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While My Apartment Didn’t Feel Like Home, the NICU Did

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The day Cooper was born was the best and worst day of my life. I lived in constant fear, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, I could hardly speak without sobbing. I was terrified; I lived in that frozen fear for months. When people initially flooded in to visit, they always said some variation of the same thing, “Before you know it, you will have him home with you.” I humored them, smiling and nodding all the while on the inside I was screaming at the top of my lungs! I knew the odds were not in our favor in terms of bringing home this tiny baby born on the edge of viability. But I prayed, I prayed every minute of the day; I was constantly whispering silent prayers. Begging and pleading with God to let me keep this boy whom I loved with my whole heart.

Being in this new environment didn’t make things any easier, there were constant beeps, alarms and my sweet boy was hard to see through all the tubes and wires. It left me petrified. Before I was released from the hospital, I would spend as much time as possible sitting in my wheelchair next to Cooper’s bedside. Everything felt so uncertain, I didn’t want to go home, it was too far away, and I felt completely powerless to help my son. All I could do was watch and pray. When they finally kicked me out of the hospital — and I mean that pretty literally, because I begged them to keep me as long as possible so I could stay closer to Cooper — I rode across the street and signed a lease for an apartment so I could continue to be close to him. I never went home until he did, 124 days later. That apartment was not my home. It didn’t feel like home, it felt like a safe place to catch a few hours of sleep and take a shower. As I got into my routine, I would come home in the wee hours of the morning, wash my pumping supplies, pack my lunch for the next day, pump one last time and get a few hours of sleep before waking up to do it all again. I was running on adrenaline. I needed to be there, I needed to spend all the time I had with him, if there was a single chance I might not get to have him forever, I wasn’t going to miss any opportunity to be with him.

Every day at the NICU could have been a year for how overwhelming it sometimes felt. We were living minute to minute in those first few weeks, Cooper had surgery at only 11 days old and I found myself again, pleading  with God to let me keep him. But other than prayers and breast milk, I was limited. That is when I met the heroes of our journey: Cooper’s primary care nurses. He was a pretty popular kiddo and I felt so blessed to have such strong, capable and loving women helping my baby along on this journey. On more occasions than I care to count, I watched as they physically saved his life, performing the tasks I could not. As I got more comfortable with the NICU, our relationships started to grow, they became my friends; my only friends who understood what I was going through. Eventually they became my family, family I never knew I would have, but family we couldn’t survive without. Their patience and care turned into love for my sweet boy and it made my heart smile.

As our relationships in the NICU grew and the journey evolved, I started feeling more comfortable at the bedside of an isolette than I did anywhere else. It was my safety; it was the place where they first put my baby in my arms, where he got his first bath, where I changed my first diaper, where he first nursed and where he and I formed our unbreakable bond. The love I have for him grew exponentially in that NICU. It was my whole world and the safest place I could be. The beeps and hums of the machines and the whirl of life moving at a constant sprint brought me serenity and calmed me even on the hardest days. While my apartment didn’t feel like home, the NICU did. It had everything my tiny apartment was missing, it had equipment and tools, the doctors and nurses who cared for Cooper and most importantly, it had my sweet baby.

In the weeks leading up to Cooper’s release, I was a ball of anxiety. I wanted so badly to go home, back to our home where we could start our lives together, but because we had faced several setbacks prior to his release, I never wanted to get my hopes up. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was like I had been holding my breath for months. The Friday before Cooper was released, I was all nerves.

We were going home with oxygen and NG tubes as well as with medication. I was comfortable providing his care, I knew what he needed and how to be that for him, but I was still scared. Our last night in the NICU was emotional, the nurse we had that night was the nurse we had the night he was born. We didn’t have her at any other point in the NICU journey, so she was like perfect book ends for us. I also got the opportunity to talk to the doctor on Cooper’s delivery; we talked about how far he had come, how bright his future was and how excited I was to take him home. It felt like the most appropriate punctuation at the end of a sentence. The last day we were there, our primary nurse was there to send us off.

We spent the day packing up and getting things ready to take Cooper home. I dressed him in his NICU best, took pictures and we loaded him up in the car. I was excited and I was ready to be home, but a part of me was incredibly empty. It occurred to me that while I was so excited because we were finally going home, that home was only mine. It didn’t yet belong to Cooper, even though it was all ready for him — equipment, crib, clothes, bathtubs and blankets — we were leaving the only home he had ever known. We were leaving the place that held all of our firsts. I cried for hours before we left, and when it finally came time to load up the car seat, I felt every emotion you can imagine all rolled into one. But it manifested in tears and I didn’t have the ability to put it in words. My mom knew my heart, she knew the experience and she knew I wasn’t crying because I didn’t think I could handle this situation, I was crying because we were leaving our home and we were going to miss our family.

I hugged Cooper’s primary nurse goodbye and she whispered in my ear, “don’t worry mama, you’ll do great.” I thanked her over and over for everything she did for my sweet baby, everything she gave him and everything she was for us. And then when there was nothing left, I climbed in the back seat and prepared myself for the ride home.

It was easily one of the most emotional days I experienced in the NICU, so much joy came from hearing we were headed home, there was a lot of uncertainty about what was to come, so much sadness over leaving a place we came to love and an exorbitant amount of gratitude for the people who crossed our path on this journey! Leaving the NICU was a lot like coming into it: bittersweet.

Getty image by hansenn

Originally published: May 3, 2018
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