Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Father's Humble Wish, Part 2

A Father's Humble Wish, Part 1

Dear Ellie,

One year ago, you were born.  As of now, you are too young to read any of the letters I've been writing you, but that’s okay.  I’ve been writing them to the Ellie of the future.  It’s my sincerest hope that, one day, I will hand you a thumb drive filled with these letters.  And then, I hope, you will browse through them casually--- that you will read about your first four months--- and smile at all of the things that you see.  Not necessarily at the hardships you have endured, but at all of the fun and whimsy that came to inhabit your childhood.  Things that would not have existed had they not been spun to life by those hardships.  "So that is how the Clockmaker's Daughter came to be," you might say as you read.  "And the Girl in the Sphere.  And right there is ground zero for The Smith Family Rules of Parental Conduct.  And that tradition of pranks on April Fools.  And Oliver the Eel."

And when you are done discovering so many origins of the Smith Family mythos, I hope too that you will understand more about your mother and I.  How those earliest days with you turned what we once thought was the stone of our character back to soft clay.  How you have shaped us as much as we have shaped you.

I look back in awe at how much my hopes for you have changed.  How our multitude of fears for your future have slowly faded with the months.  The day you were born, I remember hoping only that you would live at least one more day.  I was terrified to wish for anything bigger.  It felt like I was blowing air on smoldering kindling.  Blow too softly and it would starve of oxygen, but blow too hard and that delicate flame might turn to smoke and vanish.

But now?  The flame is bright.  Already, all of the things I was too afraid to hope for have begun to emerge in your character.  An insatiable sense of curiosity.  A love of the natural world and of books.  A boisterous spirit that never grows tired of fun and play and an insistence on being joyous on the slimmest of excuses.  I've come to admire the two dispositions that have so quickly come to dominate your character.  The first side is quiet.  Focused.  Contemplative.  The one that comes forth when observing natural beauty or things of complexity, like when we take our walks on the nature trail and you reach out to grasp a leaf and gently turn it over in your hands without plucking it from the limb.  The second side is gregarious and jovial.  The one that we see when there are games to be played or family to embrace, like when you grab the cheeks of your grandparents and burst into a smile.  A smile that cannot be contained merely to your face, at which point your entire body quivers and bobs and shakes.

I've never seen so much unapologetic joy as I've seen from you.

As you surpass all of our expectations, conquering developmental milestones weeks or months ahead of time, I have little doubt as to why.  I remember looking at you in those earliest ultrasounds when you were just the size of strawberry.  I remember wondering whether that energy we witnessed was some glimpse of who you might be.  I wondered again that same thing when we saw you flailing about in the days after your birth despite being smothered--- and cut through--- by wires and IV's and terrible odds.  Seeing you now at one year old,  I know now that what we saw before was true.  There is a vital energy to everything you do.  Like your mother and like your father, you are possessed by the sincerest joy of being alive.

And so my biggest wish is that this joy will never escape you.  It is a joy that makes tiny pleasures large.  A joy that redeems every sorrow.  During your 100 days in the hospital, when it seemed all happiness had been chased from our hearts, seeing that joy in you rekindled it in us, and what should now be memories drowned in anger, fear, and bitterness instead became memories aloft with fantasy, beauty, and mysticism.  I marvel at how I can look back at those hundred days with a sense of fondness, and then I marvel at you.

I’ll be writing many more letters for you, but know too that I am writing them with you.  After all, it is you that has inspired me to put my thoughts to paper.  You, that has turned up fresh, vast new tracts of my mind that I never knew existed.  A million new thoughts flit through my brain.  My heart is resident to a host of emotions that were always meant to dwell together.  Love.  Pride.  Tenderness.  Whenever I look down at you, I find that I have never had more things to say, and for every word I write to you, it is joined by tears of joy.

I love you, and I’ll write to you again soon.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Viking vs the Sandwich

Dear Ellie,

Here is a story for you that I technically started a year ago when your mother was on bedrest.  We were about 4 days into it and I hadn't eaten anything but yucky hospital food for the better part of a week.  That's when I encountered a sandwich most fine.  It was like an oasis in a desert, and when I took that first bite, it was as though it was satiating not just my hunger, but my soul (slight exaggeration).  I knew then that I wanted to write you a story about a delectable sandwich.  I plugged at it here and there for months and one year later, I came up with this story.  It's about a city of cooks and chefs who, when faced with an invasion by vikings, unleash a secret weapon.  Here it is: The Viking vs The Sandwich.


Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim

In a far away land in a far away time, there once was a city on the River of Rhine.  Hamburg it was called, and it was famous throughout the land, but for reasons that might surprise the typical man.  Some cities are known for their wine or their sheep.  Their armies or statues or hills that are steep.  But Hamburg was different, it was known for some other thing, and its the reason why they defeated the worst of viking kings.  

Hamburg had never fought in a war of their own, they were peaceful and loved for the good will they had sown.  But when down from the North came Warlord Ungar the Stout, there were fear in the hearts of all whom lay South.  They sailed into Lubreck and defeated their fleet.  They smashed through the armies of Cologne and of Preetz.  After sacking ten cities and torching their lands, the city of Hamburg was next in Ungar's plan.

