All I wanted for Christmas

12_6_nicholasMy son was a preemie, born 10 weeks early by emergency C-section in the wee hours of the morning. He weighed one pound, ten ounces and, stretched out, was twelve and a half inches long. His skin was bright red, his legs the thickness of my index finger. We could hold him in the palm of our hands. He was born on December 6—the feast of St. Nicholas, who is, of course, the patron saint of children.

Newborn and handWhen I got to hold him after eight days, it was tricky. He was still on a nasogastric tube at that point, still had an IV, monitors for oxygen saturation and heart rate. Just taking him out of the incubator was something of balancing act; the natural act of a mother reaching for her baby complicated by the science that was keeping him alive. Every day, I’d check his chart, see if he got any bigger; even a gain of a few grams was a triumph. His hands were heartbreakingly small.

Meanwhile, we had another child, our nearly three-year-old daughter, at home. We tried to make her life as normal as could be. I baked Christmas cookies, because I didn’t want her to miss that tradition (and because martyrdom runs in my family). We got a tree. McIrish and I went to a department store to do all our shopping in one fell swoop; when I became too tired, he pushed me on the cart, and we threw in  items willy-nilly. A mermaid doll. A clock. Candyland. Preemie-sized outfits that were two times too large for our tiny baby.

I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve; moved to the couch around 3 a.m. and called the hospital. Mary Ann, the night nurse, told me she had tucked our son into her sweater and was cuddling him right now, and she held the phone to his head so he could hear my voice. I love you, I told him. We all miss you. Next year, you’ll be home with us.

In the morning, our daughter opened her gifts, and her brother’s, too. She got a dollhouse from Santa; he got an Elmo doll. She had picked out an Oscar the Grouch small enough to fit in his incubator. My brother gave him a baseball mitt.

I remember sobbing on the phone to my sister, who was celebrating her own baby’s first Christmas. The fact that my son was so small and so fragile, was almost unbearable. “Next year will be better,” she said, and I prayed she would be right. I prayed that we wouldn’t be remembering the tiny baby who didn’t make it.

When we went to see him later that day, the nurse informed us that the hospital had had a visitor during the night. Santa had left gifts for all the babies in the neonatal unit. A blanket—knit by Mrs. Claus, the nurse said; a piglet beanie baby, and a teddy bear that would remain bigger than our son for three years. She also handed us a Polaroid photo: Santa Claus, standing by our son’s incubator.

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Dearest Son, now 17, holding a cousin

Our boy is fine now, as you may know. He is completely normal in every way, except in the ways in which he is exceptional. He is extraordinarily kind, charming, wicked funny and alternately extremely lazy or very hard-working. He is also very handsome, with smiling brown eyes and thick, curly dark hair. He teases his sister, is loved by small children and animals, riles up our pets and is quite a slob. We love him with all our hearts, of course.

Thank you, Saint Nick, for watching over our little guy. And thank you, angels at Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Neonatal Unit. You’ll never be forgotten.

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