My son, Alexander the Great, aka Thunderball and, more recently, Big Deal is five years-old today! I cannot believe it has been five years since this little love entered our lives. It seems as if we have been together forever. Yesterday he pulled out a picture of my dad and held it up to my mom. “I wish Papaw was here,” he said. As I struggle with my dad’s absence, especially on special days, it warms my heart to hear my kids express their feelings about their loss. I wish Papaw was here too, little buddy.
Alexander is the kind of kid who will say something endearing, like “I wish Papaw was here” in one breath and ten minutes later say something equally moving, like “I want to cut my sister’s head off.” He can say just about anything with his winning smile and sparkly blue eyes to back him. He is a bubbling, brewing, never ending life force. Everything he does is done with intensity. While Alexander’s fierce spirit can be frustrating to parent at times, he provides a great example of how to live life in the moment and to its fullest.
Alexander seems to have been on a mission since the day he was born. His birth was followed by the most difficult days of my life (and his, although he doesn’t remember them). I had an uneventful pregnancy and we worked together on a pretty quick birth. He was in a hurry, at about a week early. Looking back, it must have been divine timing that triggered his arrival. My little buddy was in trouble. He was so stained with meconium when he arrived that my midwives and his doctors thought he might have been in it for hours. He was purple. I didn’t notice his weak cry or his purple body because I was just so happy to have him here. We hadn’t decided on a name and as he was rushed to the NICU my husband, Dan, asked if we should name him Henry, which was our top contender. Henry didn’t seem right at the time. I thought we had plenty of time to pick out a name for our little bundle of joy. I thought we needed some time to stare into his little face to figure out what to call him.
My nurse told me that normally in situations like ours we would swing by the NICU and take our baby back to our room with us. A bit of a panic had begun to set in. I really wanted to nurse my baby. I knew from all my reading and my experience with my firstborn that if I didn’t nurse him right away and hold him for hours close to my skin, an acceptable bond would never form. Right? I began to fear that my child was destined to grow up detached and unable to love. I didn’t remember a chapter in any of my books about this type of scenario. If one existed I most likely skipped it thinking, and silently praying, we wouldn’t need to worry about any of that.
My nurse wrapped me in warm blankets after the best shower ever and Dan came to take me back to the NICU. I couldn’t wait to see my baby. When Dan returned he told me that he had named our little guy Alexander. This name was an early contender so it wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it was a far cry from Henry. What shocked me was what Dan said when he told me he had named our child: “He needed a strong name. He is fighting for his life.”
When we arrived in the NICU it was clear that Alexander was in serious danger. He was hooked up to a ventilator and there were many doctors and nurses gathered around, working hard to help him. As I approached the crowd, people moved aside to let me through. I was the mother. Someone handed me a few photos that had been taken of Alexander. A nurse came to me and said, “Do you want to baptize your baby? We can help you with that.” Pardon my French, but seriously, what the fuck? I couldn’t believe this was happening. I couldn’t even begin to reconcile that a day earlier I had been looking ahead to pure postpartum bliss, bringing a new brother home to my son, and enjoying long lazy days of sleepy cuddles with my family, and now I was faced with a choice about whether or not to baptize my new son in the NICU while he fought for his life.
When Dan and I went back to my new room, without our baby, surrounded by cries from other newborns and people celebrating their own healthy births, we began the game of wait and see. My most vivid memory of that time was Dan spooning me on my hospital bed as we sobbed, in complete shock and disbelief. Within hours of his birth Alexander was moved to Mott Children’s Hospital as a candidate for ECMO, a heart and lung bypass machine. Dan followed the ambulance. I was discharged a little later and my mom and sister took me to Mott. We stopped at Jimmy John’s for a sandwich. I couldn’t believe that I had just had a baby not even 12 hours earlier and I was walking around Ann Arbor so freely and without my baby. Not what I had imagined.
We loved seeing all the wires and machines disappear as he got better. He stayed in a drug induced coma until we left Mott. Words cannot describe my joy when I saw his little blue eyes open for the very first time.
Fortunately, Alexander made a turn in the right direction once he settled in at Mott. They had said he would get worse again, but he never did. Nobody could say for sure what had happened, but they knew he had severe meconium aspiration and pneumonia. There was no sign of meconium during labor. At one point Dan was told that Alexander had about an 85% chance to live. After a few days they sent us back to St. Joe’s Hospital in Ypsilanti where Alexander was born. And we held our little Alexander the Great for the first time.
All the doctors and nurses remembered him from his birthday, or had heard what had happened, and were so happy to see him back doing so well. A few people told me they were there that night and were scared for him. I’m not sure whether it was a miracle, modern medicine, or the strength of a tiny fighter, that got Alexander through. Maybe fighting for his life made him who he is today. Maybe who he is, allowed him to fight. The only thing I know for sure is that he is here and has blessed us in some way each and every day of his little life.
The question is, why share this story now? Through my life I have thought that when faced with a challenge, if I could just muscle through it and keep going, it’s all good. Once Alexander came home and Dan went back to work and we resumed our lives, there was no looking back. All is well that ends well, right? What I’ve learned since losing my dad so unexpectedly is that new trauma triggers old trauma. When my niece was born, she and my sister were also in danger. When I got off the elevator in the NICU at Mott to visit them for the first time, my body seized. I couldn’t breathe. All the feelings and emotions associated with Alexander’s stay there came flooding back. I all but collapsed in my mom’s arms when I made it to my sister’s room. And again, when my dad died, and we didn’t know how at first, all these little seeds of grief, tucked safely away in my heart and soul, sprouted all over again. Not all at once, but over time. I have been told that this will happen again and again. Until we fully process a traumatic event, bits and pieces of it can and will creep back into our lives, maybe to haunt us or maybe to help us.
So moving on is great. Trekking through the halls of the Med Inn to see my baby boy the day after he was born and pumping breast milk to store in the refrigerator in the NICU showed that I was strong. No nodding off in the baby’s nursery while he nursed peacefully for me. No herbal baths to soothe my healing body. We rocked him in whatever chair we could pull into our little area of the hospital whenever it was possible and watched him closely when we weren’t supposed to bother him. I moved on, I laughed, I looked forward to visits from big brother so we could all be together, and I poured love into my baby. Oh, and guess what, all that crap about needing to do X, Y, and Z to make a baby thrive, well, I wouldn’t suggest that anyone ignore any of it, but there are exceptions to the rules. During one of my freaking out episodes while Alexander was in the NICU and I wanted so desperately to nurse him (in order to ensure full attachment…), a nurse said, “Time is on your side. Let us do what we need to do to get him out of here and when you get him home you can do whatever you want.” And she was right. Despite what I had read in books, there was much to be said for following my own instinct whenever I had the opportunity. There is also a lot to be said for going with the flow when things don’t go as planned.
Even though I was able to go on and Alexander continues to thrive, something in all of this was never resolved for me. Something was left unfinished. I’m not sure what exactly. Maybe engaging in a little Blog Therapy is all I needed to reconcile all that has happened previously with all that is now. Getting it all out there can be extremely valuable. There is no rush to figure it all out right now because time is on my side.
While I wait to see how it all unfolds, I will celebrate my sweet boy and all that he is now. As I move along my path, I think I will allow the wisdom of Alexander to guide me. Alexander reminds me to live in the moment. To be present in all the joy and pain of motherhood, and in every other aspect of my life. The beauty of life is in what is.
Thank you for standing by as I work my way through this story.
Happy Birthday Alexander! Your mama loves you!