My son is crying. His wail is stronger than it was at his birth three weeks ago, but it is still so puny that it’s more likely to inspire pity than alarm. When the doors of his Isolette are closed, the cry that escapes is so muffled, it is as though he were bawling into a pillow.
I try to comfort him. Preterm infants can be difficult to interpret, but often they have trouble collecting themselves. Calming them can be as easy as swaddling them with your hands, pulling their arms and legs down close to their bodies. Such swaddling has become less effective since Gabriel was born. Nevertheless, I try it.
He continues to cry. His heart rate climbs to 215 and then 220 beats per minute, high enough that alarms go off in his room and at the nurse’s station just outside the door. I keep my hands on him, hoping a few more seconds will calm him. I talk to him. I consider laying him on his side because he has often tolerated it better than lying on his back. But I hesitate. I worry that lifting or moving my son may be thought dangerous or transgressive. I don’t want to gain a reputation as a difficult NICU parent.
The alarms continue to echo through the room. Gabriel’s nurse finally comes in. “He is really upset!” she says to no one in particular. She could turn the alarms off but does not. Instead, she stands behind me. After a minute, she says, “Maybe I should lay him on his side.”
So I step aside. As soon as I do, I grow livid. I watch her do exactly what I had thought to do not two minutes prior but didn’t. I watch what she does work: he stops crying; the alarms go silent. For the rest of the night I think her smugness so overbearing that I cannot look her in the eyes.
“Don’t forget that you can fire a bad nurse,” a friend said to me two weeks ago. His daughter had been in a NICU for three months, and it was one of the lessons he had learned late in her stay. I am grateful to have had his his experiences and advice at hand. But the truth is, she isn’t a bad nurse. Perhaps she was too hasty to intervene, but it’s a forgivable mistake. Besides, I am not angry at her. I am angry at myself. Lifting Gabriel to turn him on his side is nothing I have not done already. I should have asserted myself and said, “That is a good idea! I’ll do it.” Better yet, I should have tried it the moment I thought of doing so. But I did neither. I backed away from him in deference to her. I am angry because I left my son’s side. My son for Christ’s sake!
It takes hours to calm down.
Every day in the NICU is not like this day, with full-blown jealous resentment, second-guessing, and self-loathing—but every day has the potential to be.