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I saw the email come through from the preschool teacher.

It was my daughter’s first day of school. It was the day when I dropped off my once-critically ill three-year-old to be cared for by strangers for the first time since she had spent 6 weeks in the NICU, diagnosed with a life-threatening skin disorder.

Brenna’s teacher had sent me a few pictures from her first day, and I was thrilled that she took a moment to capture the activities of the day, helping to ease my trepidation about this transition.

I pulled up a photo; Brenna was assigned her first “classroom job” on Monday: the flag holder. The image drew up something from deep within me, and tears poured down my cheeks.

I’ve found that when you’re in the throes of a period of devastation in your life – from a diagnosis or death to a child in the hospital to a house fire or even a job loss – there is a flood of emotions that your head often keeps at bay in order for you to get through the necessary day-to-day.

A fellow NICU mom noted profoundly to me once that “When your body and mind know you are out of danger and ready to heal, you will start to feel.”

Yes, you start to feel… and I don’t think those emotions ever leave you.

Perhaps they ease a bit, or change what they look like. But those experiences, and the emotions that go with them, solidly remain housed in the being of your soul.

Years after our daughter’s critical birth, NICU stay and subsequent hospitalization and surgeries, those emotions continue to erupt during various seasons of my life. The uncertainty of her health due to her lifelong disorder is always trailing, and every so often, these intense feelings are stirred within me and discovered once again.

For months, we wondered if our little girl would live. We wondered if we would get to celebrate a first birthday, a second, a fifth.

The thought of school, at the time when she was an infant and in and out of the hospital, with surgeries and infections and all kinds of delays, seemed overwhelming and almost unbelievable.

To see this precious child of ours today – holding the flag of the United States for her peers to salute – it reminds me of every fear we had, and every hope we had for her.

I’m not sure those emotions will ever go away.

The grief and the fear will be masked now, more often than not, by pride and joy, but the intensity of feelings as a mother will always remain within myself – sometimes deep and waiting, and sometimes surfacing for all to see.

Today, Brenna is happily planning for Kindergarten, chattering regularly about eating in the cafeteria like her older brother. Though her severe condition still impacts many parts of our lives, she has accomplished and experienced so much more than we had ever hoped.

It might be easy, in the day to day, for my mind to forget where we started, with a very grim prognosis, but my heart knows in a deep way and still tends to erupt in emotional reaction at times I don’t expect. I know I can use this to mold myself for the better – to cultivate compassion and empathy and selflessness, rather than grappling with bitterness.

With each new step, each new milestone, each new day, we are reminded of where we have been. And I’ve found that accepting those intense emotions allows us to more fully and joyfully celebrate where we are today.

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Courtney Westlake

Courtney Westlake is a writer and photographer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a passion for storytelling. Courtney lives in Illinois with her husband, Evan, and two children, Connor and Brenna. She began blogging at in 2011 after Brenna was born with a rare and severe skin disorder. Her first book, A Different Beautiful, released in August 2016.

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