Welcome to Wednesday of Mother Words week on Cribsheet - today we have an essay from across the pond in Ascot England. A mother discovers a room she'd never noticed before in NICU.
The Blanket Room – by Alexis Wolfe
I’ve walked past this door several times a day and never even wondered where it leads. Here in NICU my pathways have become deeply entrenched in only 5 days. I go from Reception, past the Nurses station on the left to the Milk kitchen on the right, where I deposit several bottles of golden expressed breast milk in the fridge, then from the Milk kitchen continue along the corridor past the Sluice room and the laundry, and this, the mystery doorway I’ve never really noticed, further along the corridor to the Wards, except they don’t call them Wards up here, they call them units. First on the left is Room 6 - Intensive Care Unit (ICU) a room I’ve never had cause to enter, immediately adjacent and linked by a wall of glass is Room 7 the High Dependency Unit (HDU) where Jacob went first, and then finally and linked by half windows is Room 8. Its entrance is the very last doorway on the left at the very end of the long corridor and for most babies the end of their long NICU journey. For Room 8 is the Special Care nursery. But tonight, Nurse Jan has decreed a diversion.
Going anywhere other than the designated routes in NICU has so far meant bad news. I’ve been pulled into the Parents room for a chat with the social worker, taken into the quiet conference room for the Ophthalmologist to share sombre findings. But this excursion is primarily for fun. Jan’s idea is that I should pick out some new blankets for Jacob, so she is fumbling around with the key to the Blanket room. It’s so quiet in room 8 this evening—Jacob and one other slumbering baby are the only patients there this shift—so Jan has time for some “value added” nursing.
There is no sign on the door and I quickly realise it’s not actually a door leading anywhere but a huge walk-in cupboard. It has a fresh laundry smell which immediately makes you feel secure, and we stand side by side in the dark as Jan feels around for the light. When she switches it one, the jewels of the blanket room are revealed. A ripple of colours, reds, blues, purples, pinks and creams. There must be half a dozen or more stacks of knitted baby blankets, each stack is 2 or 3 ft high arranged on shelves on all three sides. It’s like being surrounded by layers of rainbows. I half wish Jan would instruct me to take a nap, because I fancy I could drop off here on the shelf atop these mini knitted mountains. I am reminded of a walk in cupboard at my grandmother’s old house, a place I would retreat to sit and close the door in order to think teenage thoughts, surrounded by the hems of floor skimming duffle coats and the smell of worn leather shoes and suitcases.
Jan takes hold of a large stack by one corner and hauls a hefty mound of blankets backward as if peeling back a bed quilt. I peer into the two triangles, there’s a patchwork design on display, triangles of red, white and pink with a white bobble trimming. She begins to flick through the blankets on by one, gradually the stack beneath rises and she has less and less blankets above held back by her arm. We move on to filtering another stack. She pauses at possible contenders, glancing over at me with an enquiring look. But I’m finding it hard to focus on the hunt for the perfect blanket; I’m still puzzled by how I have landed in a hospital cupboard choosing bedding for a baby I’m still not entirely convinced is my own. I’m numb, still far from acceptance, still waiting to wake up.
“Shout when you see one you think Jacob will like,” she says, and I feel myself bristle mildly. Isn’t this just a waste of time, picking out blankets for a baby who probably can’t hear, who definitely can’t see?
“No two are the same,” she says and I immediately see the parallel, as no two babies are the same either.
“Mmmm, this one feels good,” she murmurs. “This wool is like silk.”
I reach out to feel it, and she’s right. “Yeah, Jacob would love that,” I blurt out. She reaches in and out it comes, to be flung over her shoulder.
“What else?” she asks, and I’m on board now, selecting colours. We go for a bright navy blue and dark green stripy one that reminds me of the sea. Reject a blue and purple one that’s “too girly,” and settle on another green one, paler green this time, with darker flecks. It could be a grassy lawn, I think.
“Nice,” says Jan. It joins the other two over her shoulder, and for a moment we both pause and once more take in the splendour of the blanket room. It’s a linen room too, but the piles of standard white hospital sheets and pillowcases on the lower shelves, merit no observation. We can’t take our eyes from the mountains of knitted glory on the higher shelves. More blankets than I can ever imagine this hospital using in its lifetime, even with its never-ending supply of babies to be swaddled.
“So many!” I say. “Where do they come from?”
“Little old ladies,” Jan says, and I nod. Where else could they have come from? Little old ladies sitting at home knitting blankets for premature babies.
“You’ve chosen well. These are nice big ones,” says Jan. And I am reminded of Jacob’s great size in comparison to his tiny room mates. Even in Room 8, the nursery and last stop before home, a place where a reluctant feeder or a baby not quite maintaining the right temperature is temporarily stationed, the babies still tend to be petite. Jacob’s is the only full term baby in the unit, and at 7lb 5ozs he looks like a slumbering giant compared to his tiny premature roommates. Other parents look confused when they see him. When is he going home? He’s huge.
In total he will spend fifty-one days here. I watch new nurses start their shift and see them thinking, “Our work here is done.” But look closer. Note the eyes. The facial asymmetry. The fact that his nasal gastric tube is still in place. The way one side of his face crumples when he cries and the other half remains motionless.
But Jan started some of the hardest work that night, there in the blanket room, gently forcing me to assign him a personality, persuading me to choose blankets for him, enabling me to start mothering.
Alexis Wolfe lives in Ascot, England with her husband Neil and two children, Jacob and Reuben. She works part time as a TV Production Manager and writes in secret when the kids are asleep, mainly to avoid the household chores. She blogs occasionally at www.welcometomilestones.blogspot.com.