I feel helpless, watching my slumbering daughter, asleep on the couch in our family room. She is covered by her favorite blanket, her long, tousled locks splayed out across the college boyfriend’s Dodgers pillow; her sweet features hidden by the turban-like ice pack framing her face.
My child has endured oral surgery to have wisdom teeth out, a tricky procedure complicated by roots that resembled ice prongs, according to her surgeon. She has been sleeping off and on most of the day, waking only to mumble from her anesthesia-induced grogginess or to ask for more Advil. I keep this vigil beside her, willing the pain to lessen; my stubborn thoughts holding infection at bay; making silent deals like I used to when I was tired and weary, worried and sleep deprived.
A have flashbacks of yesterdays: I see my little one, tucked in her canopied twin bed, me perched, bedside, watching the clock tick the night away. I remember this familiar feeling of panic that only a mother can understand. I remember making midnight pleas that if only her fever will break, I will never say another mean thing about another person in my life; Promises to be more patient, more kind, more loving, more Anything; I promise to scrub the toilet, walk the dog, be nice to strangers. I whisper prayers to take away my child’s pain and make steadfast promises to try harder, do better, be better.
This weekend watch has reminded me of those all-night vigils when my daughter was little and scared. My daughter is, legally, an adult, but I still bear this mother’s mark — a relentless longing to make things better, make things right, make my daughter well. When my daughter is sick or hurting, a fear takes over my rational self and leads me down dark paths into scary shadows. It’s a fear that is almost palatable; I can taste its tinny, metallic cold, like a fork prong raked against a loose filling; A dread that drops like a weighty anchor in the pit of my stomach.
This friend called Fear has haunted me since the day my daughter was born. My baby spent her first 14 days of life in Neonatal ICU. This day of watchful waiting reminds me of those weeks when my world shifted on its predictable axis and turned upside down. Instead of the blessed excitement of taking our newborn daughter home, my husband and I were thrust into a nightmare of watching our full-term baby girl fight for her life.
Our beautiful newborn developed sepsis during or shortly after labor, and was whisked away from us in the early morning after her birth. While other mothers were bonding and taking pictures with their newborns, I paced up and down the hall, waiting to hear what was happening somewhere down the maze of corridors where they had rushed my baby for medical tests. I trudged down the hall to the nursery, looking at the babies through the glass. Numbly, I padded back to my room, sat in the rocker beside the window, exhausted, empty-armed and devastated.
In a few hours, I was told I would need to vacate the room; It was needed for another mother who had a baby to rock and hold. I packed up my things, placing them back into my Going-to-the-Hospital Bag that had sat — at the ready — by the front door for weeks. I had anticipated this blessed day for weeks, months — my whole life. I gently folded my baby’s Going Home outfit — a white eyelet onesie, trimmed with soft pink ribbons — and placed it inside. I zipped the bag shut and crumpled against my husband. He steadied me, leading me to a waiting room. I slid into a corner and cried until I was empty.
Late in the afternoon, with test results back and procedures in place, we were allowed to visit our baby in ICU. After scrubbing ourselves with antibacterial soap, we donned rubber gloves, hospital gowns and caps, and face masks. This would be our uniform of sorts each time we entered ICU — a high-tech, no nonsense place where hourly wars are waged against Fate.
When I saw my baby again on that first endless day, she was hooked up to wires and machines, an IV protruding from her tiny forehead. Her little arms and legs were bruised and pricked where techs had tried to find a suitable vein. My daughter, who was born perfect and unmarked, looked battered and blue. A few hours into this world and my baby had already been mauled by the world’s pain and cruelties.
In ICU, I was allowed to hold my daughter, and I took her, gingerly, into my arms, careful of the snaggle of wires and ever-beeping monitors. I held my baby close, cooing and telling her that mommy was there, that I loved her, that I would protect her. My baby girl did not look at me. She didn’t open her eyes. She could not. She was weak and unresponsive, her tiny body battling an enemy we could not see.
