Of course, Dylan has felt like “ours” from the moment we laid eyes on him. This morning, however, we went before the judge who proclaimed him our son – always and forever.
I’m taking the occasion of the legal finalization of his adoption to at last write what I can. I’ve attempted to chronicle the hours before and shortly after his birth because I don’t want them to fade any further into the backdrop of our lives. And also because when we were waiting to adopt, I ate up the stories I could find about how families built through adoption came together. They fed my optimism and kept my cynicism at bay. I hope that our story – which does have such a happy ending - might do the same for someone else who is now struggling on the path to parenthood.
But it’s too late. Already I can’t remember when we signed what, who we saw when, what we said to whom. I feel so badly about this. How could those details that seemed so important disappear already?
I guess the answer is that they really weren’t all that important. Because I certainly do remember some things, the really important things, like slipping him into my blouse and holding this tiny, warm boy for the very first time, and like watching his daddy’s face as he coaxed him to drink more from a minuscule bottle. And like feeling torn between tending to my newborn son and his ailing birth mother, my heart bursting for them both.
Here is what I can recall – big and small – from Dylan’s birth, exactly nine months ago, way back on October 9, 2009.
I wrote extensively about our “fire drill,” which left off not knowing exactly when V., the expectant mom with whom we were matched, would give birth, but knowing it would be soon. After returning to our home – about 2.5 hours from her hometown – again without a baby, we stayed in a constant state of vigilance with the car packed and cat-sitter on notice. Though V. knew she’d have a c-section because of complications from her older son’s birth, she was worried about going into labor before the surgery could be scheduled and that we wouldn't make it in time.
After several days of waiting to hear from her, we grew anxious, beginning to fear the worst. Finally, rather than waiting for her to call, we called her. We were relieved when she sounded fine, and said emphatically, “You guys are going to be parents by this weekend!” She had conferred further with her OB, who was working to schedule her surgery. He told her to come to his office on Thursday morning, and that if his exam didn't break her waters, they'd proceed with plans for the surgery the next day. If the scheduled surgery took place on Friday, it would to be at Crummy Hospital, the county facility they had been hoping to avoid. V. shared horror stories of people she knew who'd been mistreated there, and she was especially nervous about how she'd be received as a parent placing her child for adoption. So we told her we'd leave as rush hour was wrapping up here on Thursday morning and would likely get there as her appointment was finishing up, in case we needed to accompany her to the hospital then and there.
Wednesday night came and neither M. or I slept much, so we got on the road earlier than anticipated. Traffic wasn't bad and we were happy we knew we'd make it there before the child was born. When we were about a mile out of her home town, we got a call from D., her wonderful friend who supported her throughout the pregnancy and in her adoption plan. He said they'd concluded the appointment already and the birth was not happening that day. It was scheduled for tomorrow at 5 p.m., but could possibly happen earlier if space in the operating room opened up.
I had heard before from someone who'd had to travel out of state for their adoption that some hospitals have special deals with local hotels and such. After making a few calls to the hospital where we thought the birth would take place, I was transferred to the Ronald McDonald House and spoke with an incredibly enthusiastic young woman. Though the mission of the charity is to support families with ill children, she said they had space available, so of course we could stay there. She also said it was just $15 per night!
The Ronald McDonald House (RMH) in this small city was only a few months old, and in the back parking lot of Mediocre Hospital. When we arrived, we were immediately greeted by friendly volunteers and staff. They showed us around the sparkling clean and fresh facility, which included a well-stocked kitchen and eating area, a laundry area, a living room with windscreen TV (unfortunately, I don't think we ever saw it turned off), a "computer room" still waiting for computers for the guests to use, and a little office alcove for the staff. Then there were three very small but comfortable bedrooms and two bathrooms, complete with towels and toiletries. Everyone really encouraged us to make ourselves at home (as I recall, someone had just baked cookies!) and asked us all kinds of excited questions about our situation.
Then they started presenting us with goodies. Apparently, the community had been incredibly generous and donated all kinds of stuff as the House was opening. So, we were given some handmade baby blankets, a diaper bag, and told we could choose as many books from the library to take home as we'd like. Then we were asked if we'd like any baby clothes. Since fear of jinxing our match had kept us from shopping for the baby much at that point, I said sure. They came back with three boxes of boy-baby clothes!
M. tried to nap for a bit, but I was too excited. Going through the clothes - which were mostly gently used - and chatting with the nice RMH people, I felt like I was at my baby shower. It was wonderful.
We met V. and D. for dinner at a small local Italian restaurant where we mostly just chatted and occasionally squirmed over the enormous day ahead of us all tomorrow. After dinner, they invited us to return to D.'s club house, which we appreciated. It was nice to meet a few more of her friends, all of whom were incredibly nice and accepting of us. But we didn't want to over-stay our welcome, or make V. feel she had to stay and entertain us when we could tell she was getting tired. So eventually we headed back to the RMH where we slipped into bed and held tight to each other. Was this really happening? To us? We were both so excited, we didn't sleep much.
D. called us in the morning around 9 a.m. and told us that they'd heard from the hospital and the surgery had been moved up to 10:30. He asked that we meet them on the north side entrance to the hospital.
We quickly finished up breakfast and showering and such. The staff and volunteers gave us directions to the hospital and sent us off with well wishes.
Getting off the freeway, we could see we were in a different part of town. Homes were boarded up, some with graffiti. Stray dogs roamed the streets. And ahead was a big, imposing old hospital.
We circled around it once, twice, but could NOT figure out where the north entrance was. There were doors and parking lots on both the east and west sides, but even after checking our compass, we couldn't figure out what D. meant by the north entrance.
Panic ensued as time ticked away. We did not want to be late for this! Finally, we parked at what seemed like the main lot and went in. The building was big and bustling and not well signed. We rushed through the whole first floor but couldn't find D. and V.
Finally, I stayed at one entrance while M. ran around the rest of the building. After many excruciating minutes, he returned, announcing he'd found them, and that they'd already gone up to the labor and delivery waiting room. We headed back up there, panting.
What a contrast with the Fancy and Mediocre Hospitals we'd visited during our false alarm trip! The small, cheerless room was cramped with big bellied women and their entourages. It was so stuffy in there that V. preferred to sit on the floor of the hallway outside the room.
We all exchanged hugs and M. and I expressed our regret for being a little late. V. seemed pretty nervous and a little withdrawn. It was tough to know what to say to her. She said she was scared about the surgery...but of course I wondered how she was feeling about the adoption. We joked uneasily for awhile, took turns pacing the hallway, and mostly just stood silently. All of us were asked repeatedly to get out of the hallway and to sit in the waiting room -- all of us, that is, except D. No one dared ask the muscular, six-foot-four-inch, tattoo-covered guy to do something he didn't want to.
Eventually, a nurse came and got V. We gave her another copy of the birth and placement plan, which we'd worked out carefully together with the guidance of our agency social worker a couple of weeks earlier. It specified all kinds of things about V.'s preferences, including that D. accompany her to the operating room, and that we be in a room nearby and brought in to assist with washing and tending to the baby. She wanted us to be the first to hold him.
The nurse indicated that V. would be right back. In actuality, she disappeared behind the double doors and we did not see her again until several hours after the birth. I wish I'd gotten to squeeze her tight before she headed off.
More time passed. And more. Then a different nurse came and retrieved D. After awhile, we could look through the foggy windows on the door and see a hulking figure we assumed was him, all scrubbed up and in a goofy smock and hat. We couldn't tell for sure, but it looked like he was in front of a gurney, and we assumed he was there, down the long hallway, with V.
We started to get nervous. Had they forgotten about us? What about the plan for us to be there in the moments immediately after the baby was pulled from the womb? At long last, a cheerful nurse came and found us. After confirming who we were, she ushered us too behind the double doors.
Then things moved quickly. We were urged to wash up and put on scrubs, which made it suddenly seem very real to me. We were taken into an operating room and told that V.'s surgery was about to begin in the next room, just through an open door where we could see various medical personnel in smocks bustling around. Our room was bright and quiet, with a "baby tray" warming up. We were introduced to two wonderful nurses, Dave and Eva, who chatted with us with just the right balance of friendly excitement and professionalism. Every now and then, they'd walk to the other room and bring back an update. "She doing well, joking around." Or, "the surgery's begun."
Just seconds later, Dave said he'd be right back. Indeed, he disappeared through the open door, we heard a little more noise, and then he came back, walking briskly toward us.
In his hands was a tiny baby. Covered in goo, and with his mouth wide open, gasping for air, there was our son!
