After 73 days in the NICU, it was finally time to bring my son home
The plane thundered down the runway, the deafening roar of the engines doing nothing to disturb my sleeping child. He was cuddled tight against me, all six pounds, 10 ounces of him swaddled in fleece onesies and blankets. I looked at him briefly before turning my face back to the airplane window, watching the ground disappear beneath me.
Tears poured down my cheeks.
I was finally headed home to my New York City apartment. It had been nearly three months since I last saw my home and my dogs and my friends. Nearly three months since I told my boss I was adopting a baby as a single mom. Nearly three months since I got a midnight phone call that the woman carrying my son was being taken for an emergency cesarean section. Nearly three months since my son made his entrance into the world 11 weeks too early.
Born at two pounds, eight ounces, and 14.25 inches long (that quarter of an inch counts), my son spent 73 days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), riding a roller coaster of breathing problems and cardiac surprises in a sea of feeding tubes. The days ticked by as he slowly got stronger, bigger, and healthier, while I and his birth mother struggled with the ramifications of his early arrival.
I drove hundreds of miles back and forth between the hospital and the extended-stay hotel where I had a one-bedroom suite. I walked dozens of miles up and down shopping plazas and walking trails. It was more like pacing rather than walking. I was 1,300 miles away from home, and I felt every one of those miles.
It had been about a month when, while visiting my son, one of his nurses slipped me her phone number and invited me to her house for Chinese food and wine. It was the first time since he’d been born that I felt a glimmer of my old self start to stir.
Soon, other nurses started quietly texting me; meet us for Mexican food, they said, or come over for a family barbecue this weekend. Slowly and quietly, I started building a community. We watched movies and went shopping. I was invited to birthday and Halloween parties. And this small town that was so far away from my big city started to feel like home.
Every day I would spend hours with my son, learning to be a parent in the most sterile of environments.
I held my breath for days after my son was discharged from the NICU, waiting for the adoption paperwork to wind its way through two state courts so that I would be given clearance to travel with him.
I had taken him “home” to the hotel. His first bath was in the hotel sink. His first meet-and-greet was with the hotel staff.
There was comfort in being there with him, even if it wasn’t my real home. I had made good friends who knew us and loved us. I was right down the road from the team of doctors, nurses, and specialists who had spent two-and-a-half months caring for him. My old life seemed very far away.
Then I got the call from my lawyer that I was free to go home. That was two days before Thanksgiving. Flying a preemie cross country is no small consideration. And my preemie came with all the bells and whistles—literally—in the form of a heart and apnea monitor that would sound an alarm if his heart or respiratory rate would climb too high or plummet too low.
If you think trying to stuff all your toiletries into a carry-on bag is hard, try going through security with a baby who has wires strapped to his chest and snaking out of his car seat into a battery pack.
“Yeah, you are going to have to come with me,” the Transportation Security Administration agent said.
I had booked us first-class tickets back to New York, not to be ostentatious but to ensure my fragile little boy had a spot at the front of the plane where dozens of flu-season travelers wouldn’t be coughing and snorting and shoving their way past him.
My mom, getting a crash course in Grandma 101, had flown in to help us fly back. She wrangled with a luggage rack teetering with suitcases, duffel bags, boxes, and baby gear. I got to hold the baby. He was wearing a turkey hat with feathers that stuck up in a Mohawk down his head.
My mom got on the plane first, alerted the flight staff to their precious cargo, and started furiously wiping down anything she could reach with antibacterial wet wipes—Grandma 101 extra credit.
I carried him onto the plane just before they shut the doors. He was beautiful, they breathed. I smiled. He was.
My mom took pictures. She was exuberant. I was terrified. I was leaving my comfort bubble where I was surrounded by people who knew him. I was taking him to a place I had disassociated from for three months out of self-preservation. And we’d be alone for the first time ever—just the two of us.
And so, as the plane lifted into the sky, I cried. I cried because I was scared. I cried because I was so incredibly relieved. I cried because the last time I was on a plane I didn’t know whether my child would live or die. I cried because I had no idea how on earth we were going to get all that stuff into a taxi when we landed.
I cried because for the first time in nearly three months, everything I had hoped for—everything I believed in the darkest of hours would be taken from me—was coming true. And I was thankful beyond words. Thankful beyond emotion, really. The magnitude of what had transpired over the last three months and the gift of this beautiful life hit me and hit me hard.
There was no turkey that year and no stuffing. But there were more thanks than I could ever measure.
Sarah Netter, ESME’s Adoption Resource Guide, is a single mother by choice to a fabulous little boy, one neurotic Italian Greyhound, and two Spanish Galgo puppies. She is a full-time journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC News.