Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Searing Fragrance: A Mother's Day Memory

On the morning of my first Mother’s Day, the nurse on duty brought me a little plate of petit fours along with the breakfast tray from the cafeteria.  I remember 3 tiny cakes, one for each baby; 2 with a blue bow on top and one with a pink rose.  And I remember pushing my pancake around in the syrup with a feeling of dread hovering in my heart, knowing that the hours ahead would be melding from sweet to bittersweet to bitter.  

Five nights earlier, I had given birth to my babies, tiny triplets
weighing just over a total of nine pounds.  They had come via c-section and so I had been recuperating on the maternity floor, a short wheelchair push down the hall from the NICU where they were learning to suck a binky and hold their body heat and remember to breathe.  For five days, while attempting to walk on bread-loaf feet and figuring out what to do with the thrice pouchy folds of deflated pregnancy skin that enveloped my midsection, I had made countless trips to see them in their isolettes and had quickly learned the routine of visiting the special care nursery.    

First, stop at the sanitizing station.   Pick under fingernails, scrub hands,  apply a liberal coat of Purell from fingertip to forearm.  Next, sign in at the front station and find out which nurse was in charge of our family for that shift.  Then shuffle back to the quad of incubators where an overwhelming 3/4ths belonged to us.  Hear a report on each baby and read their charts.  Apply more Purell and visit Matt.  Rest a hand on his head with the heaviness of a snowflake on the edge of an eyelash.  Remind him that a little more fussing would be OK and Daddy would be along after work to update him on the Phillies.  Apply more Purell and visit Josh.  Pull the Snuggie back around his feet and tuck in a flailing arm.  Whisper a few words about brave knights and slayed dragons and the shield of Momma's love that would be with him always.  Apply more Purell and visit Lauren.  Dip a QTip in sterile water and hydrate her tiny cracked lips.  Gently tug the plum-sized hat back down over her ears and rest a few fingers on the rapid rise and fall of her chest while quietly humming, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”  Finally, talk with the nurse once more and then slump into the wheelchair for the ride through the steel doors, back down the hallway and into my recovery room again.  

I followed that routine for 5 days, round the clock, as my stamina regathered and the morphine haze lifted.  But on the 5th day, insurance guidelines required my discharge from the hospital and so Bob and his parents packed my bags and gathered all the flowers and cards that we had received and I ate the petit fours with tears damming up in my eyes.  We made one last visit to the NICU and I was able to hold each baby before kissing them back into the arms of their nurses who would be with them while I continued to recuperate an hour away in a home that was brimming with cribs and diapers and bouncy seats, but empty of babies.  

I remember coming into the house and seeing it for the first time in 6 weeks.  We had only lived in it a few months before I was ordered to  bedrest in the hospital and so all the work that was done to unpack our belongings and prepare for the babies was new to me.  Bob had assembled all the equipment, painted the nursery, organized all the diaper boxes and clothing bins.  I was thankful and interested but tired and utterly bereft, and I remember gingerly lowering myself onto the couch, still not sure how to comfortably rest my abdomen which had gone from inflated beach ball to sliced open tire just days before.  Bob had a bouquet of flowers and a first Mother’s Day card and even the gold and jade peas-in-a-pod brooch that I had been yearning to buy from an online antiques dealer.  Everything he did was sweet and right and selfless and still my heart was numb that day, knowing that I was a mother at last and yet I couldn’t hold my babies until someone could drive me back to them the following morning. 

That was the routine I followed for the next 5 weeks.  Sleep at home, wake up and call the nurse’s station for an update, wait for someone to drive me to the hospital, stay with the babies as long as possible, then ride home for another evening of waiting and wondering, praying and hoping that the caller ID never showed a number from the NICU.  In the meantime, I began to prepare for our routine at home that would start once the babies were discharged.  I had been gleaning tips and helpful ideas from other multiple-moms and knew that organization and sanitation would be essential elements of our life going forward.  

Each baby was assigned a color; Matt was blue, Josh was green and Lauren was pink or purple.  Feeding charts were printed and bottles were coded.  Guidelines were posted in the kitchen, at the cribs, the changing tables and laundry room so that the multitude of volunteers we were expecting would know how to keep the house as ordered and germ-free as possible.  And in each room, a bottle of hand-sanitizer was always within reach.  The neonatalogists counseled us that the first two years of a preemie’s life were critical because of their shortened time in the womb and so it would be important for us to guard their exposure to pathogens during that time.  We bought hand-cleaner by the gallon.  