Dave put him on the tray, and he and Eva gave him calm, encouraging words. Though M. said later he couldn't, I could tell pretty quickly that something was not quite right. First, the little guy was awfully purple. Second, he wasn't crying vigorously. Still, he was very sweet. Ten tiny little finger, ten tiny little toes. A perfectly shaped head with lots of dark hair. At one point he opened his dark, glistening eyes and seemed to look around wondering where the heck he was.
Dylan was born on October 9th at 12:51 p.m., weighed 5 lbs. and 14 oz., and was 18.5 inches long.
Dave and Eva stayed calm and reassuring, but they explained that he was obviously not the 39 weeks of gestation that we all anticipated. They could tell by things like the (lack of, I believe) creases on his feet. He had a strong heart beat, but they were worried about his breathing. His coloring and "retraction" - the way his little chest sucked in severely with each breath - suggested immature lungs. The nurses continued to play with his feet, trying to get him to pink up a bit more. While we went on snapping photos and just staring at this little creature, oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, they turned him first on his tummy, then declared they didn't like the way he was grunting, and turned him back to give him some oxygen through a mask that was way too big. This did improve his coloring, and they seemed encouraged.
Never-the-less, after about 15 minutes of checking his vital signs and attempting various mild intervention, they indicated he needed to take a trip upstairs to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Of course, this was scary to hear, and I think our first real reality check that things weren't going as planned. Still, Dave and Eva were very upbeat and calm, which kept us from getting panicked.
As we followed them wheeling the little guy across the hallway to the elevator, V.'s OB emerged from the operating room. He congratulated us, looking a bit harried and surprised when he learned where we were headed. He explained that the delivery was tougher than he expected because Dylan's umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. He was also surprised to learn about the new suspicion that the baby was several weeks more immature than he'd predicted, but said that because of the cord and the pain V'd been feeling against her prior cesarean incision, it was good he'd scheduled the surgery when he did.
So up we went to the NICU. Though I was very focused on our son, I was aware that we'd entered a strange and foreign world. The sights, sounds, even the smells were so unfamiliar. For the next hour or so, Dylan was assessed by various medical professionals, all of whom were very friendly and excited about our adoption situation. There was a respiratory therapist who was especially generous in explaining what was going on. She indicated that they would give him Surfactin, a drug commonly delivered to preterm babies, because it helped decrease the tension caused by fluid in the cells of the lungs (or something like that). They also hooked him up to an IV to deliver antibiotics, a heart monitor, a thermometer, and a nasal cannula, which delivered enriched, pressurized oxygen.
Very quickly, Dylan's little body seemed to get lost in a mass of wires and tubes. He didn't seem to mind too much, but we sure did. Though everyone we asked answered our questions, it was hard following what exactly was going on. I remember trying to interpret their medical lingo to get a better sense of his status. At one point, some of them were talking about how they "didn't like that he was floppy." This terrified me. I started to fear that maybe there was brain damage or some other very serious complications.
My memories here really starts to blur. I know that at some point, the hospital's pediatric social worker found us. She took us to a little room where we waited and waited while we fidgeted, worrying about the baby. Then she brought us paperwork related to assuming authority for making medical decisions. She also brought us paper wrist bracelets that became our keys back into the NICU, where only parents and grandparents of the wee patients were allowed.
We were also starving, so somehow eventually we made it downstairs and got burritos from the lunch truck at the curb. I think I was running on adrenaline at that point, because being out in the sunshine, noticing others going about their "normal" lives while the baby who might become our child was suffering upstairs, just felt like an out-of-body experience. In particular, I remember being really startled to notice several patients in their hospital smocks smoking cigarettes around the flag pole.
While scarfing down the food, we contacted our social worker at the adoption agency and told her it looked like Dylan would have to be admitted to the NICU for a few days, which essentially threw out the window the placement plan we'd so carefully discussed with her and V. She consoled us, and said that in her experience, it sounded like everything would ultimately be fine. She said that if we needed her, she'd make the trip to the hospital. I wanted to tell her that, yes, we needed her! We really needed someone who could take control and make it all right. Instead, we agreed to keep in touch.
