My wife and I imagined that we’d be celebrating New Year’s very quietly, at home. She’d be 36 weeks pregnant with our second child — a month till our baby’s due date — and, we assumed, she’d be exhausted.
We hadn’t made it to 36 weeks with our first: Four years ago he was born at 28 weeks (“very pre-term,” according to the World Health Organization), spent almost two months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and came home just in time for the first night of Hanukkah. By New Year’s Day, he’d already been back in the hospital for five days, and had returned home, recovering from a serious respiratory infection that nearly frightened us from ever leaving our Manhattan apartment again.
We’re suburbanites now, and our 4-year-old is healthy and hilarious. It took time for us to even be open to the idea of trying for a sibling, even though doctors told us our risk of another preemie was barely higher than it was before. Being back in the NICU was something we didn’t even want to imagine. (Although preemies have better survival rates than ever, there are often short- and long-term health effects, not to mention the overwhelming stress and worry.)
We were afraid to tempt fate – the Jewish concept of ayin hara, the evil eye – so when my wife got pregnant again, we waited months to tell anyone, didn’t post a word about the pregnancy on Facebook, certainly no baby shower, no plans, no fuss, no conspicuous attention.
But we figured by New Year’s we’d be in the clear at 36 weeks – double_chai_, perhaps a lucky omen. Back when we were waiting for our eldest in NICU to grow big enough to come home, 36-weekers looked like giants. Toddlers. Grownups. A 36-weeker might not have to spend any time in the NICU at all. A 36-weeker we could handle.
Alas, we didn’t get the chance. On November 13, our second baby boy was born at 29 weeks. We made it one week longer than the first time, but not nearly long enough. Born at just under two pounds, he’s now almost double his weight, but not quite strong enough to come home for New Year’s. Yet as we sit with him in the NICU – and call from home for an update each night before we go to sleep, and first thing each morning, as soon as we wake – it’s not the secular new year that comes to mind for us, but the Jewish one.The NICU feels, for us, in a lot of ways, like the Days of Awe in the Jewish calendar – we’re in limbo, waiting to see who will thrive and who will suffer, will our son be inscribed and sealed for a good year. It feels so out of our control. Not just that it’s all in God’s hands, but that so little of it is in ours, even as his parents. In the NICU, we’re not his parents yet, not really. It’s the doctors and nurses who are monitoring his care, making the decisions, comforting him – or not – in his times of need.
His only home has been his incubator – and, as much as we try to explain it to him in words, there’s no way for him to understand that it’s only temporary. Human contact for him is intermittent – through a plastic wall, my wife and I allowed to hold him for maybe two or three hours a day, and then, as day turns to dinnertime, leaving him to go home to his brother – a brother who has seen him once for mere minutes because there’s no way to keep a 4 year old healthy through a preschool winter, and there’s no way we can risk being the reason our baby gets sick, and his journey home gets delayed.Each day, there are inevitably ups and downs – his oxygen saturation drifting, as it often will for a preemie his age and size, or a feed he can’t tolerate, an alarming lab result that may be nothing, but may be something, and, in the moment, we just can’t be sure. And we can’t do much about it but have faith – faith that there’s a reason we’re back in the NICU, faith that it will all turn out the way it’s meant to, faith that whenever he comes home, we can turn the page and start our own new year, no matter where it falls on any calendar.
There will surely be challenges once he’s home. We’ve been down this path with his brother, and we know enough to know that parenting a preemie can be rougher for the first couple of years than with a typical full-term baby. Preemies have compromised immune systems, and vigilance about exposure to illness needs to be exceedingly high for the first two years of life. Our son will be followed by more doctors than a full-term baby is, and we’ll need to be on the lookout for delays across the spectrum of milestones, and the possible need for interventional help.
But, still, coming home – having both of our children under the same roof, not having to choose which one to spend time with at any given moment of the day, not having to commute to be a family – feels like a huge milestone, a new beginning, a new year – for us, at least.
The Jewish calendar may not agree, the secular calendar may not either, but we’ll take whatever we can get – he should be home, we hope, well before the time the Chinese calendar turns to the Year of the Dog – and we’ll pray that by next year’s end – whether the Days of Awe or the ball dropping in Times Square – our son will be long overdue for a happy year, and to finally be sealed in that Book of Life.
Jeremy Blachman is the author of two novels, “Anonymous Lawyer” and “The Curve” (co-written with Cameron Stracher) and has developed projects for television and film. Read more at jeremyblachman.com.