The Count who ruled Hamburg knew nothing of war, but for Ungar he still had a battle in store.  Yet in the face of a viking army, the townsfolk were in a hopeless mood, for they were known not for armies nor weapons, but simply good food.  They were cooks and brewers, waiters and bakers, chefs--- armed not with swords--- but simply salt shakers.  How could they stand against an enemy so strong?  An army of vikings, who would be at their city before long.

The people of Hamburg came out to the street, to hear the Lord Count give them his very best speech: "We've never gone to a battle but we're brave nonetheless.  And after all, haven't we faced very similar tests?  Ungar has faced flaming arrows, but we've faced flaming stoves.  He's faced burning cities, but we've faced burning coals!  Sharp swords are scary, but so too are kitchen knives.  He faces dangers every day, but as a chef, so do I!"

Inspired by his speech, the people formed war bands, but with no real weapons, they grabbed whatever at hand.

There were farmers with pitchforks.  Grocers with totes.  Butchers with cleavers and scary meat hooks.  With mitts on their hands and pots on their heads, bakers manned catapults which hurled stale french bread.  Waiters and waitresses who were used to such toil, stood on the ramparts with hot cooking oil.  The restaurants' best chefs and the kitchens' best cooks, donned their best frying pans and thickest cook books.  With the bravest of hearts they prepared for the fight, but Lydia the Steward shook her head at the sight.

"This is no army," said Lydia to her brother the Count.  "We stand not a chance if we fight Ungar the Stout.  We should fight him on our terms if we're to beat such a man.  We should use what we're best at, and I have just the plan."

The Count leaned in closer, intrigue in his eyes, "I'm all ears, dear sister, just what have you devised?"

There was a moment of pause.  A second of suspense.

"The Sandwich," Lydia said, her lips tight.  Her eyes tense. 

"The Sandwich?" the Count gasped.  "The one that killed Uncle Geoffry the Broad?"

"No," Lydia said, "Geoffry ate too much bacon from wild hog."

"The Sandwich," the Count said, "The one that killed Cousin Edith of Wales?"

"No," Lydia said.  "She died from too much pig tail."

"The Sandwich," the Count said. "The one that killed loveable Aunt Beaty?"

"No," Lydia said.  "She died of her type two diabetes."

At that, the Count threw up his hands, finally gave up, "Okay, dear Lydia, of what sandwich do you speak of?"

"Think back far," Lydia said.  "To a time most medieval.  To a time when our ancestors made a sandwich for a special kind of evil."

The Count shrugged, growing close to defeat, but when he finally understood he jumped to his feet.

"The Sandwich!" the Count declared.  "The one that killed Henry the Tyrant!"

"Yes," Lydia smiled.  "And his death by sandwich was no accident!  That's the one we'll cook.  We'll make it twice the size!  And when Ungar comes knocking we'll pretend its his prize."

"But how do you know he will eat it at all?  What good will it do?  It must be in his belly before the sandwich can strike true!"

"Trust me dear brother," said Lydia with a grin.  "A hunger for power, a hunger for land, and hunger for conquest... is not so different than a hunger for a sandwich."

So with hope in his heart, the Count sent out a decree.  And at that, the city folk set down their weapons and went on a cooking spree.

They cooked through the day and all through the night, but before long, Warlord Ungar had come with his army, looking for a fight.  From afar, the Count could see them come near, and the sight of the vikings made his knees knock in fear.

There were bezerkers with axes.  Men painted blue.  Huscarles with hairdoes with swords skewered through.  With scars on their faces and helms with big horns, soldiers howled warsongs with rigor and scorn.  The Jarls of the vikings who had most to gain, cracked whips over thralls who then bellowed in pain.  The navy's best oarsmen and the army's best Karls, battered on shields and let loose with fierce snarls.  With rage in their hearts they prepared with great might, but when they came to the walls there were no townsfolk to fight.  Instead, the gates were thrown open, and they were shocked at the sight.

On every road and alley, in every home and storefront, on every stove and table, there was every kind of cake and bread, every kind of meat and poultry, every kind of sweet and candy.  And then a voice called out from across the city's broad avenues.

"Welcome to our fair city," announced Lydia the Steward from the great hall.  "We welcome you with open arms, and offer a feast to you all!"

The vikings, tired and weary from a long campaign, had been driven by hunger to be nearly insane.  As their hot anger melted, their rage put at ease, they sheathed all their weapons and set out to feast.  The barbarians wasted no time shoveling food in their maws, and the townsfolk just stood there simply watching in awe.  As their hunger was sated, the vikings sat down for some wine, and decided they should be finished raiding the River of Rhine.  Tired of the conflict and a war that was deadly, the vikings grew chummy and even quite friendly.  The vikings and townsfolk together sang songs through the night, but Ungar the Stout was not pleased--- not at all--- by the sight.

The viking Warlord picked up his ax and barged through the great hall, for he was not happy, not happy at all.   He cared not one bit for how well he was treated, and instead barged over to where the Count was seated.  He plunged down his ax upon a plate of stew, and cleaved the whole table entirely in two.

The gesture was obvious, Ungar was displeased with his prize, and what else could one expect of a man so outsized?  His height was colossal and he smelled like a wolf den, and all things about him were as large as ten men: his muscles, his arms, his beard which was sullied, his double chin, his ego, his prominent belly.  He stood on a chair, shouted down at the Count, and all throughout the hall, townsfolk and viking alike, cowered before Ungar the Stout.

