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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Back to the Sea - A Tale for the Holidays...

Back to the Sea is a story I wrote about the complications that occurred when the second ex-Mrs. Ford and myself were expecting the birth of the twins and the months following. My mother had long been a champion of my writing and I had mailed her (via the quaint US Postal Service) everything I wrote and she was always enthusiastic, always positive that one day “you’ll publish one of these…”

I submitted this story to Twins Magazine and promptly forgot about it, fully expecting the form-rejection slip that I could toss into the envelope with the other seven thousand. When Mom suddenly passed, I was in the midst of moving from my studio apartment (having split with the second ex-Mrs. Ford) to another apartment in a Chicago suburb. The girls and I drove to Ohio for her funeral and I came back to Chicago frazzled, with still some moving to do. One of the last things I took out of the studio apartment was my answering machine, which was blinking furiously. I pressed “Play” and tucked in with all the messages from bill collectors and telemarketers was a message from Twins Magazine informing me that they would like to buy the rights to my story and publish it in their magazine. I had sold my first work!

My first instinct, of course, was to call the one person who would get the most joy out of this announcement, but of course, we had buried her the week before and that was simply one call I would never be able to make again. But I still like to think that she not only knew about it, but probably had something to do with it as well…

Back to the Sea

It was Allison’s job to give things back to the sea. While Logan and I spent the afternoon digging in the sand and burying each other, as well as the beach ball and anything else we could find to bury, Allison dutifully returned things to the sea. Rocks, sticks and even scoops of sand were diligently carried to the wet beach, to the place where the waves die on the shore. There, they were given new life, a second chance—hurled into the approaching water with as much gusto as the four and a half year-old arms could muster. The fact that it was the not the ocean, but North Avenue Beach, just South of Fullerton, Lake Michigan, City of Chicago mattered little to the young girl—this was her mission.

I did not question the mission—my job is not to question—I merely observed and envied the single-mindedness with which she approached the task. Trip after trip she waded into the chilly water—it was after all, only June—braving waves nearly waist deep, to better deposit her cargo into the depths. She observed sticks as they floated away, and she watched handfuls of the beach slide through her fingers and settle into the shifting sand at her feet beneath the waves. But Allison’s life had not always been a day at the beach.

From the time the twins were en utero, it was readily apparent that neither of their lives were to be taken for granted. In fact, simply making it out of the NICU would take weeks, each small victory relished for only a moment, with us daring to herald each new miracle with little more than a sigh and a prayer. We as parents spent our
sleepless nights with the silent knowledge that our next call to the NICU could just as easily bring news of the latest setback rather than the move forward that would allow us to bring our babies home.

Twin-twin transfusion occurs when the fetuses in utero battle over nutrients and one twin retains the lion’s share while the other slowly starves. This situation brings harm to both unborn children, with the over-nourished baby in just as much danger as the undernourished. Living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I got the call at work from my wife. “The babies have stopped moving,” she told me. “Maybe they’re sleeping,” I said. My wife was prone to dramatics and I was accustomed to such calls. In fact, the day before, she had told me, “Well, that’s it—I’m not getting out of bed for the
rest of the pregnancy…I’ll crawl to the bathroom and back to bed, but that’s all…” Being a model husband, I fielded all such statements with appropriate skepticism.

“They’re not sleeping,” she said, her voice filled with genuine concern. Her concern became my concern, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. She made it to her doctor, whose concern it also became, almost immediately. At around ten o’clock in the evening, a decision was made: My unborn children were in serious
trouble—the rarity known as twin-twin transfusion had been slowly draining the still-developing babies of their strength. It was trouble for which the hospital in Santa Fe was unprepared. My wife and her cargo would be transported by ambulance to Albuquerque, where the staff and the hospital were more versed and better equipped to handle the potentially fatal situation.

I followed the ambulance, my mind turning cartwheels in my head, my hands and feet somehow (after erroneously taking me to the wrong hospital) delivering me to the Presbyterian Hospital not too far behind. My wife was immediately hooked up to monitors and straps and gadgets all designed to help determine the well being of the tiny, unborn babies. At five in the morning on December 23rd, 1993, another decision was made: The babies would have to come out. Two months early, barely clinging to life—this was the only chance they had.

