This is the third and final part of Anthony Romeo’s series of posts about the birth of his son. Read the first part here.
The morning of November 9, our son’s birthday, has been filled with too many hours already. As my husband and I stand over his bed and the doctors talk to us about his condition, I find myself wondering how much of it I’ll be able to remember, to tell him someday. He has been taken from the delivery room to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the NICU. To our son’s left, there is a mid-sized baby; to his right, one that is entirely too small, being cradled in an incubator. And there in front of us, three weeks shy of Thanksgiving, is our turkey of a child.
To the untrained eye, it looks like he’s just been wheeled in off the street, plopped down into a bin, and fallen asleep. He is not connected to tubes or machines, just simple monitoring wires that report and display his numbers on a square box in shades of emerald, sapphire, and ruby.
The doctors explain to us that our son, who by our estimation is the most important and loved child in that entire building, is having difficulty with his oxygen saturation levels. It’s not that he’s having trouble breathing, but rather, the percentage of oxygen his body is able to pull out of the air keeps dipping, so they’ve decided he’ll stay where he is for the time being and will not be transferred to the nursery.
While he was initially listed as a “transition,” it becomes clear that the staff has become too enamored with this cheeky bundle of love, and they decide to admit him officially to the NICU. He needs the kind of observation that he won’t get in the nursery. There will be no time spent in the nursery, passing this baby from family member to family member. No visits with grandparents pressing eager cheeks against a rapidly fogging pane of glass for the best view. However, because I am wearing a hospital band, we can visit the baby for 23 hours of the day.
We are told that he is not in trouble, that he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “in the woods.” A nurse passes by and congratulates us both, equally, as dads. I’ll remind you that we are in Saint Peter’s in New Brunswick, a Catholic hospital, and that was a cause of apprehension for us both. But not once during our stay in the NICU were we ever made to feel less than, in any way. We came to know the staff, the teams of doctors, even the other parents with whom we waited and counted minutes and watched monitors and numbers. For any same-sex parents who are apprehensive about their child being born at this hospital, do not be. This is exactly where you want to be, during the happiest and also the most stressful moments in your lives. Saint Peter’s defined caregiving for us. And they took incredible care of our son.
We stand at the baby’s bedside. Dom turns to me and says, “He’s not a Milo, is he?” I look down at the furrowed brow of a baby deep in either thought or gas, or both, and I know that he is not. This baby is not a Milo, and he’s not a Henry or an Alexander, and he’s not a Lucas. This baby is the one who has brought with him a world of love, of support, of gratitude, messages of inspiration and encouragement, and through his life, he will be the messenger of what a family is, what it can be.
Our Gabriel. If you are religious, as our families are, the name Gabriel means “God is my strength.” Gabriel is also the archangel who brought the news of Jesus’ birth. But if you’re not super religious, like these two dads, then the story of a little guy who brings good news just by his arrival? That’s a story we can get behind.
After a few hours, we call Dom’s mother, who works just a few blocks away from the hospital. She told us we were going to lunch. We nibble at our food, and we show her pictures, and then we order a slice of birthday cake. A big one, as our good friend Rocco would describe it.
Over the course of the next week, there are countless hours spent in the NICU. My hands quickly dry out from the near-constant scrubbing required to enter. Having a hospital bracelet, I am allowed to bring two guests to Gabe’s bed with me, which requires some strategic shuffling of family. I accompany Bio Mom and Bio Dad to visit Gabe in the nursery, because by mid-week I really feel like adding more anxiety to my own life. I was raised Catholic, when things start to get calm I don’t know how to handle it.
I am there on Discharge Day for Bio Mom and Bio Dad. They ask if I would drive them home from the hospital, and the blessing and curse that is my compassionate heart obliged immediately. Bio Dad gives us his childhood teddy bear for Gabe, and some baseball cards. It is a day filled with sadness, which I’d never anticipated feeling. I drop Bio Dad off at his house. We shake hands. I want to hug him, because I am sad for him. I want to not hug him, because I am sad for me. Instead, we shake hands, and I drive away, to take Bio Mom back home. As we arrive at her home, and I help her bring her bags inside, it occurs to me that I have never thought about this moment. Anthony, the planner, the writer, the man who uses The Words to muster up all his powers of good, had no exit strategy.
And so I find myself standing in Bio Mom’s home, with empty hands, not knowing what to do, what to say. It is possible, likely even, that we may never see each other in person again. And there are simply not enough words, not even a short, polite cluster of words that can fill a space so cavernous as the gulf that existed in our tiny perfect square of bamboo flooring. I know it is my job now to turn, to leave, and to take care of the child that Bio Mom has given to us. But to leave her standing there, with her things, was one of the most profoundly difficult moments in my adult life. We hug, and the heat rises in my cheeks. My body has started its countdown, and before the tears push themselves from my face I know I need to leave. I give a final squeeze in my arms, and we lock eyes and I simply say, “Thank you.” She nods, and my heels grant the reprieve of allowing me, finally, to turn. I’ve barely hit the door before the salts spill out into the world, and I cry for the full ride back to the hospital.
Day turns to night, and so it goes for many cycles. We are given a login and password for the crib-mounted NICView camera, so that we can watch Gabe from home, thanks to the technology at Saint Peter’s. I meet another father in the NICU, whose family in India has been given the login and password information, so that they can watch their first grandchild from the other side of the world. I am offered congratulations, hugs and support, from so many. Gabe has visitors, four grandparents, a pair of aunts and an uncle. His pictures start to make their way onto the internet. For Gabe, life started on November 9, 2015. And for his Dads, so did theirs.
On November 15, 2015, Gabe is cleared to go home. He is picked up by a representative from the adoption agency, whose name we cannot disclose, but whose loving touch and kind heart are the most perfect blend to bring our son to us. The beeps and boops have turned to ooohs and ahhhs. We arrive at the adoption agency, car seat in hand, and change Gabe’s diaper. We feed him and burp him. And then we take him home, driving so slowly that at times I think we’re not moving at all.
It has been one week since that alarm went off in our bedroom. One week full of the most taxing ups and downs I could ever have imagined. But I have Dom every step of the way, holding me, comforting me, making me laugh. Making me dinner. And he has me, despite my faults and flaws. We are parents, now.
It has been a hell of a journey so far. And still, you are here. For me and for Dom. And for our son, for our Gabe. And that is the most incredible and amazing gift I could ever have envisioned when we discussed this writing project one tiny lifetime ago. We are a family, made whole by love, by hurt, by sorrow, by fear, by anticipation, by celebration. We are the family we have chosen, the family we’ve earned, the family our son deserves. And you are every bit a part of it with us.
Now let’s get to the fun parts.