Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Plate of Agar

Dear Ellie,

Your adjusted age is now 5 months, which means its time for another round-off of size comparison pictures!

From the looks of it, we'll have to stretch Oliver the Eel out a bit in order for you to fit inside!  Even though you've never exceeded the 10th percentile in length and your head is still up around 80th, you look conspicuously different than just 3 months ago.  We even got to compare you to some other preemies (who are still before their due dates!)  We took a visit back to St. Mary's hospital because we wanted to do a swallow study, which you passed with flying colors.  While there, we took you by the NICU.  It was the first time I'd been back to the NICU since we took you home.  

Going into it, I was a bit cavalier about the whole thing, I think.  I thought I'd cruise in with you and your mother, chat it up with the nurses, and look around fondly.  But that wasn't how I felt at all, once we got there.  I wasn't prepared for how taken aback I'd be at seeing the NICU 2 preemies.  Even though they were around 4 times bigger than you when you were born, they stilled looked miniscule compared to how you look now.  But the sights I think struck me in a rather shallow way.  Hearing the sounds--- the bleeps and blips and dainty cries of tiny babies--- stirred so many more emotions.

And again, there was another sense that struck even deeper.  The sounds were second to the smells.  It's said that smell is linked to the limbic cortex of our brains: the seat of our primal emotions, far removed from all of that thinking matter that is stacked on top of it.  Maybe that's why the smells, most keenly, brought back all of the emotions we felt during your time there.  The pervasive scent of hand sanitizer, so thick in the air that it soaks into your clothes.  The soapy smell of the washing station.  The smell... of something that shouldn't be born yet.      

Weird, huh?  I guess I never mentioned this before, but the smell that really unsettled me the most was the smell of you, a fetus.  It was an omnipresent smell early on while I stood next to you.  Faint, but unmistakable.  I remember on the very first day after you were born, you were completely enveloped in your isolette by a warm blanket of humidity that regulated your body temperature and protected your skin.  Because you baked in that isolette 24/7 for quite some time, the atmosphere inside became saturated with the smell of... you.  And you didn't smell like a baby.  You smelled like... unflavored gelatin or a plate of agar.  A sort of... fleshy, living smell.  Like what a washed, sterile, organ must smell like were it somehow kept alive on its own.  I remember pondering that smell those first few days.  How the smell of a baby was so pleasant but the smell of a fetus was so ambiguous.  I imagine our human senses never adapted to make the smell of a living fetus pleasant because we humans were never supposed to smell one to begin with.  And so when we came back to the NICU last week, I caught a whiff of that smell.  And all of those early days after your birth came spilling back into my brain.  

If you've read all of my letters to you this far, maybe it seems tedious by this point that I can't stop thinking about what happened to you this past year.  Maybe you think I should just forget it and move on.  But I want you to understand a very important thing that infuses the lives of you, your mother, and myself.  As we watch you slowly grow into a human being--- as smiles turn to laughs and swats turn to grasps--- its impossible to ignore the fact that you were almost not here at all.  

To a lot of people, I imagine parenthood might have a certain inevitability to it.  Something bland and promised to them.  But to me, after all that you've been through, having you here with me feels like I've been given some spectacular prize or won some kind of unlikely lottery.  And why shouldn't I want to feel this way, always?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Clockmaker's Illustration

Dear Ellie,

Creative pursuits have always come easily to me.  Writing, acting, musicianship... sadly though, I've always been an exceedingly mediocre artist.  For this reason, I've always envied artists.  I wish I could write you stories and then illustrate them myself, but given that my artistic skill hasn't improved since my days in Kindergarten (I gave up when my very earnest attempts to color between the lines met with continual failure) I've settled on the next best thing.

