My son has a birthday coming up. He'll be 17. Last year, when he turned 16 and got his drivers license and his own car, I didn't flinch. This year, I'm feeling a bit more melancholic. I guess it's starting to sink in that he's racing toward adulthood at warp speed. Where did all that time go? Did I make the most of it? I hope I did.
I've been thinking a lot about his worst birthday, especially after reading Tracie's latest post at Stir-Fry Awesomeness, where she posts about her son's birthday and her life ten years ago (it's a great post, stop by and read it if you haven't already). I didn't want to share the story on his actual birthday, I'd rather reserve that day for a happier post, so here it is.
Foreword: Brevity is not one of my strong suits. While I did not intend for this post to be a mini-novel, it has become one. I appreciate your taking the time to read it, despite it's length.
February of 2000 was a hectic time for us. Our daughter was three months old and still in the NICU. Between my husband and I, we were covering the morning, early afternoon and evening shift at the hospital while also trying to spend as much time as possible with our six year old son. It wasn't easy for any of us.
As it got closer to his birthday, we started talking about what we could do to make it extra special. In past years, in addition to a family party, we had let him choose a friend or two, and we would go out to dinner and maybe an arcade. We decided this was the year to have a full blown kid party. We would invite all of his classmates as well as a few other kids. We figured it would be about 35-40 kids, altogether, celebrating his seventh birthday.
Our house isn't well suited to entertain that many kids, so we opted to reserve the playroom at our local McDonalds. They told us that us that they would provide a choice of a hamburger, cheeseburger, or chicken nuggets plus fries and a drink for each child for x amount of dollars (I don't remember how much it was anymore). They would also supply a birthday cake, a birthday crown, and a special Ronald McDonald birthday plate our son could keep.
For weeks before the big party, if we weren't at the hospital, we were involved in some party related activity. There were favor bags to be picked up from the party supply store, toys to be purchased for the favor bags, invitations to buy and address, and gifts to pick out for the birthday boy. Each day our son grew more excited and we grew more exhausted.
When I addressed the party invitations, I specified "regrets only" on the RSVP line because we couldn't handle the stress of the phone ringing every night. When you have a very sick child in the hospital, the last thing you want to hear is the phone ringing. Your blood goes cold and your adrenaline starts pumping at the sound of it. Hospitals don't usually call to give you good news. Looking back now, I don't know why I didn't ask my mom to handle that for me. I could have put her phone number on the invitations and had her give me a daily count. I don't know why I didn't think of it then.
A few people called to tell me their child/children wouldn't be able to come, but I also received a few calls from mothers who wanted to know if it would be alright to bring younger or older siblings. I couldn't bring myself to say no, although each extra child added to the number of party favors we would need to make as well as the number of meals from McDonalds. We felt as if things were spiraling out of control.
Two days before the party, one of the doctors at the hospital told us that they wanted to attempt to take our daughter off the ventilator and see how she would do breathing on her own. She had been doing well on the ventilator setting that was the equivalent to room air. They felt she was ready. When were they planning to do this, we enquired? In two days, the day of our son's birthday party. There was no way we could ask them to consider a different day no way we could change the party. We would have to find a way to make it all work.
Monday morning, the day of our son's party and the day our daughter would breathe without a tube in her throat for the first time. Mr. Willoughby had taken the day off work, so together, we delivered our son (who wasn't feeling well) and three dozen birthday cupcakes to school and then headed for the hospital.
The nurses were already making preparations for the extubation when we arrived at the hospital. There was a flurry of activity around our daughter's bed, but we were told that we could stay in the room as long as we stayed out of the way. The plan was to remove her breathing tube and then place her in an oxygen tent to breathe on her own. Previously, we had been told that she would be placed on a nasal cannula, so we were confused.
The procedure didn't take long. First, a nurse carefully removed all of the tape that held the breathing tube securely in her mouth. After that, the tube was removed and she was placed in the oxygen tent. The doctor called us over right away so we could, for the first time ever, see our daughters face unobstructed by tape and tubes. It was an emotional moment.
For hours we sat and watched her oxygen saturation fluctuate on the monitor. We were encouraged to reach into the tent and stroke her arms and talk to her. Eventually, though, it was determined that she needed some sort of supplementary oxygen and she was given a nasal cannula. The good thing about it was that we were able to pick her up and hold her since she didn't need to be confined to the tent. Still, though, the monitor showed she wasn't getting as much oxygen as she needed.
