My now 5 month old daughter has been having a few issues, which requires us to see a pediatric physical therapist weekly. We just started to see a new one this week at the children’s hospital in the state capitol. It is connected to the NICU where Ellie spent her short life. When we arrived for the appointment, we took a convoluted path, but eventually found our way to the appointment. At one point, I stepped out of the session to use the restroom and was immediately taken back 26 ½ months. The smell of the soap and water, even the way my skin felt after washing my hands, triggered so many memories. Upon leaving, we were told of an easier way out. When the elevator doors opened, another smell hit: the food court where we quickly walked to in order to grab a bite to eat and get copious amounts of caffeine after Ellie crashed the first time and was stabilized. I vaguely remember texting with my best friend, in utter shock as I tried to choke down a few bites of food to prepare for the long night ahead. I was pumping because I just knew Ellie would need it and I desperately tried to stay hydrated and fed in order to produce. But the day was already so traumatic, that I just couldn’t stand the thought of eating. But I went anyway. Like so many decisions those six days, that one haunts me. I can try to justify it by saying the doctors and nurses were running tests and changing equipment and we wanted to stay out of the way. I didn’t have to pump at that moment despite being engorged. I certainly didn’t have to meet basic bodily functions and use the restroom or eat. I should have done nothing except stay with her. But I left. I couldn’t think. I left and it haunts me. So when those elevator doors opened and I smelled that food court, I shivered as if seeing a ghost.
As we turned the corner, my husband and I both slowed down momentarily as we saw the hall where you turn to enter the NICU. I saw the pole I leaned against as we called our parents, in utter shock at what had just happened. I couldn't bear to look toward the NICU doors and just stared at the ground, forcing myself to take slow, deep breaths for fear of passing out. We walked up and over the same sky bridge to the parking garage that we did when she died: me catatonic, empty handed, my husband desperately trying to figure out how to fix things while fighting his own tears. The next day we had to go back in order to release her body for cremation because I refused to travel 60 miles back home without her in my arms. As my husband talked to the doctors and signed the forms, I stood, and stared at the now empty spot where her NICU open-bed was just twelve hours earlier. One neonatologist came up to me and just grabbed my hand. I don’t remember what we talked about. A nurse had gathered the few things Ellie had, mainly hospital equipment that I wanted to keep. We had bought things the day before to decorate her area with but waited since we were supposed to fly to DC that night.
I walked up that ramp the day after her death, holding a small pink tub with leads, a bulb syringe, two books we had bought to read to her, a small stuffed monkey, the dress they put her in after she died, an eye mask for her bilirubin treatments, a thermometer, a lock of her hair with a bow taped to construction paper with two pictures of us holding her, and a blanket some group makes for babies that pass. I looked down at Adelaide and thought how strange it was to actually leave this place with my living daughter. She was happily playing with a toy hanging from her car seat handle, oblivious to the significance of the place.
Our daughter will get better and stronger as a result of that place. She will catch up and undoubtedly grow up to become an amazing woman. This place owes me that. The haunted memories of Ellie's struggle and my guilt will be shared with her little sister as she heals. And baby giggles will echo down the hall.