Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Heart Can Grow Bigger

Dear Ellie,

At our happiest moments, a peculiar thing used to happen to me.  We'd be playing or laughing or running about the house when I'd feel a little bit fuzzy.  I'd suddenly have a hard time remembering in detail what came before that punctuated moment of happiness.  In my head I'd still know that you'd been with us for nearly two years, but I'd know it in a shallow, abstracted kind of way.  The same way that a history teacher assures his students--- who have no living memory of distant events--- that certain important things happened long ago.  At those moments, I'd begin to wonder whether our life together was just an invention of one of my vivid dreams, compressed into a restful night and that nothing in the past two years actually happened at all.  After all, back when you were in the NICU, I used to have those types of dreams all the time, where you were older and healthy and laughing, only to wake up moments later.

However, as time goes on and the years I have spent with you begin to stack up against the years that I've lived without you, these troubling moments have become less and less frequent. Your sister Maya was born last week, and because we've finally become the family we'd always wanted to be, I've crossed a threshold of acceptance in my head.

The experience itself was a clash of mental worlds.  The day played out eerily similar to the day you were born.  It felt like one reality had diverged into two, then run parallel to one another, each with different outcomes.

It all began at the same time of day, early in the morning.  We went to the same room to prep before the surgery.  I waited by the same double doors to await the c-section.  Other fathers-to-be fist bumped with me, though this time, it didn't sting my heart.

While I was waiting, I saw a woman pushed along in a wheel chair toward labor and delivery, doubled over in pain.  Earlier that morning after we had just come in, we'd seen her while prepping and learned that she was in preterm labor at 24 weeks.  Not understanding the gravity of her situation, she had decided to go home to get her children situated for school.  "Any moment," I overheard a nurse say.  Moments later, an empty isolette was wheeled in behind her.  In some vague way, I felt somehow as though we'd switched places with her.

When I arrived for the surgery, it was in the same surgical room with the same doctor as before.  What struck me most, though, was the smell.  That same, unmistakable smell of soaps and sanitizers, mingling with some distant waft of hospital food.  All of the sights and sounds of the moment were trying to take me back to the day your were born, but the fear and grief I felt back then clashed against the ease and happiness of our current reality.  This time, I didn't stand over your mother stoicly, the face mask hiding an expression of despair.  Instead, I smiled.  I talked to your mother idly about some thing or another I heard on NPR to keep her mind off the tugging and yanking to her insides.

When your sister came, I was oddly surprised.  There was no meek whimper, no tiny fleshy thing like before.  Instead, there was a well proportioned, bellowing baby that looked uncannily like your mother--- the way I had originally thought that you would look: Raven black hair and a sloping nose.

Maya and Mother a few minutes after birth

While they sewed up your mother, I followed your sister as they took her out of the operating room and into the corridor that leads to either the step down nursery or the NICU.  Instead of taking a left to the NICU, we went out to the step down nursery, where full term babies are kept under scrutiny for a few hours before being sent to their mothers.

Your sister 15 minutes after birth, with lot's 
of flattering fluid bloat

And to be fair to your sister, Maya a few days later

Your sister with mittens.

From there, everything progressed normally.  I stood next to your sister like a grinning fool, ducking out on occasion to visit your mother (who's c-section recovery also came along with surprising ease).  Eventually, your mother, sister, and I were reunited and settled in for the evening.  Because of your mother's c-section recovery, we needed to stay in the hospital for a few days.  During the first day, you even came to visit.

In all honesty, it was somewhat of an awkward meeting.  It was late in the day, you were tired, and Maya was already sleeping.  Besides, as far as your 19 month old brain could tell, you were meeting some random baby which would likely leave your life just as quickly as she had entered (in a few days time, however, once you were both back at home, you'd be climbing into your sister's crib to give her a kiss and a hug).

Once you left the hospital, I found myself missing you intensely.  In a way I didn't entirely understand, I found this feeling to be a relief.  Before Maya was born, I was a bit sad at the notion that I would need to divide my love and affection between two children, instead of just one.  Yet here I was, admiring our new baby, but loving you more acutely than ever.  The next evening, I came home for the night to take care of you, and as soon as I walked in the door, your face lit up.  I snatched you up and hugged you for a good three minutes, and you lay there with your head on my shoulder and your little arms draping down my back.  That simple moment was one of the happiest of my life.  In part, it was because I missed you so much, but also because I realized that love isn't necessarily a finite thing that must be divided up like a pie.  Sometimes, the heart can grow bigger.

And so I am left wondering what I should do about Letters to Ellie.  On one level, they can't simply be about just one Smith Daughter since now there is two.  But on another level, this moment seems like some kind of natural finish line.  Behind each of these hundreds of letters was turmoil and uncertainty about the future.  But now?  Life is busy, but simple and happy.  Originally, the greatest motivation behind writing these letters was desperation to somehow reach out and touch you.  To communicate with you at a time before you could understand; to somehow be a father when doctors--- not a father--- were what you needed.  But now?  You are a healthy, vibrant child now.  And aside from your sister being here, you've begun to string words together, 3 or 4 at a time, and your comprehension is always astonishing us.  We have finally begun to have conversations, and all the things I wanted to tell you--- which I once had to address to a FUTURE you--- I can now address to the you of the present.  So it doesn't seem quite right to continue on in the same vein as before, but with "Dear Ellie and Maya."  In so many ways, our family has moved on to a new phase in its life.  Gone are those worries I once had that you might be just a dream.

Still, I want to have some record of the childhood of you and your sister.  I want you to be able to come back to what I've written so that you can spur your memories.

And then there is the matter of all the people who were invited in to read your story.  Before you were born, I knew I wanted to write to you and any siblings that might come after you, but I intended it to be private. With your prematurity, however, came family members and friends hungry for updates as to your condition.  As a way to keep them informed, I opened your letters to them, and to my surprise, thousands more people beyond just friends and family followed along and were inspired by your resiliency.  You've become a part of their lives, and they've become a part of ours, and it feels as though it would be a shame for that connection to end.

Whatever the decision, I will always have many things to say to you.  That is, to both of you.

A day I never thought I'd see.


  1. Congratulations on your new daughter!! So happy for your family.

  2. Congratulations on your new daughter!! So happy for your family.

  3. How awesome for all of you! I hope you do continue your stories. We love to hear (and see!) what's going on with Ellie. Now it'll be twice the fun. We've been watching old videos and enjoying that record of our children's childhood. Keep up the good work of capturing memories!

  4. Congratulations! I am one of those people beyond family and friends that have followed your story, I am so glad that your wife and Maya are healthy and that this time was different in a good way. Ellie now you're a big sister!!!!!!!!!

  5. Hearty congratulations ! So happy to see you all ,esp , Ellie. Love , Manju

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Congratulations!!!! As a stalker on BBC I knew everything turned out ok with this one but hadn't checked in here in awhile! Enjoy your beautiful family!

  8. Heyyyyy another stalker here from BBC, how is your family???