The NICU is not the place you go to meet people. It's an intensive care unit, not a party. Chances are, if you're here, it's a high-pressure situation. The background noise is beeps and buzzes and the whooshing of air in and out of ventilators. There's a clicking, too, a “tck, tck, tck" of the feeding, pumping, counting down the milliliters of milk and vitamins dripping down tubes and into bellies.
This is not the soundtrack for small talk.
And yet, when my son, born prematurely at 30 weeks, was one month into his NICU resort stay and clearly thinking he was on sabbatical and would return shortly to the womb, I met the woman who would become my best friend. I met her on the worst day of my life.
Brain scans are funny. Dots on black and white and gray delineate good from bad, solid from liquid, tissue from bone. On the day in question, my son had a 30-day brain scan, unbeknownst to us. Apparently, this is standard procedure. (Over the next few months—how long it took us to graduate—we would come to learn all the procedures much better than we would have liked.)
It was a sunny and warm day in April, the kind that makes all the kids in all the classrooms stare out the window and wish for summer. Of course, inside the NICU the weather is irrelevant behind tinted windows and fluorescent lighting. But I carried the mood in with me, a spring breeze along with my pumped milk in its little cooler.
The nurse in my son's room was new. They always were. I never could learn them all. She informed me that the head of the NICU would like to see me. She'd page him, she said. And then she looked at me three seconds longer than was normal. That's how I knew something was up.
When he entered, the big man himself, he spoke a great many words I did not hear while pointing to gray spots on a picture of my son's brain. I looked at the scan, and then I looked at my son in my arms, awake and eyeing my like, “You, hey you, I see that milk there. What's the hold up, lady?"
And then I heard the doctor say, “periventricular leukomalacia." Eleven syllables to tell me that my child had damage in all four quadrants of his brain. Very gently, I kissed him on his head, which smelled of hand sanitizer, and handed him to the nurse so I wouldn't drop him. Then I walked out and lost it – lost all control of my body and words and thoughts. I cried and shook and tore at my clothes a little.
Hours later, I went back in and sat in the hospital-issued rocker and held my son again. We looked at each other. He sized me up with an owlish stare and then stretched and pooped, very casually, like he was The Big Lebowski and I, his bowling buddy. No biggie, man. The nurse laughed from her corner where she'd been charting stats. We got to talking.
Five years later, this nurse is in my contacts under “family." She has a husband and a house and a dog and a mother, and I've seen it all. It sounds weird to refer to your “best friend" when in your 30s, like you're one mall trip away from buying matching necklaces at Claire's. But she is.
After we came home from the NICU, finally, she called to check in. Nobody actually uses the numbers they swap on the way out the door, but she did. She came over a week later. And she's been coming over ever since, swapping quips and bringing iced coffee and all the good magazines for the pool.
We've celebrated birthdays and Thanksgivings and drunk wine at vineyards and made our husbands watch Katherine Hepburn flicks. She's the one I call when I'm losing my mind over insurance battles with my son's wheelchair or swim therapy. She's also the one I call when I watch the newest episode of “Game of Thrones."
She's my person. She's my best friend. She would roll her eyes at this. This is why we work.
You don't expect to make new friends at my age. You've got your standard go-tos locked in, the ones that don't require effort. You've already dated and wooed them. But I wooed a new one. I met the best friend I'll ever have on the worst day of my life, which I guess moves it up a notch.