by Brendan Hilliard
My son Remy was born at 27 weeks and 3 days gestation two years ago this month. He arrived on June 10, 2020, so my first Father’s Day, 11 days later on June 21 came very unexpectedly, an entire year earlier than I thought it would.
Fathers’ Day holds a special significance for me as it was the first day I ever held my son. I have to admit that becoming a Dad as early as I did came as an enormous shock, as it would anyone in that situation, but I kept telling people I didn’t ‘feel’ like a parent. I just was *there*. I didn’t physically experience what my wife Ali did. Whether it was the shock of the moment or total fear, I had a hard time connecting to this baby in the plastic box.
It all was so much. The days I spent with Ali in the hospital feel like an enormous blur. For example, I can’t hear the chorus of “Rise Up” by Andra Day without the blood feeling like it’s draining from my body. The hospital played it over the loudspeakers whenever a COVID patient went home. It certainly was a sweet sentiment, and a true triumph for sure, especially in those early months prior to the vaccine. It’s the gauzy sound from the hallway in Ali’s hospital room for eight nights. After those were over, we went back to our house and to our dogs. We didn’t even have a nursery set up yet. It was like nothing happened at all.
Remy weighed 1 lb, 11 oz at birth and yo-yoed between that for a few weeks. He was still on a high frequency ventilator and had only improved enough for my wife to hold him a day or two earlier. I was still terrified and I knew holding him would be a bit of an ordeal – it would take at least two nurses to transfer him and I’d have to remain incredibly still for a minimum of an hour. I was simply too afraid to do it.
We lived 40 miles away from the hospital where he was born – our local NICU could not support babies born at his gestational age. She was rushed in an ambulance to a hospital in Chicago. This necessitated an 80-mile round trip drive in and out of Chicago on a daily basis. At the height of COVID, only one parent was allowed in the NICU at a time. This meant that Ali and I spent virtually no time together with our son in the NICU outside of the initial hospital stay, prior to him coming home. Over his 75 day stay, cumulatively, we saw him together 3 times. So, Ali and I would use these drives to talk about our hopes and dreams for when we’d get to take Remy home. I just remember being so scared of holding him.
Ali told me the first time she was able to hold him outside of the isolet is when she started to feel ‘whole’ again after having him so early. I struggled to relate. She kept encouraging me to try to hold him. Four days after, which happened to be Father’s Day, I decided it was time.
I remember the nurses describing to me that ‘skin-to-skin’ was best, so I had to remove my shirt and that they would have to gently place him on me. One nurse held him while the other held his tubing. I remember staring at his monitors to check his heart rate and O2 levels and whenever I felt anxious, it could potentially make his rise, so I had to slow my breathe to slow my heart rate down. It frustrated me so much. But then something clicked as I held his bottom and stared down at his tiny head.
I felt that sense of wholeness that Ali talked about. That this living, breathing little being was actually part of me. Someone I was responsible for. That what I was doing at that moment was the best and most responsible thing I could do. To be a parent. To set a good example. To be brave when you’re scared. Eleven days in, I truly felt I crossed the threshold into parenthood.
Of course, that’s my erudite explanation. The notes I actually wrote directly after the experience read: The only way I can describe the feeling, other than amazing – is that it was like holding a moist puppy with a human face. Think about it. You can imagine that!”
The thing is, I still can! That puppy with a human face just turned two. I am filled with tremendous gratitude that he has grown into an active, buoyant little boy that tackles any hurdle with aplomb. Remy has a great sense of humor, a love of music and plenty of love to give. He’s fearless. If I only had that fearlessness two years ago when I was scared to even hold him. But I started learning from him that day when I finally did. Today I’m still learning from him. He sets that example every day. What a cool thing it is to be his Dad.