Those words still have the power to bring tears to my eyes, fifteen years on.
In heat of July, a scan suggested our new baby would be a girl. She was due in November, so my husband booked time off from work with her delivery date in mind.
In the grey, damp days of early December, our baby, Louise, was three and a half months old. With oxygen prongs attached to her face, she squirmed in a Perspex hospital crib.
She had been home in early November, after many months in Neonatal Intensive Care. For two weeks she was our baby, not the hospital’s. Then she caught a cold. I was holding her in my arms when she went white and limp, her eyes rolled back, and she stopped breathing. I panicked and called for my husband. She started breathing again by herself, but we took her to the hospital anyway.
Within hours she was on a ventilator and in an ambulance heading for another hospital with the intensive care facilities she needed. We left our 20-month-old toddler with my husband’s parents and drove to our baby, not knowing if she would survive the night.
After nine days in intensive care, she came back to our local hospital. Exhausted, I sat
“You’ll be hoping to have her home for Christmas.” Over and over, people said this to me. Nurses said it, the caregivers at the nursery where my toddler went two mornings a week said it, the neighbours said it. They meant well, but to me it just widened the crevice that had broken open between the rest of the world and me. I didn’t care about Christmas. I wanted her home before my husband’s leave ended and he had to go back to work. Couldn’t they understand how exhausted, afraid and alone I felt?
I longed for the numbness to end. I longed to feel the fire of love I felt for her sister, Melissa. I longed to feel that I was of some value, and that I could do something for her that the nurses and doctors couldn’t.
One night Louise cried every time I put her down. I was close to crying too. I had intended to stay all night, but at 2:30 am the charge nurse told me to go home and get some rest. I didn’t want to leave my distressed baby, but the ward was quiet, and the charge nurse said that someone would hold her as long as she needed, even if it took all night.
As I left, Louise was calm, snuggled into a nurse’s arms. I needed to go; I needed to sleep. And yet guilt and shame
followed me out of the hospital and into my own bed.
“You should have been able to soothe her,” they said as I struggled to sleep. “You should have tried harder. You should have stayed and looked after her. You shouldn’t be pleased to be home.”
I agreed. “I’m a terrible person. I should love her more. I don’t even matter, she was happy with the nurse. She doesn’t need me. I’m not a proper mother.”
I longed to feel deeply that she was my baby, to really feel that she belonged to me, not the hospital. I was her mother, yet I wasn’t her Mum. Or so it felt.
The December days slipped by and, around the corner from our room, a tall Christmas tree appeared at the end of the corridor, all shimmering baubles and sparkling lights. Instead of seasonal joy, I felt the weight of Christmas grow heavier.
My husband brought our toddler to the ward, and I took her to see the tree. “Pretty lights!” Melissa squealed, clapping her hands. I bent down and wiped her runny nose. “Pretty lights,” she said again, and they sparkled in her eyes. We walked back towards Louise’s room. Shiny garlands hung along the corridor, wishing us a Merry Christmas. My husband and toddler went home without me, without our baby.
Louise was asleep, so I lay down on the bed and rested. Outside our room, her doctor was talking on the phone. “She fulfils all the criteria,” he said. “Less than thirty week gestation at birth, ventilated, lung infections and tested RSV negative.”
I knew that he was talking about Louise. He had already explained to me that her treatment would cost a lot of money. To the person on the phone, money mattered. To the doctor who had cared for her since she was five weeks old, she mattered. We mattered.
I feel asleep, waking to Louise’s cry. I picked her up. She fed in her hurried way, gulping as if she’d had nothing for weeks. Perhaps that’s how it felt to her. Then she stopped and looked around. She looked up at me, and though her lips didn’t move, I saw a smile sparkle in her eyes.
Suddenly I felt it: the fire I’d so longed for. I felt amazed that she was alive, that she was my baby – our baby. After all that she’d been through she’d smiled at me.
The next day, in the moments while my baby slept, I wrote Christmas cards. I signed each from the four of us. Then for the people who didn’t know, I added: Louise arrived three months early, weighing 1.1 kilos. She is in hospital just now, recovering from a severe bout of bronchiolitis. We’re hoping to have her home for Christmas.