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Oct 11 2012

How I Became a Father Six Weeks Earlier than Planned

By at 4:37 pm

avram mlotek new babyWe sat in the waiting room.

My wife and I came up with a list of what we had to do later that day: respond to emails, clean our apartment, maybe watch an episode of Mad Men.

We had been sensitive to the kabbalistic notion of the ayin ha-ra, the evil eye, and refrained from excessive preparation of unconfirmed events. Yet, we figured, with a month away and a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan to reorganize, it was time to build a crib. Earlier that day before the unexpected rush to the hospital, my grandparents surprised us with a rocking chair they had reupholstered for their first great-grandchild. A few hours later, my wife went into labor six weeks before our baby’s expected due date.

The doctor returned with a sonogram, disturbing our laughter about something we must have found absolutely hilarious at the time. The baby was breech, we were told, and because Yael’s water broke and she was losing fundamental fluids, my wife would need to undergo a Caesarian section.

We were exuberant new parents, we reminded ourselves, but didn’t we have another month here? We continued to joke about the list of things we planned to do before our child arrived. We were going to pack a hospital bag the following week, throw a party, even embark on a romantic getaway weekend.  “Mentsh trakht un Got lakht,” I said to Yael in Yiddish. Humans plan while God laughs. “That feels about right,” Yael replied.

The Operating Room

Morning made its way as my wife was wheeled into the operating room. I sat in my blue scrubs, anxious but quiet. I watched the new shift of parents being shown to their delivery rooms as I waited to be let inside.

Finally, a nurse led me to the brightly lit operating room. Yael lay on a bed with a sheet hanging by her chest, blocking our view of her surgery.  We were scared, but Yael’s inner-strength grounded us both in those moments. Minutes felt like hours before we heard the first cries of our daughter. She was quickly carried and held near Yael’s face, so  Mommy and baby could look at each other, before being cleaned and taken away for tests.

“He can come before she goes,” someone said referring to me. I walked over passing a sea of blood on the floor to a table where our daughter screamed. “Zis kind,” I whispered to her–sweet child–touching her tiny fingers. She was then carried off.

As the doctors stitched, Yael schmoozed with the nurses, doctors and anesthesiologists, bringing kindness and levity into the room, along with a dose of Percoset. “Why did you get into medicine?” she asked. I hoped the discussion wouldn’t distract the medical team from their task at hand.

To the NICU

Our daughter was soon moved to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit while my wife was wheeled to the recovery room. As Yael rested, we kept quiet, eager to see our baby and hear when we might be able to take her home.  A pediatrician arrived explaining our situation.

“The NICU is open 24/7 to parents,” the doctor explained, “except for the change of shifts at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and when the doctors are making their rounds. You can come now if you like,” she said to me. “As for the million dollar question, time will tell.”

Entering the NICU, I noticed pictures of children, from toddlers to teens, and thank you notes to the staff who have helped them pass through these doors. I followed the hand washing instructions and put on special scrubs. I was led through the unit as I waited to be shown which glass box warmer held our girl. The doctor was saying something to me once we’ve reached my daughter, but I didn’t hear her words. All I heard was a breathing machine, feeding tube, and IVs hooked up into the tiniest person I’ve ever met.

I wondered, “Is that my daughter in there?”

“How is she?” Yael asks once I return to the recovery room. I am overcome with emotion, though, and cry. “She’s beautiful,” I say, and explain.

Visitors flood our hospital room, a flight above the NICU. Flowers, balloons, and special foods accompany them, but we feel guilty in our celebration without our daughter. We start to shy family and friends away, but even then Yael is too physically weak to consider a trip downstairs. “I just want to see her,” Yael whimpers and falls asleep.

Visiting Hours

Later that night, it was just the two of us. The hospital started to become eerily quiet as Yael cried and said, “Let’s go.”

I pushed her in a wheelchair taking the elevator down to the NICU. Upon arrival, we saw parents in the waiting room as I explained the system to my wife. Hands scrubbed, shirt sheets on. We passed the machinery. We wept as we sang the Shema, an evening prayer, and goodnight songs to our little one, entrusting her safekeeping in the hands of others. We wondered: how might we care for our child behind this glass shield?

I hustle home in the middle of the night to pick up odds and ends for Yael. I feel uncomfortable here, though. Home is where my wife and daughter are, not my empty apartment.

Those few days felt like weeks, as we would greet guests, attempting to answer questions about our girl’s well being, having the same concerns ourselves. Each visit to the NICU left us with another surprise: the feeding tube was removed, we could hold her, change her diaper, try to give her a bottle. And then each time, placing our scrubs in the laundry bin, we would take our leave via the patient’s elevator, walking in silence.

I found the hospital chapel late one night as I wandered the halls. One of the few unlocked rooms in the hospital, each corner was home to a different faith tradition.  A crucifix and picture of Mary were opposite prayer rugs and a book of Haddith, while a Jewish stained glass window was across incense and an image of the Buddha. Empty chairs sat in the middle of the room. I passed each of these corners, trying to feel something. I came to an organ but it was unplugged, and suddenly noticed a covered piano, painted the colors of the rainbow. I sat down and pressed gently against its out of tune keys. The discording sound resonated deeply, as I played a lullaby. I yawned and slowly fell asleep.

We decided to name our baby in synagogue as soon as possible, before she even came home, so that people might have her actual name in mind when praying.  Revaya Maayan, overflowing spring in Hebrew, is what we called her, with iPhone’s Facetime transmitting the news.

Going Home

We sat in the NICU annex, already a sign of Revaya’s progress, as Yael worked with a lactation consultant on nursing. The pediatrician who first greeted us in Yael’s recovery room entered. She reviewed Revaya’s charts and asked nonchalantly, “So, has anyone talked to you about discharge?” We explained we had been cautious not to ask that question too often especially since Yael would be released later that afternoon. We had received a range of reports regarding Revaya’s release, speculating from her due date to the following week. All we knew was that we were dreading leaving the hospital without our baby girl.

“Okay, so how does this afternoon sound?” the doctor asked. We exchanged glances, unsure if this news was real but cried nonetheless. We went info full-gear, with family and friends helping us gather last minute needs. We thanked nursing staff intermittently, trying to stay calm, as our dream became actualized.

Science and religion may seem to clash at times and yet, over our daughter’s stay in the NICU, I never felt the two in deeper cohesion. The neonatologists and nursing staff felt like emissaries of a higher power, with their gentle hands caring for our child, along with nearly a dozen other babies whose parents’ sense of time suddenly stopped.

Three months have since passed and Revaya continues to surprise us. A powerful stare at 4 a.m. that seems to say, “I’m here. Believe it.” She exudes serenity amid a bustling city and fractured world, like a welcomed calm after a storm. While Revaya’s cries join the chorus of New York’s late night noises, we try and rest when we can, learning to take turns. Our exhaustion is only matched by her unfiltered light, her unreleased potential. Her eyes, which are full of wonder and newness, instill hope, when not utterly lost as to what her cries mean.

We pass other parents as we stroll through Central Park on a cool September morning. A shared glance. It’s a deeper acknowledgment than a similar stroller brand or baby carrier. It’s the words whispered by parents to their children in the myriad of languages New York City offers, reminding us of our fragility and humanity, as we embrace the unknown.


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