Christmas Day 2005 was like none other. We knew it would be special: I was supposed to be exactly 35 weeks pregnant with our first child. As it was, however, Edward had been born 10.5 weeks earlier at just 24 weeks and 4 days gestation. Those first hours, days and weeks dragged by in a fearful haze as we didn’t dare hope that Edward could be strong enough to hang on. He had been born dangerously early. The one glimmer of hope was his weight – 1lb 9oz or 725g – very tiny, but very respectable for such an early baby.
Christmas became an important milestone for me and my husband Jon. We knew that, two and a half months after his birth, we should by then have some idea of what the future would hold. Before Edward’s untimely birth we had originally intended to spend the day with my parents, but all plans were shelved and Christmas was officially cancelled. In our heads it became a day of huge significance, because if he was still with us by then, then maybe – just maybe – we would be lucky enough to keep him. We never discussed these thoughts between us, both afraid that if we verbalised our thoughts then somehow we would be jinxed.
We were both so absorbed with every aspect of life in NICU that we barely noticed the run-up to Christmas. We didn’t send a single card; we didn’t buy presents. To us it seemed pointless: the one gift we wanted was a baby who was still alive and was growing healthier and stronger each day. On many days that gift seemed desperately far out of our reach, but as the weeks passed and the many frightening moments became fewer, we both began to believe that we just might get our Christmas gift. On Christmas Eve I dared to go out and buy a Christmas card for Daddy – I was frightened doing it in case something terrible happened before Daddy could receive it. We also plucked up the courage to buy Edward a single small present – a colourful cloth book to put in his incubator. Suddenly in a whimsical moment of hope I decided to dash to Waitrose shortly before it closed and buy up the few items of Christmas food that they had left on the shelves, because things were starting to look more positive, and we could allow ourselves to enjoy a Christmas dinner at home after spending the day with Edward.
One of the key things I remember about Christmas Day was that most of the parents on the unit looked rather blank whenever anyone greeted them with “Merry Christmas”. Although we all knew what day it was, we all had so much more important things to think about and it felt very odd – it wasn’t supposed to just be another normal weekday, but it was to all of us. Edward was still in NICU at the time but was starting to do well – well enough that when the night nurses had secretly dressed all the babies in a Father Christmas outfit and taken photos for personalised Christmas cards, they had been able to include him. His card to us was waiting on the top of the incubator when we walked in. I welled up as soon as I saw the photo of him in his Christmas suit – I have no idea how the nurses made it fit so beautifully because he’d struggled to put on weight and was still well under 3lbs. That photo is one of our most precious possessions and is on display in our home all the time, but also gets included in our Christmas decorations every year!
The nurses had done such a wonderful job decorating each room in the unit, and they were all extra cheerful that day, with Christmas songs playing quietly on the radio in the background. A kind volunteer had managed to get stockings and little presents donated for each baby in there, and we still have Edward’s stocking and cuddly bear now. I must confess that we didn’t keep the hand-knitted cardigan though – I hope I don’t sound ungrateful, but whichever kind soul knitted it, had done it for a baby at least 5 times the size that Edward was and I couldn’t imagine him ever fitting it! I remember actually staring at it in its hugeness and wondering what it was for!
We had a little break at lunchtime and decided to ‘treat’ ourselves in the hospital ‘restaurant’. It was virtually empty, though there was a family sitting not far from us with a very elderly, very frail looking granny who was clearly an inpatient. I remember thinking that this was probably her last Christmas and feeling rather sad for the family. In contrast, I was beginning to feel that this just could be the first of many Christmases for Edward.
Towards the end of our day with him, we were chatting about something and Jon finished the sentence, as we had hundreds of times before, with “....if Edward comes home”. I took a deep breath and dared to say it at last. “He is coming home, isn’t he?” “Yes, he is.” Edward was asleep in his incubator and not available for cuddles, but we had the biggest hug with each other, standing watching him sleep.
Edward moved into the lofty climes of HDU on 2nd January 2006 and came home to us on 8th February, on day 120. We were a proper family at last.