took him home from the hospital, nose to his hair. It’s the way I imagine Mary cradled Jesus’ body down from the cross; no words, just, My son, how I love you. How I held you inside my body; how I hold you now.
I’m still looking for the words to explain how God took us through this painful 28 days – to say to others how transformative it is to love a child soul from the moment you know he’s there, to grieve when you think he’s gone. And then to rejoice when he’s yours: At 12 weeks, Zachary is doing extremely well, with almost no signs of his extreme prematurity – he’s been smiling for weeks and loves to play. I say, What has no ear heard, God? What haven’t I seen? Is there still more love I haven’t felt? Please crack open my heart, God. I’m ready.
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