Happy Birthday, Carter.
In almost exactly 1 hour, you will be one year old. It's hard for me to comprehend that, for many reasons. It's partly the typical parent "I can't believe my baby is growing up so fast" thing, but it's also because you weren't meant to come into the world until late March. I tend to think about you in terms of your adjusted age of 9.5 months, and so it's strange to think that technically, you are one year old.
Despite your dramatic and high-tech entrance into the world, you have exceeded all expectations in this year. I was told I probably wouldn't be able to breastfeed you, but here we are going strong, with no end in sight. I was told to expect your NICU stay to be difficult, with a "one step forward, two steps back" pattern, but it really wasn't. It was basically as smooth a ride as a 29-weeker could have. I was told that you would likely need physical therapy, that your health would be fragile in the first year, that you would bear the scars of your prematurity in some way, and so far none of that has come to pass.
I look back on those two months you were in the NICU now as if they were a sort of dream. The first week felt like a month, and the last month flew by as if it were a week. My entire universe shifted its center the day of your birth, perhaps more dramatically than would have happened if you were full-term. My life became about sitting by your hospital bed, hour after hour, day after day, night after night. The days were punctuated by shift changes and meals in nearby restaurants, and visits to the pumping room every 2 hours, but they centered around the precious hours I got to hold you.
You know that song I sing to you every night when you go to bed? I sang it to you in the NICU, almost every day. You would curl into my chest like a kitten and fall fast asleep to the sound of my voice and the background buzz of humming equipment and beeping monitors, and I would sing to you, and cradle your tiny body with the palm of my hand, and wonder what the future held for us.
I was so focused in the moment then, perhaps because that is how one survives in those situations, but I couldn't begin to imagine what it would be like to see you the size of a full term baby, or sitting up, or smiling, or crawling, standing, walking. I have now seen almost all of those things, and now my perception is the reverse: it's hard to remember what it was like to see you so tiny and frail, hooked up to machines to survive, your peaceful existence inside my body cut so short.
On second thought, no -- you never seemed frail to me. There were moments when I became painfully aware of just how fragile a creature you were, but you were never frail. You were strong from the moment you were cut from my body, and you screamed your protests loud enough to make me laugh. You breathed, and cried, and kicked your legs, and you fought. God, how you fought, Carter. I look at you now and see a headstrong, smart, sensitive, stubborn, empathic, curious little boy, and I saw the seeds of the you I know now the moment I first heard your voice, the moment I first laid eyes on you.
You are strong, and you are beautiful, and you have the sense of an old soul about you. Sometimes I look at you and I see my beloved grandfather, and I think that if I believed in reincarnation, I would think that you had returned him to me, to all of us who miss him so much. Then I smile and remember that he is just as much a part of you as are all those who came before. So in a sense, you have returned him to me, along with Grandma, and the great-grandparents I knew as a child. You have made them, me, all of us -- immortal. I think that might be the greatest gift of parenthood, the sense that the best of you will live forever.
The day you were born, Doug somehow had the presence of mind to capture your first moments on video. I hadn't watched this for a while until this morning, and again I am struck by your strength and spirit.
Happy Birthday, Carter. You have most definitely earned it!