Inside A NICU Reunion

Last weekend we went to the NICU reunion. It was our 3rd reunion, and this time we had two preemies. Two preemies who can breathe without oxygen. Two preemies who can eat without a feeding tube. Two preemies whose brains remember to tell their lungs to breathe, all without a nurse to nudge them toward life. Two preemies whose bodies don’t show the scars of all the needle-pricks and procedures. Two preemies whose minds don’t remember being left by their parents, day after day and night after night.

NICU reunions have games, crawling races for babies and bouncy houses for the big kids. There are free snacks and drinks, and we go home with t-shirts for the kids. Some of the staff dress in costumes that match the theme of the reunion, and doctors and nurses, dressed in real clothes instead of scrubs, pose for pictures with all the preemies they once nurtured. It’s all fun and games.

Except for the parents.

Am I the only one who smiles at each child running? Every baby here is a miracle. The boys and girls jumping in the bouncy house? Their parents weren’t sure they’d live, much less walk. And to see them jump? They feel they’ve hit the lottery.

There are meltdowns and temper-tantrums and babies crying. There is laughing and talking and plenty of noise. But, for the families, don’t we rejoice in the mayhem of little children? There was a time when all we heard was an eerie stillness marred by the beeping of machines. Our babies couldn’t cry for all the things in their noses and mouths. And their lungs weren’t strong enough for them to do much more than croak like tiny frogs.

We walk into the hospital with big kids, and at the end of the reunion, we leave with our children. We don’t have to leave them behind. We don’t have to fret and worry. We don’t have to mourn and grieve. We don’t have to do any of that any more. After countless hours and days and sometimes months, we brought our babies home. We have cared for them. We oversee therapy. We push each and every milestone, always mindful of giving our babies the best possible outcome.

And then here they are. A bunch of energetic, happy, and, most importantly, healthy kids. In fact, if you didn’t know you were at a NICU reunion, would you mark all these children as preemies? You would never know.

I don’t know how many NICU reunions we’ll attend. Eventually, the kids will outgrow them, and we’ll know fewer and fewer people, until we aren’t sure there’s a reason to attend. As a family, we’ll decide to do other things with our Saturday afternoons. But, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to walk away. There is something so healing about being in a huge room full of people who know my pain and who rejoice in my children. There is something so beautiful about seeing all these kids who began their lives as survivors. There is something so moving about being a part of this community.

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