Kelley Benham French’s three-part Tampa Bay Times series about her daughter’s extremely premature birth may be the most exquisite narrative we’ve read all year. The baby was born a “micro preemie,” in that gray zone just before a fetus is considered medically “viable” enough to even try to save. Deciding whether to “let her die rather than face the odds” of mental and physical damage was just one of the family’s trials. Here’s some of what we loved about “Never Let Go,” whose final installment, “Baby’s Breath,” ran online today:
>It’s brave. What horror this experience was, for the writer and her husband, Tom French, and yet she treads steadily, gracefully, through each unimaginable step without self-pity or sentimentality. If only every fighter-child had a mother so well equipped to tell the story of what it takes to survive. “Never Let Go” is a love letter, a document, an acknowledgment:
Tom wheeled me to her portholed plastic box. The nurse introduced herself as Gwen, but I barely heard her. There, through the clear plastic, was my daughter. She was red and angular, angry like a fresh wound. She had a black eye and bruises on her body. Tubes snaked out of her mouth, her belly button, her hand. Wires moored her to monitors. Tape obscured her face. Her chin was long and narrow, her mouth agape because of the tubes. Dried blood crusted the corner of her mouth and the top of her diaper. The diaper was smaller than a playing card, and it swallowed her. She had no body fat, so she resembled a shrunken old man, missing his teeth. Her skin was nearly translucent, and through her chest I could see her flickering heart.
She kicked and jerked. She stretched her arms wide, palms open, as if in welcome or surrender.
>It’s honest about the embarrassing, gross things that make us human, and about the conflicting feelings over whether her baby should live or die, and about fleeting feelings toward caregivers, whom we tend to gild in hindsight (“If another nurse called (breast milk) ‘liquid gold,’ I was going to spit.”) Not many writers would admit to snarling at a nursery full of regular newborns on her way to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, but French does, sort of hilariously:
Vicodin had been prescribed, but I had skipped the dose because I wanted to keep drugs out of the milk. I came to the long window of what I thought of as the Fat Baby Nursery. This was the place for healthy newborns — goliaths who wailed petty complaints with robust lungs. “What’s your problem, fatty?” I said to one. No 9-pounder had any right to complain.
>It’s well reported and beautifully handles exposition. We learn about the medical limbo-land of micro preemies not in discrete chunks – here, Reader, is your background, and here is your context – but rather strictly through the French family’s narrative and the characters French chose to bring forward: an emotionally wary nurse, a physician everyone called “Terror Doc,” etc. One great passage:
There were rows of incubators covered with quilts to shut out light and sound. I couldn’t see or approach the babies inside. I expected to hear crying, but babies didn’t cry here. Their faces contorted in protest, but the tubes in their throats stopped the sound. The machines beeped and alarmed. The room swarmed with people in scrubs. Here and there sat bleary parents in various stages of boredom and shock. I did not know my place in this new world.
The NICU was a technological triumph. Science had made life possible at earlier and earlier stages of development, but inside those possibilities, terrible bargains were made. Science, ambition, compassion and common sense collided here, every day.
Another parent once called it the Zero Zone, and when I heard that, my mind flooded with context and understanding. It was a place that existed outside of time, apart from everything I used to know and from the person I used to be. It was as if I’d been jerked out of my own shoes, out of the life I recognized. Every second was an improbable gift and an agonizing eternity. Would my baby die today? Would she die before lunch? If I left for an hour, would she die while I was gone? There was no future, no past. There was only a desperate struggle to maintain.
The Zero Zone. The idea became hypnotic, took on multiple interpretations. Our baby was born at a unique window of time, at 23 weeks and six days’ gestation. She was a thwarted miscarriage, not yet fully her own person with her own standing. Because the questions were so unanswerable, the decision to put her on life support and allow her a chance to live had belonged to Tom and me, not the doctors and not the state.
This place was a frontier. Between life and death, certainly, but also between right and wrong, and between who we used to be and who we were becoming.
>It explores the ethics of parental desperation, medical aggressiveness, and the un-democratic nature of global healthcare:
Juniper’s situation raised broader questions that are impossible to consider when a newborn baby is gasping for breath. How does one long-shot baby justify so much expense, when so many people go without health care?
One day, a friend asked me a difficult question, trusting that I knew she meant no harm.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, “but wouldn’t it be better to vaccinate a million kids in Africa?”
>It nods at the human need for levity:
Tom and I discovered it was impossible to stay miserable around the clock. We amused ourselves by speculating about the romantic lives of the doctors and nurses. One doctor looked like a lost Kennedy. Another one — I called him Dimples — kept the nurses laughing. We could hear them out in the hall. Our favorite was a glossy-haired nurse we called Cupcake who wore Grey’s Anatomy label scrubs. I imagined all of them screwing in supply closets and gossiping at the nurses’ station. One of the doctors, while sketching a diagram of the untenable situation in my uterus, asked if I had any questions.
“Just one,” I said. “Is it me or are the people on this floor unusually hot?”
“Yes,” he said, “and thank God for it.”
All of these people had been between my legs, and I was too wrecked to care.
>It’s inspiring. You think Kelley and Tom French are the main characters – and they most certainly are – but then somewhere in the middle of Part 2 the baby – kicking, squirming, batting away caregivers’ hands, opening and closing her eyes – becomes the clear protagonist. It’s a transition so deft you almost miss it. The baby’s physical responses begin to imply human will, and suddenly we have a whole new heroine. Named Juniper:
Juniper’s eyes were just starting to open after being fused shut for so long. Now she opened them wide and looked right at her.
The doctor saw a baby who was almost a month old and not yet 2 pounds, whose body was shutting down, who was sedated and groggy and in so much pain, but was fighting to engage with the world. Her eyes were opening and closing. Opening and closing. Dr. Shakeel felt her saying, I’m here. I’m here.
>It’s art. Care went into every sentence but not in any precious look-at-me-I’m-a-Writer way. French’s sentences do every kind of work: They shock and lull and devastate and soothe, and at just the right moment, and in just the right way. Every sentence serves the narrative. Every sentence earned its right to be there, and belongs.
We’ll come back to this piece in the New Year, with a conversation about this piece between Kelley Benham French and her close friend and Tampa Bay Times colleague Ben Montgomery, who runs the feature-writing website Gangrey.com.