A baby is a blessing for an entire family, a new link in a long chain of love. In my family, the oldest and most precious link has been our Nana, who lovingly nicknamed me “Chickie” (saying I looked like a chicken at birth). No one delighted in my love for my husband, Al—who proposed at her kitchen table—or shared our hopes for a new baby more than her. She loved babies and kept telling us, “Get going! Chickie’s almost 40!” But there was only so much we could do to hurry it up. On one trip down the tree-lined road leading to Nana’s house, I took comfort in a church sign on that read, “Trust God’s timing.”
Three months later, we had a positive pregnancy test! The ultrasound reported a December 10 due date. Nana had been there for the birth of my first child, Kevin, from my previous marriage nine years earlier—and Al and I welcomed her for this one. But at 91 and with fading health, we weren’t sure it would happen. Just leaving the house started to leave her exhausted. As our embryo bloomed, Nana’s health continued to decline, and we worried the end was near. The mother bear just wanted her bed, and she hibernated there for months.
On Wednesday, November 19—exactly three weeks before our due date of Dec. 10—I got out of bed to feel water fall to the ground. “I think this is it, guys!” I announced to Al and Kevin with surprise, excitement and a little worry. We didn’t know what being this early would mean for our baby, who would be just on the cusp of preemie status. We called the doctor, waved Kevin off on the school bus, packed our bags and headed for the hospital.
Kevin didn’t have the easiest birth and required a vacuum extraction, but they say the second ones are quicker. He blazed a trail for the next one, right? I decided to relax this time. We got a private room early on and walked the halls, hand-in-hand. We even visited friends who had just had a baby and were remarking about how fun and easy this was.
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Once in the room anchored to monitors, things progressed slowly and the spans between my doctors’ visits felt like forever. Each time she came in we were deflated to learn that I was barely progressing. After more waiting, the contractions got so intense that my arms were clinging to the side rails of the bed in pain. Al’s sister Karen arrived, then his niece Gianna who was studying to be a nurse, followed by my sister Cookie. My mom would not make it in time; she was on a cruise in the Caribbean, never imagining I’d go into labor this early!
I texted my aunt to see if Nana was up for coming, but I knew it wouldn’t happen with all the waiting, stiff chairs, and hustle and bustle. The in-room crew bantered excitedly in between contractions and winced at me sympathetically with each one, helpless to ease my pain as I held tight to the rails. I had requested an epidural but my doctor was taking what seemed like an eternity.
We waited some more. I got that epidural.
The next time the doctor came to do an exam, she looked up abruptly and spoke quickly: The baby was frank breach—butt first, legs folded up to his head. She thought she was feeling something else earlier, and an ultrasound wasn’t done on arrival (something the nurses in the evaluation area said they’d be doing, but it never happened). Despite the fact that we had waited to give birth all day and I’d endured the pain of contractions and dilated fully, our baby was in no position to follow through. The doctor recommended a C-section right away, and—wanting her to do what she had to do to get the baby out safely—we quickly nodded in agreement. I scribbled my signature on the surgical release.
After arriving to the surgical suite and waiting for more pain medication to kick in, my doctor made a small bikini incision. My husband stood by my head watching it all while a screen blocked my view. After some maneuvering, baby AJ was as surprised as we were to be plucked up from my belly at 9 p.m. He weighed 5 pounds and 3 ounces.
The doctors had to whack him hard to get his lungs working for his new world. The NICU doctors in the room noted a case of pneumothorax, a small hole in his lungs that we were told wasn’t necessarily a major concern, but they wanted to take him to the NICU right away to make sure he could eat OK on his own. Again, not what we wanted or expected, but AJ’s health came first. We each held him in our arms for precious seconds, taking in his tiny, bewildered eyes, and then we sent him wheeling in a clear incubator-like machine that gave him extra oxygen. We delighted in the thought that our family in the hall would get their first peek at him rolling past.
