No one plans to have their first kid two months early. All the books and blogs and listicles about impending parenthood offer tips on anything from nursing to diaper rash, but none explain what it’s like to spend the first month of your child’s life visiting her in the hospital. They don’t describe what it’s like to talk to your tiny creation on the other side of a plastic box with impossibly small tubes in her hands and nose.
Most importantly, nothing prepared us for the lack of normalcy that began July 4 when my water broke. I’m sure there’s a book out there somewhere that would have offered insight on baby purgatory, if only we’d known to look.
But it was summer. We had fish to catch and trails to hike. Our daughter was due at the end of August, and even in late June, I had to talk myself out of backpacking to look for golden trout.
My pregnancy was a healthy one. Our doctor approved hikes and fishing trips. She gave me permission to go camping and finish a third Cutt Slam in southwest Wyomin —a 300-plus mile adventure to catch the Cowboy State's four native strains of cutthroat trout.
But four days before we planned to leave, labor started.
Instead of driving over two mountain ranges to cast a parachute Adams at hungry trout, we raced 90 miles from our home in rural Wyoming to Rapid City Regional Hospital in South Dakota. Instead of talking about what size of tippet to tie on or which rod to use, we learned about Level 3 neonatal intensive care units, birth defects and survival rates.
We met with our neonatal doctor for the first time when I was propped in a hospital bed with tubes in my arms and "Stay Pregnant" written in big, loopy letters on a white board in my room. He told us her chances of survival were good. She would eventually go home.
When? I asked.
Yes, he said.
It sounded cheeky and was meant to be. He couldn't give us answers, but the 65-year old doctor with thick-rimmed glasses, a bald head and eyebrows that reminded me of Owl on Winnie the Pooh, brought us comfort nonetheless.
Once she was born, answers stayed the same. Her 4-pound, 2-ounce body covered in folds of wrinkled skin would operate on its own timetable.
We were lucky, we knew. She didn’t need oxygen, UV lights or operations. It could have been worse, much worse.
So we made a plan. We would stay near the hospital, an hour and a half from home, and visit our baby girl every three hours for meals. Visit too much: risk wearing her out and burning calories that should go to growing. Visit too little: risk slowing her emotional development that only comes from human contact.
We established a makeshift home in an extended stay hotel and later in the hospital itself and stuck to our plan. Every three hours, we buzzed into the locked NICU, washed our hands for two minutes scraping under our fingernails and scrubbing our palms and covered our clothes with hospital gowns. An hour later we would leave.
It was those times in between when we felt lost. We had a baby, but didn’t have our baby. We weren’t at home, and we didn’t have time to go into the nearby Black Hills. One can only get coffee, go for a walk or look for baby supplies so many times.
But we could try to fish. A small stream called Rapid Creek snaked its way through town. It had rocks for structure and banks stabilized against erosion. Little trout rose to bugs almost too small to see.
We drove back home one afternoon and retrieved our rods and reels. The next day we tried fishing a stretch behind a grocery store near an overpass as trucks rumbled by. We had 30 minutes by the time we set up our rods and wandered to the banks. The hot, July sun beat down on our heads. I floundered, sweated and cursed, and then it was time to go.
Back in the NICU, we mentioned to a nurse in passing we’d been fishing in Rapid Creek.
Don’t tell the doctor, he’ll talk your ear off.
The next day during his rounds, we did just that.
Thirty minutes after we told our doctor we tried fishing, we had a dozen homemade flies, a hand drawn maps to his honey holes and the first feeling that maybe we would find normal.
I’ll take care of your baby and your fishing needs, he said.
And he meant it.
So we went to his favorite place and cast a zebra midge under the hang of a weeping willow. The sun was setting, temperatures cooling and brown trout biting.
For the first time in weeks we didn’t think about what if and if only. We just talked about bringing our daughter to that place—breaking her out of her baby jail and letting her feel the evening air on her face. We remembered the night to recount to her later.
And then we fished.