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We started having trouble again with our oldest child, Nelliecoyne, the day we brought her little sister home from the hospital. The difficulty, however, was not sibling rivalry with poor little Socra Marie. The problem was that Nellie heard an explosion that had occurred a hundred and fourteen years ago.
It was a lovely May day, the fourth day of May to be exact. Spring had decided that she would come to Chicago after all, against her better judgment. She had festooned our old (but rehabbed) block on Southport Avenue with delicate green lace, bright emerald lawns, and flower beds that much to their own surprise had burst into bloom.
"Isn't it a party for herself?" my wife said as I parked our ancient Benz in front of the house. "God timed spring this year just for our Socra Marie."
I knew better than to argue.
This ditsy celebration of new life (doubtless under the patronage of St. Brigid whose cross stood watch above the door of our home) matched the exuberance that the little girl's mother, Nuala Anne McGrail, and I felt. Against all odds we had brought this tiny girl child home where she belonged after one week short of three months in an NICU—Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Do you know how it feels to hold a six-hundred-gram neonate in your arms? Try a pound of butter that's breathing and is totally beautiful, even if she looked at the beginning like a rare species of monkey.
"She's a tough one," Jane Foley the young resident in neonatology, whispered to me, as Nualaviewed her for the first time. "Some of them are pretty passive. This one is determined to live."
"The toughness is all on her mother's side."
"Little girls," the young woman said primly, "have a better survival rate than little boys."
"That's cause they're stronger and better," Nuala replied promptly, "just like their mothers."
Before they took Nuala down to the NICU, the resident had told us about our daughter's prospects. My wife was hurting from the agonies of birth and woozy from drugs.
"The baby is still alive, Mrs. Coyne ..."
"Mrs. Coyne is my mother-in-law. I'm Nuala."
"Very well, Nuala ..." the young woman said a bit primly, eager to go through her routine.
"And she's not 'the baby.' She's Socra Marie."
"Of course ... It is very fortunate that she came at the twenty-fifth week. Her chances are so much better than if it had been the twenty-third week ..."
"What did I do wrong?"
I started to worry. Nuala had endured a bad case of postpartum depression after our second child.
"You didn't do anything wrong, Mrs ... ah, Nuala. Premature births usually just happen."
"I must have done something wrong."
"Stop being Irish, Nuala," I cut in. "Dr. Foley says it wasn't your fault. That should settle that."
My wife smiled faintly.
"You're right, Dermot Michael, as always."
"We're giving her increased oxygen now to help her breathing. That's why we had to take her away from you right after she was born."
Nuala nodded, though I knew she didn't understand.
"Not so long ago, we would have abandoned her as a miscarriage. Now there's a ninety percent chance you'll be able to take her home."
Nuala nodded duly.
"However, we have to be candid with you. A little more than half of our premature babies have some problems in later life, sight, hearing, speech, brain disorders like cerebral palsy. Some of these problems can be easily corrected. Others are serious, lifelong problems. She seems healthy now. We can make no guarantees."
Nuala nodded again.
"We are forbidden by law to take her off life support. However, if you wish we will put a DNR on her chart; that means 'Do not resuscitate.' You would have to sign some papers for that."
Dr. Foley was about the same age as Nuala, probably had a kid or two of her own.
"Why would we want to do that?"
"I'm a Catholic like you are, Nuala. There is no obligation to extraordinary means. What we're doing now is certainly extraordinary. The Church is more tolerant than the government. It would permit you to request that we stop trying to keep her alive. The government won't let us do that. But it will let us follow your orders not to resuscitate her if, say, she stops breathing. Then she would be with God."
My wife frowned, puzzled by the prospect that Dr. Foley was offering her. "Why in the world would we ever do that?" Nuala asked.
"There is a chance that she won't have much of a life."
Nuala cocked her eye at me. I nodded.
"Och, sure, if God doesn't mind, won't we be after keeping her?"
Dr. Foley lowered her head, to hide tears no doubt.
"Why doesn't that choice surprise me!"
So we went to the NICU. Nuala immediately went to the isolete where our daughter lay, tubes poking into her body, her eyes covered to protect her from the intense light that provided warmth, her ears covered with tiny earmuffs to protect them from the noise of the NICU. Clad only in a miniature diaper she was kicking her little feet and waving her little hands to protest the tubes
"Och, sure, Dermot Michael, isn't the little hellion here to stay? Can't you tell it by the way she looks at me and herself with fire in her eyes already?"
Socra Marie opened her eyes rarely in those very early days. However, we were assured by the nurses that she knew her mother's smell from the time in the womb. Probably knew mine too because I hung around so much.
"Can I talk to her?"
