Last week, I went back.
I walked the second-floor hallway for the first time in 3 1/2 years.
The one I had walked down so many times, at every hour of the day or night, even in my pajamas and robe. Going to visit my tiny baby in the NICU, to talk to him, to sing to him, to hold him or feed him the bottles of milk that I was pumping for him around the clock.
When we left that Friday in April of 2005, I prayed I'd never return.
And I didn't.
My second child came on time, in the same hospital, and I avoided that hallway on that floor.
I was so happy.
This year, life took me back to that hospital, and to that very floor. To families who have their babies right now in the NICU. It was time to complete my circle. To help families walking the very hallway I walked, on the very same journey I took.
It was so much harder than I ever thought.
After the shower we threw for the families, I thought it was time for me to go visit the 2nd floor NICU. I had brought some little buckets full of candy that my mom's group had put together for the staff and I was going to bring them down myself.
It was time.
I could have given them to the NICU social worker to give them. But something inside me made me go. Needed to go.
I thought I had prepared myself. After all, we didn't spend a whole two weeks there, it really shouldn't be that hard. Should it?
So I walked the walk. Across the hospital, up the elevator, making a right turn toward the NICU instead of the left turn, where the healthy babies were in the newborn nursery. And each turn brought back pain. So much pain. An unbearable amount of pain. It was getting hard to breathe.
My hands lost feeling. I was terribly numb. I was nauseous.
It was awful.
It was more awful than I can even express and the word "awful" is the only word I can come up with for just how terrible I felt to be there again.
No, there wasn't closure. There wasn't anything except a terrible rush of painful memories, and the noise, my God the noise, the beeping, the darkness, standing next to the nurses station and trying to force a smile while handing them their homemade gifts and all I felt was the need to pass out.
My legs were weak. My knees were buckling. I couldn't breathe and the urge to sob uncontrollably was overwhelming.
It. Was. Awful.
It was all exactly how I remembered it. Every isolette, every section, every wire, every machine, every chair. I was surprised how actual and how vivid my memory of it was. Because when you go through something like that, it feels like you're walking through everything in a fog. So afterward, you wonder if whatever it is you remember is really accurate.
But it was all still there, just like in my head, 3 1/2 years later. Only this time, there were other mommies with that same lost look on their faces, their bellies still swollen where their babies were supposed to still be right now, just sitting there, helpless, next to their babies, watching. Praying.
At the exact spot where my baby was, a mother held her child while daddy snuggled up close to them.
I had sat in that chair. In that very spot.
My heart cried.
I don't know what I had expected. I thought maybe my memories wouldn't match up, that maybe when I had seen the place where my baby slept and lay waiting for me for all those days, that I could let it all go, once and for all. Like a butterfly. Like a balloon. And send my painful memories with it. My memories of a failed pregnancy. My guilt. My sadness. My broken heart for having failed my child before he was even born. My pain of leaving the hospital without him. The fear I had after his rough entry into this world. I wanted so badly for that to all finally go away along with all of the noise in my head.
But instead, I was so overwhelmed that it physically hurt.
I stifled all my feelings until I got home and I sobbed in my husband's arms until I had no more tears left.
I needed to compose myself before sitting down and writing about it. I almost didn't. But I had to.
I learned something that day. I learned that even though we forget so much, that some memories will never ever lessen. They will remain as vivid as the day we experience them.
And that's ok. No, I can't let the memories go. But I can look at my shiny, healthy, little three-year-old ball of energy and know that indeed, I didn't fail him. That instead, I gave him everything I had when he needed me, every second of me that I could and loved him with everything that I had and more than I ever even knew I had. And still do.
More importantly, I know that it wasn't my fault.Today is Prematurity Awareness Day.
The research by the March of Dimes is very likely why I had a full-term baby my second pregnancy. It is why my son, who was born at 34 weeks, came home from the hospital in less than two weeks. It is why preemies who are born at 24 weeks can survive today.
Today and tomorrow and for the rest of my life, I will fight for preemies.
Until there is no reason to ever walk down that hallway, or sit in that chair, I will fight.
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