Sometimes we stumble upon things right when we need to, don't we?
I've been focusing my energy lately on unraveling the mystery of how parents can find ways to make their NICU journey more joyful. Through the course of my reading and researching - I honestly don't remember what series of blogs and recommendations and clicks I ended up following - I ended up at a post entitled "Finding Happiness When You Don't Have Health."
Written by a mother who certainly lived through a long and difficult NICU ordeal, these words explore the possibility of seeing the NICU in a new light, a more joyful one. It's a challenging idea, one she handles with insight and humor. (I admit, I laughed out loud...!) When I asked to share her words here, she kindly agreed.
I recently had a conversation where someone said, "you can't have happiness without health." I, quite unsuccessfully, tried to counter the argument. Deep down I didn't agree with the age-old adage, but I couldn't quite articulate it. Somehow my attempted arguments spiraled into, "when you're in the thick of a medical crisis you just try to get through the day" and "many times family members end up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues." (No wonder I was never invited to join the debate team). When I realized my arguments sounded more in support than opposition to the notion, I stopped talking.
Of course, my brain didn't stop trying to solve the quandary and my fingers have been itchy ever since...always my sign that I need to write. So here's my attempt to let my fingers try to articulate what my mouth couldn't get even kind of sorta right.
I can't look at the last 2.25 years of my life and think of them as unhappy. High stress? Yes. But, not "unhappy". I got my first iPhone in February 2011... just two months before Owen was born. I am constantly in a fight with the amount of cloud space I have and which pictures I'm willing to delete. I have 2000 pictures on my phone, entirely capturing our life since Owen was born. As I scroll through the memories that are becoming more and more distant, I feel many, many emotions. Stressed, overwhelmed, awed, sad, angry...but also, a lot of joy.
We did not have health. Even still, I remember smiling and laughing. At the very least, I was not the picture of "unhappy". There was always a reason to smile. Sometimes it was the same things that make any parent smile; coming home and finding Kellen curled up on my pillow. Some days we had to make our own happiness; celebrating a day that Owen didn't need a blood transfusion...or simply, made it through the night.
Many days the happiness was found through love. I look back at the time in the hospital and think about Mumford and Son's blaring in my ear buds as I "hugged" Owen with one hand on his head and the other on his feet. I sat and stared at my alien-esque baby for hours upon hours. And then, as he got healthier, we would spend hours curled up together in a chair. Among the beeping machines, constant commotion and coming and goings of doctors and nurses with really big words and terrifying diagnoses, I found peace in my love for Owen.
Some days, I had to suck it up and accept happiness in a much more cynical way. For example, one night I was visiting Owen after a particularly hard day. We had visited the hospital in the morning for rounds - I didn't like what I heard - and then I went to work until I came back to the hospital after eating dinner at home with Kyle and Kellen. I didn't cry that often in the NICU, but Owen was clearly in pain, his neighbor had recently passed away and I was reaching a breaking point after two months and no end in sight. I started crying and his night nurse, Julie, asked if she could get me anything.
I'm not sure how the conversation so quickly turned but I told her that after leaving rounds that morning, I got into an altercation with another driver. Tears still streaming down my face, we were both doubled over laughing as I told her about being at a red light and a bike rider was on my right, blocking my ability to turn right on the red. The truck behind me couldn't see the cyclist and so he started honking his horn and giving me the "go! go!" looks through the window. I sent him a one-finger gesture through the window and waited for the green light as my anger escalated with each of his continued honks . Finally the light turned green and the bike rider cleared the intersection, I yanked right and pulled over and then rolled down my window and started SCREAMING at the driver. I'm not really sure what I said, but it was mostly laced with F-bombs and sounded something like this "do you [f-bomb] want me to [f-bomb] kill the [f-bomb] bike rider, you [f-bomb] piece of [ f-bomb] [uhm...poopy]?"
While most neighborhoods in Minneapolis are safe enough to drive through, the hospital is in a neighborhood that boarders areas that I wouldn't recommend altercations with strangers. So here I am, crazy mom in her family-mobile screaming at some strange man in a big truck and he pulls over next to me. I should have been scared, but I was too raged to have fear, I was ready to get out of my car and punch him and then, to my surprise, he genuinely apologized through his open window. I was dumb-founded. He drove on and I rolled up my window and drove off as I attempted to pull myself together before getting to work.
It took all day to process what a [f-bomb] idiot I had been. But do you know why it made me laugh so hard I could barely stand? It felt really damn good to blow off that steam. It felt so good for 30 seconds to not be rational. To not do the right thing and just say "[fbomb] YOU!" with both middle fingers blazing. Clearly, I wasn't just saying it to the man to who honked his way into my path of wrath. That was a great big set of middle fingers to the entire world. And that night, as I watched my son struggle to heal, that explosive moment from earlier in the day was where I found my happiness.
I was pushed to the max, I was tired and overwhelmed and stressed and yes, sad. My son...he was sick...really, really sick... and hurting... and I couldn't take it away...I'm his mom and I couldn't make it better. And still, I found moments of laughter and, in an odd way, happiness. Or at the very least, it wasn't "unhappiness".
I guess, I just don't look at life as happy or not happy. To me, happiness, or any emotion, is a moment. It's fleeting and it needs to be captured and cherished when you're in that moment. There are moments of peace, strife, anger, love, sadness, joy and on and on. And all of those moments together make up life. Maybe it looks like a kaliedascope...or maybe it's a one-of-a-kind zebra stripe...describe it however you want, but there is no way, I can look back at these times and agree that you can't have happiness without health.
Yes, even then...ESPECIALLY then....there was happiness.