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Preemie playgroup

There's something off about B. I'm not sure what it is. Something about his features and his expressions. The first time I saw him I wondered if it was fetal alcohol syndrome. Then I saw his mother, whose own features are similarly off, and whose speech is slow and labored. I wonder now if it's some heritable condition.

B.'s feet were twisted in utero. He now wears ankle braces and has, predictably, some difficulty walking, running, and jumping. As best I can tell, he's not yet talking, at least not intelligibly to a stranger's ear. He is three years old.

Today there is a visiting physical therapist, who offers to show us some exercises. "The handouts I brought are really more appropriate for a baby Charlie's age," she says apologetically as she watches Charlie pull up on the collar of my shirt. "B.'s probably a little old for them."

"No, that's okay," B.'s mother says. "Developmentally he's like a 14-month-old."

B., like Charlie, was born at about 30 weeks.


E. and G. are twins. They're about 18 months old, I'd guess, and I'm sure they're ART babies. The only reason I think so is because they're fraternal — although I know there are plenty of fraternal twins conceived without intervention, I immediately and rather casually assume, as if it were at all important, as if I had any business even wondering.

I never quite know why their mother is here. Her boys seem gloriously normal in every way, trying doggedly to scramble up the scaled-down slide. They were born five weeks early, she says. Five weeks. It seems like nothing in a room full of kids born ten weeks early or more. Or it seems like nothing to me, anyway.

But then I don't know what E. and G. contended with in their earliest days. I understand how radically different a baby's course can be from another's, even of similar gestational age — witness Charlie and B., for example. I know how quickly things can change, how there is simply no foolproof predictor of outcome, how impossible it is to presume a single thing.

To her, to her family, it couldn't have been nothing. Preemies never are.


V. is tiny, blonde, and quick as an electron. She zings around the room, banking off the vinyl-covered bolsters, jumping fearlessly into the ball pit in the corner.

Last time we saw V., she had just made the charts — at three years old, she was finally in the first percentile for height and weight. Now she's in the twenties. She has several food sensitivities that make it challenging for her to gain weight. Her doctors have prescribed Double-Stuf Oreos and heavy cream ad lib.

When we last saw V.'s father, he said there was some confusion about her gestational age at birth. V. was born at either 27.5 weeks or 23.5 weeks. He explained that no one was sure because certain functions that should have been present for a 27.5-weeker were not, while certain functions that shouldn't have been present for a 23.5-weeker were. This ambiguity seems incredible to me, but then the mode of Charlie's conception and the obsessive monitoring in early pregnancy have warped my perceptions considerably.

V. was 1 lb. 1 oz. at birth. She was never supposed to walk, her father says, as we watch her scale the wooden play fort. He's proud of her, and awed.

So am I — she's remarkable — but I commit a gaffe. In the course of conversation I tell him I know of a baby who was born at 13 oz. This baby is young yet, and there's no way to tell what challenges she'll confront as she grows, but she's doing very well, scoring within normal limits for her adjusted age when assessed for cognitive development.

In telling him this, I mean to share his appreciation, to marvel along with him that babies even tinier than V. was can not only survive but flourish. But he seems suddenly defensive, reflexively protective of V.'s achievements.

The next time someone asks, he solidly answers that V. was a 23.5-weeker, not mentioning the possible discrepancy in dates.