"We came here for conquest, and we feast in its stead!?  What glory is food when we came here for heads!?"

There was silence throughout the hall, a moment most tense, but then Lydia the Steward finally broke the suspense.

"You came to our city looking for a fight, but we offer, mighty Ungar, a special culinary delight.  A sandwich, who's majesty you have never seen before.  A sandwich, most regal, tasted by few lords."

Ungar the Stout bellowed in laughter.

"I've defeated a hundred men with my bare hands, I've conquered castles and cities in far away lands.
 When it's battles I lust for, why would I want such a thing?  I crave glory and conquest about which the glee-men will sing!  Seas to cross.  Warriors to maim.  Gold and treasure and kingdoms to claim.  A petty sandwich?  It poses no threat, if its only as challenging as the fork I must heft!"

"I'm so sorry, my lord, for I forgot to mention..." Lydia said, "within such a sandwich lie these things in contention.  We deliver it to you now, a spoil that's most grand, befitting a man whom so proudly stands."

At that, Lydia snapped her fingers.  The doors to the Great Hall flung wide.  In came waiters with cakes and with pies.  There were jesters juggling, dancers swirling, and behind it all, Ungar's prize.  When the sandwich rolled in, Ungar's eyes opened wide.  So large, was its girth, that his Jarls stood aside.

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 Viking Warlord's eyes grew hungry.  His belly rumbled.  In this sandwich were all the things he'd ever lusted for.  When his royal taster took a bite of the sandwich to test it for poison, his eyes rolled back in his head.  He went lurching straight for more, but then Ungar slapped him aside and on to the floor.

"Insolent wretch!  You would take what is mine?!" said Ungar to his taster.  He then looked wickedly at Lydia and the Count: "I'll conquer this sandwich and its mountains of meat, but your city is next on the menu, for my hunger is deep!"            

At that, the Warlord launched an assault on the sandwich.  His fingers pierced the bread like spears.  His incisors cut like swords, his molars gnashed like battering rams.  Pound after pound of the sandwich disappeared into his stomach and was seared by the acid like a green country side set alight in fire.  All watched in awe as inch after inch of the sandwich fell to his ruthless advance.

"What if the sandwich fails?" the Count whispered nervously to Lydia.  "You heard his cruel hex.  If he finishes the sandwich our fair city is next!"

But no sooner had he spoken than did the sandwich fight back.  Ungar's eyes bulged from his head.  From his mouth came a gasp.  He coughed in a panic and reached for a water glass.

"He's choking!" a loyal Jarl declared, and he rushed in to help.  But Ungar put out his hand, clenched it in a fist, and with force that was galling drove it straight at his chest.  He let out a cough that echoed through the rafters, and with an expression most cocksure continued eating with laughter.

It was a terrible war of attrition, but the sandwich put up a gallant fight.  Warlord Ungar would pay dearly for every small bite.

The lettuce was slippery and he once bit his tongue, spicy mustard struck fiercely at his eyes and it stung.  With each new advance that was made by the tyrant, grenades of brave pepper corns erupted in defiance.  The garlic held up in a fried onion bastion, firing a barrage of cloves to cause Ungar indigestion.  The cheese made a sacrifice, struck out at his esophagus, and brought about a painful case of acid reflux.  But despite the gallant efforts, there was soon one bite left.  The sandwich was weakened, beat down, and bereft.

Ungar lifted the last chunk of sandwich.  Brought it to his mouth to bite.  But his teeth would not open to deliver the killing strike.

His tongue wiggled fiercely behind his incisors, but lips would not budge.    

A miracle had arrived; rescue from the jaws of defeat, for the red meat had led one last charge on the Warlord's arteries.  Ungar clutched at his chest.  Squirmed in his chair.  Slammed at the table and pulled at his hair.  He launched a pitcher of wine in the air like a spout, then down came the man who had menaced the south.

His soldiers were shocked.  His Karls were aghast.  And no one knew quite what to do next.

"Our leader is dead," said one of the Jarls, after a pause.  "But it wasn't the people of Hamburg, or even the sandwich, that was the cause.  It was his endless hunger, his gluttony, for might and for power.  A hunger never satisfied by the things he devoured.  We followed Ungar the Stout to escape famine at home, but to have hunger as deep as his will bring a life filled with tombs.  Let us find a new place, we should leave Hamburg preserved.  They have treated us fairly, perhaps more than we deserve."

At that, the vikings all mumbled in agreement.  They shook hands with their hosts and made ready to leave.

"But wait," Lydia said.  "Perhaps you might stay.  There is room for you in our kitchens and work for every day."

"Thank you," the Jarl said, his demeanor ever softer.  "But what could we raiders and soldiers ever offer?"

At that, the Count stood forward.  He knew just what to say: "You've never cooked before, but you can do it nonetheless!  And after all, haven't you faced very similar tests?  We've faced flaming stoves, but you've faced flaming arrows.  We've faced burning coals, but you've faced burning cities!  Kitchen knives are scary, but so too are sharp swords!  We face danger every day in the kitchens, but as soldiers, so do you!"

