An acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook once, asking if it was possible to miss something you had never had. She was referring to a serial dream she had been having in which she had a child, and the yearning she felt for that child when she woke and the dream ended. At the time, I thought of the pregnancy we lost before you and Teddy came, and the vast yearning I had felt for something that had not yet been mine. Now, I wonder if you were real. If you were a dream. You were here for twenty-three hours and twenty-three minutes. I was in recovery after my C-section for 3 hours. I slept for six. I visited with a friend for one hour. I stood outside the NICU, drinking my first latte in 8 months, for 15 minutes. I was with you for 4 hours. Maybe? For two of those hours you were dying. Where did the rest of that time go? Was the sum of my time with you enough to account for the whirling lack your absence has caused?
I think about you every day as I stare at your brother. He has the most engaging expressions; they’re brief but I catch a lot of them on camera – the one-eyebrowed surprise I didn’t think could have been genetic, the open-mouthed grin, the furrowed brow combined with perfectly pouted lip that conveys a sadness too deep for his age. His eyes are starting to fill with tears when he cries. He stares straight in our faces in wide-eyed contentment while we hold his bottles. He is such his own person. I look at him, most days, and think you would you have looked just like him, before any epigenetic drifting. You were 7 ounces bigger when you were born. Would you still be? I spoke about my doubts about what happened to you with one of my closest friends 7 weeks ago. This was before he said to me, “Would it have been easier if you hadn’t named them so quickly?” I forgave him for that; we wouldn’t have let you go into the unknown without a name, Gabe, even if we had waited before giving it to you. I forgave him right away, without telling him it needed forgiving, that you were a person. He said, “What would Teddy’s life had been if he had lived?” In that moment, maybe for three seconds, I also forgave myself for my flash of gratitude, that brief certainty that you had, in that the tide of invisible bleeding, already drifted so far from Teddy.
Two months ago I sat with the NICU social worker, and asked her if I had done the right thing for you. She was there when we interrupted the surging mass of doctors, nurses and respiratory nurses and told them to stop. And after, when we were holding you in a small, airless conference room, she said, “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen someone do.” Maybe it was self-serving to ask her about you after hearing that strange, drowning praise. Maybe I didn’t want to actually know, but rather wanted solace for my own questioning. She gave me a glass of water while you were crashing — water that I had agreed to, but never drank. And when I sat facing her after a long day next to your brother, and asking about my decision for you, she said, “The hardest thing here in the NICU is the babies who aren’t going to have real lives. They suffer for so long here and their brains are already gone. It’s terrible.”
Four months ago, Heather and I sat next to your brother’s bed with Dr. Fuentes. For so long that was all we did, counting up the days that he was with us. We sat next to him and watched him through reflecting, isolating glass. Sometimes I would say the only prayer I now know, “Please,” as he struggled to breathe and people worked on him, so similar to the way they worked on you. They didn’t do chest compressions on Teddy, but a couple of times they bagged him while all of the alarms — the oxygen saturation persistent warning, the heart rate high blatting, the isolette warmer screaming that the baby is cold — alerted staff about his condition. The first time I heard any of those alarms was that first morning when they all went off with you. With Teddy we found out that they are fatiguing, ever-present NICU presences, but after you I never could shake the dread they forced into my stomach and up through my throat.
That day, after we talked about Teddy’s blood gases and vent settings, Heather asked Dr. F., “What did happen with Gabe?” We had heard multiple different stories: that it happened suddenly, that it happened in utero a month ago, that it was an infection I had, that it was an infection you had. Dr. Fuentes stood there and drew a picture of what bilateral subdural hematomas would do to a brain. He told us they were unusual – he had only seen three or four in his career. He said you must have been hitting your head against my pelvic bone over and over when I was in labor. That hour I spent in bed, doubled over, thinking it had to be an upset stomach. That next hour I spent googling labor symptoms, because I couldn’t be in labor at 6 months pregnant. Because surely I could have stomach pains every three minutes. I’m not sure I forgive myself for that Gabe, if I let myself think of you during those two hours.
Almost five months ago, I walked down the NICU entrance hallway with my cousin, Liz (Doctor Scarlett, if you please). We were laughing about something, on our way to the sinks to scrub our hands for the required three minutes before seeing your brother. My hands were shaking, but it was a real laugh – kind of a giggle. I said to Liz, who 5 hours earlier had been yelling at the NICU doctors, “Is it weird that I’m laughing right now?” I thought I wasn’t feeling enough. I didn’t know it was stoppered; that it would build pressure and leak out for the next months. But I knew I shouldn’t be laughing when earlier that day I had asked the nurse if your hand should be that color, white when your skin was defined by its purpley thin redness. That nurse, looked at me accusingly, as if I hadn’t told her something about myself, while also yelling for the doctors who had just finished rounding on you. Three beds away, they looked over as I heard your vital alarms for the first time. Liz said that I was allowed to act however I wanted to act. She took my own white hand and we continued down the hall. I hadn’t yet heard that she had screamed at all of the staff that morning, when we walked out with you, “Why didn’t you start compressions earlier?” Liz’s PICU is different from NICU, so I don’t know if she was right.
