My wife had an unusually nightmarish pregnancy. For roughly eight months she was more or less in constant physical torment. Her body had turned into an instrument of self-torture. She was always feeling sick and exhausted, wondering how much longer she could endure such pervasive and all-consuming pain. Seriously, there are demonic possessions that are easier on the body and spirit than my wife's pregnancy. If my wife's pregnancy were a form of torture it would have been outlawed by the Geneva Convention long ago.
So when we discovered that our baby would be born about a month prematurely, I had mixed emotions. I was happy that my wife's agony would soon be coming to an end, but like all parents of premature babies, I worried about our offspring's health. We spent a lot of time in the hospital before our baby was born and then immediately afterwards, when our otherwise healthy baby wasn't able to eat independently and had to spend an uncertain two weeks in the NICU (for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) until he was able to consume food on his own.
Looking back, I have extraordinary fondness for the hospital where my wife delivered, both because the quality of care was so high but also because that's where the glorious adventure of being a parent began and that's where I met my son for the first time. It's strange how you can feel nostalgia for a time that was so uncertain and wracked with anxiety but when my wife, baby and I were invited to a NICU reunion at the hospital where my wife gave birth we accepted in a heartbeat.
Our boy was among the biggest and healthiest babies in the NICU. He was born at just about seven and a half pounds and was fundamentally healthy; the hospital was keeping him in the NICU as a precaution. Other babies there were not as lucky. Some of the other babies were tiny and needed to be kept alive through elaborate and complicated-looking devices. My heart went out to those parents who trudged into the NICU day after day, desperately hoping for the best and bracing themselves for the worst.
So part of the appeal of the NICU reunion lies in the opportunity to see those babies who seemed so fragile and delicate in the hermetically sealed world of the hospital look healthy and robust out in the sunshine. Accordingly, the afternoon of the party was a gorgeous summer day as the parents and babies who had shared the intense emotional gauntlet of premature delivery gathered underneath a big tent to celebrate how far they'd come.
Parenthood has a way of forcing you to live in the present, to re-orient your way of thinking so that you're forever reacting to your child in the moment instead of obsessing about the future or mourning the mistakes of the past.
The assembled dined on hot dogs and potato chips and drank soda pop and shared stories of the NICU and everything that followed. We sat opposite a couple whose son was five months premature and weighed only two pounds at birth. The couple spent five months in the NICU and though their son was still connected to an oxygen tank, he was otherwise an adorably chubby little man with eminently squeezable cheeks.
Obviously, our story was nowhere as intense or as dramatic as theirs but just as parenthood connects you not just with everyone else in the world who is a parent but also with your own parents and parents throughout the ages, the experience of a premature birth bonds you with everyone else who has known that early parenting hurdle.
At the reunion I delighted in the seeming incongruity of so many tattooed and muscle-bound men, hard cases who exude toughness and steely determination, tenderly holding their babies in ways that conveyed their obvious love towards them. Parenthood has a way of forcing you to live in the present, to re-orient your way of thinking so that you're forever reacting to your child in the moment instead of obsessing about the future or mourning the mistakes of the past.
It can honestly be hard to even remember what my life was like before I became a father. It is that transformative of an experience, but at the reunion I was able to reflect back on what an extraordinary, yet commonplace journey my family and I had traveled from the worry and delicacy of our time in the hospital to our overwhelming pride and delight in the strapping, beautiful and wonderful eight-month-old our baby has grown into.
Considering the age of our son and the other babies there, it would probably be woefully premature to consider the reunion a happy ending but the mere fact that all these babies who needed to be watched and cared for so carefully and deliberately following their birth were now out in the sun enjoying hot dogs and soda pop seemed like ample cause for celebration.