The vikings thought it over for a moment, and a moment was all they needed.  They abandoned their warships and embraced the townsfolk instead in friendship and fellowship.

Pretty soon, there were raiders with rolling pins.  Karls with tomatoes.  Marauders with maces who made mashed potatoes.  With gauntlets on their hands and donning chainmail, brawlers spun pizza dough on the tips of their flails.  Archers and footmen who were used to fierce wars, found glory and victory upon kitchen floors.  The army's best Jarls and navy's best sailors, took to the bakeries and would not accept failure.  With their hearts filled with purpose they laughed in delight.

Lydia and the Count both smiled at the sight.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Before the Beginning

Dear Ellie,

One year ago today, our worst nightmare came true.  Your mother was 22 weeks pregnant and right before heading off to bed, she called me in a panicked voice from the bathroom.  There was blood.  At first, we kept our cool.  We'd gone through scares before earlier in the pregnancy, and any pregnancy heading into the third trimester can put strain on the body.  Capillaries can burst, hematoma's can erupt.  Still, we didn't want to take any chances.  We made the hour drive to St. Mary's because, we knew, that was where the level 3 NICU was. 

I remember the tension during that car ride.  It was so thick in the air that it felt like it could suffocate us.  I swung back and forth between telling your mother that it was probably nothing and asking frantically: "Can you still feel Ellie kicking?

When we arrived, at the hospital, we sat around for some amount of time approaching eternity before ever seeing a healthcare professional.  It probably wasn't as long as I remembered it.  I do however remember sitting there, feeling like our dreams were rapidly disintegrating to the rhythm of paper work and inane questions about insurance.  I don't know how I kept my calm.  I'd never felt so restless and so angry. 

When we finally did see a nurse, she gave your mother an exterior ultrasound.  According to them, everything appeared okay.  Our OBGYN didn't think it was worthwhile to come out that night to make an assessment.  He told her to come by the office in the morning. 

Whenever I think back to this moment, the guilt returns too.  I wish I would have been the irritating, obnoxious parent.  The overprotective kind that sees danger and peril for their child around every corner.  The kind of parent that OB's and pediatricians roll their eyes at as soon as they leave the office.  I should have been the kind of parent who would have insisted that the doctor come out to the hospital at one in the morning.  But I wasn't that kind of parent.  I was the polite, "sensible" parent that night.  So we went home and your mother bounced around on a cervix that we were unaware was growing more and more dilated by the minute.  Would you have been born a micro-preemie had your mother gone on bedrest that night like the doctor should have ordered?  I don't know, but it would have bought you at least a few more days.  In the NICU, even a few extra hours in the womb can be the difference between life or death, good health or crippling disabilities.

The next day, I was working in the morning with your Uncle Zack when I got a call from your mother.  She'd gone to the OB's office that morning, the same doctor took one look at her, and then he sent her immediately back to the hospital.  Something was terribly wrong.  Her cervix was open and your gestational sac was bulging out.  So sensitive was the situation that they wouldn't even examine her for fear of causing a rupture.  She could go into labor and deliver at any moment.  If you'd been born right then at 22 weeks, or even days after, there would have been no hope for survival.

I called your Grandma Raju and we drove to the hospital together.  I can remember every second of that terrible drive.  I wondered whether you'd be born before I got there.  I wondered whether I'd ever get to see you, alive.

When I arrived at the hospital, they sent me straight to labor and delivery.  Labor and delivery? I thought.  So then it really is that bad?

I moved through the halls at a near jog, and when I finally got to the room, your mother was on her back, her feet dangling higher than her head.  It's around this time when my memory doesn't quite serve me as well.  So many times in the past, I'd imagined being there in labor and delivery with your mother.  Sometimes, in my imagination, it was joyous.  Sometimes funny.  Sometimes a little bit tense.  But never was it drenched in despair.  Maybe that's why I can't remember the next 3-4 days in labor and delivery very well.  I think my brain was in revolt.  Why file memories of days that must be false?

I do remember the technical aspects.  No one knew exactly what had gone wrong.  Maybe incompetent cervix?  Maybe a placental abruption?  Maybe an infection?  Either way, we were told that contractions would probably come soon.

When doctors are facing a difficult but winnable battle, they tend to look on the bright side of things.  Tell you where there is hope.  But none of our doctors tried to reassure us that first day.  I remember asking one of the OBGYN's what the odds of making it through the week were.  He didn't say "good."  He didn't even say "maybe."  Instead, he closed his eyes, he shook his head, and left without saying a word more.

After we were alone, your mother and I just sat there.  All through the afternoon and into the night, we listened to the sounds of babies being born.  Large, healthy babies with lungs that bellowed mightily.  We listened to one happy ending after another after another after another.  We listened to mothers complaining about the pain of childbirth while your own mother kept wishing that she could die if it meant that you could live.

And then I was forced to face a surreal thought.  Started to wonder about a thing I never imagined I'd wonder before.  Would I choose to hold your tiny little body before you passed away?  It seemed so impossible.  How could I, but how couldn't I?  I knew that if I did, it would haunt me for the rest of my life.  I knew that if I didn't, it would haunt me for the rest of my life.  I pondered that question over and over in my head.  Is a few minutes of true love worth a lifetime of missing it?

