We got pregnant four years ago via IVF. We used donor eggs, fresh and locally sourced. I guess our pregnancy mirrored the current foodie trend, although it wasn’t quite farm to table. More like follicle to petri dish to uterus, with a five-day incubation in between.

You see, I was too old to supply eggs of my own. I was two months shy of forty-seven when we began the process, and I was forty-eight when I had the boys. Everything in between went smoothly enough (relatively speaking), from embryo transfer to the thirty-fourth week. But that’s when things took a rapid tumble downhill. That’s when my “Advanced Maternal” body declared mutiny on the whole pregnancy thing by throwing some protein in my urine and slinging my blood pressure into the stratosphere.

I don’t remember a whole lot between then and the two days it took to bring the boys into the world because magnesium was introduced to my blood stream (Which is the Devil. Magnesium is the Devil). I recall a little ambulance ride up over the state line where our maternal/fetal specialist practiced. I recall fainting while lying flat on my back. I recall oxygen masks and my 300-pound husband tightly poured into the wrong size scrubs. I recall (fuzzily) my twenty-four-year-old baby girl sleeping on an orange couch in the corner of my hospital room with the cushions piled over her head. I vaguely recall talking to my eldest baby girl via FaceTime and her double and triple checking what actions the doctors and nurses were taking. And I remember kissing the boys on their wet little heads before they were wheeled away into the NICU. That’s pretty much all I remember about those couple of days.

Now we were extremely lucky with our boys. Thirty-four weeks is a solid gestation time for preemies. Hearts and lungs are developed and strong. Immune systems are decent. The only real issues we had to face were body temperature maintenance and feeding challenges. Boys are notoriously lazy eaters (you would never know it now), and because of that, Tate and Parker spent six days and nine days in the NICU, respectively.

For those of you unaware, September is NICU awareness month. That’s why I am revisiting one of the most difficult times in our lives. NICUs are hard places, one of the hardest places on this earth. Babies should never have to suffer. Innocence should know no pain. Innocence should know no struggle.

I think that’s why NICU families will always have a tender place in my heart. I don’t know if there is any situation quite like a NICU stay. Think about it – here you are, in what is supposed to be one of the most magical and perfect times of your life – the birth of your child. It’s the moment you and your spouse have prepared for since you first peed on the stick and got the news. And then something goes wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong. There is nothing quite like that kind of an emotional hijack.

And Mike and I had it relatively easy, all things considered. (Although at the time, it felt anything but.) Nine days in the NICU would be a Godsend for some preemie parents.  We were surrounded by cribs housing babies who had been there for months and months, parents loyally by their side. Babies who had undergone surgery after surgery. Babies whose cribs were peppered with personal items from home. Or worse. Babies who had been there for months and months with no personal items and no family members to be found. Crack babies. Unwanted babies. The world can be a cruel place for some of the most amazingly beautiful miracles ever made.

I can’t even imagine seeing the suffering day after day. I have no idea how the staff holds it together amongst that kind of injustice. My faith would waiver, I tell you. It would waiver big time. As it was, our babies were loved and they were relatively healthy and they were incredibly strong. All of those little warrior babies in the NICU are strong. Much stronger than the parents. Me, I was an absolute disaster.

Those nine NICU days, I felt like a giant, injured cuticle, stripped and torn, tender and exposed. I cried at the slightest provocation. When the elevator was too slow, I cried. When the hallway was too crowded, I cried. When I held the boys for the first time… I didn’t cry. I vomited — the anesthesia from the C-section. But that second time –oh, I cried.

I cried when I pumped for what felt like hours the very first time – my nipples stretched thin and angry and complaining like hell. I cried. And when all I got for my hard-fought labor was the tiniest, most miniscule amount of colostrum you ever did see, I cried. And when the nurse divided up that tiny little miniscule amount of colostrum and put it on two separate Q-tips and swished it around in the boys’ mouths, I cried.

When we bathed the boys for the first time, their wrinkly little alien bodies so slippery and small I feared they would slide right through my fingers, I cried. And when my milk came in and my chest rippled and ridged and cordoned itself off like a honeycomb, chamber after chamber flooded with liquid gold, I cried.

The worst, though, was if somebody was nice to me. If somebody smiled kindly at me, it was over. Or if I saw something beautiful. Like my boys. They did me in every time. But so did the long, sunny mural on the way to the NICU — a green and golden ant village, with ants sailing on leaf rafts, or ants raking their gardens, or ants swinging on tire swings or flying on butterflies. It was beautiful and whimsical and comforting. And it sent me into a bleary, teary, snot-filled mess every time Mike wheeled me down the hall.

And it wasn’t just me. This NICU time was also the first time I ever saw Mike cry. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s a meathead. And he’s a fixer. But this was something beyond his fixing abilities. This was all up to his boys — his tiny, fragile, five-pound boys. They had to decide when they would eat what they needed to eat – and on a consistent basis – to be allowed to go home.

I saw him break down for the very first time one morning at the breakfast table. His shoulders shuddered, his face folded under and crumpled, and there, above his cereal bowl at the Ronald McDonald House (I can’t EVEN tell you how much we owe to the Ronald McDonald House, but that’s another blog), he wept. And I cried. (Apparently there was another instance where he sneaked into the chapel across from our room and cried and cried and cried. I wasn’t there for that one. But I’m telling you, the NICU is hard on the strongest among us.)

Yes, the NICU is a hard, hard place, but the people there are far from hard. They are big-hearted and oh-so-capable. The nurses and doctors who work in a NICU are special people. They have to be, to work somewhere where innocent souls suffer so unjustly. To dedicate themselves to a life surrounded by the harsh realities of a cold universe…every single day… I don’t understand their endless capacity for TLC without frustration, but I am forever grateful for them.

Those nurses, especially, were our salvation. They instructed us, they comforted us, they listened to us. They rattled us sometimes. And sometimes they just made us mad.

I’ll never forget one NICU nurse in particular. I thought I hated her. I thought she was the worst one of the bunch. She was grouchy and my nerves were brittle, and I humbly admit I despised her. I thought she was so self-righteous. Turns out, she was just plain right.

That cranky, caustic nurse was actually an efficient, matter-of-fact caretaker who knew her stuff and took a no-nonsense approach to her little patients. She was the one who showed us the technique that finally got Parker to eat so we could take him home. She may have been cranky, but she was an absolute Christ figure. She sacrificed personality for patient progress, and she saved us from who knows how many more days in the NICU and how many more nights in the Ronald McDonald House. I will never forget her grumpy ass.

Yes, NICUs are hard places and special places. They are grueling. They grind parents down. But they lift babies up. They are a place of miracles, where miracles go after they are born, to heal up and head home – to their earthly home or their heavenly home.

NICUs may feel like they are Godforsaken places, where the innocent suffer without cause, but NICUs are far from Godforsaken. He puts His best angels there:  the gentlest, the ablest – and sometimes the crankiest angels there to do His work. They shelter those little miracles until they are ready for the world.

But sometimes the world is just not ready for some of them and they go back to Him. At least that’s what I have to tell myself. Otherwise I can’t. I just can’t.

Yes, NICUs are very hard places.