And then one crazy, hot and humid day in mid-June, the doctors told us that they had become nothing more than very expensive babysitters.  The triplets had gained weight, learned to keep their body temperatures up, mastered bottle feeding and sleeping without tachycardia episodes.  They were ready to come home.  My atrophied legs had restrengthened by then and I was able to lift the car seat carriers and walk without leaning on a wheelchair but my knees wobbled when the doctor uttered the word “discharge.”  I remember the panic and wave of fears that crashed over my thoughts like an avalanche of suddenly shifting snowbanks.  How could I possibly succeed at this?  Who in their right mind is going to send me home with three still-tiny babies who just days ago were setting off alarms because their breathing had stopped?  When did I pass a test that qualified me to be a neonatal health expert, city manager and graveyard shift nanny all at the same time?  I briefly considered kidnapping our favorite nurse, Nadji, and forcing her to live with us until we reached the toddler years.  But we packed up the bags, got our final instructions and headed out those big double doors that led to an unassuming world outside, this time with the most precious and rarest of gems dangling at the crook of our bent arms.   


8 years have passed now.  I’m coming up on another Mother’s Day and this year instead of an empty house I’ll wake up to a very busy one.  Teaching the kids’ Sunday School class in the morning...setting up the basketball hoop that Matt got for his birthday last week...finishing the Lego table that I’m building for Josh....letting Lauren get her feet muddy as we rototil the garden together.  Life was crazy 8 years ago and it’s a different kind of crazy now.  Gone are the color-coordinated feeding charts.  Most nights we’re lucky if I remember to put forks and spoons on the table.  Bob still folds piles and piles of laundry, but it rarely gets put away in neat stacks in the closets.  And the hand-sanitizer bottles still sit at every sink in the house, but I hesitate to say that we use them much.  Actually, I’m pretty happy if the kids just remember to sneeze away from the table these days.  

So after nearly a decade of waiting to become a mother and then another 3 or 4 years of wondering how I’d ever survive being a mother, I find myself finally comfortable in the role of being a pretty normal, run-of-the-mill harried mother.  The kind that freezes a dozen PB&J sandwiches on Sunday night to use through the week and utterly depends on her children still believing that she has eyes in the back of her head.  That’s me.  Another ho-hum mom.  And most days I don’t even think about the journey of getting here because I’m so busy breaking up squabbles or reviewing Everyday Math word problems or standing at the sink with my arms crossed while I watch the hurry-up boy, the one I prodded in the NICU to fuss a little more, re-brush his teeth for the third time that night.  But every once in awhile I get a whiff of Purell...


Is there a smell that takes you back in time, almost in an out-of-body-deja-vu kind of way?  For me, it’s Purell.  Every once in awhile I stumble into a squeeze of it and I’m immediately back in the midst of those tenuous NICU days.  And it hits me in the strangest of places, like when I’m washing my hands in a McDonald’s bathroom and I suddenly feel like I’m standing by an isolette, watching a baby’s eyelids flutter in dream.  Or I’m disinfecting the handle of a grocery cart and I feel as though I’m reaching through wires and tubes to wipe spit-up from the corner of a baby’s mouth.  In those moments I’ll pause and smile while getting lost along a pathway that has been seared in my memory by a simple fragrance.  

Most people might find it strange that I could delight in the memory of my babies in the NICU because having a newborn tethered to heart monitors and canula tubes and IV poles isn’t exactly what a mother pictures when she daydreams of the first glimpse of her child.  But as much as the NICU can be the setting of a nightmare, it’s also a place where great love stories unfold as parents lay their hearts bare while nurses and doctors display round-the-clock devotion in the gentlest and sweetest of touches.  There’s simply no way to spend time in a NICU and not have your heart changed for the better.

Did you know that God has a smell that takes Him back in time in a similar way?  Did you know that He pauses and smiles while remembering the place He cherishes deeply?  Did you know that the place is Calvary and the scent is the aroma of His son’s sacrifice on the cross?  It’s startling to consider, but give it some thought and it will make perfect sense.  Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that Jesus’ death on the cross is a fragrant aroma to God, the ultimate fulfilling of all the temporary rituals of forgiveness from past generations.  Right there in the middle of creeping death and nightmarish agony, the Father unfolded His great love story, laying bare His only Son that we might be given a path out of the dark and into the Light.  The recollection of that day is seared in His heart and with every wandering child who finds the pathway home, God is again delighted with the memory of His Son’s obedient love and gift of unmerited grace.  Who can spend time in that story and not be changed for the better?            


This Mother’s Day, I’m pretty sure I’ll be fussed over with some semblance of breakfast in bed, perhaps a potted petunia or marigold and hopefully a full day of mostly-behaved children.  And in return, I’ll fuss over them and hold them close and tell them exaggerated stories of how empty and dull life was before they arrived.  We’ll laugh and tease and I’ll remember again how exceedingly blessed I am.  But truly, the moments when my heart swells fullest will come late at night as I’m pulling the covers up straight and resting my hand on their slumbered heads, just as I’ve done since the day they were born, spilling an alabaster jar of praise at the feet of my Father whose love I can never plumb.  

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, 
that we should be called children of God! 
1 John 3:1

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