It's impossible to describe how heavy our grief was at that moment.  It's a grief that alters the very core of who you are.  It felt like a literal weight lashed to my heart, pulling it down and down and down.  Pulling it right out of my body.  Pulling it to the center of the Earth.  It was a grief that makes you forget that you were ever happy or that you could ever be happy again.  For us, it wasn't so simple as just losing a baby.  It was more than that.  Your mother and I have been in love since we were just children ourselves.  All during that time we wanted you, but were thwarted every step of the way.  For years we'd devoted our entire lives--- our habits, our finances, our time--- to making you real.  We'd spent half our lives and half the mortgage of a house to get to that point.  And what's more, it was our last chance.  At just 30 years old, our time was spent.  The IVF cycle that gave you life was disastrously bleak and disastrously expensive.  Three eggs when there should have been dozens.  It was a miracle that it worked at all.  So we had no consolation of knowing that we could "try for another baby."  You were our last--- our only--- chance.

I don't know what superhuman reservoir of will we dipped into to keep from crying.  I felt like there was an ocean of tears above us, pushing down on our skulls, but we fought them back as best we could.  We couldn't cry, you see.  If your mother cried, it could induce the contractions.  And if I cried?  It would make her cry.  "Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry."  That was the mantra we spoke as we listened all through the day and night to all of those healthy babies being born.

Sill, I found ways to steal tears.  I remember sobbing silently at night while your mother discovered an hour of sleep.  I remember leaving the room to weep outside.  "Why is that man crying," a little girl asked her mother.  Hearing her made me cry even more pitifully because it made me wonder what your voice should sound like.

I can't even imagine how your mother must have endured.  She was the one who felt you kicking.  Each kick must have sounded like little giggles.  Little declarations of your life.  "I'm here."  "I'm happy."  "I love you."  To me, you were still an abstraction.  To Rani, you were already her daughter.  I don't know how many times she rubbed her belly and told you she was sorry.  It must have felt as though she were holding you in her arms, but were slowly slipping from her grasp and down toward a pit.      

But during that first day and night in the hospital, we didn't spend all of our time brooding.  Some of it we spent obsessing over the monitor attached to your mother's midsection.  It measured movement in her abdomen like a seismograph measures earthquakes.  It was meant to measure contractions.  Each new contraction was a step closer to delivery.  One more sand grain ticking away in the hourglass.  Sometimes, it wasn't clear whether there was a contraction or not.  Was that bump there on the graph because your mother shifted in the bed?  Or was it just irritation?  Or you thumping inside?  We made all kind of excuses to explain away each new bump.

We tried our very hardest to laugh, too.  It was a forced kind of humor.  Laugh track caliber.  But it helped.  We made fun of all the different ways that women screamed in labor.  "Aaaaaooooogggahhhh!" or  "Ahhhh, ahhhhh, ahhhh!" or "Graaaack, griiiiiick!"  "That one sounds like she's playing in Wimbledon!" your mother might say of one woman, or I might say: "That one sounds like she's rolling down a hill on roller skates without any breaks!"  To distract ourselves, we watched only comedy shows.  What a blessing that there was a Most Extreme Elimination Challenge marathon on at that time.  At the moment, nothing could be more comforting than watching thousands of game show contestants attempting to storm a make believe castle, only to be clonked by all manner a cruel, padded traps.

Your mother and I remained in labor and delivery for days.  Every hour was another hour that she could deliver.  I remember the nurses on that floor were mostly unhelpful.  Some became irritated and impatient when we asked for things, so I did my best to tend to your mother mostly by myself.  Adjusting the bed and getting water and ice and helping her eat and adjusting the cathetar line and emptying the urine bladder and attending to the other minutia of her situation.  It was a welcome distraction.  Still, when the lights went off and there was nothing but darkness and the sound of new life around us, our thoughts always went back to our slow motion tragedy.  Neither of us slept for days and days.  Gradually, it felt like my body was decomposing.  Rotting from the inside out.  It felt like the beating of my own heart was shedding bits of my body off like dust.  It could only be worse for your mother.  She was stuck upside down, couldn't move an inch, and there was a 3 centimeter wide hole in her body.            

Two weeks.  That's how long we needed to make it.  Then you would at least have a chance 50/50 change of survival.  How cliche it sounds to say that those two weeks felt like the longest two weeks of our lives.  No, they were like two additional lives.  During those two weeks, it was hard to remember what life was like before.  It was like trying to remember what you did as a child from the vantage point of your 90th birthday.  It's there in your memory, but hazy.  Distant.

But each time an hour passed, it felt like a glorious triumph.  Three days into the ordeal, there were little glimmers of hope.  The doctors were impressed.  They were cautiously optimistic given that the cervix hadn't dilated any further.  At around four or five days, they recommended that we go to Antepardum: the place that pregnant women go for long term bed rest.  That was the moment we were hopeful again.  It was risky though.  If you ended up being born up in Antepardum, they would have to transfer you down an elevator to the NICU.  In other words, moving you one floor could be the difference between life and death.  What a strange thought.

