I took Nolan to OHSU today for his cleft team visit, which happens every 6 months and involves seeing specialist after specialist to check up on his progress. We first visited Doernbecher Children's Hospital at OHSU shortly after we found out about Nolan's cleft, while I was still pregnant. But our first visit there with Nolan was when he was 4 days old. In spite of being utterly exhausted from lack of sleep and recovering from a c-section, I remember that visit suprisingly clearly. Tiny Nolan lying on the table while the plastic surgeon examined the extent of his cleft. The first tape being applied to his cheeks, which would spend the next 6 months in some state of redness or bleeding from the constant presence of that tape. The surreal realization that my baby was really, truly going to have surgery.
In all my visits back there since, I have never been in that same room. Until today. It's funny how memories can be so visceral. Walking into the room hit me like a punch to the gut I didn't see coming. Nolan, walking beside me, chatting about his new Hot Wheels and asking his endless questions, no longer the infant I first carried into that room in my arms. Nolan, lip intact, palate intact, talking as clearly as any other almost-three year old I have met. The baby I feared would never learn to suck, sipping from a juice box as a reward for letting the doctor look into his ears.
That day, that first day in that room, so tired and so unsure of what was to come, I had no idea yet how much I could bear, how much I could endure, how much I could love. I couldn't yet see the struggle with the NAM, the endless crying, the bleeding cheeks. I couldn't see the sleepless night following the lip surgery, looking down at the face of a baby who was mine and yet not mine, struggling to understand what had become of the face I had loved so much, loved in spite - loved because - of the cleft that the world told me made him disfigured. His defect, his smile, the face of my child. I couldn't see the long nights that followed, the second surgery and even worse recovery, the crying and screaming. I couldn't see the unexpected conception and premature birth of my second child, Nolan's brother and all that would follow that day.
I was just tired, and afraid. I just wanted my baby to be mine, to just hold him and keep him safe, and not have to do any of those things that lay ahead in the future unseen and unimaginable.
Now, with the virtues of hindsight, I can look back on that day with the knowledge that it was all worth it, every moment. Now, I can hardly recall what he looked like before, which brings mixed emotions. When I walk through the craniofacial clinic lobby and I see the babies wearing the NAM, I want to hug their moms and say "It's ok, see? Look at my son, look at my little miracle!" The problem is, just like me back in those early days, they wouldn't understand my words; and although they would believe me logically, a mother's heart doesn't absorb logic and reason so easily. Their suffering must be their own, they must come out on the other side as well, to look back on those days and wonder: Holy crap, how did we make it through all that?
But we did. Somehow, it has been nearly 3 years since that first day, and while that seems a long time, in some ways it feels like it could have been even longer. It is worlds away. I was a different person. Time and the struggles we went through have changed me; but more than that, motherhood has changed me. Nolan has changed me. He has taught me that everything we will ever be is already present in us when we are born; that we can overcome anything. That love is stronger than I ever could have imagined.
That a smile can mean more than anything in the entire world even if - especially if - it isn't perfect.