AJ did feed from a bottle successfully, and after a short period of surgical recovery, we proudly met our son in the NICU that night. I nursed him for the first time in a wheelchair by his tiny bed. Although the NICU doctors felt he was out of the woods, we agreed to let him spend the night there for observation. While I needed recuperation, Al relished the invitation to make a 3 a.m. trip to bottle feed his new son.
The next morning, AJ was delivered to us for good, and we spent three idyllic days together in our hospital home. We loved having every meal delivered and frequent, joyful visits with family. My mom returned in time to meet AJ in the hospital. But we had one more person to introduce him to: our cheerleader who wasn’t doing well. On the last day, we decided that a beeline from the hospital to Nana’s house was in order.
Nana lay upright in her bed with perked up eyes and an expectant smile. “We have a beautiful baby boy for you,” Al said, presenting the long-awaited gift to her arms. “Isn’t. He. Darling,” she declared as she took in AJ’s face. His eyeballs fluttered as smiles raced past his tiny lips. Nana said he was remembering the angels. He let out the faint squeaks of a woodland mammal as we situated him beside her. She yelled at us for not having socks on him, covered his toes, and joined him in dreamland under her green plaid fleece blanket. That blanket became a tent of peace and joy during many visits. Life was busy with a newborn and 10-year-old, but—knowing this time was fleeting—we’d steal an hour here and there and go see Nan.
She may not have made it to the hospital. It may not have been what we expected. But she met him. She stared at him sleeping, wondered what he would be, and loved him.
Nana and AJ had enjoyed two and a half weeks of cuddling when the phone rang at 11 p.m., and I braced myself. “Heidi, she’s gone,” my mother reported. Changing out of my pajamas, I literally stopped in my tracks at the realization that it was December 10, my original due date. She waited, and he came early to meet her. AJ wasn’t sleeping nights, so I grabbed his blanket and hat and went to be with the family circling Nana.
As I drove down the main road to Nana’s—this time dark and empty—I started to let the grief come in, but it was gratitude that overwhelmed me. I lived a miracle between the oldest and youngest in my family. I was thankful for all that Nana left me: countless peaceful childhood days covered in her loving care, honesty, fun and humor; her friendship and support as I grew; the blueprint of how to raise a family; and to top it all off, her blanket of love on both my children.
The house was ablaze with light. I entered amid stories from my aunts and uncles about Nana’s departure from her bed and this world. Like the contractions that brought AJ three Wednesdays before, she talked of being pulled toward her own mother between bouts of commanding mine to hold on to her tightly. She was so used to fighting to stand by her kids.
One by one, the family began noticing AJ, asleep in his car seat in the corner. One by one, their eyes brightened at this bundle of hope and innocence who colored Nana’s last days. He seemed to comfort everyone.
I retreated to the dark of Nana’s TV room and cradled my baby boy. I thought of Nana’s birth mother, my great grandmother, who had passed away from an infection shortly after Nana was born in 1923. My heart flooded with empathy for her. She might have gotten to hold and feed her baby, but she had to say goodbye. I swelled with gratitude for AJ in my arms and our medical technology. My uncle had visited my great grandma’s grave the week before and said her baby would be coming back to her. I thought of the two meeting after 91 years and Nana rejoining an older link in our chain.
After AJ’s baptism several weeks after Nana’s passing, Al and I sat on the couch before a pile of pastel cards wishing us well. I opened one pretty teal green one with a tiny bow at the top over the banner “As Your Son is Baptized” with a little white cross under and blue booties underneath. It read, “From your great-grandmother, Nana, who was blessed with your early arrival. I hung on …” I broke down, and Al took over reading. “… long enough to hold you and kiss you and love you. Kisses from Heaven! Love, Nana XO.” It was in my mom’s handwriting. She was now the family matriarch for AJ’s first special occasion.
Looking to AJ, asleep next to us, I covered three tiny pink toes poking up from the blanket and caught an ear-to-ear smile. He must have been remembering an angel named Nana.
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