"Please do," Dr. Foley said. "The more she hears your voice, the better."
So my wife bent over the small one and spoke to her in tender and loving Irish.
"I don't suppose I could sing to her?"
"If you do it very softly, so as not to disturb the other children."
Socra Marie heard for the first time in her life—though surely not the last—the melody of the Connemara lullaby. She calmed down and stopped fidgeting. So did the children on either side of her. A kind of mystical grace permeated the NICU, for a moment moving us into an alternative world.
"You can sing louder, Nuala," Dr. Foley whispered. "All the children like it."
So we had a daily concert.
Nuala Anne was aware that it would be eight weeks at least before the tiny one saw much of anything. However, having predicted her gender and her early arrival, my wife was not likely to be wrong. She almost never is.
She accurately predicts the gender of children, not only before they were born, but before they were conceived. Nuala Anne, you see, is fey. As is our first born, Nellie. The little bishop, who knows everything, "speculates" that it is a holdover from our Neanderthal ancestors who, since they could not talk very well, needed to communicate psychically. "A neo-Neanderthal vestige," he informs us.
"Is Socra Marie fey?" I asked.
"Isn't that a terrible thing to say about this poor little tyke? She's not fey at all, at all, dear little thing that she is, but she's full of life and will lead all of us a merry chase, won't you, dear little one?"
She wept as she did often these days.
Then she sang very softly some more snatches of the Connemara Cradle Song—in her native Irish, naturally.
"Socra," by the way, is pronounced Sorra. You won't have the right of it, however, unless you speak it like your sinuses are packed tight with Galway fog. My wife's name is pronounced Noolah, with same thick Galway mist oozing through the vowels and consonants.
The "dear little one" led us a merry chase through the first six weeks of her life, just barely surviving crisis after crisis, laser surgery on her eyes, several resuscitations, a couple of infections. However, survive she did with grim determination.
The first time Nuala nursed her, she devoured her mother's milk like she expected there to be a shortage, as if perhaps to say, "Well, it's about time!"
We spent much of our time at the hospital, "immersing" ourselves in the care of our new daughter at the suggestion of the staff in the NICU. At first that meant simply being there with her, so she could smell us and hear us.
"Isn't she beautiful, Dermot Michael?" Nuala said to me the day after the little girl was born, with very little warning.
Actually fifteen weeks early and weighing almost a pound, Socra Marie didn't look like much of anything, under the intense light which kept her warm and the Saran Wrap which kept her moist on an open bed with the blinkers over her eyes and the earmuffs over her ears and feeding and breathing tubes in her mouth and nose. Her dark brown and paper-thin skin was covered with cream (which, we were told, you could buy at the corner drugstore). She struggled violently against the tubes.
"The poor little thing," Nuala said, tears streaming down her cheeks. "There she was taking her ease inside of me and all of a sudden she's dumped in this strange place with all them aggravating things sticking inside her."
When Nuala is in her Irish country-girl mood a "thing" is always pronounced a "ding." She was very much in that modality after her little daughter was born. An African-American nurse asked if she were an immigrant. I told the truth and said that she was.
"Is all this too much for her, do you think?"
It was a perfectly legitimate question, so I withheld my amusement.
"Nuala Anne can cope," I replied. "She studied at Trinity College in Dublin."
"They have a fine medical school there," the nurse said, putting me in my place.
Eventually the staff figured out that the nice girl who sang to the babies and acted as a morale officer and chaplain for all the other mothers was the singer.
"Sure I do sing now and then," my wife admitted.
"Isn't her name Nuala Anne?" Dr. Foley asked me.
When other babies went home, Nuala Anne led the cheers. When some died, she led the weeping. Despite all the strain, she was remarkably patient with me.
"Wife," I said, "haven't I hinted now and again that you'd try the patience of a saint?"
"'Tis true, I would."
"'Tis not true. What is true is that you have the patience of a saint."
"Och, Dermot Michael," she said, resting her head on my shoulder, "'tis not true, but 'tis dead focking brill of you to say it."
So we were there every day all day, with only a few time-outs to return to our home to make sure that the troops were not too restless. They were, but what could we do?
'Tis essential for bonding, Dermot Michael, don't you see now?
What did I know? Nothing, except that if you were a child of Nuala Anne's you bonded, whether you liked the idea or not.
There was more than a little chaos at our house for those eight weeks. We had both a nanny and a housekeeper (Ethne and Danuta respectively) but my wife is the kind of Irishwoman who has to make sure the children are properly dressed and the house properly cleaned before either of these personages appears.
