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?

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