After Years Waiting, Our First Walk in the Park

From Zac Unger
Friday May 16, 2003

The balcony of my apartment overlooks a Berkeley park with swings, a grassy field and a jungle-gym. Every day it’s packed with happy parents, and the laughter of kids filters up through the windows into our living room. For three years my wife and I have been looking down on that park, wishing we could be there with the rest of the normal families. 

Now, after six miscarriages, we’ve finally had our baby. And, after 139 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, our daughter, Percy, is healthy and home with us, ready to take up her rightful spot in the sandbox. 

There’s a nice, normal way to be a preemie. You get born scarily early, you have some ups and downs, maybe get an infection or two, but pretty soon you start packing the weight on and, in most cases, you end up going home a few weeks before your due date. By the time we left the NICU, Percy was the senior baby on the ward, having overstayed her expected date of release by almost two and a half months. She never had any of the normal preemie complications, not the brain bleeds or the lung disease or the eye damage. 

But she did develop a choking problem that stymied all of the professionals; once a day or so she’d gag on a bit of milk and her heart rate would dip into the twenties and her face would turn blue. A dozen vigorous back blows usually did the trick, and within seconds of coming out of her spell Percy would be back to smiling and cooing, ready for another shot at the bottle. In the end the doctors decided that we were as adept as anyone at reviving her and since being in the hospital obviously wasn’t doing her any good, they sent us home with their best wishes. Now that we’ve been home for two months Percy’s choking still keeps us on our toes but, apart from the fact that it makes it a little tough to find babysitters, we haven’t had much trouble dealing with the problem. 

People always talk about how exhausting it is to have a new baby at home, but compared to the NICU, this seems like a breeze. Like any new parents we could use a few more hours of sleep, but emotionally it feels like we’ve been released from prison. When I wake up my baby is right there next to me in a basket on the floor. No more 3 a.m. dashes to Alta Bates just to see if my daughter is doing all right. Everybody at the hospital was fantastic, but I hated leaving her there; that sterile nursery full of steel cribs and Plexiglas incubators isn’t the right place for a person to spend her first months in the world. 

Being in the NICU was like having 10,000 mother-in-laws. Everyone from the head neonatologist to the newest nursing student had a hundred helpful tips on how to be a better parent. Too much advice — even the best-intentioned advice — starts to feel like criticism before too long. Now it’s just my wife and me. We’re probably making a million mistakes, but they’re our mistakes and we’ll stumble along like anybody else.  

On our second day home we took Percy on a stroller ride through the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley, where everyone lounging around the French Hotel and Black Oak Books is 30 years old and has a baby in a stroller. Nobody seemed to find us the least bit interesting and I wanted to shake strangers by the shoulders and shout, “You don’t understand! This isn’t just any baby — this is a superhero!” 

One woman did stop to admire her — she is astoundingly beautiful after all — but when she asked me how old my baby was, I found myself momentarily struck stupid. “Five months?” I said, unsure how to answer. It must have been the wrong thing to say because she gave me a look that could have curdled breast milk and stalked off, probably to report me to Child Protective Services for malnourishing my child. The next time someone asked I gave Percy’s “adjusted age” of six weeks. Of course then they wanted to know how much she weighed at birth, and when I said “one pound, 15 ounces” I had to launch into the whole prematurity story anyway. 

Actually, with us shoving food in her face every time she opens her mouth she’s been laying on the fat like a seal getting ready for winter. She’s got chubby arms and pink, round cheeks and she was a massive 11 pounds at her last weigh-in. 

When my wife naps I carry Percy down to the park almost every day. She couldn’t care less about the place — life for her is about eating, sleeping and giggling at the wooden goose that hangs over her changing table. But for me, sitting on the swings with a baby in my arms is an incomparable high. I finally get to be what I’ve always wanted, just a normal, boring dad who thinks his daughter is going to grow up to be the best person on Earth.