Meanwhile, we were wondering about V. and how she was doing. I can't recall exactly, but there were some challenges in finding her. Eventually we did. She was pretty out of it, and sharing a room with two (and eventually three) others who were rooming in with their newborns, which must have been so hard for her. Her friend D. stayed constantly by her bedside, with his huge, muscular body crammed in the little wooden chair.
She was glad to see us, and eager for a report on the baby. We knew that she took his welfare very seriously and personally, so we didn't share all of the upsetting details with her (and in fact, at that point, we didn't know all of them). We showed her some photos of him, and at that point we all decided on his name.
We also presented V. with a couple of small gifts of congratulation that just seemed so, so inadequate. One was a pair of pajamas in her favorite color, pink. The other was a sock monkey. When she saw it, she squealed with delight and explained that she'd had one just like it as a child, which she'd loved and called JooJoo. We told her that we'd gotten another for Dylan, and that we thought maybe in the future, when they were both thinking about each other, they might like knowing that the other sock monkey was with them, too. She seemed to really like this, and as we talked, the idea developed that we'd take photos of Dylan on a regular basis with his monkey, so that she could see how much he was growing.
Eventually, we went back to check on the little guy. While we were out, they'd moved him to a different spot in the big room so that he was now lined up near other babies and more permanently connected with various beeping and flashing monitors, oxygen, etc. They had also put a feeding tube down his nose, which was really hard to see, and even worse to imagine the insertion.
Fortunately, we were then able to meet with the doctor who became his pediatrician while he was in the NICU. Of all the personnel with whom we interacted, this guy was the most tight-lipped and somewhat morose. He definitely wasn't the warm, fuzzy baby doctor I was hoping to acquaint my child with. Still, he gave us fairly encouraging words. He explained that, though serious, Dylan's situation wasn't atypical for a baby of his gestational age and that he didn't anticipate any long term impact. Essentially, he thought all the kid needed was some time, and that after a few days, he'd go home a healthy boy. Whew!
A few days. Though much longer than anticipated, that sounded manageable. Unfortunately, a few days turned into a few more days, and ultimately almost two weeks. Though Dylan's breathing continued to improve, early on his blood work showed sign of an infection common in preterm babies, and so an antibiotic course was started. Though the doctor was always reluctant to project how long we'd all be there, when we learned it was a 10-day course, we got the picture that we'd need to get a bit more comfortable being so far from home for awhile.
In sharp contrast to the doctor's chill was the first shift nurse to which Dylan was assigned, Ruth. A jolly middle-aged woman with a warm Jamaican accent, she was so kind to us. She cooed over how adorable he was (which was hard to tell, with all the tubes and wires and such), and told us that he was not one of the sick babies. He just needed to "cook" a bit more. She asked us about things that made us feel like normal, proud parents.
For example, she asked us what his name was, and we shared that at that point, we still hadn't decided. There were two top contenders, and we - along with his birth mother - wanted to meet him before deciding for sure. We told her as long as she promised not to tell any of our friends and family, we'd share them both with her. When we did, she said, "oh, they are both excellent names for this boy. The first one, that's a serious, powerful name. A politician's. Dylan, that's an artist." And you know how that part of this story ends.
Ruth taught us how and where to touch him. She said that in her experience, the little babies preferred constant pressure to stroking, and so M. and I both spent several hours that first day and night just cupping his little head in our hand, or laying our fingers on his small shoulders. Because of his various tethers, we weren't able to hold him yet, which was really hard. But we were able to change his diaper, and sing, and whisper to him.
At some point that afternoon, M. and I managed to go to the cafeteria and find cell phone reception. In the courtyard with construction going on around us, we made a few quick calls to our parents and siblings - all of whom were waiting anxiously to hear from us - to joyfully announced Dylan's birth. We regretfully told them it looked like we'd be there for awhile.
Later, when we checked in on V., we asked her if it was really okay for a bunch of people eager to meet her and Dylan to show up tomorrow. She confirmed what she'd said during our birth planning - that it made her happy to know Dylan had family excited about his arrival, and that she wanted to meet these people who were now part of her family too. This made my heart swell!
We went back to the RMH and made ourselves something quick to eat for dinner from the generous cubboards, sharing the news of Dylan's birth. We were reassured we could stay there as long as we needed. Then we headed back to the NICU. The main entrance to the hospital was closed, but we told the security guard where we were headed and were given immediate entry. It was kind of weird - both good and awful - that we were given the privilege of visiting our patient anytime, 24/7.