Over the past two months, I've had the pleasure of seeing your stories come to life, though not by my own hand.  As I mentioned previously, I looked very carefully for an illustrator who's style I thought captured your stories best, and Tze immediately felt like a natural fit.  He was very accommodating and over the course of around 100 e-mail exchanges we discussed which scenes should be illustrated and how.  The process was quite a bit more involved than I thought, but quite enjoyable.  Tze insisted on doing the best that he could.  He wanted the illustrations to match what I'd imagined, and I'm so incredibly happy with the final results.  Each illustration involved numerous iterations, with some illustrations involving as many as a dozen different sketches and rough drafts.  Some stories took quite some time to get right, so much so that I felt bad about requesting changes.  The Girl in the Sphere was surprisingly troublesome, but with other stories, like Ludwig von Whiskers Paws, I could think of very few ways to improve them.         

Of all your stories, I was looking forward to seeing the final product of The Clockmaker's Daughter most.  I've read the story so many times to you that I can recite it by heart.  From the first sketch to the final illustration, Tze always seemed to render the scene better than my own imagination could.  I can't wait to frame it and put it up on the wall next to your crib:

The Clockmaker works tirelessly through the night...

I plan on commissioning an illustration for each of your stories, though I probably shouldn't be too prolific with my writing.  I might write myself straight into the poor house!  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Barbarians at the Gate

Here you are, being adorable in a 
picture I should have cropped better...

Here you are, critically examining your grandmother

You are starting to rock the whole sitting up thing, 
though still refusing to admit that arms should have 
anything to do with it.

Dear Ellie,

Don't let those smiley pictures up there fool you.  There is trouble afoot.  As it turns out, all of your preemie problems aren't quite over with.  All of the things that wracked you most in the NICU and threatened your life have disappeared, but all of the things you utterly conquered in the NICU have returned to the gates, and now they are bellowing like barbarians.  Before your due date, you had an iron clad gut and an appetite that roared like a lion.  Unfortunately, over the past 3 months that appetite has become more like kitten's whimper.  Every two weeks or so, you get impatient with the way that we feed you and demand that we try some other, more complicated method to feed you... otherwise you refuse to eat.  First, you wanted to be carried in our arms.  Then you wanted to be carried in the Ergo.  Then you wanted to be fed in the Ergo while being walked up and down the stairs.  Last week, even that failed, and now, to get you to eat, your mother and I have to team up.  One of us walks you around in the Ergo and the other dances and sings 1990's cartoon theme songs.  You seem partial to Animaniacs.  I'm getting the impression that this is all some kind of ruse.  Like, you're a little infantile Queen, making outlandish decrees to your subjects for your own entertainment: "Today shalt be standith on thine head, day!  Now standith on thine heads or I shalt take thine heads!"  Given the current rate of escalation, I'm afraid that two weeks from now, the only way to feed you will be while riding a unicycle or surfing.  I'm not very good at either.  As your mother aptly put it, you don't need a parent right now.  You need a clown.  

Sadly, your mother and I can't always be here at the same time to entertain you while you eat so that means... you're going hungry.  Your mother keeps a spreadsheet on the subject and it appears you've even gone hungry enough to lose weight this previous month.  Scary.  On the upside, you stashed enough acorns in your cheeks, legs, and tummy to last a good chunk of the Winter.  But if these finicky habits continue for too much longer, we could be in a bad situation...    

So we're throwing every dart we've got and hope to hit a bulls-eye.  Swallow studies, feeding specialists, feeding clinics, you name it.  We don't want to wait any longer to get to the bottom of this.  We took a trip to the pediatrician recently and it was somewhat of a wake up call for me.  While there, you cried when the doctor picked you up with her cold hands.  When your shrieking started getting worse, the doctor reached for the bottle I'd prepared, thinking it would comfort you like it would most babies.  Once the nipple hit your lips, you had an utterly nauseated expression on your face and promptly threw up on everything.  This is really when I realized the extent of your feeding issues.  Eating isn't supposed to be a dreadful, anxious activity for a baby, yet it so often is for you.  Whenever I feed you, I feel like I'm walking on eggshells.  It's supposed to be the opposite.  Sadly, we still don't know what the underlying cause is.  We thought at first that it was reflux, but the gastrointestinal specialist officially ruled that out.

