I have the honor of presenting an amazing author guest post from Kelly Link, who’s short story collection, Pretty Monsters, officially releases in paperback on June 10.
|Pretty Monsters: Stories by Kelly Link|
A big thank you for the lovely post from Kelly!
I wrote the stories collected in Pretty Monsters over the course of fifteen years, beginning in 1995. Pretty Monsters came out from Viking in October of 2008. Since then, I’ve had a daughter, spent 15 months in
hospitals, given up reading Patrick O’Brian, filled a deep-freezer with breast milk. What I haven’t done is write a single word of fiction. Which is why, I suppose, for at least part of this blog tour I’ll be writing about my daughter, Ursula. (At points I’ll get around writing about the stories in Pretty Monsters, too.) This is the first of a two-part post. The second part will appear on Foreveryalit.com.
Ursula was born on February 23, 2009, at twenty-four weeks, after a complicated pregnancy. I had checked out What To Expect When You’re Expecting from our library early on, but I hadn’t even gotten to the section on labor when I went into labor. We had barely begun to think about names. I liked Fern, because of Charlotte’s Web. My husband and I both liked Gulliver, if it turned out I was having a boy. (The ultrasounds were cloudy. Ask again later.) We both liked Ursula, because it meant little bear, and because we both loved the books of Ursula K. Le Guin.
The first time that we went up to see her in the Neonatal ICU, Ursula was nestled in artificial lambs’ wool inside an incubator, cotton pads over her eyes, under a bank of blue lights. She was attached to various monitors that measured her heart rate, her oxygen saturation, her rate of breathing. She was incubated so that a ventilator could keep her alive. Alarms went off constantly, and nurses would say, “It’s all right” and then adjust things. We had no idea if things were all right or not. We were in a state of terror.
Ursula weighed 1 lb. 9 ounces, and looked like — as the nurses in the NICU liked to say, affectionately — a chicken bone (click for picture, be prepared to see a preemie). She had no body fat; instead she had a fine coating of hair on her shoulders. Her ears were practically vestigial. The nurses pointed out her long fingers and toes, how graceful they were. Her skin was so fragile that in places, it tore. The treatment for this was to cover it with what looked like Scotch tape. That day, or the next, my husband, encouraged by the nurses, slipped his wedding band on to her wrist, and we took a picture.
I could hardly stand being in the NICU at first. We knew that Ursula’s situation was precarious. Almost half of babies born at 24 weeks don’t survive. (Before my pregnancy became high risk, I didn’t know that any babies could be born so early, so small, and go on to thrive.) A majority of those babies that do survive end up with serious complications of one kind or another due to the therapies that keep them alive as well as due, simply, to their extreme prematurity. The gregarious nurse assigned to Ursula that first day told us immediately, well, it’s good that she’s a girl. Girls have a better chance of survival. The next day when we went up, he said, well, she’s still alive. The first twenty-four hours are really crucial. The next day he said, she’s still alive — that’s good. The first 48 hours are crucial. After a week had passed, when a nurse told us that the first week was the period of greatest danger — and so it was a good sign that she had made it through — we weren’t surprised.
For the first six weeks of her life, Ursula wore only knitted hats — donated in bulk by a local church group to the NICU — and the tiniest diapers you can imagine. We got to help change those diapers. I pumped to make breast milk, of which Ursula could take only a few ccs at a time. The rest we froze. We could, at times, put our hands into the incubator, to cup Ursula’s head and feet, but we had to be careful not to over stimulate or stress her. We read two baby books to her, over and over again: Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, and Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Christopher Raschka.
While I was on bed rest, I had been plowing through Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. They were terrific, but I had to give up reading them because it seemed to me that whenever I got near to the end of a book, something terrible would happen: I began to have contractions; I went into labor; Ursula would have a crisis. We were staying a block away from the hospital, in a Ronald McDonald House, and we dreaded phone calls, particularly at night, when we went home, knowing it was likely to be the hospital, letting us know that Ursula was in crisis again. The problem was her lungs: she wasn’t growing fast enough to grow new lung tissue. She couldn’t get off the ventilator. I’ve read all of the first two O’Brian books, and all but the endings of the next three — I would put them down when Ursula went through rough patches, and be unable, superstitiously, to go any farther. I’d start a new one. Eventually I stopped starting new ones. Someday I’d like to pick them up again.
During the day we sat in the NICU, and read or worked beside Ursula’s incubator. We watched the numbers on her monitors. We went and ate at the cafeteria. Nurses taught us how to change diapers (lay down the new diaper under the old one, before you take it off) and how to watch Ursula — for tremors, for distressed breathing, for signs of when she needed her incubator to be dark and quiet. I pumped every three to four hours. Twice I came back from pumping to find a crowd of doctors and nurses, and a code cart, around Ursula’s incubator. Both times she stabilized. I’ve always cried easily. I cried all the time. We watched new mothers come into the NICU. You could tell who were the new mothers by the way that they walked, or moved. We became connoisseurs of babies (their different kinds of cries; their weights — 3 lbs? Enormous. 7 or 8 lbs? A monster) and their different medical crises (a baby born with its organs on the outside? Not a big deal. Babies who momentarily forgot to breathe when they were asleep? They would grow out of it.)
At least once a week, when I needed a break, I would leave the hospital and drive back to Northampton. I’d buy frozen burritos for our dinners, chocolates for the nurses at Trader Joes. Then I’d go to a local thrift store to buy baby clothes that Ursula would be too small to wear still, for months and months. I pictured future versions of her, healthy, older, dressed in these clothes. There are a lot of firsts for parents that we’ve missed out on. We weren’t there when Ursula first opened her eyes. We didn’t change her first diaper. For about two weeks I wanted, badly, to be there when she pooped. I never was. The first time that she took a bottle, we had gone home to Northampton (a half hour drive) to sleep in our own bed. We missed her first bath. The first time someone dressed her. The first time she left the hospital — to ride in an ambulance to Boston — we followed behind in our car. I didn’t mind missing these things too much. I was always just so grateful that she was alive. (Nurses said: “She’s feisty! That’s good.”) The first time Ursula wore clothes was the day she was taken to Boston for a heart operation. (Not a big idea, we were told. Not much of a procedure. Nothing to worry about.) There was something of the formal occasion
about it, seeing her kitted out in a onesie meant for the smallest of premature babies that was, nevertheless, still ridiculously enormous on her. We were given a change of clothes to take along with us. At this point, we had still never even held her, although the night before, her nurse had let us put our hands inside the incubator. She then gently lifted Ursula and laid her across our hands. We could feel her relax against our palms. On the monitor, her numbers — her heart rate, usually around 170 beats per minute, go down; her oxygen saturation, often stuck in the high 80s, go ever so slightly up. We held her for a few minutes, and then her nurse told us it was time to put her back down again. I am not, by nature, an optimist. But I clung to the idea that things would be better one day.
To sum up: I’m a short-story writer. In fall of 2008, my third collection, Pretty Monsters, came out in hardcover, and I got pregnant. I gave birth to a daughter, Ursula, in February 2009 at 24 weeks and 1 lb, 9 oz. She spent the next fifteen months in hospitals.
Wow, what a story! I of course don’t know what happens next but I’m seriously hoping for a good outcome. I can say since I too am a mother that experiencing something such as the early birth of your child is not a fun experience. I too delivered early (only 4 weeks) but it’s never an easy thing to get through.
Don’t forget to head to Foreveryalit.com to continue reading more about Kelly Link!
I haven’t finished reading Kelly’s short stories yet but I hope to soon. Just know that they are quite amazing so far! 🙂