A year after my twins’ NICU stay, they have healed, but I have not.

The trauma of being a NICU parent doesn’t dissipate when you bring your child home.

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It appears the hospital has completed it’s long-anticipated remodel. There are no longer tower cranes and scaffolding outside the gates. The new windows shine with the reflection of the sun.

It feels different to me, this remodeled place.

Descending into the underground parking structure, I mourn the loss of fresh air— something that a multi-million-dollar renovation could not remedy.

The ticket machine at the entrance has been replaced. Last year, you would push a button and a token would come popping out. Now I get a barcoded paper ticket.

My eyes dart to the change holder in my Jeep, it’s still there, my little red token, cozy at the bottom.

For over a year it has nestled there, since the last time I pulled out of that garage. For babies in extended NICU care, Social Services provided free parking with a reusable token. I was supposed to leave it when the doctors discharged my twin sons after their six week stay. But I didn’t and for some reason I can’t seem to throw that token away. It’s my last piece of solid evidence. Evidence that the hardship was real, the pain, the fright, the struggle.

I cherish that token the way I cherish my half marathon medals, proof of hard yards.

I circle the garage until I find a vacant spot, each swing around the parking levels flashes memories that weren’t memories until this moment. The location I parked the day I went into early labor, the spot where I cried inconsolably the evening doctors informed my husband and I that our son might not survive, the corner spot next to the pillar where my heart broke after my son’s release was delayed at the last minute and I drove home with an empty car seat, again. The exact site where we parked on Christmas morning.

A grandiose pile of concrete and rebar, and yet my heart sways.

I ride the elevator up to the third floor, my pulse quickening with the rise. The doors open. I sigh. It has been a long time.

The familiar smell of hospital food mixed with antiseptic cleaner, the same tightening in my throat as if I need to swallow. Nervous energy flows through my veins though today it’s mixed with remorse.

Remorse that I did many things wrong. I can’t help but imagine if I could go back to when the twins were still in NICU, I would rush to hold them; I would change every diaper, demand to give every feeding. I would sleep here every night. I would not be fearful of them. Because now I know the story has a happy ending— I didn’t need to close my eyes and hide through the scary parts.

I feel both comforted and sickened. I’m perplexed at how such opposing emotion can exist within me.

I’ve come to the hospital for a short administrative errand. I could have called. Maybe I wanted to come. I needed to know how it would feel.

When the scars are invisible how do you know when they have healed?

Like when you see a bruise on your body, you simply don’t know how bad it is until you take your finger and press.

After completing my errand in the billing department, I enter the lobby of NICU with no actual reason for being there. I look around confoundedly, waiting. Waiting for a warm conversation, waiting for some sort of kismet to occur. When the lobby attendants begin to give me questioning looks I retreat.

I meander around the hospital pondering the past year of my life, the trauma of the NICU, the horror of bringing home two puny and ailing little creatures. Was I not grateful, was I not a good mother. It was all so hard. The sleep deprivation, the medical exams, the constant fear, the incessant crying from tiny lungs. I tried my best, I fought my hardest, I stopped living in order that they would thrive.

But the guilt remains. I was angry with them, not for their weakness, but for mine. In the cumulative hours that they have existed, I have given too many over to caution, too many over to worry and not nearly enough to simply love them.

These days I’m learning to smother them with affection, I count each kiss as I lather dozens on cheeks, hands, and feet. In the beginning, I was strong for them, but today I am strong for myself. Today my life isn’t consumed with fear, today it is merely love, massive amounts of love.

Should I not then be healed? Should I not then be able to let go of the fear, the guilt, the remorse and the anxiety?

I return to my vehicle; the little red token nestled in the change holder. As I exit, I think about leaving that token atop the shiny new ticket machine. Closing the loop in a symbolic gesture. I hold the token in my palm.

Then I close my fingers tight and pull away.

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