Heather said that you were perfect. After you crashed. After they spent 20 minutes bringing you back. After you crashed again and after I told them to stop, After seeing Dr. F’s face looking up at me, his hands still on you and more hands between us reaching out with hasty syringes of epinephrine. His open, breathless face in its own immensity of relief. When they gave you to us, she said, “He’s so perfect.” You were. Google photo tags the pictures of your face we have from those moments with Teddy’s name. Your features were already defined, and they were also his. I sat in a NICU nursing chair next to your bed. You were wrapped in an aqua crocheted blanket, an obvious donation, and a matching hat was placed on your head. The nurse with the red curly hair handed you to me and to Heather. The nurse with the straighter red hair made sure the oscillating ventilator reached over to you without tugging on your throat. I didn’t know their names then, and it took me a while to identify all the people who were there that morning and associate them with the people we would come to know and love over the next four months. But I never forgot the nurse with the red, curly hair. Melissa. And then we got to hold you. And I told you how very, very proud of you we were. You tried so hard. And you were perfect.
164 days, 8 hours, 57 minutes and 54 seconds, Heather was holding you. I had both hands on you. We didn’t notice the white-sheet screens they had placed around us and the crowd of doctors and nurses around us. We didn’t know that they closed down the NICU in times like this. We found that out later. I found it out listening to another mother howl as they told her that her 23-weeker twins wouldn’t live. I flashed back to that minute with you, listening to her. We didn’t howl. I see in the pictures that we were crying, but I wasn’t aware of it. When I told them to stop, I handed my phone to my brother, who had finally broken the rules and come over to us from Teddy’s bed. He took pictures of us, holding you. He doesn’t have one of Dr. F making us hold you out away from our bodies several times. It feels like it was dozens of times, during those endless ocean-roaring minutes when you were alive and we were holding you, when we had to hold you out so Dr. Fuentes could listen to your chest. Check your status.
Later we brought you to a conference room and said good bye. We looked at your hands and your feet. They were white and perfect, even after all the damage to your chest and your head. We took pictures of them. You were our very first baby. We didn’t know exactly how very small you were. We just knew you were ours, and then you weren’t any more. Our perinatologist, came in the room and took a picture of the three of us. He sat quietly, then said this was the problem with twins. Liz hugged Heather hard when we went into that cinder-block room. I declined. I didn’t want to be touched. Heather said later, “I didn’t get that. I wanted to hug her forever.” I wanted to touch you. And then you were cold. And I didn’t want to. Melissa carried you away. She passed my brother, Mark, sitting on the floor next to the staff sinks with his elbows on his knees, hands on his head, head between his legs. We saw her at least five days a week for the next four months. She was the nurse manager. I don’t know if that is why she got you as part of her job.
I feel like I’m getting choppy talking about these last parts, Gabe. It feels like I should only talk about the time that you were actually in the world. It was such a hard time though. I want to talk about your feet pressing into my ribs. That you got the hiccups every 20 minutes for a week. That I rubbed your butt beneath my own skin and talked to you through a sub-chorionic hemorrhage and an erroneous diagnosis of Trisomy 13. You were ours before you came here. But it feels like you were you when you were here. It’s hard to talk about that and I get choppy, as if I can’t sail through these waters.
I count the days that Teddy has been here with us. Everyone knows I do. Teddy’s life is this public thing that has grown beyond us. I love that people love him through our words and pictures and his personality shining through them. It feels like it should be a public thing. His existence these five months later is a miracle. But what people don’t know about that countdown is my continuous subtraction of one day to measure your distance from us. The rivulets of your impact feel drier as they go further and further away from you. I count everything since you. Is it cliché to say that I try to make things count? Probably. But I think about you as I attempt jogging after 4 months of sitting in a hospital. I think about you when I get impatient with your brother screaming at 4 am. I think about you when the sky is beautiful and limpid gray right before full-night. I wish you could have opened your eyes. I wish we’d had you for one more hour. I wish I could express how much you were a person and how much we miss someone we never really had. You were a dream that we will keep having the rest of our lives.
But, we love you. I’ll always love you. I think of you in so many ways I’m not saying here. But I’m not going to write anymore. It’s always been an exercise, and not really for you. I’m ready to be done with it, and it doesn’t feel even halfway enough or 1/100 done. And yet.
I love you.