A month in the hospital flew by before I knew it.
Oh, wait, no. The next month was the longest of my life. I quickly developed a routine. I knew when the nurses would come to check my blood pressure. I knew when they would roll the ultrasound machine into the room so that we could check Anna’s fluid measurements. I knew exactly when the trays of bland hospital food would arrive for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I knew when shift change was, and which nurses worked on which days. I knew which days I was treated to sponge baths. The hospital TV didn’t offer enough options, so after a few days I gave up trying to find shows that I could get into. Ben started bringing me DVDs, first a couple at a time, then a dozen. I managed to get through every DVD we owned in a month. Sure, I would fall asleep halfway through the movie sometimes, but since I’d seen them all before, I didn’t worry about anything I’d missed. I had the occasional visitor, but everyone I knew had jobs and lives, so it wasn’t like anyone could sit with me all day.
Ben was a trooper, continuing to handle the real life consequences of my unending hospital stay. He was the one on the phone with our insurance company. He was the one putting in a full day at work, and then sitting in a hospital room with me until it was time for him to head home to go to bed, only to get up in the morning and do it all again. It was exhausting, and every time I saw Ben, he looked more worn down.
“You don’t have to stay,” I said, a month after I’d been admitted to the hospital. I said it every night, and every night Ben’s answer was the same.
“I know I don’t,” Ben replied. “What movie are we watching tonight?”
“You pick. I get to pick all day long.”
He put on a comedy, a wise choice. I tended to set the more serious movies aside, not wanting to add any drama to an already dramatic situation.
Ben settled into the father’s armchair next to my bed, eating his dinner as we watched the movie. I’d already finished my dinner, since the hospital meals were on a schedule, and that schedule was designed by a fan of the early bird special. I was glad to sit and be around Ben, which sounded romantic, but was really that I was glad to be around anyone. Human contact with someone who had the time to sit and be with me was a precious commodity, and I soaked it up.
About halfway through the movie, I realized Ben had gone quiet, and turned to see him fast asleep in the chair. I didn’t have the heart to wake him. It was Friday, so I figured his obligations for the next day were few enough that he’d be okay with a full night of sleep at the hospital. He had the time in the morning to head back to the house to get himself together.
The next time my nurse came in to check my vitals, I requested a blanket for Ben. Then I turned out the lights and dozed off.
I was pulled out of sleep by a pain unlike anything I had ever felt before. I took a deep breath, but the pain came again. I cried out a bit, and Ben sat up on the chair where he slept.
“Elise? What’s wrong?”
“Contractions,” I managed to gasp as the pain wave subsided.
Oh, shit. No, no, no, not now, not yet. Please, no.
He bolted for the hallway to grab a nurse. We both knew what this meant. If the labor progressed, and I gave birth, Anna would be twenty-seven weeks, three days gestation. It wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle, but our road would not be easy from here. I prayed and prayed that we would be able to hold out a little longer. I willed my contractions to stop, and my daughter to hold on tight. It’s not time, I tried to tell her telepathically. Not yet.
The nurse came into the room at a run. She flipped on the overhead light and reached the bed as another contraction hit. Tears streamed down my face as I struggled to breathe through the pain.
“Keep breathing, Mrs. Heller,” the nurse said.
She placed my feet in the stirrups and looked between my legs. When she looked back up, I saw panic in her eyes. Something told me there would be no stopping this labor.
Dr. Smith rushed in, looking as if we had woken him. Of course, we probably had. It was the middle of the night, a few minutes after two in the morning, according to the clock over the door.
“She’s crowning,” the nurse reported.
“Oh, shit,” I said.
The realization of how far along the labor was hit me at the same time as another contraction. Ben grabbed my hand, and I squeezed it, trying not to push. If I could keep from pushing, she wouldn’t come out. I could hold her in, I knew it.
Dr. Smith moved between my legs. “Elise, you have to push on the next contraction.” He looked up at the nurse. “Get the NICU team here.”
“It’s not time,” I said, tensing my body, trying to keep my daughter where she was safe.
“I’m afraid it is time. If she’s breathing when she comes out, I’ll let you hold her for a second, but she might have to go right off.”
“I won’t push.”
“You have to. She’s ready to come.”
She’s not ready, I thought. Not even close. We had months before she would really be ready. This couldn’t be happening, not now.
A team of medical professionals burst into the room. The incubator was plugged in, and preparations began for our daughter’s arrival. I knew that there was a chance she would have little or no lung development, even with the rounds of steroids, due to the low fluid since my water had broken. They might have to intubate her, to help her breathe. She would be small, I knew that too. According to estimates, she wouldn’t weigh more than two pounds.
The doctors were here to help her, if her early arrival made her body too weak. Even knowing that, I still didn’t want to push, knowing that Anna was safer inside of me. But when the next contraction hit, I couldn’t help but push, and I felt my daughter slip from me. She felt impossibly small coming from my body. Wasn’t it supposed to hurt me? Wasn’t it supposed to take more than one push for her to come out?
She didn’t cry, and I was sure that meant she was gone. Surely, the shock should have brought out a cry from her. But Dr. Smith placed her naked, wet, wiggling body on my chest, and I held my daughter for the first time.
“Here’s your girl,” he said softly.
She was our girl. There was Ben’s nose, like we had seen on the ultrasound. There were a few wisps of dark hair. She was impossibly tiny, completely dwarfed by me, and I never wanted to let go of her. Within seconds, she was with the doctors and nurses, who worked to establish her condition. Before I even knew what was happening, they had taken her to the neo-natal intensive care unit. I wasn’t done with the birth process before my daughter had been whisked from the room.
“When can I see her again?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” Dr. Smith replied. “We’ll let you know as soon as it’s possible. She has a lot of tests to deal with before you can see her again. You went through a bit of an ordeal yourself. You might need some time to recover before you feel up to moving around.”
I attempted to send Ben to keep an eye on her, but they wouldn’t let him see her yet. Too many tests, the doctors said.
By the time we would see her again, she would have an IV inserted where her umbilical cord had once tethered her to me, and she would be on a ventilator. She would have had an MRI and an ultrasound on her brain and heart. A feeding tube would be inserted through her nose. She would be under bilirubin lights to bring down her jaundice.
I would stare at her unblinking, in awe of my beautiful girl.