Six years ago tonight I sat in a maternity ward hospital room by myself. I could hear the cries of newborns but none of them were mine…not that I would have known what my baby sounded like. It was a tough day and a lonesome night. I had been 7 months pregnant and everything was going well until earlier in the week when I started pre-term labor that not even the anti-contraction drugs could stop. Monkey was born at two in the afternoon after a ridiculously quick labor and emergency C-section. After he was born—coming in at a whopping 4.4 oz. and 16 inches long—I only saw Monkey for about a minute right before they loaded him onto the ambulance, and that was it until the next afternoon when I was moved to the same hospital as him. I spent that first night contemplating the picture the nurses had given me of my baby boy. I couldn’t say who he looked like, nor how heavy he felt, or how well he was eating, or how strong his grip was. I just didn’t know and it broke my heart.
The next day started 5 weeks of hospital stay at two different NICUs. Within 24 hours of his birth he had surgery for testicular torsion. Within a couple days a nurse realized one of his arms was broken (it wasn’t broken during the birthing process–someone broke it and no one ever took responsibility). Thanks to all the crying from the pain of the broken arm (as we later found out) Monkey ended up with air in his intestines that he couldn’t get rid of easily so they thought he had and biopsied him for Hirschprung’s disease. Luckily it was not that or any other thing. Within a couple of weeks he was breathing well on his own which was our first hurdle in bringing him home. All that was left was for him to gain enough weight so he was over 5 lbs. He was so skinny he looked like a spider monkey and that’s how he first got his nickname “Monkey.” Now he just is a monkey. He spent his first Halloween in a NICU looking like an old man who was only as big as a stuffed animal. See?
We were able to bring our boy home in the first part of November. He was just over 5 lbs. and was a really good-natured boy who didn’t cry more than he should and was already starting to be the sunny kid he is now. We just started getting into a routine with him when the rumblings of K’s first deployment started to become serious. There wasn’t much time to really enjoy our new baby before the craziness of the deployment preparations came along. I can honestly say I don’t remember a whole lot about my maternity leave that doesn’t seem like watching a movie in fast forward. Soon, K. left and I was on my own with the kids.
Monkey’s first year was tough on all of us. I don’t know that Monkey noticed though which was really a boon for me and probably him too. He seemed to know when I was feeling my absolute shittiest or when his big sister was going to push me right over the edge with her “I miss Daddy” tantrums, because he would just look at me and smile a big old toothless grin and deflate my anger and frustration in a second. He was a little squirmy Prozac. Monkey developed eczema when he was a few months old and we’ve been fighting and managing it ever since, and that really only made him tougher, but he was still a happy kid in spite of it all. It was hard to feel sorry for myself when I had this sweet face in front of me who had been through more in his short life than I had been through in over 30 years. I had no room to complain.
K. came home when Monkey was about 16 months old and Monkey was wary of him for a couple of weeks before he decided that K. was ok. After that, we tried to carry on like a regular family, although like most families find out post-deployment, it’s neither a quick nor easy adjustment. Again, I don’t think Monkey noticed and his growing sense of humor and comic timing certainly helped me over the bumps and balanced out all the trouble we were having with his eczema that kept him, K. and I up most nights trying to ease his discomfort. He was part of an Early Intervention program keeping track of his developmental progress and before he was released from the program, the OT (who loved him) commented on how his sense of humor was far better developed than most kids his age.
Potty training might take a while at this rate…
asleep at the meal!
Coffee, tea, or Monkey?