If worse comes to worst, we could always snake another tube down into your stomach like back in the NICU.  I've been criticized by parents of full-term babies for not finding that prospect absolutely horrifying.  I guess you get used to these things.

So anyway, your mother and I are see-sawing between intense worry and optimism.  Optimism, because despite the fact that you SHOULD be hungry (and irritable as a result), you are still a smiling, laughing, active baby that is hitting all of her important milestones.

You discovered that you had feet not too long ago.  That was a big one.  You've been rolling over on a whim when you want a better look at stuff.  And of course, you've gotten much, much better at sitting!  Other milestones include the throat-punching-daddy milestone and the grabbing-daddy's-glasses milestone and the stabbing-daddy's-newly-exposed-eye milestone.  I'm still waiting for the recoil-in-pain-at-having-grabbed-daddy's-stubble milestone, but patience in all things I suppose...

Friday, October 3, 2014

Bringing Your Stories to Life

Dear Ellie,

I wanted to write you at least 1 story each month, but I've fallen just a little bit behind.  I have 3 in the works right now, actually, each one quite different from one another.  The first is a rather comical story that was inspired by a stupendously large, greasy, and delicious sandwich that I ate awhile back.  I was quite determined to finish the thing, even though it probably nearly killed me.  To an ant, I surmised, that sandwich must have seemed like a vast continent.  So I hatched a story about the medieval city of Hamburg.  A city, invaded by an evil viking king, hungry for conquest.  Because the city is a place of cooks, chefs, butchers and bakers, they have no standing army.  So instead of fighting the king, they invite him in and challenge them to eat a colossal sandwich, assuming that the king will be too proud and too hungry for glory to turn down the challenge.  As the wicked king observes the sandwich, it goes something like this:

"A sandwich most fine lay on the platter before him.  A sandwich, indeed, that sprawled like a fertile kingdom.  There were forests of lettuce, rivers of grease, valleys of mayonnaise and mountains of beef.  Lakes made of ketchup and an ocean of gravy, upon which sailed proudly a grilled mushroom navy.  Volcanoes of turkey that spewed molten cheese and grasslands of spinach that were rolling with peas.  Salt plains of pickles, draped like a shroud.  Tall peaks of peppers where steam swirled like clouds."

The second story I was working on was a bit bleaker.  It's about the last woman in the world, who stands upon the last piece of land in the world, all else having been devoured by the ocean.

And the last, of course, is a Halloween story.  I suspect I'll have to finish that one first before Halloween rolls around!  It's called The Curse of the Crimson Pumpkins.  It's about jack-o-lanterns, stained red, which begin appearing in the woods, all which are lit with a glowing red flame.  Eering happenings and vivid nightmares haunt those who go too close to investigate.

So anyway, I have a good excuse as to why I haven't finished any of these stories in a timely fashion.  I've been working with a talented young illustrator from Australia to make illustrations for all of your stories: Tze-Chiang Lim.

Here are a few that are finished.  I hope they are all to familiar to you by the time you read this.

Here is one of the illustrations from "A Place Between Worlds."  
It's the scene where Elsa and Fredrick are venturing 
forth into the woods in search of the immortals.

Here, Akantha at last finds The Man at the Edge of the World.


The Girl in the Sphere wanders the world.  

Here we have Azri and his family at last returning to the plains of 
Anatolia to plant a new generation beneath The Golden Oak. 

When they are all finished, I'll hang them in your room so that you'll have little windows of fantasy to peer into throughout your childhood.


Dear Ellie,

I still visit a lot of the online preemie communities that I was a part of back when you were in the hospital.  Many people helped me back then, and I was hoping I could return the favor as new parents passed through in need of support.  At any one time, there is always 10 stories unfolding.  Some of which end happily, some ambiguously, some sadly.  Each time that I see one that ends sadly, I think back to when we thought you would be born before viability.  I remember preparing my mind for each stage of grief, and at the very end of that maturing grief, there was a sort of beauty glowing behind that loss.