The Caesarian delivery was if nothing else quick, and mercifully bloodless. I am not one who maintains consciousness well at the sight of blood, but when the nurse asked if I would like to see my daughter, I saw no recourse. I gripped my wife’s hand tightly and with all the courage I could gather, I peeked over the curtain in time
to watch them whisk the little, shivering white bundle away. Quickly. The next little girl came and went with equal velocity and the births were over—in under five minutes.

Having managed to bring our daughters into the world, we now faced the awful possibility that neither child might make it through the night. However, thankfully, attached to respirators, both girls made it through what was our best Christmas and at the same time, our worst Christmas ever. We were thankful for the birth of our
children, which had gone without a hitch, yet we were despondent over the unstable nature of their conditions.

Apnea/bradycardia were the next hurdles we faced. It seemed that neither child was having much success at keeping their hearts or lungs going without outside assistance. On one memorable occasion, three and a half-pound Allison went blue in my arms as I fed her from a tiny bottle. Without warning, she had simply stopped breathing. Bells and whistles shattered the calm of the NICU and I shook the
little baby gently (while screaming for the nurses) and she finally remembered to breathe.

Allison, in the meantime, had also taken to extended fits of screaming and upon examination, it was discovered that her body was not properly disposing of the fluid that surrounded her brain and spinal cord. This condition, known as hydrocephalus (and in the old days as “water on the brain”) was causing an abnormal increase of the cerebrospinal fluid within her cranial cavity—the storage area between Allison’s brain and her skull. The excess fluid caused an unnatural swelling of the skull and a tremendous pressure within. The pressure within her head put the child in great pain and several spinal taps were performed to relieve the pressure and also with the hope of “jump starting” her body into performing the task on its own.

When the spinal taps were ineffective, the next procedure advised was to “shunt” the child—to install a valve in the skull and run a drainage tube down her neck, under her arm, over her ribcage and into her stomach, where the excess fluids would be discharged as waste. Before the operation, feeling as helpless as any man in history, I wondered just how I would get through this if little Allie didn’t make it. Luckily, I never had to find out. I remember the first time I was allowed to see my baby girl after the surgery. I was brought to tears by the sight of this tiny child, not yet four pounds, her head swaddled in bandages, tubes running out of her arm, a huge respirator tube attached to the lower half of her face—but she was alive, given yet another chance.

The rules were thus: The girls had to make it seventy-two hours without a “spell” of apnea or bradycardia. They had to breathe on their own for three days—for three days their little hearts would have to beat non-stop—then they could come home. Two times, they made it to the seventieth hour, and we packed hopefully for the trip to
Albuquerque, only to learn that a spell had occurred. To our surprise, little Allison, she of the brain surgery and indomitable spirit, was the first to find the will to breathe and the strength to run her machine on her own for three whole days. Though she would be attached to a monitor for a month or so, our little girl was coming home. Logan came home shortly afterward, and both girls proceeded to put the
hospital stay behind them. The respirators, the incubators, the surgery and the gentle, caring hands of their nurses all became distant memories and the girls at last began the daunting challenge of simply being Allison and Logan.

That warm June afternoon at the North avenue Beach, it was Allison’s job to return things to the sea, for a second chance, a new life. It was as if the actions were somehow ingrained in her very spirit—it seemed only natural. She looked at me and smiled, throwing a stone into the waves. For a moment, it seemed she knew where my mind had taken me. Another rock, another second chance. It was only fair, she probably figured—everyone deserves a second chance. After all, not so long ago, she had been given just such a chance herself.

Happy eighteenth birthday, girls - I love you more today than yesterday!


  1. I about cried while reading this. Very well written!

  2. I cried... beautiful story. Wonderfully written.

  3. A traumatic beginning to wonderful lives.The important details of a rough beginning don't overwhelm the emotion of little girls surviving and thriving. Great story Brother Ford.

  4. A traumatic beginning to wonderful lives.The important details of a rough beginning don't overwhelm the emotion of little girls surviving and thriving. Great story Brother Ford.