There are only two songs that could make me cry: the hymn that closed out my father's funeral and whatever was playing the moment Pepin was put to bed with a feeding tube.
It was on a CD called Relaxing Massage, an anonymous, synthesized mix that presumably accompanied somebody somewhere being oiled up and rubbed. A nurse popped it into the CD player one day in Pepin's room in the Special Care Nursery at Methodist Hospital and it played on repeat, 24/7. I never thought much about it until it was clear that Pepin couldn't stay awake long enough to eat.
A vermicelli-size thread of plastic called a nasogastric, or NG, tube was pushed through Pepin's tiny nostril into her stomach. She was jaundiced, too, and was placed under phototherapy lights wearing nothing but a diaper and a strip of felt over her eyes—a nurse drew sunglasses on it with a black marker so she looked less like Geordi from Star Trek and more like a California Raisin. This innocuous tune came on as Lucy and I stood over Pepin in the alien blue glow of the lights, our daughter too weak to live on her own, and wept.
We are preparers. We're not much for surprises. We went to classes for birth, infant CPR, and breastfeeding, a "stout curriculum," as my brother-in-law wryly observed. We read half a dozen pregnancy books, including Dude, You're Gonna Be a Dad! ("She's pregnant, time to man up," advises the back cover; trips to the OB are helpfully prioritized with diaper icons—one diaper you can skip it, four diapers you better put down the Xbox and skateboard over.) The first child will probably be late, says everyone, so Lucy marked a day on her calendar a week after the due date, a day that still hasn't arrived.
Pepin had been enjoying the uterus for just 35 weeks and five days when the dam burst and she was left high and dry, upright with her legs by her head like the wings of a stuffed turkey—breech. She was out within an hour. A hair over five pounds, she was about the size and weight of a consumer-grade dictionary.
We had ourselves a preemie. It was the one thing we hadn't expected, and when I Googled "preemie" I was immersed in a subculture I knew nothing about and had no interest in joining, with its anxious talk of weeks in the hospital, tubes, monitors, supplements, low IQs. Except I already had joined. In desperation, I Googled "famous preemies" and was relieved to find Albert Einstein among them until I remembered that the odds of having a baby Einstein were about a million times the speed of relativity—well, whatever.
The nurse that day might have thought she was just telling a story. "I was a preemie," she told us while checking Pepin's vitals, "born right here at Methodist." She was just under three pounds. In kindergarten she said she wanted to become a "baby nurse," like the nurses who'd been there for her—including several now helping us. "Are you telling your preemie story again?" one of them teased in passing. She was putting us back together.
We stayed 11 days in the hospital. That song must have played another couple hundred times. When we came home we tried to find the CD for sale. It had already begun, in the hospital, to sound like something else, reassuring if not relaxing. But it doesn't seem to exist anywhere else.
(Photos: Pepin swaddled up in the Special Care Nursery at Methodist Hospital and under the "bili" lights. Her quarters—and ours—for her first 11 days.)