Published on December 19th, 2022 | by Charmaine Arjoonlal2
I woke up to pain rippling across my abdomen and hoped it was the fake kind of labor I was having back home in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Dr. Smith, my family doctor, had said the false contractions were called Braxton-Hicks. He assured me that “pregnant women can do anything.” This is why, in my 29th week of pregnancy, we had flown 1800-odd miles to spend Christmas with my husband’s family in California.
At Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, I noticed a Christmas angel decoration pinned to the wall of the cubicle. Her brilliant blond hair and blue, blue eyes brought back a comforting memory of Angel, my childhood imaginary friend who I’d always thought of as a real angel.
A small man with wire-rimmed glasses appeared and introduced himself as Dr. Brown. I latched onto his voice which soothed like the rhythm of waves.
“Your baby has bradycardia,” he said, his eyes kind, talking directly to me. “His heart rate is low and continuing to drop.” As I registered the ‘he’, my baby, now a person, I watched Dr. Brown morph into two people. When one talked, the other’s mouth moved in unison.
“There’s two of you,” I said, then giggled, this time out loud. I wondered if he was an angel, then shivered. I felt dizzy and the sheets had become cold and soggy.
“You had a partial placental abruption,” Dr. Brown hastened to explain—only one of him now. “I recommend an emergency C-section.”
I looked at my stomach, which rose like a mountain in front of me with my husband, Sam, on the other side. I heard Sam murmur something to Dr. Brown and I was helped onto a gurney. My body jerked when we crashed through the operating room doors and I became immersed in the grays and coldness. Goose bumps popped out on my bare arms.
Sam appeared at my side. I looked at the flop of his curls and into his gray eyes and listened to the whisper of voices from behind the sheet. The enormity of what was happening seeped in like the icy melt of snow down my neck. We lived without electricity in a log home in the Yukon, 48 miles north of Whitehorse, just off the Klondike Highway. In the winter, -40℉ temperatures stretched for six weeks at a time. How would we manage with a premature baby?
A tiny face, his body tightly swaddled, was placed under my nose.
“A boy,” a female voice said.
A baby’s bright blue eyes, calm as a windless sea, gazed into my own. I felt a jolt of joy such as I’ve never felt before. I searched his features for some semblance of my own. Of mixed South Asian and Portuguese heritage, I had been transracially adopted as a young child and grew up looking different from those around me.
Finnegan—Finn for short—was long and thin, weighing 4 pounds, 4 ounces. Dark brown hair covered his head like fuzz and his olive skin glowed yellow, a combination of incubator lighting and jaundice. An infection kept me in the hospital for a week and every day I dragged my IV pole to the neonatal intensive care unit to sit in a wooden chair beside Finn’s incubator. I decided to control my emotions to prevent attachment. This way, if he didn’t survive, I wouldn’t be in danger of losing myself to grief. It seemed logical, this determination, this carefully built dam of resistance. But of its own accord, my hand reached into the incubator opening again and again to caress his soft wrinkled skin, to gently smooth the skin around the adhesive pads of his apnea monitor, to feel the flutter of his heart. Eventually I realized how deluded my thinking had been. He was of me and I was of him. We had become attached as soon as I became aware of his existence.
After I was discharged, I stayed with Sam’s brother, Mike, who lived a five-minute drive from the hospital. Sam needed to return to work in Whitehorse and Finn had many weeks to go before he would be well enough to leave the NICU.
Every morning after I arrived at Tri-City Hospital, a nurse helped me swaddle Finn—one side, tuck, the other side, tuck, until he was wrapped like a tight little burrito, tubes and all. Eventually the nasogastric tube was pulled but still unable to latch, Finn needed his throat gently rubbed to encourage him to swallow.
The nurses listened with mouths agape as I regaled them with stories about life in the Yukon. How we could toss a cup of water into the air at -40℉ and watch it instantly transform to crystals that floated to the ground like shiny sprinkles. How condensation caused our door to freeze shut, necessitating the need to shoulder check it open—once shattering the entire frame. How we cut our own firewood and used propane to fuel our fridge, stove and water heater, hoping the temperature didn’t dip below -44℉ or the propane would gel. Laughing, the nurses taped a picture of a young man surfing a giant ocean wave to Finn’s incubator, and remarked, “You folks are crazy,” when we talked about taking Finn back to the Yukon wilderness.
