Kate Hopper teaches writing online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her just-published memoir Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood discusses her poignant journey before and after the early delivery of her firstborn, Stella, who turns 10 today.
I know I’ve been talking a lot lately about how grown-up you seem. And it’s true. Each time I look at you I’m amazed by the young person that you’ve become. And now you’re ten years old.
When you were one, two, and three years old, I spent your birthday reliving the day you were born. When I woke in the morning, I would look at the time and think, yes, this is when I jolted from my hospital bed, nauseous, the magnesium sulfate thick in my veins. As the clock ticked into late morning and then afternoon, I nodded and thought, this is when the doctor hooked me up to the rice bag. This is when she told me you weren’t tolerating labor. This is when they rolled me into the operating room. This is when, this is when. It was as if I had to relive that day in the safety that the future provided – a future in which you made it out of the NICU alive, a future in which together we made it through the long winter that followed your hospitalization, a future in which you were growing into a healthy, funny, happy, smart little girl.
And now you’re not little anymore. You’ve outgrown your booster seat. You read to yourself at night. You no longer need help shampooing your hair. You wear deodorant, for God’s sake. You’ve outgrown holding my hand in public, and you don’t much like hugs when I meet you at the bus stop. That’s okay though, because you still let me snuggle you at home. You still crawl into my lap, your long, tan legs draped over the arm of the chair. When you do that, I look into your blue-gray eyes, kiss your nose, and squeeze you tight.
I couldn’t have known that you would become who you are—that’s not the way life works, of course. But I wish that on the day you were born, I could have had a glimmer of who you’d be, because then those early days and weeks wouldn’t have been so terrifying. I wouldn’t have been so afraid to love you, to lose you.
When you were just a couple of weeks old, I met a man, a friend of a friend, who, when he heard that you were a preemie and that you were in the NICU, took out his wallet and pulled out a photograph of his two daughters. He told me their names and then pointed to his older daughter and said that she’d been born three months early. I stared at the photo. His daughter had long dark hair, a narrow face, beautiful blue eyes. “She’s okay?” I asked.
“Perfect,” he said. “A normal twelve-year-old.”
I remember feeling a rush of hope. I couldn’t imagine you like that—a girl, almost a young woman. I couldn’t imagine a sister, another daughter. Then he squeezed my hand and said, “Your daughter is going to be okay.”
Do you remember last fall, Stella, when we stopped to get bagels in St. Paul? There was a woman holding the door and she had a tiny baby in her arms. I could tell right away he was a preemie—the bulbous eyes, the narrow cheeks. I asked her how hold he was and she titled her head and said, “Well, he was born 8 weeks early, so he should only be a week old.”
“I thought so,” I said, smiling. “He’s got that look.” And then I put my arm around your shoulders and said, “Well, this is my 32-weeker, and now she’s nine.” And do you remember the woman’s face, the way it lit up, full of hope?
I want you to always be proud of the fact that you were a preemie, that you were born a fighter. I know you understand the power in that, and I also know you understand the importance of sharing your story. Because stories are what connect us to each other. They give hope.
Today I’m not looking at the clock every hour, remembering the day you were born. That day and those weeks and months have loosened their hold on me. Now it’s more recent events I remember: you on the Spanish Web at circus camp, twirling in the air like some weightless fairy; you on the soccer field on my birthday with your alternating double scissors and Maradona moves, scoring your first goal of the season; you holding Zoë’s hand her first day of kindergarten, taking such good care of your little sister. I’m so proud of you, Stella. I love you so much.
Happy Birthday, my sweet one.
**Stella read this, we cried, and she said it was okay to post.
Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood. She teaches writing online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. She is also author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers and an editor at Literary Mama. www.katehopper.com.
"There is no writer I'd rather follow this journey with than Kate Hopper. Her storytelling skills are stunning. You will be rooting for her and her new family all the way."
—Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters
"Kate Hopper’s Ready for Air came to me at a moment in life when I needed her unabashed, beautiful description of this unmarked breathless territory: a birth plan gone awry. Hopper does not simply chronicle her experience as a new mother; she stakes a claim with her edgy and wise renderings of a woman admitting every limitation, from money to energy to health to hope. By sharing on the page what cannot be said aloud, Hopper’s gorgeous words make room for more real women in the nursery."
—Sonya Huber, author of Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir and Opa Nobody