June 15th marked a celebration I didn't know if I'd ever see: my son's fifth birthday. Born not breathing, Nicholas was ferried to Boston's Children's Hospital for immediate immersion in a "cooling bed," a unit that would lower his body temperature to 92.3 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 hours. It was a relatively new technology that would save his life.
My husband and I spent weeks wringing our hands by his tiny crib, praying, crying, hoping the MRIs of his brain would pass with flying colors. In the wee hours of the night, I recall looking at pictures of healthy children posted outside the NICU who had gotten their start in the same antiseptic room and had blossomed into healthy 4- and 5-year-olds. But we didn't know then if our son would live and if he did survive, what his quality of life would be.
On the 15th, we set up the bouncy house for a posse of 4 and 5-year-olds in our backyard. Nicholas chose a hockey theme for his party, and a cake bedecked with a skating rink boasted five candles. After a week of never-ending rain, the weather was beautiful, filled with sunshine and warmth for the big day. There was lawn bowling, face painting and much celebrating. We assembled a quote board of Nicholas's most memorable lines from the year, including his prayers one night when he asked, "God bless the Superheroes who keep us safe. Superman, Batman and Robin." We have watched in awe and delight as our chubby-cheeked baby has grown into an active, funny boy who surprises us every day with his poet's soul, calling me to the window to witness a rare sunset, streaked with pinks and oranges.
But at the same time, I was thinking of a dear friend who just weeks ago, got a diagnosis of leukemia. She is a person who has shaped my life more than she will ever know, and while she lives hundreds of miles away, she is on my mind every day. She weathered those dark days in the hospital with me when Nicholas was first born. Now, it is my turn to help her however I can, to bring whatever light I might find to this particular darkness.
Last night, Nicholas and I danced around in our rec room; we held microphones and made up words to any songs we could think of while the electronic keyboard played music in the background. There was "Sweet Caroline" and "Holiday" and "On Top of Spaghetti." We jumped and twirled and sang our lungs out. When my husband came downstairs, his eyebrows arched, I'm sure he thought we'd lost our minds. For Nicholas, it was sheer fun, a way to burn off energy and excitement. As for me, I was dancing to celebrate him, to throw off worry; it was, in part, a shaman's dance warding off evil from those I care about.
"With luck, this will all be a distant memory," one of the NICU doctors told us as we stood over Nicholas's crib five years ago. For my dear friend, I hope her battle against an army of white cells will become just that, an ugly blip she has to get through before she can get on with the business of living the rest of her life. For our son, who continues to explore, discover and celebrate, I will be forever grateful for how those first dark days transformed so miraculously into a vibrant little 5-year-old who can't wait to hop on his birthday scooter, skating away proudly, full of hope, the bright sun warming his skin.
May the days ahead be filled with many more firsts for him and my friend alike.