We stayed for a couple of hours. When we finally surrendered to exhaustion, Ruth assured us that she would call if there were negative developments, but that she didn't expect any and we should get a good night's sleep.
Surprisingly, we both did. But we were awoken about 6:30 a.m. by the phone ringing. It was Ruth. Of course, my heart flew to my throat. Was there a problem with Dylan? It turned out her shift was ending and she just wanted to share that he'd had a really good night. I thanked her and told her we would be there in about an hour.
That day was especially active and is now especially blurry. I know we went in early and met a new nurse, who was also exceedingly nice. She related how things had gone over night - slight improvements in his breathing, etc.
Most importantly, we got to hold our boy! What a sweet, soft, warm little bundle he was. The nurse advocated kangaroo care, which means as much skin to skin contact as possible. So M. and I took shifts all day, shifting his wires and tubes so that he could lay on our chests.
Then our parents and siblings began to arrive from around the state. We could only take grandparents in to meet Dylan one at a time, and our siblings were only allowed to see the little guy from across the room through a large window.
Similarly, V. could only have a few visitors at a time. So we did what we could to coordinate smoothly. For the most part, I was proud of our family. For example, they understood open adoption and our relationship enough to bring V. flowers and such.
V. had warned us that she might have a few biker friends visit her too. I was glad that a couple of rough looking guys who acted like teddy bears did indeed show up to wish her well. There was a funny exchange between one of them and my mom about whether the A on his cap stood for the baseball team or some other Angels.
I remember feeling really torn. I wanted to just sit in the rocking chair with Dylan on my chest. But, there were relatives around, clearly excited to meet the little guy, and I was delighted to introduce them. And V. needed attention too. She was feeling good, but still needed help gettng to the bathroom and such. We also sensed that she didn't want to be alone. Since D. finally left her side for a few hours, we stuck as close to her as we could when others weren't around, sometimes taking shifts, with one of us with her and the other with the baby.
That evening, our relatives still in town brought food back to the RMH where we all enjoyed dinner together. Then M. and I went back to the hospital and arranged with V. to go visit Dylan together. We helped her get dressed and shuffled over from the maternity ward to the NICU, trailing an IV bag. Then we had some fun announcing to the security intercom that Dylan's motherS were there to visit him.
We went in together - to the astonishment of a few nurses, I think - and she met her son, our son, for the first time. She held him and snuggled and smiled adoringly at him. We asked if she wanted some time alone with him, but she declined. After a little while, she said she was tired, and we shuffled back.
The next day, she was released exactly 48 hours after giving birth. Clearly, she wanted to get out of the hospital and, I suspect, start moving on with her life. In the week or so following that while Dylan was still hospitalized, we saw her twice more, for two very nice dinners. After one, she returned to the NICU to visit the little guy again.
I must say that in the months before we connected with V., while we were waiting to adopt, I spent an inordinate amount of time either fanticising or fearing what the time around our child's birth would be like. In most of my imagined scenarios, I envisioned there would be a time when a young woman would bravely pass a bundled baby into my arms and I would be transformed into "momma."
It didn't happen like that at all. Now I realize that there was no possible way I could have anticipated how events unfolded or how I would feel about them. I was surprised by how mixed my emotions were. I was stunned, scared, and enormously hopeful and happy. I was also incredibly sad and worried for a lovely young woman who was trying to do right by the baby she brought into the world. I wanted to make sure V. was okay. But I also wanted to make sure D. was okay. Both of them had no one else and needed us.
Many, many times since Dylan was born, I’ve begun drafting his “birth story” in my head. I wanted to make sure to get it all down in writing, for him and for us. I wanted to create something that not only captured the details – the things I know he’ll be curious about at some point in life – but also conveyed the “hugeness” of it all. As milestones like bringing him home from the hospital and his six-month birthday came and went, I regretted not taking the time nor summoning the emotional space to get it down. Now, I fear I've achieved quantity rather than quality in describing our experience.
It is so hard to understand, let alone explain, how all those strange moments and ambiguous emotions came together to become the most powerful experience of my life. Nine months later, with Dylan a thriving and happy little boy, on the day he is at last recognized legally as our son, I can't tell you when, or how exactly, but sometime in those earliest hours after Dylan emerged from another woman's womb, I at last became a mother.