Regardless, your mother and I thought that a more relaxed atmosphere could only help her.  And it did.  When we were transferred to Antepardum, the nurses were kind, receptive, and attentive.  The room felt more like a hotel.  It might even feel like a home if we lasted long enough.  And most important of all, no more cries of newborns.  Suddenly, I had a magical thought.  Perhaps you would survive, after all.  Perhaps you could stay inside your mother until 24 weeks.  Or even longer.  It seemed like such an oddly romantic notion: your mother and I stranded in that hospital room for the next weeks or months.  It seemed like some kind of camping trip.  Maybe I was just drunk on the notion that our dreams of a family were still yet alive.

I went about making the room seem just a little bit more like home.  I brought things from the house.  Your mother missed the cats, so I took pictures of them, printed them, and taped them to various parts of the room as though they were hanging out with us: one lounging atop the TV, another atop the door frame, and the last one on the headboard of the hospital bed.  Nearby, your mother had every photograph we'd ever taken of you via ultrasound.  But while the room was a bit more comfortable, your mother was still turned upside down and couldn't leave the bed, not even for the bathroom, so I went out to the store and purchase a female urinol.  I named it "Piss Master 3000" and labelled it so with a marker as though it were some high tech instrument.  "Need the Piss Master 3000?" I would ask after she'd drank a large glass of water.  I bought a calendar and put it on the wall.  I wrote in all of our objectives.  24 weeks.  26 weeks.  28.  Then I marked off each and every day that went by.

I spent a lot of time just looking out the window.  Watching the sun slowly rise, then slowly set.  Slowly rise, then slowly set.  I felt like the Girl in the Sphere.

At one point, I purchased a hand mirror so that if I held it just right, your mother could see the sunsets.

Soon, we'd arrived at 23 weeks of gestation.  Just one more week to go and we'd be at viability.  Since the ordeal began the week before, our spirits had never been so high, but that prior week had taken its toll on me.  I realized soon that I was getting sick.  I felt devastated.  Like I was abandoning your mother in her highest time of need.  But I couldn't stay.  Getting her sick would be ruinous, and I was terrified that I may have done so already.  I slipped away at 1 in the morning.  It was a cold, cold night.

I remember laying in bed that morning, miserable and missing both of you.  I was so sick I could barely get out of bed.  So instead, from bed, I started inventing a story for your mother.  As soon as I'd returned to her bedside, I decided I'd put on a grand pen and paper role playing campaign for her: a long, make believe novel in which she would play a part and steer the course.  It was the perfect thing for her to do on bedrest.  Her body was stuck in bed, but I planned to take her mind, and worries, elsewhere.  I spent all week planning it.  Developing a story.  Drawing up maps.  Inventing exotic people and places.  In the end, we would never get a chance to play it, but it would become your story: "A Place Between Worlds."

When I finally returned, your mother was at 24 weeks gestation.  "Viability," as it is often called.  The doctors and nurses were visibly happy.  They were all astonished that things had gone so well.  We celebrated those victorious two weeks.  Just 14 days prior, we thought it was over, but now you had a chance and each passing day would make you stronger and stronger.  50 percent odds of survival, unthinkable just a month before, now seemed spectacular.  "26 weeks would be a good point to reach," we both said to each other.  "Or 28.  Maybe even longer."  I remember very distinctly, for the first time, that I felt like everything was going to be okay.  We settled in that night, expecting that we'd be there for weeks and weeks to come.          

But then, around 10 o'clock, the blood came again.  And then the "seismograph" attached to your mothers abdomen began picking up wild spikes of activity.  An infection had set in and that terrible fear returned.  The doctors took action.  They gave your mother prenatal steroid shots to help your lungs develop, and then they shot her full of magnesium sulfate to delay what was now clearly signs of labor.  The magnesium sulfate made your mother feel as though she'd been lit ablaze.  Like she was burning from the inside.  We were listless, bereaved once again.  I remember sitting there that night, feeling your mother's belly, and feeling you kick for the first and last time.

They transferred us back down to labor and delivery.  Now, with certainty, it would be very soon.  If not the next day, then the day after.  At this point, they sent one of the neonatologists from the NICU to talk with us.  To give us the likely outcomes and to tell us our options.  We listened grimly.

"Your baby has a 1/2 chance of surviving," she said.  "If she does survive, she has a 1/3 chance of severe disabilities, a 1/3rd chance of having moderate disabilities, and a 1/3rd chance of having mild or no disabilities."      

After she left, I went about trying to extort a good outcome from statistics.  To figure out where you sat on the ambiguous bell curve of 24 week preemies.  You were a girl, had no gestational problems, got everything you could have possibly needed in utero, weren't exposed to cigarette smoke or alcohol or drugs.  This all had to count for something, didn't it?

For the next day and a half, I remember being furious at the nurses again.  Gone were the tender nurses from Antepardum, replaced instead by those who saw our unfolding tragedy as just another boring day at work.  Bloody tissues were piling up.  Your mother was writhing in pain and sitting in a pool of her own blood.  No one seemed to be paying attention.  How you would be born could be the difference between life and death.  We needed to avoid a vaginal birth because it could have crushed your fragile brain or damaged your organs, yet no one was closely monitoring your mother.  A few big contractions and your tiny one pound body could spill suddenly on to the bed, battered and bruised.  When I finally got the attention of a nurse, she examined you're mother's cervix, turned to us with a shocked expression, and sent your mother immediately to the operating room for a c-section.  "I went in to feel the cervix and the baby felt me back," she told us.

