Photo: Keiko Zoll

It’s quiet here in the NICU at night.

Judah was born this weekend coming in at 5 pounds, 7 ounces and 19 inches long. He’s perfect in every single way.

…He’s just five weeks early.

No parent ever expects this. We all read What to Expect and we glaze over the worst-case scenarios. We don’t even bother to crack open the pages about premature babies or labor because “it will never happen to us.” And yet, here we are.

For a 34-week old baby, he’s doing remarkably well. In just the 72 hours since he came into this world, we’ve received a crash course in neo-natal care, from intakes and residuals to Bradys and pre- and post-weights. We’ve changed his first diapers within an acrylic isolette. We’ve put him in a t-shirt and hat of his own. There’s been a parade of visitors.

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Every single part of this experience has been surreal.

(And I haven’t even gotten to Judah’s birth story, which involves everything from his out-of-state birth, Japanese flight attendants, olive oil and the most enthusiastic endorsement of FaceTime you’ll ever read.)

There has been little time to just come to a full stop and simply be with the notion that our son is really here, no matter how early. It’s in this quiet time tonight that the realization sinks in, that we see the long road that stretches ahead of us in three-hour increments, each feeding and vitals check bringing our son closer to coming home.

. . .

Before you can enter the NICU, you’ve gotta scrub up.

For three minutes, you must wash your hands with the soap-soaked sponge and brush, being sure to clean under each nail with the provided plastic pick. Just as we lay in bed, Larry and I have our sides at the two sinks, side-by-side at the entrance to the NICU. I stand to the right, Larry to the left. Sometimes we crack jokes. Most times, it’s just silence as the clock ticks each second of our three-minute ritual away.

In my head, I’m running through to-do list items: call George about the cats. Call the bank. Call the lactation consultant. Call the insurance company. Call the pediatrician. Respond to so-and-so’s email. Check Facebook. Schedule that blog post.

As I scrub the rough yellow soapy sponge on my horribly bruised arms from multiple failed IV sites from labor and delivery, I think to myself: “Pick up another tube of Aveeno hand lotion.” I look at my ragged, short-bitten nails and realize they’ve never been so clean in my entire life.

When you come out of the elevator onto the fourth floor, you can smell the soap from the scrub station as soon as you exit. Other patients probably don’t, but I bet you dollars to donuts that any parent with a child in the NICU could identify that smell blind-folded.

I jingle now. Watches, bracelets and rings all have to come off before scrubbing, so I wear my wedding band and engagement ring on the necklace Larry bought for me for my 30th birthday last year. As I instinctively touch these tokens of love around my neck before turning on the water, I realize my 30th birthday wish did in fact, come true: to be a mom in my 30th year.

We glance up at the clock and are almost always disappointed to see that there’s usually another full minute of scrubbing to go. I use the time as efficiently as I can, running through more mental checklists: get a pumping bustier, check to see what we still have left to get on the registry, what essentials do we need right now that we’ll have to return the duplicates of that are still in Massachusetts? The listing is endless in those three minutes.

We wave our wet hands in front of the touch-less towel dispensers, each machine playing an electronic tone that puts the two machines in a minor third harmony if we time our drying session just right. With damp elbows, we press the button on the wall to page the nurses’ desk.

“Mom and Dad here to see Judah,” we say, the same words every time.

The NICU doors swing toward us in grandiose fashion, like the entrance to the Emerald City, a yellow-brick road of babies born too soon. We pass beds and bays and ultraviolet bilirubin lamp-bathed isolettes. We say “hi” to the nurse on duty. I do a mental rerun of everything I just thought about during our three-minute scrubbing session: don’t forget to call the bank. Don’t forget to call the bank. Don’t forget to call the bank.

We arrive at the corner room, sun-drenched and warm and there, this tiny little acrylic box that our son calls home.

My memory is washed clean of anything else except his beautiful, perfect face, scrubbed bare of anything else but him.

This post originally appeared on The Infertility Voice.