By the time you’re able to read this, I’m confident that this will all be ancient history. For you, no memory, just a story we tell, the irrelevant reality of your first months of life, and, for us, something from the past that we try hard not to think about.
But that doesn’t change how it all feels right now, as I look at you, sleeping quietly in your incubator, as I watch the monitor to make sure the numbers look okay, not that I can do anything when they don’t. I’m scared. I’m scared, I’m tired, and I’m sorry.
I’m sorry that this is the only life you know. I’m sorry your home is an incubator, and you’re in there all alone. That human contact is intermittent, mostly through a plastic wall, and perhaps not when you most need comfort. I’m sorry we haven’t held you in days because we’re either fighting a cold or worried that we’re fighting a cold and that there’s no way to explain the risks to you — why you can hear our voices but not feel our skin, why we’re so near but so far, and why we leave every afternoon but don’t take you with us, why we can’t take you with us.
I’m sorry you’re hooked up to wires and machines, that your blood keeps getting drawn, that there’s a mask on your face that you’re trying to tear off and a tube in your mouth that you’re trying to pull out. But of course you can’t — and if you did, they’d just put them right back — and that surely makes it even more frustrating. I’m sorry when you look uncomfortable, and we can’t do anything about it, that being poked and prodded and taped and restrained and tortured is what your life is right now, and has been since you were born, and that there’s no way for you to understand that this isn’t forever. That this incubator isn’t your home, that these wires aren’t always going to be with you, that you will one day be free, be held, be loved.
Listen: Chris Judd shares the stories of his children’s births from a dad’s perspective. Post continues after audio.
I’m sorry that I’m afraid of you. Afraid to touch you, afraid to exhale, afraid of what life is going to look like when you finally do come home and we can’t let you get sick. I’m sorry that we have to teach your brother to be afraid of you, that your first couple of years are going to be, far too often, driven by fear.
I’m sorry that for too many hours of the day it’s beeping you hear instead of books, beeping instead of laughter, beeping instead of music, beeping instead of the talking we’d be doing all day at home, to you, around you, about you — and not just about the numbers on your monitor.
I’m sorry that we will have to protect you from people, from places, from things. I’m sorry you’ll need more doctors, more shots. I’m sorry you will get the same panicked, exhausted parents your brother got, and not some better, more experienced, more perfect model. We wanted to be more perfect, we really did. We wanted to learn from what we’d been through, not go through it all, just the same way, once again.
I mean, maybe we’d be the same panicked, exhausted parents anyway. Were we really going to let you roll around in the dirt with unvaccinated children of the forest? Were we really going to let you lick the tires on the car?
We are who we are. And, truth is, I think we did a ton of things right with your brother. He is great. You will love him so much. If we could skip all of this drama, jump forward a couple of years, and end up with another kid just like him, we’d do it in a heartbeat. So I don’t mean to say that the needs post-NICU, the stress post-NICU, our life post-NICU made us bad parents. I know it didn’t. And I know we won’t be bad parents to you either. We’ll be great. I think.
I’m just sorry it has to be so hard again, for all of us. I’m sorry you have to deal with this, I’m sorry we have to deal with this. I’m sorry we have to buoy our spirits by thinking about how much worse it could have been. That you might not be so lucky as to be in the NICU, alive. It sucks to spend your first few weeks alive having to keep reminding ourselves how much worse it could be.
It sucks to not feel like your parents yet, because we’re really not. The NICU doesn’t need us. I’m not even sure they want us. There is so painfully little we can do for you. I’m sorry there isn’t more we can do. I’m sorry if you need us and we’re not there. I’m sorry if you want us and we’re not there. I’m sorry if you’re being conditioned to believe that we won’t be there, that we’re powerless to help you, that you’re all on your own, that life is just the worst.
We will be there, I swear. Soon, I promise. You will know us far too well. (Just ask your brother.) But I’m sorry we’re going to have to convince you of that, and it won’t simply be a given. I’m sorry we are starting at a disadvantage. I’m sorry you are starting at a disadvantage. I’m sorry I can’t identify with anyone who brings home a full-term baby. I’m sorry that a newborn baby, for us, means fear and uncertainty, sadness and pain.
I’m sorry you’re a patient instead of a person. I’m sorry we’re visitors instead of parents. I am confident and hopeful that in the future, I will have a lot less to be sorry for, but right now, as I watch you in the incubator, that’s all I have. I’m sorry we can’t all just be home, healthy, happy, moving forward instead of stuck on pause. I’m sorry I don’t know you yet. I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m sorry you’re not yet my son. You will be.
Jeremy Blachman is the author of two novels, "Anonymous Lawyer" and "The Curve" (co-written with Cameron Stracher) and has developed projects for television and film. Read more of his journey at medium.com/back-in-the-nicu.