Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Comfort of Strangers

Our twin daughters were born 10 weeks premature and in bad shape.They spent the first 9 weeks of their lives in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. At first they were in the University hospital’s NICU in downtown Zurich, Switzerland where we lived at the time, but after three weeks, they were moved to a hospital closer to our home.

One day at the ‘Unispital’ (as it is called in Switzerland), just a few days before the girls were to be moved to the more local hospital, I was in holding the babies. A remarkably beautiful Vietnamese woman was sitting with her son in the incubator next to ours. He was so big and robust, I couldn’t figure out why he was there. Compared to my little ones who weighed just 2 and 2 & ½ pounds at birth, this little guy was a bruiser.

I laid there in the reclining chair, 'kangarooing', with the girls on my chest and watched this fragile mommy sitting adjacent to me, holding her strong baby boy. He looked huge in her sinewy arms. The strange thing about NICUs…well there are a lot of strange things, but one of the oddest aspects of the NICU is that it is always full of parents holding their babies, but no one every talks to each other. I guess it is because of the serious nature of where they are and why  they are there. In 9 weeks and probably hundreds of hours spent in the NICU, I didn’t have one conversation with another parent. Aside from the obvious reasons, it is an eery place; babies don't cry because they are too weak, parents don't speak because they are too scared-- the only sound that fills the space is the beeping, buzzing and ticking of life-support machines.

It took my by surprise when the mommy holding her boy said to me, “Don’t worry, my son was as small as your girls when he was born.” Her simple sentence gave me so much comfort, at such a dark time. I felt stranded at the bottom of a deep, slippery well. Her words were just the tiniest sparkle of golden light at the top of the well, 'maybe we will get out of here'.

I few months after my babies came home from our local hospital, they had to go back into the children’s hospital because they were having problems breathing at night. Visits back to the hospital are not that unusual for premature babies. My husband and I sat there holding the babies in the infants’ unit, when I saw the same, ethereal woman standing over her son who lay in a small crib. It was as if she was made of the most delicate crystal, and could shatter at any moment. Her beautiful, wide-set brown eyes were worn out now; she looked exhausted.

A nurse interrupted my gaze and showed us to our daughters’ hospital room. I left the infants’ unit without speaking to the woman.

One year later I was in the grocery store with Tess. As is our thrice weekly routine, we drop Mimi off at physical therapy and then Tess and I go to the grocery store. It was in the frozen food section that I saw the woman again. I felt absolutely compelled to speak to her this time.

I cautiously approached and touched her sleeve. She looked up at me blankly. I said, “I think we had children in the NICU at the Unispital at the same time a little over a year ago. I had the twins next to your son.” She recognized me and said, “Oh, yes,” and at the same time we said, “How is your child(ren)?”.

We both paused, waiting for the other one to begin-- I started. “Well, Tess had to have heart surgery, but is fine now, very active. Mimi, we found out, had a stroke at birth and has Cerebral Palsy. She is at physical therapy right now. She is working really hard and making good progress. How about your son?”

In that instant, her eyes flooded with tears and she said simply, “He died.” I was shocked. Her pain enveloped me; it was a palpable, physical ache. We both stood there between the frozen vegetables and ice cream and wept. Strangers linked only through the greatest grief any parent can face.

I could say nothing comforting to this woman. It would be absurd to think that any soothing words could fill her great chasm of pain. Tess squirmed in my arms, I put her in the grocery cart, touched the woman’s arm again and said, “I am so sorry.” We stood and cried for a few minutes longer and then nodded and walked away from each other without words.

Two and a half years later I saw her in the grocery store again. She looked stronger, but carried a hurt in her eyes that will probably never go away. We greeted each other, smiled and then she looked at Tess and said, “She is getting big.” “Yes,” I said.

I wonder how she gets through the days, although maybe the nights are worse. Does the pain weaken as the years pass, or just change in some way. How does a mother carry on after the death of her child?

Having come so close to this myself, I pray I never find out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I absolutely love to read your recipes, comments and short stories. You have such a wonderful gift when it comes to writing and making the words turn into a picture so clear and full of emotion that it brings the reader into your world. Keep up the great work.

I had dinner with your mom and dad this weekend with our little band of "gourmets" in UA. They are such wonderful people. I feel honored to have met them. They talk often of you and the children.

Best regards, Terry Thomas