real life

"Telling my five-year-old about the day she almost died."

At the end of a book I was reading my daughter, there was a question…

I was reading a book to my daughter, Norah, about different animals and what their first days of life are like. At the end of the book was this question: what was your first day like?

Norah was in pink and black Minnie Mouse pajamas. We were both sitting on her bed. My back was against the wall, legs stretched out flat in front of me. Norah was snuggled into my right arm.

I read the question and Norah said, “On my first day I went wah, wah, wah, until mummy gave me milk.”

I looked down at her, gave her half a laugh, and said, “I wish you’d cried. The problem was, you didn’t cry. You just let out the smallest little whimpers because you couldn’t breath.”

Norah gave me a sideways snarky look like she didn’t believe me.

“Norah,” I said. “You almost died the day you were born.”

I must have told the story of Norah’s birth a million times in the past five years. Norah was born with under developed lungs. I remember her small and white-crusted body being carried by the nurse. During the few steps between Mel and the heating table, I watched Norah turn from pink to blue. She struggled for breath. She didn’t cry.

No one told me there was a problem. I could feel it in my heart. It took doctors almost two weeks to get Norah stable. I’d never been so scared in my life. And yet, I’d never told Norah about this.

"I’d never been so scared in my life. And yet, I’d never told Norah about this."

Norah sat up, un-crossed her legs, and placed her palms on her knees. “I didn’t cry?” she asked.

“No.” I said. “You didn’t.”

She looked up at me, ready for a story, and I struggled with just how to tell her what happened. I wanted to put it in terms that she would understand, but I wasn’t sure what those terms were. So I just tried to tell it simply.

I placed my hand on Norah’s chest and said, “Inside here are your lungs. They make it so you can breath. And without them you could die.”

Honestly, I didn’t know if she even knew what death meant. She’d never lost someone, or something, close to her. I thought about ways to explain this to her so that she could understand, and suddenly I realised how weighty of a topic death is.

Then I asked a dark question I never thought I’d have to ask a child, “Do you know what it means to die?”

Norah smiled, a little embarrassed, and said in a chipper voice, “Nope.”

“It means to go to sleep forever.”

“Oh!” Norah said. “Well… If I’d died, I’d just have my prince kiss me.”

I laughed, and shook my head. Leave it to Disney to make this more complicated.

“When you die, not even a prince can wake you."

Norah looked frightened now, so I pulled her a little closer.

“When you die, not even a prince can wake you."

"Luckily, you didn’t die. You were taken to a special place in the hospital called a Newborn Intensive Care Unit. It’s a place that saved your life. It also cost a lot of money, and I hope to never visit it again.”

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“Why not?” Norah asked.

I thought about that for a moment. Then I said, “Because it was so sad to see you so sick.”

Then I reached up and placed my hand on her nose. “They had this big horn thing on your face to help you breath.” Then I touched her arm. “And here, were a bunch of tubes pumping in medicine.” Then I touched her mouth, “And here, were more tubes going inside your body that gave you food. Just thinking about it now makes me cry. In fact, it makes me even sadder now because I know what I might have missed if you’d died.”

Norah smiled and said, “When I have a baby they will not die. They will be happy and go wah, wah, like real babies. Not sick babies.”

Then she went on about how she is a baby again. She told me a few stories of when she was a baby, and then she curled up in my lap and said, “Goo. Goo,” and I realised I’d lost her attention. I didn’t know if anything I said made sense. But there was one more thing I wanted to tell her, so I sat her up, and said, “Norah. Let me finish my story about the day you were born.”

She looked up at me and made a fake baby cry.

“Norah. Let me finish my story about the day you were born.”

“Listen,” I said, “A lot of parents complain about their baby crying, but you know what? One of the happiest days of my life was when I heard you cry. You’d been silent for two weeks, and then you cried. Your mum and I were in the hospital. The doctors had just taken you off all the drugs that made you sleep. You were breathing well enough on your own. You looked sweet, and your skin was the same colour it is now. Then you opened your mouth, and you cried. It wasn’t very loud, or long, but it was enough to show me that you were okay. It meant that your lungs were working. And do you now what that meant to me?”

Norah shook her head.

“It meant that you were going to be okay, and that someday, I’d be able to sit next to you, just like I am now, snuggling and reading a story. One of my favourite things to do in the whole world."

Norah thought about what I said for a moment, her eye moving side-to-side, deep in thought. Then she smiled. I don’t know if she fully understood all of what I was saying, and I assumed that I would have to tell this story again to her. Probably a few more times. But what I do know is that this story showed her how much she meant to me and that I am very happy to have her in my life.

“You’re a cute daddy,” she said.

“You’re one of my favourite people in the whole world,” I said.

She gave me a hug, and I then I tucked her in for the night.

Have you been through a similar experience when your child was born?

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