World Prematurity Day Comes Early

World Prematurity Day doesn’t come until November 17th, but on this day in 1983, I lost the first of my preemies.

I never carried well, or easily, and two of my five (yes 5) sons were premature. The second, born at 32 weeks, is now something over 6′ 1″ and studying civil engineering at a major university.

The first — well, and I am getting ahead of myself.

He was born at 33 weeks, desperately ill, on Christmas Day, 1982. Unable to breathe on his own, he managed only a brief, thin wail before he was whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit of the big research hospital and regional trauma center to which I’d been transported. It was 55 miles away from my home.

The nurses there had a code: if your name label beside the door was blue, you’d had a boy; if it was pink, you’d had a girl; I can’t remember the color for twins or other multiple births; but if it was yellow, your baby was sick. Someone failed to get the memo about mine. My name label was blue, and they never corrected it. I endured 2 days of telling every ebullient nurse who walked through the door that my baby was fighting for his life in the NICU.

Then, I went home.

“What a wonderful Christmas present!” all the women at church said.

Uh. Because laboring for 19 hours and giving birth to a baby so sick he could survive only on a ventilator is a wonderful Christmas present. But I didn’t say this; I quietly corrected them, and slunk away, being even more nonassertive then than I am now. Age has stiffened my backbone a bit, but back then, I felt bad for making them uncomfortable. Did they feel bad for their insensitivity? I honestly don’t know.

“Oh, just let me know when you want to visit him! I’ll watch his big brother for you!”

Every person who said this evaporated into thin air when I attempted to take them at their word. Every. Single. One. I managed to see my precious tiny preemie only once a week or so, when my ex-husband could be bothered to watch our toddler long enough for me to get away.

He spent months on a ventilator. He never did breathe without oxygen blowing up his nose. Thanks to the extra work the right side of his heart had to do to pump blood through his damaged lungs — said damage done by the high oxygen concentrations needed to keep him alive in those first months — his heart failed. He breathed his last at the age of 10 months, 4 days, having never known a day without pain.

By that time, the stress had shredded my first marriage, and my now ex-husband, who had shown his abusive side within the first weeks after the wedding, had thrown what little self-discipline he had to the wind and was leaving bruises on me. He was there when the baby died, and though I rushed to the hospital, he made sure I was barred from the morgue.

Possession, as they say, is 9/10 of the law, and that’s true of children, or was, in the early 80’s. My ex shipped our son’s body across the country for burial. Destitute and left with nothing but my clothes and a rattletrap car, I couldn’t make it to the funeral. That’s when I found out how important funerals were to get a sense of closure. It would have helped to have that closure, because my ex then took our surviving son and disappeared.

The death of a child is a taboo subject. No one wanted to hear about it. I grieved in silence, fired from my minimum wage job for not performing up to standard (as if any grieving mother could!), and abandoned by the church women who professed to be loving and supportive of all.

I did pull myself together, eventually. I got my first marriage annulled. I took out loans and went to school. I found the kindest, gentlest man I have ever met, who has for 30 years been my husband, lover, and friend. Three more stressful, high-risk pregnancies, each shorter than the last, nevertheless gave us three healthy sons, thanks to advances in neonatal science.

And 13 years ago, I was reunited with my oldest son.

But I don’t know that I have ever really recovered from my second son’s premature birth and devastating loss. It’s not something I talk much about. Who wants to hear it? (See taboo subject comment, above.) It’s easier to tell people I have 4 children, and not mention the one I lost at all, than to endure the uncomfortable silence that follows the mention of a child’s death. Try it sometime; it’s a real conversation stopper. There’s even suspicion, on the part of some, that you might have had some part in it. Truly, it’s a brutal world out there.

Don’t be that person to a woman going through this. Don’t make light of it. Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep. Put yourself out for her, and for the love of ghu, if the baby dies, be a supportive friend and a compassionate listener. It’s only by breaking down the taboos and walls of silence that we can make a difference for the families going through the stress and pain that follow premature birth.

World Prematurity Day