They rolled your mother toward the operating room without me.  The situation was too pressing to delay.  When I arrived at the operating room doors, the doctor who would be performing the c-section came to give me some scrubs.  It was the same doctor who was supposed to come to the hospital 2 weeks before, but didn't.  He had a grave, serious expression on his face.  Mixed, perhaps, with some guilt that seemed to harden his determination.  I was oddly glad that it was him who would be doing the surgery.  He wasn't arrogant like some doctors tend to be.  He had a wrong to right, however large or small it might have been, and I knew that that could make a difference.

The doctor quickly returned to surgery.  In a daze, I tried to put the cap for my shoe on my head, instead.  Once I was properly dressed, I waited.  Other fathers-to-be passed by.  They saw my scrubs, so they grinned and nodded and congratulated me, unaware that you were coming 16 weeks early.  I smiled back at them, but I didn't know how I should feel.  I kept thinking of those statistics, over and over again.  1/2.  1/3rd.  1/3rd.  1/3rd.  At that moment, it was impossible to imagine a day like today.  Impossible to imagine you snoozing in my arms, plump and warm and happy as though nothing had ever gone wrong.

Eventually, I was invited in.  Your two grandmothers waited outside.  When I arrived, the surgery was already in full swing.  The floor was slick with blood and other unidentifiable fluids.  I came to your mother's side.  Her face, normally brown, was instead green.  Her teeth chattered.  It was strange, seeing her in that state of altered consciousness.  I kept thinking of how your delivery was supposed to be.  It had been so warm, so happy in my imagination so many times.  Instead, at that moment, I felt numb.  As though the colossal joy of seeing my daughter born was neutralized by the colossal grief of seeing her suffer and, maybe, seeing her disappear soon after.  As the operation proceeded, I couldn't control my emotions any longer.  While I quelched any sound from coming out, my face mask was soon thick with tears and mucus.  The NICU team was in the room and at the ready, prepared to leap into action as soon as you were born.

Then, at an unexpected moment, we heard the tiniest of little sounds.  Like the squeak of a mouse, then nothing more.  It was the only time we'd hear your voice for months to come.  Your mother and I both jerked to attention.

"Is she okay?" your mother asked.  She couldn't see you from her prone position.

I don't remember what I told her, but I remember not knowing whether the answer was yes or no.

I saw you--- a fleshy, gray mass--- in the hands of one of the surgeons.  I watched as she passed you quickly across the room to the NICU team.  The doctors took note of your condition.  The respiratory technicians fitted you with the proper ventilator equipment.  It took ages, and I was wondering how you could breathe during that time.  I watched the NICU team closely to discern whether you were well.  Were they frowning?  Distressed?  Working desperately?  Eventually, one of the respiratory technicians was relaxed enough to coo at you, and suddenly I was relieved.

"I think she's okay," I told your mother.

When they took you out of the room, I was invited along.  I kissed your mother on the forehead, then followed.  In the hallway, between the NICU and surgery center, I saw you clearly for the first time.  At that moment, I can't remember what your body looked like, or what the cart you were sitting in looked like or whether you were even hooked up to a ventilator.  I just remember your face.  That sullen little face with the eyebrows turned out, as though you were sad.  I wanted to fix you so badly right then.  Make that sad expression go away, and never come back.

A few hours later, the staff would take a picture of you, before they put a mask over your eyes.  I keep that picture with me, and every time I look at it, it makes me think of that moment when I first saw you.

And that was the beginning of your NICU journey.  Uncertainty had given birth to ever more uncertainty.  Still, those first two weeks were the hardest.  When the mountain you must climb to survive appeared the steepest.  That experience alone changed us, your mother and I.  Every time I see your face now, I remember the face I saw then.  And I want to be sure that you never have to wear it again.      

Saturday, January 10, 2015

If, Not When

Dear Ellie,

It's hard to understate the lingering tension we've felt this past year, even after you were released from the hospital.  Most parents can look forward fondly to the development of their baby's inevitable milestones.  Any day now, she'll be crawling, they might think, or: Soon enough, we should hear her first word.

But for your mother and I, these milestones are a matter of if, not when.  There's no guarantee that you'll hit a certain milestone on time and, in some cases, if you ever will at all.  So as you can imagine, when we do see you hold your head up for the first time or babble a string of syllables, its twice as exciting to witness them than if they were merely taken for granted.  And in the past month or two, there has been a lot of excitement.  It first started at the Pumonologist's office when you sat up on your own for the first time.  You were on your back as I was changing your diaper when you glanced up and saw a most appealing sight: an unused electrical socket.  An irresistible, unused electrical socket.  An irresistible, unused electrical socket that was worth sitting up to reach.  And so just like that, as though you'd done it a thousand times before, you sat up on your own in order to get closer to that yummy, yummy hazard.  I wasn't expecting that you'd sit up, because that milestone wasn't on average due for another month!  Fortunately for you, I snagged you before you could get to your prize and I was in the awkward position of trying to figure out whether I should praise you or scold you.

Here you are sitting it out in Baby Jail 
with Oliver the Eel.

And here you are enjoying your newfound
sense of autonomy.

