TRIGGER WARNING: The following post contains one image of a baby in the NICU, with surgical breathing apparatus, gauze from surgery, and other potentially traumatic images. The post itself, though, is about moving past such trauma to a happier, more healed place.
Note: all of the images in this post were scanned using my smartphone. You can see the glare of light, the different textures of the photos. I haven’t made an effort to make them less blurry, because the blurriness for me represents the distance in time, in emotion, in life, from when these were taken. They are, if you will, essentially left distorted, although I have made small adjustments for color.
My baby book was largely empty of pictures. What do you do when your one-month old is still connected to tubes? When your 2.5 month old is only just coming home from the hospital, her eyes as slate dark as any newborn’s?
When I was born, we didn’t have Facebook or Instagram, much less scanners and fax machines, to share up-to-the-minute news from the NICU. And when my own daughters were preemies, my husband and I debated: Do we show the world our Older Daughter, when she had the catheter entering a vein in her skull, the only vein that worked? Do we show the world the picture of Younger Daughter with her nasal gavage tube? In the days of social media, we chose to show the pictures. Face the reality. Not hide it, from ourselves or our various online friends, and this is what I see on many preemie- and NICU-focused social media outlets today.
Instead, most of the pictures I saw when I was little were almost certainly sanitized. No accidentally paging through the online photo album to discover uncomfortable images of myself, thank goodness. Just a nurse standing by an isolette, the baby carefully hidden. The baby being held, as above, but covered in blankets and a hat, so all you can see is my mom’s finger, gently touching my mouth.
It wasn’t until the past year that I asked to see the pictures. My mom sent them in the mail, two plastic containers holding dozens and dozens of photos. They’re out of order, and they’re from the late 1970s, so they’re kind of faded, with matte printing and rounded corners. I look through them, stunned. There are photos of the gauze covering my necks where the scars are. There are photos where I look like E.T., (the Extra-Terrestrial) when he gets sick — distended belly, dark skin, peering eyes. No wonder some scenes in that movie terrified me as a kid. There’s one where my mom – I recognize her hand – holds her hand up along the side of the NICU; here is proof of what my parents always said, that when I was born, they could hold me in the palm of their hands.
Over the year that followed, I keep coming back to these photos again and again. I don’t want to look, but it seems I can’t help but look. I don’t know how to square this feeble, tenuously human infant with my own full-grown self, and I’m glad I didn’t see these pictures when I was a child.
Looking at the pictures raises a lot of questions, such as:
What did I see when I was younger? How did I experience my prematurity then?
Do I even have the right to use these pictures? For so many years, this seemed to be my parents’ story to tell. Parents tell the child the story of their birth, the stories children can’t remember with their waking minds, and yet — we know the NICU and being born too soon affected me. At some point, it has to become my story, as well, and part of that story is facing the parts of the past that I can’t remember.
I didn’t grow up with pictures of myself in the NICU, other than a few carefully curated shots. My baby book contained precious few mementos. The one of me coming home terrified me. That it was a 1790s photocopy, not an actual photograph, probably didn’t help, because the image quality made an already not-exactly-healthy baby look well, to a child’s eyes, still rather scary.
The baby book contained notes from the nurses to my parents, congratulating me on how I’d breathed without the respirator. These notes, supposed to be cheerful, exclaimed things like, “it’s so much more comfortable without all the tubes!”
These notes scared me even as a child. No wonder I lay awake before sleep, scared to close my eyes and surrender to unconsciousness, lest I forget to breathe while I slept. Either I remembered, at the age of 4 or 5, that breathing had once been touch-and-go, or – more likely – I’d already heard stories, seen the notes. Whatever the reason, I knew what I was seeing in the notes and pictures wasn’t “normal.”
I didn’t see the other pictures, the truly scary ones, until well into adulthood. In some of the pictures, I look very much like today’s micro preemies; after all, I was only two weeks and a few ounces away from being that early. I weighed just under two pounds when I was born, a tiny slice of life. My skin is dark, and there are more tubes, machines, and equipment than baby. You can see the gauze covering the venous cut downs on my neck where they inserted the catheters.
These are the pictures that I’m drawn back to, months after I first saw them, almost forty years after they were taken. I think I’m looking for dates, for certainty – when did my parents first hold me? When exactly did I come home? – but I know it’s also something else.
Each time, the pictures created some kind of trauma response. My heart beats faster, and there’s a lump in my chest. I don’t know if I’m thinking of my children in the NICU, or myself. I think in part, I don’t know what to make of these as pictures of me; I know these events happened but seeing them is something else. I barely see myself reflected in the photos.
Not at first. And maybe that’s a good thing; that I’ve left the tubes behind reminds me how lucky I am.
Not at first, until I realize that despite what it looks like, these are the pictures of a preemie survivor. This is what it often takes to make it through the NICU to the other side, to a full life.
And eventually, I do make it. I start to look like a normal baby. The first pictures in family photo albums show me being held by different groups of relatives – not shown here for their privacy – but they’re beaming. They’re clearly beyond thrilled and amazed that this tiny baby is actually alive, out of the hospital, in their arms. I’m surrounded by utterly joyous love, and after the pictures in the plastic boxes, these other pictures feel euphoric.
I keep flipping the pages of the family photo album, watching as a former preemie’s life unfolds, a happy, smiling, but intense and somehow serious, life that’s only just getting going.
Maybe that’s the message from the pictures of a preemie’s earliest days: don’t linger. Let life unfold, as it will, and the pictures recede into the past, making room for new and better images.