Thomas Eric Ruthford lives near Seattle, Wash., with his zookeeper wife and active 2-year-old son. His day job is non-profit accounting, and he occasionally squeezes in a little time for writing. Previously, he worked at Raphael House of San Francisco, a homeless shelter for families run by an Orthodox charity. Also, he served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine from 2001 to 2003 and visited many monasteries and holy sites on his time off from teaching English as a foreign language. His first book, Heaven Help the Single Christian, a humorous advice book for young adults, was published by Regina Orthodox Press in 2011. He is currently working on a book his family's experience with premature birth, bioethics, and Christian response to the medical community's attitudes towards infants at the edge of life.
I sit in a room with seven babies who require intense attention, one of whom is my son. At times, this feels like a very long family car trip because there isn’t much to do but sit and watch. But unlike a car trip, there is no crying, singing, or playing. These babies are all silent. I’m not praying much, though I thought I would.
My son is next to me in a spaceship-like enclosed crib that provides a humid environment. He has a breathing tube puffing oxygen of varying concentrations down his throat. Monitors above the crib, or isolette, as it’s called here, show his vital signs — his heart rate, his breathing rate, his oxygen saturation levels and his blood pressure. I find myself continuously staring at these monitors rather than at my son, treating them like a horse race we have to keep up with. When one of these vital signs drops to a certain point, an alarm will go off. The one that goes off most often is blood saturation, meaning that his lungs and heart aren’t providing enough oxygen to his body, and the nurse will come to raise the level of oxygen he gets through his ventilator. This bell, more than anything, makes us feel like we’re losing the race.
This is the neonatal intensive care unit, in which babies grow after a premature birth. Our son, Gabriel, was born at 22 weeks and 6 days of gestation, which when he gets out, will make him the most premature baby to come out of this hospital’s NICU alive — and it’s a big hospital, dealing 800 to 1,000 babies per year in the NICU.
Our baby weighed 652 grams at birth, or 1 pound, 6 and a half ounces. I gave him an emergency baptism myself with sterile water from a syringe rather than wait the customary 40 days to take him to church. He is the color of a cooked lobster, and about as big as one, too. The number of wires and intravenous lines attached to his body are too numerous to count.
Before this crisis started, I would have liked to think that I would pray continuously through a traumatic experience such as this one. But I don’t. I barely breathe. All up and down the West coast, we’re on the prayer lists at Orthodox churches to be read during services. I am glad that people pray for us and our recovery, but I’m learning more about the meaning of intercession — I’m missing all my daily prayers, I need people to say those in addition to the ones for sickness.
I find my thoughts continually wandering away from prayer, wandering to the far future. Archimandrite Meletios Webber, writing about the mind and the heart, points out that the mind really dislikes the present moment because it is unshaped, unknowable, and unmeasurable — how long is “now”?
“Unfortunately for the mind,” Arch. Webber writes in Bread & Water, Wine & Oil, “the present moment is the only moment that is, in any sense, real. Moreover, in spiritual terms, the present moment is the only possible occasion in which we can meet God (or anyone else).”
Here in the NICU, staring at my son, or the machines that keep him alive, I’ve got huge amounts of the present moment available, but I don’t want it. I wonder whether he can grow up to be like my grandfather, who died at 94 two years ago. I wonder if Gabriel’s isolette is a time machine, and it is, in a way, since it allows us to watch a period of time parents shouldn’t get to see — that is, the third trimester. Time travel, in science fiction, often uses a plot device of someone changing the past with catastrophic effects. Will we make a mistake, and cause “future Gabriel” to switch from being an engineer, like my grandfather, to being a severely disabled person?
One day, I come in to find the neighbor baby, a girl born at 28 weeks of gestation, has an oscillator by her bed. The oscillator is the one breathing device that Gabriel never uses during his time in the NICU, and it’s a rumbling, intimidating presence, like an idling diesel truck. There are two specialists in masks and gloves doing something that produces a sizable quantity of bloody gauze. The mother sits about 18 inches away from me, continually staring at her daughter. She looks like she’s about 10 years younger than my wife and I are. It’s clear she hasn’t slept much lately. She has beautiful, blonde, styled hair, which seems like an artifact of her previous life she brought along. She doesn’t look afraid as the procedure is done on her daughter, rather, she looks like she doesn’t have much fear left to give.
I don’t say anything. I retreat in to a book, but I don’t really read. Rather, I entertain more fantasies — that my son can put on a cape and go flying around the room, saving other babies, or that angels visit his isolette, putting on little puppet shows that only he and the neighbor baby know about.
To satisfy my urge for an “other world” to go along with all of this, I take a picture of Gabriel’s isolette, and play with photo editing software to put Snoopy the dog on there with a typewriter, as all of Snoopy’s fantasies began on top of his doghouse.
I fantasize that the babies can get up and play with each other. This one’s a little less far-fetched, although not even term babies can do that as newborns.
After five months, Gabriel leaves the hospital and is chrismated and receives his first Communion. He reaches the age of two, the spring of 2014 comes along, and the hospital puts on a reunion for the NICU families, when anyone can come back to see doctors, nurses and other families. We recognize neighbors quite early. We don’t remember the parents’ names, but we remember the baby’s name, having seen it every day on the whiteboard by the isolette. We don’t recognize the baby, considering how much she’s grown. The mother has gone to a redder hair color. The girl has been walking a few months, just as Gabriel has. I put my hand down to her, and she takes me by the finger and leads me for about five minutes around the lobby of the building where the reunion is happening. Gabriel practices going up and down steps. The present catches up to our future, and my prayer is answered.
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