I heard the helicopter before I saw it. The thumping sound vibrated into my bones. Hot afternoon sun blinded me as the paramedics heaved me from the helicopter to the gurney. A cool rush of air pushed us down the corridor when the heavy hospital doors slammed shut behind us.

I counted ceiling lights as they whizzed by overhead. I looked into other people’s hospital rooms. I wanted to escape. I wanted to be anywhere but here. I curled my body around the bed rail as tight as I could, hoping that would keep the baby in longer.

When the doctor told me to push, I screamed “No—I will not have this baby today!” But my water broke and my baby came tumbling out, bruised and battered.

The delivery room was silent.

“It’s too small.” I cried and the doctor replied “It’s alive.” I didn’t know if I had a son or a daughter and I had just delivered my first child; I was only twenty-three weeks pregnant.

My husband proudly announced “It’s a boy!” as he cut the umbilical cord. That was the only normal thing that happened that day. My son, who weighed barely more than a pound, was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) before I could hold or even see him.

I saw Jaxson for the first time four hours later. I stared, trying to reconcile what I thought a baby should look like with what I was actually seeing. His eyes were fused shut. His ears weren’t fully formed. Wires and tubes hid my baby’s face, but I could see blood pumping through his translucent skin.

Machines were keeping our son alive. They were constantly beeping and alarming, warning us of the literal and precious balance between life and death.

Dreams of bringing a fat baby home from the hospital vanished. The NICU was our new nightmare. My husband and I watched helplessly as nurses poked and prodded our baby. I was allowed to touch my son for a split second—but only with one finger. The nurse cautioned me to be very gentle so I didn’t accidentally rip his skin. We became numb from the fear that our son would die before we could take him home.

Then one Tuesday morning, Jaxson went into renal failure and his heart began to misfire. Oxygen was not getting to his limbs, lungs, or brain. His oxygen level dropped to 42 percent. He needed CPR.

The neonatologist solemnly ushered us into a dingy conference room where he told us our son had a four percent chance of healthy survival. Words like “irreversible brain damage” and “his heart might not last the night” oozed from the doctor’s mouth and settled heavy on my heart.

I slumped next to Jaxson’s incubator and stared out the window of the NICU wondering if my child would ever feel the sun on his skin.

My thoughts drifted to my mom. I was grateful I had two years after she was diagnosed with cancer to remind her how much I loved her, but I wished she could have been with me that day in the NICU. I needed my mom. I needed a hug and to hear her laugh.

When mom was diagnosed, she planned her funeral so we wouldn’t have to. She joked she was going to open Heaven’s Daycare when she chose the image of an angel surrounded by children for her funeral program.

As I thought about my mom, the NICU faded into the background. I didn’t hear the alarms. I didn’t smell the harsh stench of antiseptic and blood. Jaxson and I were wrapped in soft white light, a bubble of peace and comfort, protecting us from the frantic and sterile NICU. 

I looked up and saw my mom’s spirit lean over my son’s incubator and whisper “You can do it.” Maybe Heaven’s Daycare wasn’t a joke after all.  

Jaxson’s heart rate evened out. His oxygen level rose to 97 percent. Doctors didn’t know why he suddenly stabilized, but I did.

Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months. I spent nearly all my time at the hospital willing my son to breathe. I lost track of how many blood transfusions he needed. I never saw my mom’s spirit again, but I could always feel her—I knew Jaxson and I weren’t navigating the NICU alone. Jaxson got stronger and healthier, and ninety-three days after his birth, he was discharged from the hospital.

At home, Jaxson’s days were filled with snuggles, smiles, and coos and eventually sticks, rocks, and trucks. Our little boy kept us laughing with his spirited and funny personality. The edges surrounding his traumatic birth were softening. We were checking specialists off the list like it was no big deal. We were so close to a life that didn’t revolve around doctors, medicine, and therapy.

Then we got a call with results from a brain MRI. The doctor said, “We found a tumor. It’s small but it’s deep within Jaxson’s brain.” I dropped the phone. “We think it’s benign, but, unfortunately, it’s in a life-threatening location if it grows.”

It didn’t seem fair that our boy would fight so hard to survive the NICU and then be forced to fight again.

Jaxson got MRIs every three months to monitor the tumor. We tried to stay cheerful and calm each time, for our son’s sake. Jaxson had no idea. He bounced into the oncologist’s office, climbed up on the chair and declared, “I doctor now!”

Then we got unexpected news. “The tumor is shrinking without treatment,” the doctor said. “It’s rare but sometimes this happens. We don’t know why.”

But I do.

When Jaxson’s Guardian Angel wrapped wings of love around her first grandson that Tuesday night in the NICU, she never let go.

Andrea Mullenmeister

Andrea Mullenmeister is a freelance writer based in Minnesota. She is a mother to her warrior son who was born more than four months before his due date. Andrea writes about her family’s story of love, hope, and survival at https://anearlystartblog.com/. Her essays about motherhood, prematurity, and parenting a child with extra needs have been featured nationally on Brain, Child, The Huffington Post, The Mighty, and Preemie Babies 101. She loves to grow good food, play in the woods, and laugh with her family.