This weekend we attended a reunion party for graduates of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, organized by Maimonides Hospital. There were balloons, free book giveaways from the Brooklyn Public Library, face painting for the older kids, ice cream, a slide show of pictures of the the babies then and now, food, and raffles. But the best part was seeing the nurses again. It’s been five months, but seeing them took me back to that sad, bright room full of tiny babies, that frantic, exhausted feeling of wonder and pain we felt watching our babies sleep through the thick plastic of incubators.
When we first walked in, at the greeting table was a short-haired, round-faced nurse who I recognized instantly. She exclaimed loudly and ooed and awed over the babies and how big they’ve grown. I remember sitting with her in the NICU annex, after the babies had moved into open cribs. At that point we knew they would probably be discharged in a matter of days. I had learned how to take their armpit temperature with the thermometer I’d wheel over to the crib; I’d learned how to change their tiny, preemie size diapers. I remember asking her what type of thermometer to get. I was so stressed about the babies coming home, about everything, though I didn’t realize it myself. She had a very brusque, sarcastic way of answering and seemed to find my nervousness funny. I was so grateful for any advice.
Then D saw a lanky, long-haired woman in a maroon sweatshirt. She had on small wire-rim glasses and was standing in a circle of doctors. “That’s the neonatologist I talked to when you were in surgery after the C-section,” he said. “She was the first person I talked to.” I had never seen her. I had been unconscious at that point. I realized what different experiences we’d had in those initial days, though we’d lived it together.
“Cheeks, cheeks, everywhere cheeks!” she exclaimed when we said hello, admiring the babies.
We spoke to the lactation consultant who’d wheeled a breast pump up to my hospital bed while I was still groggy from meds, showing me how to assemble and clean the parts. Later, when I brought my sister and father to visit the hospital she had helped me set up a video monitor so they could see the babies. For the camera, she put both the babies in my arms. It was the first time I held them both at once. I felt so rich.
“They look great!” she said. “You don’t have to say the adjusted age; you can tell people their actual age.”
As we made our way around the room, the nurses all asked, “What was the babies’ last name in the hospital?” They were known there by my last name, though their last name now is their father’s. Hospitals retain their own maternal culture separate from society.
My time in the hospital, the babies’ time in the NICU, was really like a trip to another country. A stay in a foreign land, where you don’t understand the language, you don’t know what rituals are being performed most of the time. But we brought the babies back with us from this foreign land. They made it home.