Ten weeks before their due date my niece and nephew breathed air. The twins had stopped growing and in a judgment that would have been unmistakably bizarre just years ago, the doctors determined they would be better off in the hospital than in the womb. Baby A weighed a bit over three pounds. Baby B came out at just under two. The warmth of their mother was replaced by clear plastic incubators in the neonatal intensive care unit at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Umbilical cords turned to plastic tubes.
Four days later I flew out from Los Angeles. Although parents and grandparents had described the babies and their condition to me, the words simply could not prepare for the shock of that first visit. As most babies do after birth, the twins had lost weight. They had no fat or pudge anywhere on their bodies. I could count their ribs through red skin that would not become flesh colored for some time. They were covered with tape holding in place the mechanics that kept them alive: breathing tubes, intravenous food delivered from bags through needles, and monitors leads and screens and alarms. They were separated from us – and from each other – in cases to keep them warm.
But life carries power. In minutes that shock faded just like the morning’s clouds burn off to reveal a clear blue sky and a warming sun. I could see through the tape and tubes to feel the radiance of their lives, astonished by their shallow breaths and tiny fingers. Their very being amazed me.
While walking the fifteen blocks to and from the hospital, the chorus of a song repeated over and over in my head: “Please be careful with me. I’m sensitive and would like to stay that way.” I couldn’t remember the rest of the song (“I’m Sensitive” by Jewel) but it seemed cute and appropriate. Until I realized that this was the last thing the twins needed. They needed to be pricked and prodded and tested continuously so that they could live. This inspired my first poem (“i like it rough”).
Two forces dominate the neonatal intensive care unit (abbreviated as the “n.i.c.u.” so you can refer to it as something cute and rhyming). Medical appliances cram the n.i.c.u. Each baby lays in an incubator, or “issollette,” a clear plastic house with clear plastic doors that sits on a rolling cabinet. Warm air pumps through the incubator so that the infant will not waste energy to stay warm and can grow more quickly. The imposed physical separation distorts the entire bonding process and pushes you to view the infant as an object for display. Or, more accurately, for observation. Three sensors get taped to each infant and lead to a monitor which constantly displays the baby’s condition. Premature babies often forget to breath or pump blood causing a near constant chorus of alarms and flashing lights.
The other and thankfully more dominant presence is the determined struggle for life – the desire to live – inherent in an infant who cannot see, who does not know words or ideas, and whose only human experience is pain. I have only awe for that.
These poems express the jumble of wild emotions caused by the intersection of life’s beginning and end. I wrote all but two of the poems while the twins remained in the hospital, most back in Los Angeles, some on the plane rides (I went back again), some in Central Park between visiting hours. I hope that they can provide some measure of comfort, expression or insight in a way that medical texts or guide books can not.
After ten weeks, and only two days before their natural due date, the twins went home healthy.
Awe, only awe for that.