Saturday, March 29, 2014

Chapter 5: Empty Arms

Knowing I had twins on the way, I had well prepared myself for the possibility of the babies spending time in the NICU or neonatal intensive care.  And by 'prepared myself' I mean I toured the hospital NICU, read many blogs of other preemie families and worried myself sick about it. Despite uplifting stories and encouragement, I had decided the NICU seemed like a terrifying and very sad place and I just prayed constantly we would not end up spending much time there.  On the other side of it now, I see that my fears were both justified and completely misplaced.  The NICU experience is emotional and difficult, but really not for any of the reasons I had so dreaded.       
Before I had a baby in the NICU, I imagined the worst part would be the beeping and the wires and the frightening tininess of the babies.  I had seen pictures on other people’s blogs and all that seemed terrifying, unnatural, sad.  In reality, it was not the incessant beeping that made me crazy.  In fact, that almost became comforting.  Like people who like to fall asleep to the hum of a ceiling fan, the sounds of the machines making sure my babies were safe were almost soothing.   The wires simply required acclimating to and within days I was confidently grabbing my children from their tangled technology without a second thought.  As for the skinniness of NICU babies, well when they are your own, they are simply the most beautiful things you have ever seen.

Max and Addie would go on to live for 8 months in the hospital in the neonatal intensive care unit.  And I would quickly learn that the heartbreaking part of having a baby in the NICU has nothing to do with the unit at all.  It has to do with the empty home they were supposed to be living in.  It was never the noise and beeping that was painful, it was the intense silence in our home all night long.  The nights we had prepared to be so sleepless were filled with nothing to do but sleep.   The sight of your baby in an isolette was nothing compared to waking up to the most perfectly decorated crib next to your bed, with no baby in it.   

3 am in the morning and the silence was broken.  But not by a hungry baby’s cries but by an abrupt alarm clock.  I get up and collect my breast pump and sit with empty arms doing what I need to do. Those moments were the heartbreaking part of having babies in the hospital.  The empty arms. The quiet nights. The perfect unoccupied crib.  

The doctors and nurses encourage you to spend time at home recovering from your own surgery, catch up on your sleep while you can and trust the nurses with your precious ones during those wee hours.   Well-meaning people warn you against wearing yourself out emotionally or physically by staying long hours by their NICU bedsides.   They implore you to go home and rest, as if home was anything like what it used to be. As if home wasn't the loneliest place in the world now.  It was never the NICU itself that broke my heart, after all that was where my babies were.  Scary things happened there, sure, but I also fell in love more and more each day sitting in those NICU rooms.  It was the drive home that broke my heart.  It was those painfully empty arms every night and every morning that I was not at the hospital.    

I learned to cope by spending nearly all of my waking hours at the NICU.  In fact, before long the NICU started to feel not just like their home, but my own.  I loved their nurses and counted them as friends.  I felt supported there, and I felt whole there.  The place I had once dreaded and been convinced would be so sad had become the only place that didn't feel empty and lonely.  The NICU to me never meant alarms and tiny babies.  To me, the NICU meant full arms and a full heart.  

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