Every evening Mike and I sat in armchairs side by side watching TV programs. It was like All in the Family, except Mike fetched his own beers. Mike was 6’4”, big bearded with a laugh that bellowed. His eyes were brown and ringed with long lashes and he was built like the linebackers he watched on Sunday night football. Caring for Finn took all of my energy so Mike did all the shopping and cooking without complaint.
Sam was able to fly back to California to help take Finn home and arranged with TriCity Hospital for the rental of an apnea monitor. Per agreement with the hospital, we could only take it as far as the Canadian border. Once in Vancouver, we would need to obtain another one for the duration of our trip home.
My stomach was in knots and I hadn’t been sleeping. I was overwhelmed with the prospect of going back to our home, 60 miles away from available social and medical support. Living in the wilderness, once a grand adventure when it was just about the two of us and we thought we couldn’t have kids, had now changed. While we were overjoyed with our baby, our physical and social isolation had become apparent.
In Vancouver we contacted a medical clinic and were astounded when the nurse said she could bring an apnea monitor to our hotel immediately. We kept adjusting the thermostat, not sure which temperature would be best. Finn had been mewling faintly since our arrival and smelled of sour milk.
As I paced with Finn resting on my forearm, cradled between my wrist and elbow, snug to my body—he was that tiny—I worried that he was too cold, too hungry, too something. Sam opened the door to a small woman, in a drenched raincoat, tendrils of soggy hair resting on her shoulders. When I saw her, I felt the tension drain from my body and was able to take a deep breath.
The nurse smiled at me, her dark brown eyes calm, and turned to gaze at Finn.
“He looks just fine,” she said, her voice like the splash of warm raindrops.
Ice fog smothered the landscape when we landed at Whitehorse airport and I temporarily forgot my baby anxiety as we navigated the icy highway to our log home. It was situated on 12 acres with a spectacular view of the Miner’s Range Mountains. We used a radiophone—much like the ‘party lines’ of old—and when I called my sister to say that we had arrived back home safely, I knew that people up and down the highway could overhear our conversation. I still had a few months of maternity leave and with no family or nearby neighbors, and Sam working six days a week in Whitehorse, I felt jittery and nervous, always at the brink of tears.
It was still too cold to take Finn outdoors, so I sang and read stories to him for hours to pass the time. His legs remained in the ‘fetal position’ for weeks and even after I straightened them for a massage, they sprang back tight against his chest. We kept a log of how many cc’s of my milk he drank each feeding and whether he had experienced any apnea or bradycardias, as well as the times of his heart medication.
Our gas generator provided electricity to power Finn’s apnea monitor during the day and charged our battery system to run the monitor at night. At two months old, Finn still wasn’t able to eat and breathe at the same time. He didn’t simply gasp for air when he was trying to swallow, he just quietly stopped breathing altogether. When this happened, the apnea monitor showed his heart rate plummeting. As it neared zero beats per minute, the monitor emitted a high-pitched screech I was sure could be heard miles away. Every core of my being wanted to shake him, yell, scream, anything to make him breathe, but I forced myself to be still and to gently tickle his feet like the NICU nurses had shown me. After one such a harrowing incident, I was the one without air and just held Finn and sobbed.
One night, upon hearing his cry, I struck a match to light a propane lamp and smelled something burning, only to realize that I had lit my hair on fire. Quickly swatting it out with my hand amidst the fumes that smelled strangely like rotten eggs, I was so stunned, I laughed out loud.
Finn and I were alone together from 7 am to 8 pm, so the knock on the door one afternoon was unexpected. I opened it to a woman whose ice-crusted curls sprang from the hood of a huge parka, holding a wrapped gift in her hand. The sun gleamed through the hoar frost and peaked over her shoulder to illuminate our living room. I looked at her and thought of Angel, my imaginary friend from childhood.
“Congratulations on your new baby,” she said after I ushered her in. “I heard you talking on the radio phone. I live 18 miles north on the high .”
“I’m so worried about him,” I blurted. I felt everything had to be my fault somehow.
She bent to stroke Finn’s cheek and her hazel eyes seemed to appraise his too-big diaper and too-big soother. “California to the Yukon,” she murmured, and our eyes met as she stood.
“He’ll be fine,” she said with a soft smile, handing me her gift.
I would later become good friends with this kind stranger who was raising five boys even further away from Whitehorse than we were. We were no longer alone.
In the brilliance of the moment, I simply stood in her warmth, thankful she had come.