My twin daughters Ella and Maya turned 18 in March, and over the last couple of months I’ve been conscious of the passing of time until this month, May, the month they should have arrived.
March 13, 1999, was unquestionably the most terrifying and confusing day of my life. They came too early, much too early, so much so that when I was rushed for an emergency C-section the doctors never talked about me going to give birth, or the delivery. No, hey talked about the procedure, the surgery. Much later I understood that seemingly subtle–but significant–language choice.
I lay unconscious and recovering from severe preeclampsia for the first 24 hours after their birth. I never got to hold them in my arms, I never got a glimpse of them as they emerged into the world. I never actually saw them before I named them. In that semi-conscious state that felt like days, I remember blurred figures appearing at my side then disappearing–my mother telling me their weights–Ofir next to me and then not–a nurse with water and checking my vitals–a phone placed by my ear with a call from my close friend in London saying congratulations.
I couldn’t figure out why.
The next day, still weak, I was bundled bundled me into a wheelchair and taken to see my newborn daughters for the first time. I was scared out of my mind. Various professional people (doctors? nurses? perhaps a social worker?) had tried to explain what I would see but nothing, nothing can prepare you for the sight of the Intensive Care Premature Baby Unit. I had yet to understand that it was to become our second home for the next 3 months.
As I was wheeled in, a doctor bent down to introduce himself to me: “Hello I’m Dr. Raz and I’m your daughters’ doctor.” I think it was the first time I had heard the words “your daughters,” and yet, I still hadn’t touched them. I remember feeling so strange that he was already intimately acquainted with my babies and I had yet to even meet them. He was clutching papers and charts and I was terrified of what he was to tell me, not mentally ready—so for a long while I referred all medical talk about their care to my husband.
In my days recovering in the hospital I was sensitively given a private room in the maternity ward, away from the hustle and bustle of new mothers and newborns. I took to pumping breast milk with vengeance — it was simply the only act I could do to care for my children. The breast milk was fed to them via nose tubes. Everything about their care and development was in the hands of medical professionals. One day I arrived and they’d done a spinal tap on one of them. Just like that. They were constantly pricked and poked for blood so much so that to this day if I rub the skin I can still see mottled marks on Ella’s heels.
Then days later, I was discharged. Not with a bundle of babies, but a great big weeping scar across my stomach and a brand new double electric breast pump. I remember unpacking that thing on my living room coffee table and staring at it. I was forlorn.
Yet somehow I picked myself up and determined to take on this new absurd. Within a week I’d dismissed all help, sent my mother back to London, got back to driving and spent my days pumping milk, and traveling back and forth from the hospital. Two weeks later, armed with an electric hand pump, I was—insanely—back at work. Ever-practical, I decided to save mymaternity leave for when they were discharged. I rationalized that my work was half way between home and the hospital, so I could pop over at lunchtime, and go back again after work.
I was so bloody cheery and smug with this now ludicrous routine, that even my own boss was clueless about what I was going through, once actually chiding me in front of the team about a missed deadline. It was insanity. I pushed away the thought of the sheer emotional and physical toll this would take on me, and instead reverted to an auto-pilot super-woman routine.
But bizarrely there were fun, happy memories of that time too. Movie nights at the cinema which we thought we wouldn’t get a chance to do again for a long time. An Independence Day party which ended with a visit to see our babies, when we showed up at the hospital in the middle of the night to the surprise and humor of the nurses. Or the very first time one of the nurses asked me if I wanted to HOLD my babies and she sat me down, opened the incubator and she gently handed me my baby. I think it was Ella first. This was already several weeks after she was born–and in all that time, I had never cuddled my babies.
Ella was discharged first, after two and a half months. Maya followed a couple of weeks later. In the days leading up to their discharge they were sometimes disconnected from their machines and monitors so we could adjust to feeding them “naked.”I remember fearing not having the monitor to check, of not trusting myself to notice if something went wrong. It was the transfer of care and responsibility from them, the medical staff to us, their parents.
The day they left hospital, after their final weigh-in, the same Dr. Raz would give a summary of their progress. Again, in my naivety I had yet to realize that a long long road of checks ups, assorted assessments and therapies (for myself included) awaited us–Ella’s cerebral palsy diagnosis only came a year later. But that’s whole other story.
Meanwhile, I will forever remember the click and whirr of those heavy automatic doors as we entered the premature baby unit, the green smocks that covered our clothes, the bright pink antiseptic hand wash that stripped our skin raw, and those godforsaken holes in the incubators that we stuck our arms through to “touch” our babies. We took so many photos during these times, which today lie in boxes, not baby albums. Since about a year after the twins’ birth I’m simply unable to look at them, too disturbing is the memory of their frail, tiny, transparent bodies. Ofir showed the girls once a few years ago–but I couldn’t look.
And every year, for 18 years now, when their birthday comes around in the middle of March, I wish it was the end of May. I still do. Because May was the month they were supposed to come–when the sun is shining, before the summer heat.
March still has showers sometimes, but there were never supposed to be showers on my babies’ birthday.