The kids were restless in the midst of the confusion, though the Mick was monumentally uninterested in his baby sister once we had assured him that she would not want to play with his Tonka trucks. Red-haired Nellie (nee Mary Anne) on the other hand was fiercely impatient with the delay in the arrival at home of her little sister. "Is she EVER going to come home?" she would demand several times each day.
Finally, after the first month, when we had progressed from touching her lightly to holding her in our arms, we brought Nellie, solemn and serious, to St. Joe's for her first inspection.
By this time, Socra Marie was living in the isolete as they call an incubator these days and, wrapped in several layers of blankets, breathing on her own. She also looked pretty much like a human baby with a lovely face and her mother's fair white skin.
"She's cute, Ma, but isn't she terrible small altogether?"
"You were small once too, me darlin' girl."
"Not that small, was I?"
"Well, not quite."
"We'll have to take real good care of her, so she'll grow up big and strong, won't we?"
Nellie was echoing her mother.
"We will ..."
Nellie and Nuala sighed in unison.
Her little sister opened her eyes then and, as she usually did, surveyed her immediate environment with intense curiosity. She seemed satisfied with Nuala and myself. Then her eyes widened as she took in Nellie's bright red hair. She paused, and then closed her eyes.
"She likes my hair," Nellie informed us. "I think we can keep her!"
Socra Marie opened her eyes again and pondered her parents and then, satisfied, closed them and went back to sleep. We touched her and caressed her for a while and spoke softly to her.
"She likes me too," Nellie whispered. "We're going to be great friends."
"I'm sure she does," Nuala Anne assured her firstborn.
"Can I touch her?" Nellie asked the nurse who was hovering over us—sensing immediately who the authority figure in the group was.
"Very gently, my dear," said the nurse, somewhat dubiously.
So our elder daughter touched her little sister's neck and murmured softly, "I love you, Socra Marie. Please come home and live with us soon. I'll take good care of you."
Everyone in the room was suddenly in tears.
With most big sisters that would have meant that Nellie would be the boss. With this sweet, loving, and very strange little kid with the haunting Irish eyes, that was by no means certain.
Our two snow-white Irish wolfhounds, Fiona and her daughter Maeveen, who did not like extra disorder in their domain, of which they assumed they were the absolute rulers, were also upset by the frantic life of our family during those long months.
Yes, two. My wife had read somewhere that dogs need other dogs to play with. Wolfhounds' notion of playing is wrestling and pretending to fight with one another and rolling around on the floor with human kids. Though they are gentle and intelligent dogs, they are also very big. Their games occupy a lot of space.
Our child could both see and hear, but we were warned that there were other possible developmental risks, though the odds were better than nine out of ten that she would survive. Cerebral palsy, for example, was always a possibility, as were recurrent lung problems. Moreover, it would take perhaps two years before her development would catch up with that of term babies, though there was a wide variation in that projection. Preemies progressed at different rates, sometimes similar and sometimes different, from those of term children.
Yet those weeks in the hospital, in which days and nights blurred into a continuous stream and the times when we weren't there seemed unreal, when the blue lights and the spanking clean walls and corridors of the hospital were like another planet, in which we belonged and the rest of the world was only a fantasy, were like a long retreat in which wonder and surprise and above all life swirled around us like a choir of softly singing angels.
One night, I woke up from the chair in which I had been snoozing to see Nuala, her face alight with a supernatural glow, bending over Socra Marie, touching her lightly and gently moving her fingers back and forth over her little arm. For a moment, just a moment, the whole universe stood still and the love from that touch leaped out of the crib scene and enveloped me. The whole world stood still. I saw how everything fit together and how the three of us, the little holy family in the neonate room, were all part of it and that all things would be well, all manner of things would be well. As I slowly eased down from the mountain I had climbed, I told myself that this was the kind of moment of grace out of which poetry was born, indeed out of which poetry ought to be born.
"You are awake are you now, Dermot Michael, and yourself should be home getting a good night's sleep and walking the dogs and getting a good run in the morning."
"I am," I admitted. "... Nuala, do you think God loves us the way you love Socra Marie at this moment? Does he touch us the way you touch her?"
"Och, that's a strange question, Dermot Michael, and yourself knowing that there's no point in being God unless you can do them kind of things and himself sending Jesus to tell us that, poor dear man."
Lofty praise for Jesus. Rarely was I referred to as a "poor dear man," the highest praise an Irishwoman can bestow on a member of the inferior gender.
In the confusion after Socra Marie's birth and Nuala's inability to understand why her baby was taken away from her so quickly, we forgot about Baptism. Later, she stirred out of a drugged sleep and murmured something to me about "our daughter."
Excerpted from IRISH STEW! by Andrew M. Greeley. Copyright © 2002 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted January 17, 2010
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Posted January 22, 2011
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