A portable x-ray machine was brought in to diagnose the problem. It revealed that she had a collapsed lung. They increased the amount of oxygen she was getting and told us not to be discouraged, that there was a possibility the lung would re-inflate without intervention. We were instructed to pat her back gently to loosen any mucus. As long as she didn't drop too low, she would be re-evaluated every 30 minutes to determine whether reintubation was necessary. The nurses and respiratory therapists were upbeat and encouraging. They told us not to worry if she did need the tube reinserted and that it was pretty routine to make several attempts at breathing without the ventilator before it was successful.
Eventually, we had to leave. We had no choice but to hand our daughter over to a nurse and head for home. It was an hour long drive and we needed to pick our son up from my parents' house and get to McDonalds before the party guests arrived. It was painfully difficult to walk out of that room. We felt like we were abandoning her, even though the nurses insisted we weren't.
When we arrived at my parents' house, our son was lying on the couch with a pillow and blanket. His head was warm and he wasn't feeling well. We considered cancelling the party, but he wanted to go whether he felt good or not, so after a quick trip home to pick up party favors and birthday gifts, we headed for McDonalds.
We got there about 30 minutes before the party was to begin. They had already put up a "reserved" sign on the door and closed the play room. The manager greeted us and went over all of the preparations. When I asked her how we should handle the children's food orders, she told me to "play waitress" and write each child's order on a sheet of paper and then turn it over to her. I had no idea I would be in charge of taking the orders, and it was the last thing I wanted to do. She hadn't left me any options, though, so instead of doing the smart thing and ordering the same meal for all 40 kids, I agreed to take individual orders.
At first it wasn't too bad because I asked each kid what they wanted to eat as they walked through the door. Soon, though, there were too many kids walking in at the same time for me to take each order. I had to chase all over the play room to make sure I had asked everyone. Some kids made it more difficult by asking for "no pickles" or "extra ketchup".
When the food was brought to us, the special orders weren't marked so I had six or seven kids complaining that their burgers were wrong or they had the wrong sauce for their chicken nuggets. Another half dozen complained that they had the wrong drink. Mr. Willoughby ran back and forth to the counter to exchange what we were given for what was ordered. Some of the moms offered to help out, but I guess I wanted to feel in control, so I turned down their offers.
Once the kids were all sitting down to eat, Mr. Willoughby slipped out to call the hospital and check on our daughter. She was still on the nasal cannula, but things weren't looking very good. They expected that she would be back on the ventilator before the night was over. It was depressing news. Despite what they told us at the hospital, it felt like a setback.
Things were depressing at the party, too. While other people's children ate their food and played, our son sat quietly and picked at his food. He didn't feel well enough to eat or play with the other kids. It broke my heart to see him sick on the day he had been so looking forward to. I could only hope that he would perk up when it was time to open his presents.
There was a bright spot to my evening, though. One of the moms at the party was a woman I had met in the NICU. Her son, also a preemie, had been in the bed across from our daughter. We had become good friends in a short amount of time. Her little guy had already been discharged from the hospital and I hadn't seen her in a few weeks. She gave me a huge hug and dragged me out to the parking lot. In the back seat of her car she had a gift for me. She handed me a huge casserole in a disposable pan as well as several bags of salad and a loaf of garlic bread. It was dinner for a few nights with no clean up. "It's nothing fancy, but I thought you could use a break," she said. She had been in my shoes. She knew.
When we walked back inside, it was time to open gifts. The amount of presents was staggering, and to be truthful, a little sickening. No child needs 40 gifts on their birthday. Although it hadn't been my intention to give a big party just so my son would get a ton of gifts, it felt greedy to me. There was no way I could start handing the gifts back to the kids that brought them, though. Instead, I sat next to my son and handed him package after package to open. He was polite and managed to muster some enthusiasm for each toy and remembered to say thank you each time.
After "Happy Birthday" had been sung, and the candles had been blown out, Mr. Willoughby began hauling gifts to the car while I served cake to 40 now tired and cranky kids. I couldn't wait to get out of that place and go home. It was truly one of the longest and worst days of my life.
We checked in with the hospital before we went to bed. Our daughter was still fighting to stay off the ventilator. There was no guarantee, but she was holding her own. Overnight, though, things changed and she had to have the tube put back in. We went through that, sans birthday party, four more times before she could successfully breathe on CPAP, and eventually a nasal cannula.
The manager of our McDonalds told me they had never had such a large party in the playroom before. The next time I went into that same McDonalds I noticed they had posted a sign that said they no longer offered birthday party packages. I think our party was the reason for that decision. I still have nightmares about it.