While I certainly don’t subscribe to National Public Radio’s often too obvious political leanings, I’ve become a big fan of its cultural, historical, literary and human interest work, especially its Radiolab segments, which conveniently air around the time that I’m usually in transit to my Saturday afternoon Chick-fil-A runs. One recent story in particular so captured my interest that I actually hit the Drive-Thru and ate my lunch in the CFA parking lot to make sure I didn’t miss a moment. The piece, entitled “23 weeks, 6 days,” is the story of Juniper French, the daughter of Tampa Bay Times’ journalists, Tom French and Kelley Benham. Juniper was born one day shy of 24 weeks, the point at which many in the medical community (and the courts) consider a baby to be “viable” (i.e., capable of living “on its own” outside the womb). It would be impossible within the confines of this post to do justice to the entire story, which primarily focuses on the gut-wrenching life-and-death choices that parents (and doctors) confronted with babies born that prematurely are asked to make in the face of statistics that, among other things, suggest that regardless of the extent of medical intervention 53% of all babies born before 24 weeks will die and 80% will experience some form of developmental or physical impairment, including the possibility of being blind, deaf or forced to spend their life on a ventilator, while only 20% can expect to be “normal”.
But there was one piece of it, Tom’s first encounter with his less than one pound, still translucent, incubated daughter that is still reverberating in my brain almost a month later. The listener learns early on that this was Tom’s second marriage and that, initially, the thought of adding another child to the two already grown sons he had from his prior marriage was the last thing Tom wanted to do. To hear Tom tell it, “to have another child meant embracing a future he couldn’t control.” Ultimately, Tom changed his mind, though he likely would tell you that when he entered the neo-natal intensive care unit to see his daughter for the first time, he was questioning whether he’d made the “right” decision. And then this happened: With the guidance of a nurse, Tom reached into the incubator through a small porthole in the side. His daughter was lying on her back with her arms outstretched and the palms of her tiny, long-fingered hands facing up. Tom gently placed his left finger into her right palm. As he did, she grabbed it tight. Tom “heard” her message loud and clear. “She was saying something,” Tom recalled. “She was declaring herself and her will to live. And I remember thinking to myself how could I be so afraid, when she was so strong. In that moment, she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”
Maybe the reason Tom’s recollections resonate so profoundly with me is that 26 years ago my wife and I were asked to make many of those same choices about our daughter. I still remember the early signs that it would be a difficult pregnancy, the doctors detailing all of the possible complications, their recommendations that we consider “terminating the pregnancy” due to the risk that those complications could result in deformities, including a loss of limbs as the fetus continued to develop, our agonizing over and then rejecting that advice, confident that God’s will would be done, and the months of precautionary bed-rest that followed. I also vividly remember being awakened VERY EARLY on a January morning, 6 weeks prior to her scheduled arrival date, with the news that Ashley apparently had decided not to wait (like her dad, patience has never been one of her strong suits!). I remember watching anxiously as the fetal heart monitor fluctuated wildly and then being hurriedly escorted into a very tense operating room where doctors performed an emergency C-section and then unwrapped what seemed like several feet of umbilical cord from around our newborn daughter’s neck, while she struggled to catch her breath – and I held my own. I remember how incredibly small and fragile she seemed at that indescribably beautiful moment, my taking a quick Reagan-esque inventory of her limbs (just to be sure the doctors’ fears had not materialized – “trust but verify”!), and the nurses whisking all 4 pounds of her off to the neo-natal intensive care unit.
I remember “our own” Plexiglas incubator where Ashley would spend the first few weeks of her life and the vision of her laying there for days bruised and helpless, with tubes and monitors protruding from every square inch of her body. I remember leaving the hospital without her and being scared to death that she might never come home – and the day she finally did. I remember the overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude I felt simply knowing she was alive. Looking back on it now, it occurs to me that, not unlike Juniper French, Ashley too had “declared herself” in the first few days of her life, if not from the date of her conception. She’d let us and her doctors know that she was a fighter, that she had a not-to-be-denied will to live. What I had no way of knowing at the time was just how often in her young life Ashley would be called upon to reassert that will or that each time, like the fighter that she is, she would find the courage to answer the bell, pick herself up off the mat and re-enter the fray. Long before Juniper French was born, Kelly Benham envisioned herself having a daughter, but not just any daughter, one who, In Kelly’s words, was “feisty and mischievous,” who always had “a dirty face” – a “tree climber.” Turns out, we ended up having the same daughter – one with a fighter’s heart – hundreds of miles and a couple of decades apart and I’m eternally grateful we did!