There is one baby that I've been following.  He's lingered so long on "the edge" that I doubt he will make it.  It's bothered me, to see him fight so hard for nothing.  But is it for nothing, even if he perishes?  I wonder whether a life, however short, can still have meaning.  Can still be seen brightly in that short moment of time it exists, like an ember that rises above the messy flame of life that inhabits the Earth.

Below is a poem I started to write months ago after talking to a friend about a baby she had lost.  I didn't know quite how to finish it until today.


The Ember

A fire flickers, burning bright,
Gasping air and coughing life,
Amid that flame, an ember is born,
It flickers dimly, then takes form.

It's cast above by drafts of heat,
Buoyed by love, and tears, and grief, 
To grace the sky it travels far, 
To dwell so brief among the stars.

For seconds short, constellations change,
One star added, to an ageless range,
An immortal moment, moving fast,
Soon to live, forever, amid the past.

Its glory spent, its fire gone,
It pops just once in forlorn song,
Accepting death, its time is yet,
It circles down in pirouettes,

To rejoin, forever, the flame.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

4 Months

Dear Ellie,

All of the online baby forums are spamming my inbox which means, of course, we're crossing an important threshold: you've officially wiggled into month 4 of your developmental life.  It's bewildering to think that you've been in our lives EIGHT months, already.  Your mother and I rather enjoy watching the progression of your physical development.  For instance...

Here you are at -1 month

And near your due date

And at 2 months, when you were at your biggest weight to length ratio

And at 3 months

And at 4 months

Its so remarkable to observe the differences between now and even just 2 months ago.  One big difference is how quickly your legs and arms elongated.  Two months ago, you looked like a little grub worm with tiny appendages that flailed about.  Now?  They are long, lanky, and move fluidly.  Also, even in these pictures, you can see such a difference in your expressions between 4 and 2 months.  Sure, by 2 months you were smiling a little bit, but you could only really see it in your mouth.  Now, your entire face lights up.  The smiles faded over the previous week, and we'd wondered whether you were shifting toward a conventional, bratty baby.  Now that you are over that nasty little cold, the smiles have come tumbling back.  You've taken to full throated laughing and giggling and devious expressions that seem to say: "Shall we jump on the bed some more?"

Everything has become interesting, now.  Aluminum cans and pencils and earphones and kitty cats and zucchini... which means, also, you've learned how to get bored.  You've begun to learn how to cry when you want food, but you still seem to fuss more often when you are bored.  Apparently, your mind wants more nourishment than your body.  

Physically, you've still got one minor issue that has been making things difficult.  Ever since the NICU days, your shoulders have been tense, making it harder for you to raise your arms.  That means its harder to flip yourself, harder to crawl, harder to reach for objects, harder to sit up on your own...  Curiously. that hasn't prevented you from meeting all of the important milestones on time.  Every time we think you might be falling behind, you use some other unknown muscle group that we didn't know you had in order to hit that milestone on time.  On your belly, you tend to use your back instead of your arms.

You've made some headway with elbow balancing, but 
that ginormous head of yours is hard to hold up!

And then there is flipping...

Here you are.  Ellie the Barbarian conquers flipping not 
by elegance and grace, but through sheer hatred of Tummy Time.

I haven't seen a lot of babies on their first flip, but my impression is that it should be a bit more... arm-ish.  Instead, your arms are worse than just dead weight.  They clutch the sheets while your legs heave and thrust like a grasshopper stuck in a Venus Fly Trap.  Rather than just pushing with your hands, you faceplant and use your head as a brace as your feet thrust.  If you fail to flip, you instead slide across the bed with each push of your legs, dragging your drooling face along the sheets, leaving a nice moist slick not unlike a snail's or a slug's.  With enough time and persistence, you can rock your face back and forth enough times to get the momentum to flip.  I'd complement you on "using your head" but I'm not sure the term was meant for that specific context.    

