Yesterday I was feeling extremely upbeat about Charlie and his latest improvements and found myself thinking, it’s happened, I’m finally there—Mr. Positive Mental Attitude. Gone forever was that Evil Eye-fearing neurotic who lived and breathed anxiety and worst-case scenarios. In his place was an Ascended Master of Living in the Moment whose calm, meditative, and always cheerful demeanor would get his son through all of the challenges that were ahead. Following this revelation, I practically skipped into the NICU where I found Kendall holding Charlie outside of his incubator. When I glanced at the monitors behind them, I saw that Charlie’s heart and respiratory rates were elevated. Within seconds my newfound positivity hit the skids. I started barraging Kendall with concerns about everything she was doing with our son, from the way she was holding him to the kisses she would occasionally plant on his cheek. Of course nothing Kendall was doing had anything to do with Charlie’s stats. My wife’s blissful moments with Charlie were suddenly subsumed by my dark cloud. Mr. Positive Mental Attitude, meet Dr. Buzzkill.
A few hours later, in a therapy session, I grappled with my own internal roller coaster and realized that my calm, positive nature can be every bit as shaky as my fear-based neuroses. The truth is that those two sides of me often exist simultaneously. I can feel very positive and hopeful about Charlie and his future and at the same time be scared out of my mind. One of my biggest life lessons is understanding that feelings are not always “either/or” but more often “and.” My goal is not to force myself to be positive all the time, but rather to stop being so surprised when the fear stuff creeps back in. And I want to develop coping mechanisms that do NOT involve tormenting my loved ones or myself with my sudden bouts of terror.
I left my therapist’s office after this intense session and walked back to my car on a side street near Robertson and Olympic. It was a pretty block, rather modest for Beverly Hills, and I noticed a small rose garden on my right. There were beautiful roses in vibrant hues, from a deep violet to a two-tone pink and white. I was lost in my thoughts, swinging my arms absent-mindedly at my side in my haste to return to my car and get back to the hospital. All of a sudden I felt a sharp jab of pain in my hand. I had swung my arm right into one of the rose bushes, deep into a labyrinth of piercing thorns. I yelped and pulled my hand from the bush, blood flowing from two wounds. Oh my God, I thought, how can I return to the NICU with blood gushing from my right hand? They’ll never let me touch my son. I had to laugh at the ridiculous dream-like symbolism of the scene. The beauty and life-affirming qualities of the delicate roses, commonly used as expressions of love, butting right up against the ever-present realities of pain, injury, and loss. Aren’t we all rose bushes, our thorny, painful interiors masked by the pretty faces we put on for the world at large? I managed to stem the flow of blood on my hand by the time I got back to Cedars and was able to hold Charlie for several hours, realizing, at least for the moment, that my anxieties and fears sometimes go hand in hand with my feelings of joy and hope and are not mutually exclusive.
I stayed at the hospital holding Charlie until midnight. As I entered the parking garage to head home, I noticed a couple who had just parked next to my car. They looked like they were in their mid-thirties and I was struck by their playful, laughing exchanges. They were busily taking a bunch of posed photos—one of the man pulling a suitcase out of their trunk, one of the very pregnant woman holding onto a post and biting her fingernails in mock fear. I sat in my car watching the couple make their way to the late-night security guard. The woman was clearly in labor and occasionally stopped and held onto her husband, wincing but always smiling broadly. They were so cute I couldn’t stop staring at them as I gripped my steering wheel and felt occasional throbs from the wounds in my hand. How could I fault them for taking this exciting moment for granted? Why shouldn’t they be giggling as they made their way into the hospital to have their baby? I tried to remember the night that Leah was born in 1994, also at Cedars. It was around this time of night but I don’t remember calmly driving into the regular parking lot and doing photo sessions with my then wife. I believe I screeched into the ground floor emergency room lot, and it was a good thing, too, since Leah arrived a little more than an hour later. Watching this couple I couldn’t help but think how this could (should?) be me and Kendall. It was exactly the time when we thought we’d be having our babies. This would have been Kendall’s 37th week of pregnancy and we were aiming our sights on anything past 36 weeks when the twins would be fully cooked and ready to go.
Today I could be writing a post about our brand new sons, Oliver and Charles. Instead, we’re 85 days in and have gone through a lifetime of experiences. Agonizing, terrible ones but also many amazing and beautiful moments. This morning the doctors took Charlie off his nasal cannulas. He is completely breathing on his own now, which is huge since so many of the most serious and long-lasting problems micro-preemies face are respiratory. We can now take Charlie out of the incubator the whole time we’re in the NICU. Another huge milestone today was that he had had his first complete feeding by mouth instead of through his feeding tube. The ability to eat entirely by mouth is one of the main tickets out of the NICU. Yesterday the occupational therapist was able to get Charlie to take a few drops out of a bottle as our son coordinated the difficult process of simultaneous sucking, swallowing, and breathing. I expected some improvement today but was flabbergasted when he was able to down the whole thing. Granted, it was only 10 cc and he has a long way to go, but it was a very encouraging beginning.
So I am back to being an ecstatic dad who also realizes that there will be many challenges ahead. But I refuse to let my old nemesis, the Evil Eye, take away my excitement about the victories at hand. I embrace hope even though I haven’t flushed my system of all fears. True, there’s a certain madness to any kind of hope when so many awful things can and do happen to so many people. For all I know, that fun, attractive couple I saw last night in the parking garage are in the NICU right now, dealing with any number of complications to their baby’s very existence. I hope not, I’m guessing not, but who knows? Their giddy, carefree entry into the hospital certainly didn’t protect them from potential tragedy or pain.
One of the best examples of love intermingling with hope and madness is the character of Rose in the musical “Gypsy.” I saw Patti LuPone’s channeling of this character twice last year, once at the first preview for the show, and again months later when I returned to New York with Kendall. LuPone played the role for all it was worth but brought a vulnerability to the character that I’d never seen. Sure, she was driven and crazy as a loon, but how could I not relate to her urgent pleas to the universe for her child:
You’ll be swell! You’ll be great!
Gonna have the whole world on a plate!
Starting here, starting now,
Honey, everything's coming up roses!
Now’s your inning. Stand the world on its ear!
Set it spinning, that’ll be just the beginning!
Curtain up! Light the lights!
You got nothing to hit but the heights!
You’ll be swell. You’ll be great.
I can tell. Just you wait.
That lucky star I talk about is due!
Honey, everything’s coming up roses for me and for you!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve already sung this song to Charlie and felt the passion of Rose’s hysterical demands: