Time does funny things. Funny-depressing, not funny-ha-ha.
During the first few day of Charlie's life, I learned he would soon have twin roommates. Their mother was hospitalized on bed rest for preterm labor, and was expected to deliver within a matter of weeks, if not days. Her due date was mere days away from mine. I was more excited to hear this than I should have been — twins! of the same gestational age! expected any day now! every bit as premature! — and thought that if they arrived soon, I could covertly observe them, creeping up to their isolettes to make visual confirmation of their inferiority to Charlie.
On Monday the twins arrived at last. (IVF twins, we learned, since one of the nurses asked, in what should have been her outside voice. The mother answered in what should have been her Washington-rallying-the-miserable-frostbitten-troops-at-Valley-Forge voice, so we couldn't help but hear.)
Paul and I were there to visit Charlie during what we've come to refer to as baby-bugging time. Because premature babies need uninterrupted sleep, their care is clustered — here they're disturbed only every three hours, when the nurses change diapers, take vital signs, and deliver a payload of breast milk as needed. Baby-bugging time, when Charlie's already being antagonized, is when we're able to hold him.
We didn't hold Charlie that day. The arrival of the twins involved every nurse in the NICU, two doctors, and two physician's assistants. They weren't frantic, but they were purposeful and focused, working in impressive concert to examine and settle the newest babies quickly. I love holding our baby, watching him blink at me, seeing his mouth move in sucking motions as he sleeps on Paul's lap, but that day it seemed slightly less urgent than, you know, making sure two smaller newborns were actually getting enough oxygen.
And I thought again, I'm so glad we didn't have twins. Having one baby prematurely has been agonizing enough. How much more grueling to worry about two?
The next evening the mother of the twins was in the NICU, along with her husband and her parents. The longer I stood watching Charlie, overhearing their conversation, the more envious I felt — not that they had two babies, but that they apparently didn't feel worried, or that their joy was so strong that doubt couldn't intrude. That the mother was immediately able to visit them and hold them. That she instantly found them adorable. But mostly that she got two more weeks than I did.
I've mentioned before how critical two weeks can be in the development of a baby. In babies on the edge of viability, two extra weeks mean the difference between a chance at life and a certain death shortly after birth. At Charlie's age, the survival rates don't increase appreciably with increasing gestation because they're already so high. But even so, a couple of additional weeks in the womb can mean a much shorter stay in the NICU. In Charlie's case, two extra weeks would have left his lungs in much better shape — and would have found us safely at home for his delivery.
There's no point dwelling on what might have been, because, after all, it wasn't. But it's impossible not to wish. Two weeks. That's not long. But for a baby, it's practically forever. It could have made such a difference.
Some people say that the hardest part of having a premature baby is leaving the hospital once they've been released while their babies stay behind. For me, that wasn't hard. First, the overall feeling of unreality that surrounded the entire experience was still intact — I could hardly believe I'd even been pregnant to begin with, much less that I'd gotten so sick, had a baby, and was miraculously well within the space of a few short days. Second, Charlie so obviously needed medical care that I couldn't regret leaving him in hands more capable than mine. Finally, I thought there'd surely be so much more that was harder.
A couple of days ago my suspicion was confirmed. There was something harder for me.
Since Charlie arrived at the NICU, several babies have come and gone. Most are in the NICU for no more than a couple of days. They might be ill, but not seriously. The ones I've seen aren't early or small. They're 7 or 8 pounds, and they get sent home fast. If they're in an open bed, if the handmade sign taped to the side of their cot says they weigh twice what Charlie does, I hardly register their presence — they make almost no impression as I trip all over myself in my hurry to get to Charlie's nook. They're not there long enough to inspire my curiosity.
But other babies make a deeper impression. They're the ones who've been there longer — say, a week, ten days — but who arrived after Charlie did. I've seen their parents there with them, learning to bathe and feed them. I've nodded pleasantly to the parents as I make my beeline for the isolette at the quiet end of the room. And I've seen those babies strapped securely into their infant carriers. The nurses hug the tearful parents, wish them luck, and make them promise to return with photos and updates. And then the babies go home.
That'll be Charlie one day, I know, and that'll be me leaking grateful snot onto the scrubs of a hapless nurse. It won't even be that long from now in absolute terms. Weeks, only weeks. But when the days blur together as they currently do, with the hours punctuated by trips to the hospital, bouts with the breast pump, and phone calls from anxious friends wondering whether no news is good news, it feels like fucking forever.