Monkey’s eczema has influenced our lives—and mine in particular—in ways I never thought possible. The lack of sleep we all experienced for a good solid 5 years certainly did not help anyone. The allergy meds were turning him into a zombie and impeded his academic development as well as his speech. Plus, they just weren’t working. We changed his diet and even that wasn’t helping enough to ease his itching. He built a habit of scratching when he was stressed that has been incredibly hard to break. And he missed out on those bursts of learning that young kids have. His speech is still way behind. He sounds more like a 3-year old than a 6-year old but he has a wonderful imagination, he’s incredibly polite and affectionate, and thanks to being an extreme visual learner he can pretty much recite back almost every movie he’s watched. It’s both funny as hell when he uses the lines he knows at the odd yet strangely appropriate moment, and irritating as can be when he’s just rambling on to himself. Through all his problems he is still a happy, mischievious kid. He has his tantrums like every other little kid, but they don’t last long and he’s not one to hold a grudge.
In moving to our new town and home, I made the decision to stay home with Monkey. It was not in my plans ever to be a stay-at-home Mom, but he was not a day care kid like his sister. Other people could not seem to handle the eczema management, and Monkey could not manage the over-stimulation that large groups of kids managed to create. We looked at a few potential day cares when we came up here, but with every visit I could see Monkey get stressed and I could see the other kids staring at him and making him feel bad for looking different. I couldn’t do it to him just so I could pretend that I was still a cubicle jockey and feel “normal” myself. He had already lost a lot of academic ground and catching him up was becoming more important by the day. He was so far behind. He was and is by no means a stupid kid, he is just laden with speed bumps like a condo complex. We’ve been lucky to have such a great team up here helping him—teachers, therapists, specialists, and his dermatologist. They have all guided me to have a better grasp on his learning style, what he needs to manage his itching both emotionally and physically, and how to prepare him to deal with transitions. Working with Monkey has been a huge learning experience for me and by that, I mean I’ve learned about about myself.
I love my kids, but I’m not generally a kid person. I sometimes think I’ve lost the ability to just play, but Monkey is showing me the ropes again and I feel a lot less silly being silly. Laughing with him is just too addictive. I’ll even sing in front of other people now where before the dashboard of my car was my only audience because he loves to sing too and I like to encourage him. I had felt like my creativity was buried so far down that it would take one of those ocean oil rig drills to find it. But since he responds so well to visual cues, I ended up kick starting my whole artistic flow again by drawing him little pictures of events to help him get through his day. I’m also not the most affectionate creature in the world, but Monkey is a hugging and kissing bandit, so I’ve learned to shrink my personal space boundaries a bit more. As much as he has changed for the better by being with me, I’d say it’s a two-way street. I can’t imagine who I would be if Monkey had never made it that day six years ago.
I’m not sure how other mothers of preemies feel, but I know I carry around a fair amount of guilt that my body failed to keep Monkey where he belonged for his own benefit. We don’t know why he showed up so soon, but he was in me and not someone else, so I feel a bit responsible for his early appearance even though I like to tease R. that it was her fault for asking if the baby could come out and play so damned often while I was pregnant. (The boy loves his big sister!) Feeling that guilt lends a different dimension to my relationship with Monkey than I am used to from my relationship with R. who was a normal pregnancy and easy as pie when she was an infant (really, if she hadn’t been so awesome as a baby we might not have had another). My connection with Monkey is different right now than my connection with R. I don’t love him more, but I’m more aware of how much I love him because I am just so thankful every day that we didn’t lose him when it was all too easy for that to have happened. And having felt helpless so often those first weeks of his life, I tend to take the initiative in getting the right help for his issues more (although that’s spilled over to R. too—I’m much more hands on with her than I used to be when she was a little kid at daycare and school) and speak up for things I normally might not have before. Because he is behind, I am over the moon for even the smallest jumps in progress. Going through everything we have together with Monkey has made me a better and stronger person.
I joke that because I spend so much time with Monkey he’s my best friend, but I could do a whole lot worse. There are many days I wish I could be more like him—more carefree, appreciative of others, and able to let the bad stuff roll off. He teaches me these things every day, and in exchange I hope to teach him to not lose those gifts that make him such a pleasure to be around.
I love you, Monkey-man and I’m glad you’re here. Thank you for saving me. Happy Birthday!
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