Cake – check. Party napkins, plates, cups – check. Cute invitations – check. Everything is together, so why am I falling apart?
The first birthday of any child is reason for celebration, but when a baby is born preterm or with a special health care need, the first birthday is truly a major milestone. When my son, Jackson, turned one in the summer of 2001, the reality TV show Survivor was widely popular. We thought there could be no better theme for our micro preemie’s first birthday than “Survivor,” given he weighed a pound and a half at birth and spent four months in the NICU. But as the party day approached, I felt overcome with emotions – happiness about the gift of life we were celebrating, sadness over the traumatic birth and extended NICU stay and anxiety over what the future would hold for my son. But there was something else I could not quite put my finger on.
August 7, 2000, was a typical hot summer day in Austin, not unlike any other day. But for me, it was the most terrifying and sad day of my life. How was I supposed to celebrate this day for the rest of my son’s life? I think it would have been easier to just change his birthday celebration to take place on the day he came home from the NICU which was November 20, 2000. He weighed six pounds and 12 ounces. He had chubby cheeks and beautiful skin. While he was still attached to a heart monitor, I could hold him and sing to him and kiss his soft lips, none of which I could do on his actual birthday. That day–that horrible day–he was whisked away to the NICU, where he would cling to life on a respirator for months.
It seemed almost cruel to me that I was supposed to sing and serve cake and graciously accept gifts on August 7, when all I really wanted to do was sit alone and cry. Cry for the injustice that had been done to me and my baby. Cry for the young woman I had been a year before – in labor, alone and scared while driving home from work in rush hour traffic. In the days leading up to the Survivor party, the memories of Jackson’s “birth” day played over and over in my mind like a movie. I could feel the labor pain, I could hear the songs on the radio, I could not catch my breath. I cried easily and my hands shook. But, I said nothing. I felt too guilty to tell anyone how I really felt. How could I? What right did I have to be sad? My son lived! This was a day for celebration!
So I put on my party hat, smiled for the camera and pretended everything was fine. It would be years before I openly shared my feelings about Jackson’s birthday with friends and relatives and eventually a counselor. Why I denied myself counseling and peer support for so long is devastating to me. Had I understood post-traumatic stress disorder and allowed myself to reach out for help, I would have saved myself from (or at least lessened) some of the pain, anger, fear and anxiety associated with my son’s early arrival.
Jackson will be 18 years old this summer. It is almost hard to believe. I am sure a few of those dark memories will always wrestle their way back into my mind, but I fully expect the sounds of Jackson’s buddies laughing and running through my house to keep me focused on the here and now.