And from there, as though excited that you had discovered the notion of independence, you began conquering ever more locomotion skills.  Just a few days later, you began to use the skill of sitting up to actually get places.  You'd sit up, turn, plop in the direction you wanted to move.  Sit up, turn, plot in the direction you wanted to move.  And just a few days after that, you were on all fours, putting one hand before the other.  "She still has a month or two before she should be crawling," your mother and I said to one another, but just a day or two before Christmas, you were already crawling 3-4 steps at a time (even if one or two of those steps involved you using your face as a substitute hand).  Then, before we could even take the Christmas tree down, you were off crawling to wherever you pleased... and since we weren't expecting you to be crawling before 8 months adjusted age, we hadn't yet completely baby proofed the house!  

Chicken the Cat was actually a very large motivating 
factor in your desire to crawl.

But it looks like your stint with crawling might not last so long.  You've already got it in your head that you should be walking.

One of your physical therapists was actually a little bit alarmed.  "You should probably discourage her from walking too quickly," she said.  Why?  Because having a few more months on all fours is actually helpful for language development.

And that, actually, is where we're a bit more concerned.  At this point, its pretty clear that most of your motor skills are destined to arrive on time.  It's your social skill and intellectual skill that are still uncertain.  Yes, you happen to be a smiley baby that loves looking people in the eye at this particular moment, but because of your extreme prematurity and that oxygen deprivation episode, you have a disconcertingly high chance of regressing between the age of 1 and 2.  Babies that once exhibited plenty of social aptitude just like you do now have been known to suddenly begin losing those skills just as quickly as they had gained them or become stunted in their intellectual development.  Your mother can't help but see these signs around every corner, and at times, I find myself smiling like a madman to get you to smile back or calling your name repeatedly to see if you turn your head toward me.

Right now, we're both so very happy with how well you've done and how bright the future appears, but sometimes late at night, before I fall asleep, I wonder whether these are the happy times.  Happy times because we can imagine the future free of care.  A times when we are blissfully ignorant of the things to come.  I think back to your mother's 21st week of pregnancy and remember how we thought we were finally in the clear after years of struggling to have you.  It felt a little bit like we were sailors, lost at sea and yearning for shore, and when we'd finally come to land and climbed the first ridge-line, instead of seeing a vast, verdant continent, we instead saw steep cliffs leading back to the turbulent ocean.  I remember the feeling of contentment I had just 30 seconds before your mother started bleeding.  That was the moment just before I peaked over the mountaintop and discovered that our happy moment was just a tiny little island.  A happy month in a decade of sadness and worry.  A pleasant little lie.  It's been almost a year since things first went wrong, and again, we've found our way to dry land.  But what is beyond this lush hillside?  I don't know.  But I can't let the "mights" and "maybes" of the future ruin the beautiful moments that we have now.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

First Christmas

Dear Ellie,

I've been procrastinating about writing a letter about your first Christmas.  The reason?  This Christmas was a little bit tense.  The first problem was that your feeding issues made a resurgence.  It became, once again, exceptionally difficult to get any milk into your stomach.  The only silver lining was that we didn't work quite as much due to the holidays so your mother and I were able to perform the magic shows, dances, and clown acts necessary to slowly--- and painfully--- drip milk into your mouth.  That, and it turns out the Christmas tree worked some Christmas magic on your tummy, too.  You see, a Christmas tree is just dangling with distractions.  We couldn't have asked for a better baby distraction from Santa himself.

If it had just been the feeding issue, it wouldn't have been too much of a holiday dampener.  But while the holiday season is oft referred to as "the most wonderful time of the year," this year it was "the most pestilent time of the year."  A dangerous strain of (reindeer?) flu came sweeping down through Martin County: one which your flu shot would not completely protect you from.  If Santa Claus was coming to town, his sleigh wasn't being drawn by magical reindeer, but instead the Seven Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Worse yet, just about everyone in the family seemed to get it, so we spent Christmas and New Years pretty much cloistered.  If you were to compare our Christmas to Judea-Christian lore, it was less like Jesus chillin' in the manger and more like Passover, wherein we whimpered indoors while those outside were wracked by the ten plagues of Egypt.  With all of your feeding issues already causing problems, we were terrified by how much worse things might get with a 105 fever.  The events of last Christmas just added to our paranoia.

Last Christmas, your mother came down with the flu on Christmas Eve, and while she spent that Eve writhing in bed, I was shuttling ice filled towels back and forth between the bedroom and refrigerator in an attempt to break her fever.  She was pregnant with you at the time and we were worried sick that it might cause--- well--- exactly the kind of thing that ended up happening anyway.  We had no desire to repeat history.

So we more of less hung out at Grandma Raju's through Christmas and kept it on the down low.  Still, it was nice to relax with your Grandma, Uncle Tom, and Miss Fortune the kitty cat for a few days.

Also, before the outbreak began, we were able to enjoy the weather and even go to see the big man himself, though these two things did not coincide on the same day.  We went to see Santa in an outdoor venue and poor Santa was wilting in his coat beneath the 95 degree heat and infamous Florida humidity.

When I had a chance to ask Santa for something, I just told him to make sure you were crawling by Christmas.  And sure enough, you did!  More on this later...