Christmas means something different to everyone. Often, it’s filled with food, family, friends and memories. For as long as I can remember, I’ve done the same things every year, even transitioning my favorite childhood Christmas traditions into adulthood.
Christmas of 2011 would be a stark contrast to anything I’d ever experienced. Christmas isn’t meant to be spent in a hospital. Families aren’t meant to celebrate apart. Yet, we, along with dozens of other families around us, did just that.
I could bemoan the unfairness of the situation our family was in. I won’t. Complaining would minimize the efforts of all those around us to make the season merry and bright.
Instead, I’ll begin by sharing a quote by Frank Dempster Sherman. It’s an eloquent summary of the feelings I held for the tribe of strangers, friends, family and hospital staff who went above and beyond to give us a NICU Christmas we’d never forget.
"It is my joy in life to find
At every turning of the road
The strong arm of a comrade kind
To help me onward with my load.
And since I have no gold to give,
And love alone must make amends,
My only prayer is, while I live -
God make me worthy of my friends."
On December 17th family started to arrive. My heart could barely handle all the love and support.
On December 18th, we attended Van Dusen gardens. When we entered the gardens the kids gasped in unison. Totally amazing. For kids to be that excited about lights you know it's gotta be good. The music, the sights and the festive atmosphere led the kids to exclaim it was the best day in Vancouver to date.
In the gardens there was a beautiful spot for the Make-A-Wish foundation. It was a cave filled with candles. After making a donation the kids were given candles to hold, make a wish and then blow them out. I don't know what they wished for but I know mine was to be at that exact spot the following year with David in tow. That would be the perfect Christmas!
When I got to the hospital on December 19th, I knew something was wrong. The entire family lounge was packed. I saw a familiar face and when she saw me, she burst into tears. She wept, "We lost him." Heartbreak. A hug was all I could offer. Another NICU angel. The 16th one in 2 months.
As I attempted to leave, the entire family of the NICU's newest angel was leaving. The poor mother walked to the door propped up by her husband. There's a distinct and utter brokenness that comes following the death of a child. The grief in her face was gut wrenching. A grieving aunt lunged forward to hug me sobbing. All I could say was, "I'm sorry." I was sorry. Sorry their dream didn't come true. Sorry their miracle was not fulfilled as they expected. Sorry, that after 4 months, he, their first born, would never see the nursery his parents had made for him. I wished I could have said something more meaningful.
Rest in peace baby K.
I'd like to note that many miracles happen in the NICU but 1-2 babies pass away every week. Some I met, some I didn’t. Some were there for months and others for only hours but every one was mourned the same. It was extremely sad and an unfortunate reality of where we found ourselves.
The painful evening turned into a joyous night as Reuben had his first cuddle with our little miracle. It was both beautiful and heartwarming thing to see a father and son have their first bonding time together. It made the long days less tiring and the rough days worthwhile.
It was harder to say goodbye to David following the death of one of his neighbours. I gulped back tears and said the same thing I did every time we left his side, “Goodnight sweet David. Mommy love you. God love you little baby.”
On the 20th, I went to the hospital ahead of the rest of the gang. Being a 10 minute walk away from the hospital was one of the things I love most about Easter Seal (or Mister Seal’s as Josh calls it).
When I arrived the nurse was buzzing around because David was going to be extubated. Wow! That was earlier than expected. The nurse was giving him his last dose of antibiotics, discontinuing his morphine and adding some caffeine to prevent apnea.
The thought of his extubation made me a tad nervous. I wanted him to do well! One of the nurses said, "Just think of it like any time off the ventilator is good, even if he's off for only a few hours. If he has to go back on, he has to go back on." I was thankful for her positive outlook.
I peeked into his incubator and said to David, "This is a big day for you buddy." One of the dads down the row said, "It's a big day for the entire hospital seeing David come off that tube." Everyone was rooting for our little man!
I missed the extubation because of my own doctor's appointment but Reuben was able to get pictures. David did great and looked so cute with his siPap hat and little mask.
I had no idea what to expect from the Christmas season. All my plans had gone entirely out the window. I'd not done any baking or bought any presents. Fortuantely, we recieved shipments of baking from Kamloops and families were kind enough to send gifts. Total lifesavers.
On Christmas Eve we ordinarily have finger foods for dinner and I let the kids open one gift before bed. This year we went to the hospital’s Red Cross dinner for all the families with children in the NICU and Children's hospital. There were lots of people, good food, prizes, gifts and entertainment but it didn't feel quite right. Kind of sad actually. I don't know why it felt sad? Maybe it was more unfamiliar than sad. Regardless, we powered through and made the best of an odd situation.
The biggest blessing we received had to be the gift of lodging. The Easter Seal room we stayed in was not conducive to a family of our size and was old and musty. The kids got sick every time they visited. One of the discharged NICU families went away for Christmas and offered their home to us for the holidays. It was decorated, festive and had a Christmas tree. To this day I remain grateful for their generosity toward us.
Christmas morning in our family is quite different than in most homes. I have to set and alarm so the kids wake up before noon! They’re sleepers and Christmas day is no exception.
The kids were excited to open their stockings and presents. Having friends, family and strangers send gifts was a blessing beyond description. It definitely made their Christmas.
After opening presents we went to a brunch with a few families from the NICU. The kids were able to play with other kids and the adults could chat. It was nice to see Reuben hanging out with the other dads.
I often worried about the men because they were all so quiet. There were countless times where I’d see a new baby come into the NICU followed by a weeping mother. That was tough on its own but when I saw a dad crying it knocked me for a loop. Never in my life had I seen so many men cry. Just think, how often do you see a man cry? There are many men in my life whom I've never seen cry but when they stepped in the NICU, among all the sick babies and the intensity of the environment, they turned into soft, weeping balls of mess!
It was common for mothers to seek each other out but the dads were more likely to keep to themselves, and as a result, seemed to struggle with the NICU a little more. Thankfully, Reuben connected with a few of the dads and they could rely on each other for support.
After our wonderful time at the brunch we went to see David. To say seeing David in a hospital on Christmas day was hard would be an understatement. Having him separated from our family on Christmas day was devastating.
If I learned nothing else from our Christmas in the NICU it was that Christmas is truly about family. Holidays have become commercialized and the true meaning of everything gets washed away by spending money and comparing who got what and did what. When it came down to it, I learned those things held no significance to me. It was more about having my family together, our health and a little baby who was proving miracles do happen.