Behind these plain, gray doors laid my worst fear. In these moments, my mind would wander to the deepest, darkest depths of my subconscious. I always caught myself at the edge and forcefully turned around. If I allowed myself to think it, it might come true.
Back to reality. I wondered, would the voice on the other side of the double doors offer me a cheerful response or would I detect pity in her welcome? The next few seconds and the tone of that hello would tell us all we needed to know about this visit. I hated this part.
“May I help you?”
I paused. I should be whispering her name in her ear. I should be holding her close in my hospital bed, saying hello and calling her by the name we've carried for so long but here, they don't ask for my daughter's name.
"We're here to see number 6891."
“One moment please.” One moment felt like a million frozen in time.
A cheery voice returned, “come on in.” I sighed a deep breath of relief.
I was married, got pregnant and gave birth to my first daughter then became pregnant and gave birth to my second daughter in a span of two years. Naming our firstborn was easy. Long before that sparkling diamond would adorn my ring finger and even longer before my dream of having a large family would start to become a reality, I made a promise to my dad that I would name my firstborn daughter Katherine after his beloved mother. It was the last thing he ever asked of me and I kept that sacred.
The great name debate began for our second as soon as the ultrasound tech confirmed what I already knew, my husband was now vastly outnumbered. We would sit on the couch for hours as I rattled off potential names. We wanted something traditional, from the bible or chosen from the list of family names my mother-in-law shared. After months going back and forth over the same dozen names, there was only one we both loved and always circled back to. In the bible, this was a woman of great faith and fierce devotion to God, exactly the kind of woman we wanted to raise. It was the perfect name for our perfect girl.
My husband and I were always silent when we came here. We often walked through the hallways without saying a word. My mind would comb through her overnight report; dropped heartbeats, desats, failed feeding attempts and I would wonder what the neonatologist might have to say today. Was my husband thinking the same thing? Maybe his thoughts were sunnier, filled with the idea of holding his tiny girl again.
After we made our way through the double doors, we became like robots going through the motions. Hang up your coat. Take off your jewelry. Turn on the water. Pump soap into your hand and scrub. A chrome, digital timer would blink 00:00 to tell you when you could stop scrubbing; thirty seconds and not a moment less. We always waited for the other to finish before we continued on. We were always silent.
There is an unspoken rule in the NICU that you walk with your eyes down. Never look at the others who are here sharing the same heartache; their space is sacred and should not be interrupted by a stolen glance. It doesn't take many visits to memorize the walk. Six steps past the private room for the triplets, take a right at the first wing of tiny plastic beds, turn left at the nurses’ station all the while dodging parents slowly rocking as they whisper I love you’s into their baby’s ears. We make the walk quickly with an urgency brought on by fear, always with our eyes down. A few more quick steps and we have arrived. It couldn't have taken more than thirty seconds. This is our safe space, bed ten. Here, in a tiny plastic rectangle surrounded by beeps and blinking lights lays our sweet little 6891.
How we got to this place was quite honestly, a blessing from God. And that's a quote from medical doctors. That's how close we came to the ledge. Doctors tossed around words like blessing and miracle.
Our miracle began on a sunny day the week before Christmas. I was seven and a half months pregnant and had planned to prepare for the holiday celebrations that filled our calendar in the days ahead. One errand stood between a grocery run and baking Christmas cookies with my toddler, my thirty-four week check up. My checkups had all been by the book, except for one. At my anatomy scan months earlier, the ultrasound tech saw what she believed to be holes in the baby's heart. A fetal echocardiogram would later confirm that what she was seeing was typical of all babies at that gestation and that her heart was normal. Still, at every appointment, when it came time to listen to her heartbeat, those emotions would come flooding back to me.
The doctor measured my stomach. “Right on track and she is in position to make her grand entrance! Just need to give a quick listen and we will get you out of here.”
She silently moved the stethoscope around my belly. ”“Her heartbeat sounds strong but something is off. I don't know what it is but, I don't like it.”
Three days later I learned that, that “something off” my doctor cared enough about to investigate, would save my daughter's life.
Within minutes, I was whisked to another room and hooked up to and ultrasound machine. My daughter sat in her stroller, confused and pushed to the side. Normally, people would fawn all over her commenting on her beautiful blue eyes or her sweet, cheerful dimples but, in that moment, she could not have been more invisible. All at once, the room was filled with nurses and doctors. When the head of MFM came in, that all too familiar knot in the pit of my stomach returned.
“Do you live close? Is your husband home?”
“It is time to call him. And you should call someone to come get your daughter as well. You need to go to labor and delivery right now, there is something wrong with your baby's heart.”
This is not a December baby. This is a late January, maybe even early February baby. She can't come now, she isn't ready, we are not ready. My mind raced.
Two days passed in the hospital, the entire time I was hooked to monitors and methodically moving from side to side each time her heart rate would dip. In time, we learned that there was in fact something wrong and that the ultrasound tech from three and a half months ago was right all along, she did have holes in her heart which would ultimately be the least of our worries. We received many diagnoses, each one more terrifying than the last. Now, the only goal we had was to keep her in a long as possible.
Six days before Christmas, after my daily ultrasound and assessment, a doctor came in and uttered words that will replay forever in my mind.
“Well, want to go have a baby?” She wasn't really asking, I had no choice.
Ten days after I first laid eyes on my beautiful girl and just two days before we would watch the ball drop in Times Square, I packed up the flowered, little sister pajamas and grabbed the pink fuzzy blanket lovingly handmade by a woman from our church. Today’s visit held a new anxiety, one I had longed for. Today two of us would visit but three of us would come home. We had to go through the required motions: learn to fortify a bottle of my breast milk, practice CPR on a miniature dummy and watch videos meant to help parents learn to deal with the stresses of a newborn. One by one, we checked the tasks off of our list.
I packed up the memories of her time here; the Santa hat she wore on Christmas day, the Hail Mary prayer card we had tucked under her bed after my first night home and the cute little “sunglasses” she wore under the bili lights when jaundice set her back another day. The beeps and bells that were once the background music of my visits had gone silent and the wires once strategically taped under her onsie had been removed. For the first time, I was seeing her entire face without obstruction and I could freely hold her in my arms.
I looked around her space for anything I had forgotten. I saw the card posted above her bed meant to identify her to those who looked after her when we couldn’t. It read “6891—I’m a baby girl!” I gently peeled the tape from the back of the laminated paper and tucked it into my diaper bag. I would later add this keepsake to her memory box and imagine what it would be like years from now to tell her, her story. Would I still remember those four digits?
Before we could make our triumphant ride down the elevator, there was one final task; they had to make sure the numbers on my wristband matched hers. The nurse read them aloud, “6891 and 6891. You’re all set.”
I smiled lovingly at my daughter, the time had finally come. “Let’s go home, Rebekah.”
Guest essay written by Jordan Dale. Jordan lives in Elizabthtown, PA with her husband, two daughters and their beloved senior beagle. She spends her days at home with her girls juggling playtime and conference calls as a part time educational conference planner. As somewhat of an introvert, writing has always been Jordan's way of sharing her stories and she hopes to pen more of her memories when she gets some of that free time she is always hearing so much about.
Photo by N’tima Preusser