One day in June, Miri and I walked to the front desk of the NICU to sign in. My head briefly felt like there was a bubble of thin air around it and everything outside the bubble was moving too fast. I remembered the first time I felt this way was when our son, Gabriel, checked in to the NICU two months earlier at 22 weeks and 6 days of gestation. I had sat in a chair as a neonatologist and five nurses and technicians transferred Gabriel from the mobile isolette they had used to bring him up from the delivery room to a more permanent one. I heard them speak in a quick military kind of cadence as they hurriedly connected monitors and pumps and tested them to make sure they were working correctly.
I wanted to reach through this bubble of swirling air and swarming medical professionals and hold Gabriel like a baby, not watch his vital signs be studied like a science project. The staff had let Miri hold Gabriel for about 10 seconds – a 652-gram dark-red baby who looked like a wrinkled old man and was the size of my hand. I was jealous that she got to hold him before I remembered that Miri was not with us at all during the settle-in period. She was still recovering in the delivery room, waiting several hours for the anesthetics to wear off.
When she did come up, she asked the nurse his blood type, who answered “O-Positive.” Miri looked at me and said, “Ha, ha, I win.” This was a good thing to say both because we needed something to break the tension, and because we were yearning for some way to connect to our child, locked behind the plastic walls. Over the next several weeks, Miri’s main way of connecting to our child was through the plastic chest antlers of the breast pump, which she learned to hate early on. Today, she would sit with Gabriel for a little while before leaving to the pumping room to stay on schedule.
I felt more disconnected, coming to sit next to the incubator and stare at the monitor that told us his blood-oxygen level and would let out an accusing “bong, bong, bong” alarm whenever his oxygen dropped below a certain point.
On this Sunday in June, we stepped in to the NICU expecting to see the usual scene of two or three highly trained women watching over the six babies in the cramped room, monitoring the complicated machines that monitored the baby, trying to get the blood-oxygen balance just right for the development of three organs that can’t agree on a sweet spot for oxygen levels – the brain, lungs and eyes. These women’s voices could quickly switch between being official when talking about procedures to cooing like aunties when talking to the babies as they looked out for signs of infections, brain bleeds or necrotizing enterocolitis, the disease best able to keep us up at night worrying.
Today, however, Miri and I were greeted with something different. A man was watching over our son. Over Gabriel’s isolette was a small poster that said “Create Joy!” and “Blessings to you, Dad!” It had a picture of Gabriel with a CPAP mask on. I had forgotten it was Father’s Day. The nurses created these little collage posters to make it look like our preemies had made gifts for us, and this man had made the Father’s Day poster.
The picture of Gabriel with the CPAP was not particularly attractive – I had been calling the mask “the face smoosher” because of the way the elastic straps hugged his face. We had been delighted when Gabriel had graduated from ventilator to the gentler CPAP, but I was disappointed to discover I would see less of his face with the CPAP mask, which also came with a hose that looked like a vacuum cleaner’s.
This man introduced himself to us. He said his name was Bob, and he would be Gabriel’s nurse for the next two days. He was about 6 feet tall, had a strong chin that looked like Bruce Campbell’s, and bushy gray-and-brown eyebrows that seemed to jump off his forehead.
He told us that Gabriel’s weight had reached one kilogram, a major milestone that I thought made a pretty good Father’s Day gift. He also explained that Gabriel had received a blood transfusion overnight, and his needs for extra oxygen provided through the CPAP varied widely. He told me this in a matter-of-fact tone that didn’t emphasize any happy or sad emotions. He reminded me of an auto repairman I knew who always spoke with respect for both me and for the procedures involved with fixing the car, resisting the temptation to say things such as, “Yer alternator’s toast, dude.”
Miri went to the pump room, and I sat down next to Gabriel’s isolette and waited for his next “cares time” when I could change the diaper and take his temperature. I looked at Bob as he efficiently moved from one isolette to the other when someone’s desaturation alarm went off and thought, “Wow, there’s a man in here, and he’s useful.” There were plenty of male neonatologists in the NICU, but they usually came through for a five-minute consultation and then were gone. This guy was actually caring for the babies.
More than a few dads have told me about feeling like a bystander at a birth, feeling separated from their baby because Mom does all the work, and then dozens of other women come and visit and give her lots of advice. I have not felt like much of a caregiver for Gabriel, and if I wanted to be one, I would need to be one of these women nurses with years of experience and training in the use of complicated equipment.
I complained a few days earlier to a high-school friend about feeling like a fake parent up in the NICU, and he looked confused and said, “Dude, what you’re doing is parent to the power of parent!” I guess this was a nice compliment, but I was complaining about not being able to hold or feed Gabriel or do other parenting tasks – a complaint that could only be understood by other NICU parents.
As I left the NICU that day, I heard a medical assistant ask another nurse where an item was, and she said, “Go ask Bob the nurse.”
When Miri came out of the pumping room and we got in the elevator down to the car, she asked me if I’d had a nice Father’s Day. I said in an exhausted tone, “I guess it’s my best one.” I thought for another moment, and added, “I wonder if our nurse likes being called ‘Bob the Nurse’ at work.”