There is the genre of the medical memoir, in which a narrative is constructed around shock, suffering, growth and (hopefully) triumph. Anyone who’s been through a major medical crisis in their life thinks that they can write one, but it’s one heck of a lot harder than you would think. You ever hear that cliche, truth is stranger than fiction? Often what that means is that real life fits badly into narratives, and a medical crisis is a dump-truck load of reality.
I’m trying to write such a book myself, and before I did that, I thought I ought to go read some of the preemie books that are out there. I chose three by virtue of the fact that our library carried them.
Half Baked: The Story of my Nerves, My Newborn, and How We Both Learned to Breathe, by Alexa Stevenson, Running Press Book Publishers, 2010 is by far the most enjoyably written one of the three. Stevenson’s memoir is both about her preemie’s birth and growth, and about the author’s own anxiety issues.
It’s an enjoyable narrative that makes you want to follow along with her as she reveals something emotional or something medical about the experience of an extended NICU stay. When she says something serious, she illustrates it well: “I’d always thought of shock as stillness. Shock was a woman setting down a telegram and silently folding the socks of her now-dead husband, a cool and mechanical absence from reality. For me, though, it was electric and literal. My cognitive circuits blew, and I couldn’t stop the shaking that turned my body in to a set of chattering teeth. It took ages — Jenna and Scott each holding one of my trembling, jerking legs — to administer an amniotic fluid test.”
And, then, when she says something funny, it’s also really funny, “I was there when the pediatric ophthalmologist came around, a kind, soft-spoken woman who proceeded to prop open my daughter’s eyelids open with what looked like spiders made from bent paperclips. Simone was swaddled and restrained, her eyes widened by the metal prongs, looking like something thought up by the Marquis de Sade’s less conventional cousin, the one the Marquis never invited to Christmas Dinner because he was into some truly sick $#!&.”
She spends many pages ruminating on the meaning of it all, often talking about God at length even though she’s an atheist, often wishing for the experience to mean nothing at all rather than fit into some greater story, which is kind of an ironic thing to say when you’re writing a 300-page book about it. But, here’s a good sentence that illustrates this: “I was revolted at the thought of finding meaning in the loss of a baby. How grotesquely solpistic, to reduce an existence to a single Teachable Moment, as if Ames’ demise were really about me, merely a way to impart wisdom I could glean only by losing him.”
Reading that, I wished I could tell the author that there are Biblical texts that focus on that very theme — in the Book of Job, three friends of Job come and argue with him for forty chapters about the meaning of suffering until the voice of God speaks through a whirlwind. Job gets no meaningful answer in the end as to why he’s suffering, he simply declares the supremacy of the Lord, which is why he’s considered a prophet.
The next book, I read, Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie, by Jeff Stimpson, Academy Chicago Publishers, 2004, does an excellent job of putting the reader in the moment of what’s going on. His son had intrauterine growth retardation, and was 21 ounces at birth.
Stimpson writes in present tense throughout the whole book, which I once thought was a good idea. It can illustrate a scene well, but it doesn’t do so well for illustrating a story, and gets tiresome. The book goes through his baby’s very long NICU stay, a trip home, and then some more hospital stay as his medical problems don’t resolve.
Stimpson has a tendency to list off what happened more than tell a cohesive story, and he does it with short, choppy sentences. He has a background in newspaper writing, which might be his problem — that he’s writing this story like a really long 12-inch crime story for a daily paper. Or, it might be that he’s a male writer from New York, writing a story about his child like a Sam Spade crime novel.
At any rate, the book is good for learning about the tiny steps a child with prematurity and respiratory problems makes, and for learning about what it’s like dealing with a diagnosis of autism.
The third book is Preemie Parents: Recovering from Baby’s Premature Birth, by Lisa McDermott-Perez, Praeger Publishers, 2007, and it’s awfully clinical. I think it was meant to be clinical, as it provides an assortment of how-to articles for parents needing to keep their minds together while going through the stress of the NICU. It also includes articles from NICU nurses, parents who have been through the process, and therapists who help parents deal with negative thoughts, including feeling bad over having to go home alone without the baby. It’s a good book, but you’ll feel like you’re in class when you read it.