This month we’re celebrating the dads! If you have a story about fatherhood to share, whether it’s about the dad or grandfather in your NICU baby’s life, email email@example.com with the title “Fatherhood story.”
A similar version of this post was originally published in May of 2011.
by Mike Kelley
The night I met my son will forever live in my mind as one of the scariest, loneliest, yet happiest nights of my life.
My wife gave birth to our first child more than 100 days before he was supposed to be born. I wasn’t even mentally prepared to be a dad, even though we planned the pregnancy and had a due date. I just figured I had more time to get ready, but I was wrong. At six o’clock in the evening, I was eating dinner and getting ready to play softball when my wife came home in tears. By 7:33 that night, our son was born. So much happened in those 90 minutes, it is still hard to believe. I experienced fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, sorrow and the thought that I might lose my son and my wife on a hot summer night in which I was supposed to be playing a game instead of contemplating starting my life over.
Everything happened so quickly at the hospital, and I only had my wife’s sister there for support. As soon as the doctors and nurses determined that our son was viable, they went to work. An entire team of professionals seemed to appear out of nowhere. I was prepped for the delivery, but as soon as I was ready, I was whisked out of the operating room. This was going to be an emergency c-section, and I was in the way. It was all happening too fast. Within minutes, my wife lay unconscious with a pile of bloody sheets at her feet when I saw the doctors remove our son and begin working to save his life.
He looked dead.
I did not understand why they were working so feverishly to save what looked like a wet baby bird. His skin was so thin that you could nearly see through it, and he didn’t make a sound because he could not breathe. I asked if he was alive and they told me yes! That was the first time I had hope to one day raise my son and do all the fun things fathers and sons can do together.
Later that night, after he was stabilized in the NICU, I got to meet my son. I was told that I had to be quiet and not say too much to him. I was also told that I would probably not be able to hold him for a long time. (It turned out to be six weeks before I got to hold him for the first time.) I wrapped his tiny hand around my pinky and whispered to him, sang to him and prayed over him, all night long.
At about 2:00 in the morning, a young nurse must have seen how pitiful I looked, because she came over to talk with me. She told me to get up and follow her. In the ten minutes that followed, she gave me a tour of the NICU that I believe allowed me to weather the long stay. She showed me other babies that had been as small and frail as my son, babies who now looked like giants compared to him. She answered my questions and tried to reassure me that things would be okay. She was honest about the hurdles we faced and told me that this would be a roller coaster ride. It was exactly what I needed to hear – the truth, mixed with a little hope to live for.
At first I lived one hour at a time, then one day at a time, until we reached our first month. After that, things got a little easier, and I got used to the routine of scrubbing in and greeting my extended family at the NICU. My days consisted of waking up first thing in the morning and calling the night nurse to get an update of how our son did through the night. I held my breath every single morning waiting for the update. The roller coaster ride was in full swing with no end in sight. Our emotions were hurdled one way and then the other, sometimes within minutes of each other. The NICU stay we experienced was far and away the most difficult period of time in my life. I have never been even remotely challenged as I was for those 100+ days.
Being in the NICU with other families with similar struggles helped a little, but that was hard too. We would get to know each other and get attached to other families. Even on “good days” it was difficult to celebrate too much, because someone else was having a bad day. It was war, but we had some of the best doctors and nurses as generals to guide the way. Many of our friends and family members wanted to help, but they didn’t quite know how to relate to what was going on. On Monday nights, the hospital led a discussion group during a changeover break in the NICU. It was helpful to go and listen to other families and offer them support. As difficult as it was to endure our son’s health issues, we had it easy compared to some others.
Today, my son is 15 years old. He has some prematurity-related health issues that continue to linger, but you could not tell that by looking at him. He is full of life and love. I could not be more proud of him. If I would have known then how my son would turn out, it would have made the whole experience much easier. We don’t have that luxury. We must rely on our faith and each other. This is not something that can be done alone. Without the help of our neighbors, friends and family, I do not know how we would have made it.
If you are offered help, take it. Don’t be too proud. People want to help you and you need it whether you know it or not.
As I would drive to and from the hospital to visit my son each day, I would listen to a song called, “Live for Today.” I would pray that he would live just one more day so I could be with him. I felt that each day with him was a gift and a blessing. It made me realize that I should live the same way for myself. Now that things are back to “normal” it is more difficult to heed those words, but each night as I tuck my children into bed, I am reminded again how special their lives are and how blessed we all are. I do not think I would have these reminders without our NICU experience. It was the most difficult thing I hope to ever go through, but it has also made me a slightly better person and a more understanding father to our kids.
We have a son and a daughter now, both are NICU grads. This Father’s Day, I am reminded how special our children are and how much fun I have getting to be a kid again myself when I play with them and live for today.