“You just left him there?” my daughter asked in a voice both curious and innocent, in a way that only a surprised 9-year-old can ask. She continued scrolling through photos of her brother’s birth as we finished celebrating a busy birthday weekend.

“No,” my voice cracking, ” I didn’t just leave him.” I choked out the rest of my reply as tears fell down my cheeks. Soon I couldn’t control my own sobbing. My son, bewildered by what was happening, crawled into my lap for comfort.

Even six years later, the pain of those NICU nights lives just below the surface. Every birthday is a glorious celebration . . . and a reminder.

A reminder that seldom does life go how we imagine. A reminder that trauma can end in beauty. A reminder of pain, fear, and finally hope. A reminder of the longest 18 nights of my life. 

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Eighteen nights of calling the hospital for a bedtime update. Desperately hoping sleep would come if I was reassured one more time. Eighteen overnights listening in the silent dark for my phone to ring. Eighteen mornings of feeling like I had failed him while missing his tiny perfect face.

On this day, your 6th birthday my son, I need you to know that I never “just left you there.”

I left that hospital broken after facing down death myself.

I left with my arms holding well-intentioned baby gifts when I should have been holding you.

I left with the phone number to the nurse’s station on speed dial.

I left with a grieving heart and a forced trust in the third-shift night nurses.

I left with my phone number carefully written in blue marker on your hospital-issued whiteboard.

I left with the smell of burnt hospital food and the sounds of a player-piano filling the hospital lobby and overwhelming my senses.

I left you the stuffed rocking horse, given to you by your 3-year-old sister, sitting high on the shelf keeping watch over your incubator to try and keep you safe.

I left because there is no hospital room for moms to stay once the baby is medically stable but mostly damaged.

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I left knowing I would return 14 hours later in time for morning rounds so I would learn all your doctors already knew about you.

I left you with your name written and double-checked on your birth certificate because I couldn’t leave until everyone else knew your name too.

I left you with my heart, son, and my never-ending love, but no I never “just left you there.”

Kristine Allmendinger-Goertz

Kristine Allmendinger-Goertz is a SAHM after 15 years in the medical research field. She's married to a pediatric ICU doctor, has two strong-willed fearless children, whom she's crazy about, and still can't figure out what she wants to be when she grows up.