The third occurrence of the teratoma was underway, and I was powerless to stop it.
It was the first week of March, and Emma was just about eleven weeks old. These were eleven impossible weeks, weeks we should never have been granted, and weeks which felt gossamer. They misted and veiled with the knowledge that they could again be revoked, that the visible progress of this new tumor could hew the line between “here” and “gone,” and I would be left with nothing but a lifetime of absence.
Arrival at the NICU began with two minutes of hand-scrubbing, an excision of the outside world Emma had never known that she might live long enough to know it. The harsh, granular soap left my hands raw and chafed, dried in the New England winter. People who shook my hand in the years leading up to Emma’s birth would never have wondered about which line of work I was in, they simply would have known that it was indoor, and gentle. I was now engaged in my life’s hard labor, however, and my hands were toughening up, hardening against trials unmanageable by their work.
After a thorough drying and a spritz of hand sanitizing foam, I would enter the unit itself. Each entry forced a moment of gathering, of pulling the wool of our inner armors together into a semblance of protection. Here were babies, and here was where some of them would never leave. Here were babies, and here was where most of them would leave long before my daughter would, not having a further worry in their healthy lives. Both kinds cut deeply.
This week, Emma’s bed was almost directly in front of the doors to the unit. I could walk in and see her as soon as I crossed the threshold. I would walk to the side of her bed, and sit in the hard rocker permanently placed beside her crib. At this point, I had not yet been able to hold her. At first, her endotracheal tube had been to precarious in its placement, and any movement could have dislodged it and killed her. After, the plethora of wires, tubes, and surgical drains made it impossible to safely hold her. So I sat, and touched her head, and held her tiny hand, and talked to her about the world outside.
This week, though, her last surgical drains had been removed.
This was the day I would first hold my daughter.
Sitting in that hard chair, rocking and watching daughter move in that random, jerky, and disjointed way only babies can manage, I began to sweat. I had built up this day, this moment, this milestone as a measure of “everything is going to be all right. If I can just hold her, she’ll be ok.” Instead, this new tumor had arisen. Holding her went from reassurance that everything was going to be ok to “If you don’t do it now, you may never have the chance.”
As panic danced and whirled about in the darkest of my mind shadows, a nurse came along and slid her hands under Emma, lifting her several inches into the air. Wires swayed beneath her, willow branches in a gathering storm. The nurse turned, saw the panic in my eyes, and said “No. You need this. She needs this.”
With that, she placed Emma in my arms, and the world disappeared. Gone were the alarms, and the smells of the hospital, the worried pacing of the other families. Gone were the doctors and nurses and technicians, the detritus of ongoing medical work, the fear and the dreams.
All that remained was my daughter.
I talked to her differently that day. I talked to her about the milestone, and about how much stronger she had become over the last two months. I talked to her about how much stronger she would yet need to be to face what was coming. I talked to her like a baby, and she slept like the same.
I wept, and I grew, and I bested the demons of panic. This girl was protected.
And so was her father.