empty chairs


Our daughters were born early–earlier than the appointed early date on which they were supposed to be extracted–and, as a precaution, they spent some time in the neonatal intensive care unit. For nearly two weeks, we traveled the bowels of the local hospital, learned the ways of and gained insight into the inner workings of the hospital, nearly burned the skin off our arms from elbows to fingers with hand sanitizer and frequent hand washing, and discovered that the myth of hospital food, at least in that place, is a sacred cow that needs to be turned to chuck eye.

(For the record, the best club sandwich in town can be found in the Atrium Cafe at the west entrance of the facility. And the hands-down best house roast coffee is at the north entrance’s coffee shop. Sumatra and Ethiopia, together in roasted bliss? Yes, and amen, and blow that shofar!)

When the Sirviopocalypse first found their home in that high-security, highly-germophobic environment, wife and I looked around and found one of the most dichotomous rooms we’ve ever seen: compassionate and caring people, along with those who cling to despair as a way to keep hope alive. While, of course, I cannot go into detail, we were informed several times by the NICU staff that they liked having our girls there because they were relatively low maintenance. Their problem was with developing a suck reflex, while other little lives were having serious troubles getting started, wrapped in bandages and wires embedded, inserted and taped down, the slightest beep from a monitor sending staff at a powerwalker’s pace–running is verboten–to a bedside.

Along the way, we became familiar with several of the parents who were there, including the mother whose little boy was next to E. A kind of community of suffering and despair formed there, though we never actually learned her name until the day the twins were released to come home. At first, she would give that courtesy smile to us, and it’s hard not to infer into it that completely understandable parental envy of knowing that those girls are only here as a formality. But my heart broke for her and her little boy, born far too soon, fighting to develop and grow and catch up with the rest of the month-olds; her, reading religiously to her son, sitting at his side for hours on end. The father, back home, working and traveling at some length to spend even a few moments with his child when he could. As we grew more familiar, that smiling-through-the-teeth gave way to genuine warmth. She even caught herself laughing at a few of my jokes I was making with my wife and the nurses there and that community of mutual struggle and despair gave way to mutual strength and camaraderie.

It was otherwise a fairly routine place, save for the day we’d come in to find that one of the beds would be gone, the whiteboard chart cleared off, chairs empty. Only two conclusions then can be made: one, the baby is healthy enough to come home, or, the baby wasn’t. Either envy or dread, neither particularly comforting nor virtuous.

And then, one day ten days ago, our place there was vacated. We gathered our things, said our goodbyes, told little baby next door and his mother we were rooting for them both and praying for continued health and development, and then made our exit. It felt more like a walk of shame: eyes all on us as we made our way out, parents and nurses smiling along the way as we passed little babies found through no fault of their own in most precarious positions, feeling guilty for being released from that place. The double doors never took so long to close and open. How can we leave a place filled with so many emotions, so much struggle? It feels like betrayal in a way, even though we’re not doing anything wrong. We celebrate the lives with which we’ve been trusted, and the sleepless nights, poopy diapers, cursed burp cloths that are never anywhere to be found, impending medical bills. We count it all joy because of the babies we’ve been hoping for over the past four or five years of wanting, trying and failing.

Any evidence we were there is all but gone, but our hearts very much remain with those, both new and old, who still are fighting for their lives. I extend my gratitude to the nurses and physicians who tended to our little girls, as well as the parents who were gracious enough to share their lives with us as we endured together toward everyone’s well-being.

There are myriad new parents in that hospital who will never know the despair of seeing a little one on a respirator and having fat emulsions; they may never even know these babies and parents are there in a sequestered room deep within the hospital. They will come and go, going about their lives worrying about a scratch or a bruise, having never pleaded with God to intervene in dire circumstances when an infant balances on the edge of life and death. They are blessed by being so fortunate, and cursed by being naive to the suffering of other parents who are not afforded such unheralded luxuries.

We had to be there, but we didn’t have to be there. As a result, we fall somewhere betwixt the two, perhaps the most difficult place of all.

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