Still, I held her close, whispered her name and breathed her in. I matched my breaths with hers, and felt my heart beat with hers. A few short hours ago, we were one. Now, I watched as this part of me, this tiny, little soul struggled to make her way in a world that didn’t deserve her beauty, purity and angelic spirit.
Our two-week vigil in the ICU is a blur of white coats, bleary hours and murmured prayers. Our two-week vigil in the ICU was heartbreaking and life altering. During one visit, the mother of a tiny preemie in an incubator next to ours turned and grabbed my arm. “My baby has dreams of being your baby’s size.” Her tiny boy was the size of a small kitten. She could only touch him with her pinky finger through a small opening in the incubator. She sat by his bassinet, her finger running up and down her baby’s tiny body.
We were in ICU when a doctor, writing on a chart, turned and asked a nurse: “What time did we pronounce the Moore baby?” I looked at my husband, searching. What did he say, I asked with my eyes? My husband, turned away, tears brimming. I left the room, cried in the hallway. So much life and death in one small room; Hourly wars waged against Fate.
One early morning, we got to the hospital after a few hours of restless sleep, donning our hospital garb as usual, and headed in to see our baby. Our baby’s doctor was standing beside her hospital bassinet, another doctor beside him, jotting notes in a manila folder. The two were talking in hushed tones as we approached. My daughter’s doctor asked us to step outside so we could talk. My heart hammered in my chest, my knees felt weak, that tinny taste took over my mouth. I willed myself to follow my husband and the doctor to the ICU waiting room.
“I think your baby is well enough to go home today,” the doctor told us, patting my hand.
I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly; wasn’t sure I understood. He repeated himself, detailing what we would do at home, that he would see us in his office in a few days for a recheck, that we could continue antibiotic treatment at home. I was elated, but blindsided. I was thrilled, but mortified. I was dreaming, but I was awake. Our baby was coming home.
Two weeks after her birth, we dressed our baby in the white eyelet outfit, swaddled her in a soft, pink blanket. A nurse helped us get to the car and settle her in the car seat. On the drive home, I sat in the back and didn’t take my eyes off of my beautiful baby girl. I made my husband drive 20 mph through LA traffic back to our apartment.
Once home, I was blissfully terrified. Like all new mothers, I slept little, worried a lot, and reveled in the beauty and blessing of having our baby home. We marveled over her first coo, first bath, first diaper change. She slept in a bassinet next to our bed. I slept little those first months, kept a hand on her through the night so I could feel her breathe. I kept a tiny flashlight under my pillow so I could peer over the side of the bassinet to see her in the dark. I was afraid Fate was still lurking in the shadows, ready to claim her; that we had escaped, but danger was still close by.
My daughter’s start was rocky, scary, fragile, but modern medicine, love and prayer pulled her through those first tenuous weeks. Since her first day on this earth, my daughter has shown that she is a fighter with a strong spirit and a will to survive. I know this will serve her well in a world that takes us down dark paths into scary shadows.
Now, I sit and watch my daughter sleep like I did when she was a baby. I know that she will feel better in a few days. She will rest and heal, and rebound and be back to her normal, busy, teenage life soon. I know this, rationally and reasonably. But in my heart, my daughter is a still a tiny soul fighting for a chance.
In the top drawer of my dresser, a white eyelet onesie with soft pink ribbon is folded carefully. It reminds me that life is fragile, so very precious and that my life’s biggest blessing is being my daughter’s mommy. I thank God he answered my prayers and let my baby girl get well.
From the couch, my daughter stirs in her sleep, murmurs my name. “Mommy?”
My daughter reaches for my hand. She opens her eyes.
Yes, my darling, I’m here. If you need me, I’m here. I always have been.
My daughter looks up at me, snuggles back into her blanket, letting the medicine-sleep claim her.
I will sit. I will watch. I will be here.
I’m her mom.