Despite meeting all of these milestones (albeit using creative measures), you've had a few issues that appeared to be getting worse.  The big one involved eating.  A little over a month ago, as I mentioned in a previous letter, we couldn't get you to eat while sitting down.  If we'd offer you the bottle, you'd immediately turn your head or swat it away.  The only way you'd eat?  Mobile.  Well, it turns out that feeding you like this could cause exploding baby syndrome or something if we do it to long (come to think of it, the problem might have been speech related, who knows for sure).  This left us in a dilemma.  We could try to break the bad habit, feed you on our laps, and watch you starve or we could keep feeding you in the Ergo carrier and you'd eventually explode.
Perhaps we weren't seeing the problem from the right angle, we thought.  Maybe you were just getting bored of breast milk day in and day out.  Maybe you were ready for something solid.  Granted, you've still got a ways to go to get to 6 months, but we were running out of ideas.  So we broke out the baby food.  Were you, indeed, itching to get your gums wet on some sweet potato puree or plumb pudding?  Well...      

... Not really.  By the end of the episode, judging by how much was on the bib, on your face, and back in the bowl, I estimate you ate at least around 20 percent of what was offered to you.  And I use the word "ate" liberally.  "Diffusion" would be a more descriptive term.  That is, the food sort of just diffused from locations of higher concentration to lower concentration, and since there was no food in your stomach to begin with, it only stands to reason that a certain amount ended up down in there.  So much for milk boredom being the cause of your eating issues...

Fortunately, however, you just so happened to start taking the bottle from time to time on our laps.  Even quite eagerly.  Babies work in mysterious ways.             

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bad Daddy

Dear Ellie,

I've been a bad daddy.  The first bad thing I did was take you out to public, germy places.  The grocery store, the biolab once, and even... briefly... through a daycare center.  Granted you were tucked away tightly in the Ergo so that contact would be minimal, it was still probably a bad idea.  Unfortunately, sometimes things come up for work on the days I'm taking care of you and the only way to deal with them is to pack you up and take you along... but sometimes I just want to show off my baby, too.  That's the second bad thing.  Fatherhood Vanity.

  Here we are at the bio labs, where parents drop off their germy, snot-nosed 
college kids for the day.  One of those germy, snot-nosed college kids 
may have been patient 0!  Kerry, my friend and coworker, was a 
big follower of your story and I thought it would be selfish 
to hog all of your supernatural cuteness all to myself!  So we took a visit...

Well, it turns out you paid the price for my cavalier attitude.  I got sick a few days ago and before I knew what had hit me, I'd gotten you sick, too.  There must be something about the earliest phases of respiratory illnesses--- right before you know you've got it--- that makes you kiss your children excessively all over their faces.  A brilliant evolutionary adaptation, on the part of viruses I suppose.  Anyway, we noticed that you started getting finicky during feeds.  And then the moment we feared came.  The crying came in a deluge.  You were sick, for sure.  Weeping, inconsolable, snorting and gasping on mucus... at least that is how it was recounted to me.  In the spirit of suffering with you, we both were feverish, weepy, and dripping with mucus concurrently.  

 Here you are, letting us know the extent 
of your unhappiness

A lull in the storm.  Is the worst over??

Nope, right back to crying!

We've always feared the prospect of you getting sick with a respiratory illness because of your chronic lung disease.  It just seemed like it would make a bad situation worse.  In the end though, it seems you've weathered the episode better than I have, evidenced by the fact that I cried and whined at least as much as you had.  Maybe you didn't inherit my epic-ly wimpy immune system, after all.

Anyway, because I'd taken you around places and because you'd been to the Onam party recently, we didn't know whether you'd gotten the bug from me or someplace else.  That means you're on Daddy quarantine until I'm well.  Which, if history holds firm, will be awhile.  While you were once greeted by my broad smile, you are now greeted with this: 

"Come give Daddy a kiss...  *SNIFF*"