February 15, 2016

Lessons From Liam

The name Liam means “overall protector,” and it seemed like a fitting name for my first-born child. It wasn't what we planned to call him, but it suited him beautifully.

I recently wrote about Dermot and Wren, and Frank pointed out that I had asked you to allow me to describe my children, but that I had not written about Liam. I understood his concern. I had always intended to write about Liam, but he is and always will be in a slightly different category than our living children.

Frank, I think, is worried that Liam will be forgotten, and I worry the same thing from time to time. I don't worry that Frank and I will forget him, but not speaking of him makes him fade faster than we would like—it also feels like utter betrayal on our part as parents.

I had heartburn in February 2003. I never get heartburn. The weekend forecast promised to snow us in, so I bought a pregnancy test on the way home and made a mental note to use it in the morning. We had been trying to get pregnant for more a year but had decided to put it on the back burner. When I woke the next snowy morning and took the test, I watched it turn positive and yelled for Frank to come and see what I had in my hand. He had not known what I was doing and came into the bathroom to find me naked and on the toilet (I am nothing if not classy) as I stumbled excitedly over the words. He went weak and weepy and spent the rest of the weekend making me tea (of which I am no great fan) and casting furtive awe-filled glances in my direction. And thus the adventure into parenthood began.

I was excited to be sure, but I was also utterly terrified. Ironically, I was not worried that the pregnancy would not go well or that there would be anything wrong with the baby. I wasn’t even much worried about the actual birth. What struck me numb with terror was the idea of what I would be like as a mother. Would I be a good one? Would I be capable of loving and caring for this little stranger? Would I be patient enough, strong enough, selfless enough?
My own mother was not the best role model. I don't say this to be mean or salacious but only to tell you this because it is true. I won't go into details as to why, but suffice it to say that my mother is a sick woman and has been all my life. I don't harbor as much anger toward her as I used to, and I am working on releasing the rest.

Liam's entry into the world was not what we had expected, and the panic and adrenaline enshrouding that event are to be written on another day when I am more ready than I am today. He had a heart and lung condition that we had not known about and was whisked away to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Because I had had an emergency C-section at another hospital, I was unable to see more of him than his little blue toes on the day of his birth. I was able to make it to CHOP within 36 hours, mostly because time was of the essence but also because something happens after you give birth. 

Something happens to the mother and to the father. Your concern for yourself rapidly melts away, and your only focus becomes this small bundle of vulnerability. It is an animal instinct. I can safely say this for both Frank and myself because at the same time Frank was undergoing chemo for Hodgkin’s lymphoma at yet another hospital and would walk back and forth from those grueling treatment sessions and an even more grueling bone marrow biopsy to see his son. Frank and I became superhuman for the few short weeks of Liam's life. In my opinion, Frank has remained superhuman since.

When I was wheeled into the four-pod cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) room where they had Liam, I was still unsure of my abilities. When Frank pointed out Liam to me, I did not see the tree of monitors, the many wires snaking from his tiny body, the blue hue of his skin, the bandages, nor did I hear the constant beeping and whirring of life sustaining machines. I saw beauty and love. I saw a miracle. In an instant, my heart grew and evolved, and there were things I just knew to do.

There were a great many things we would be taught over the next few weeks about how to care for Liam. We learned to insert a nasogastric tube through his nose and into his stomach so we could feed and medicate him. We learned to work his oxygen machine, and we learned to handle the Flolan monitor and Broviac line pack that would deliver life-saving medicine at nanograms per second. But before we learned those things, I knew to touch him, though he was too weak for us to hold. I knew to talk to him. I knew to sing to him. I knew to assuage as much of his pain as I could by these simple acts. I knew how to be a mother, and a I knew how to be a good one.

On one of these days at the CICU, we were sitting by Liam's bedside, and his vital signs began to dip. The nurse on the unit was concerned enough get the doctor. In those moments, there is nothing for parents to do but be at their child's side. Frank said to me, “Sing to him, Fi.” So I did. I sang “The Christmas Song” even though it was October, but it just seemed to make sense to me at the time (I was not necessarily thinking so clearly during those days.) 

As I sang and held his tiny hand, he opened his beautiful eyes and searched the space in front of them. He seemed to focus, and his vital signs began to climb to normal rates, stabilizing by the time the doctor arrived. “What happened?” asked the nurse incredulously. Frank lifted his tear-streaked face and said, “She sang to him.”

Liam lived nine and a half weeks. He was gorgeous. No really, and not just in spirit. He was perfectly proportionate with a beautifully round head of wispy blond hair and piercing, searching blue eyes. He looked just like his father, and later, when Wren was born, she was the feminine version of his grace and strength. The gift of their similarity is that as she grows we will get to see a bit of what Liam would have looked like at various ages. He had laughably large hands, and we joked with the nurses that they looked like they belonged to an Irish bartender. He was patient with us and with his circumstances and truly only cried when it was too much. He would even warn us by scrunching up his face sadly and giving a little “hawah” shortly before the crying got real.

He also had a magical quality of allowing people who were generally nervous around babies, to hold him with confidence. I saw many male friends and family members who were intimidated by babies sit for hours holding him and melting into his calmness. They would look at me with awe and say, “He makes this easy.” I will never forget how my father-in-law, normally reticent around babies, would sit contentedly with his meat-hook hands surrounding this sleeping bundle. My own father found holding Liam irresistible. Watching them together was so sweet.

There is so much more I could write about Liam, but I will save some for another day. I will end with the fact that Liam taught me many lessons. He gave me my first glimpse of unconditional love. He showed me that I am capable of being a good mother. He showed me that miracles exist and so do superheroes. He showed me that some things just are and need no explanation. He remains our “overall protector” to this day.

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