Last week I cleaned out our Important Documents Box. Lest you get the wrong impression and start to think that I am, in fact, a responsible adult with a metal filing cabinet, a lockbox, or anything resembling a system, let me clarify. Our Important Documents Box is a Huggies cardboard box that once held diapers for my infant twins and now contains our marriage and birth certificates, teaching credentials and employment contracts, medical bills and financial statements. It has faithfully held up as we have schlepped it from Santa Barbara to our rental in Nashville, then into our home, later onto my grandparents’ house in Franklin, and back here once again. It is very humble and just a bit tattered and, well, it’s a diaper box full of our family’s most important papers. If you are my dad or any of our financial planner friends, I’m sorry I’ve let you down.
Once every year or so I pull it out and weed through it, putting into place the many papers I have inevitably tossed into the top at random when I am in a hurry or have a baby in my arms. I pull out things we no longer need to hang onto and then feel very superior as I carry my Huggies box back to its spot in the laundry room, neat and clean as any old filing cabinet with a system. I cross “Important Docs” off my to-do list, decide what needs to be shredded, and don’t think much about it for another 12 months.
This year, though, as I was combing through everything, I actually stopped and noticed several folders that I usually leave untouched.
Santa Barbara Radiology.
California Children’s Services.
Santa Barbara Neonatal Medical.
I picked them up, opened them, and there it all was. The chest x-rays and the brain C/Ts, each individual day spent in the NICU, everything itemized and lined up in neat rows. And then my own notes scribbled across the tops and bottoms of each page, this amount paid this date, that amount paid that date, arrows and question marks and dated notations after phone conversations with insurance companies and hospital billing offices and county services.
I remembered those initial days of terror after the twins’ birth, the eventual rhythm of the NICU that we fell into, the almost-as-scary first days of having the girls home with us. I remembered the incessant beeping of the monitors, the unique smell of the NICU soap, the dull scratching of the sponge I’d use to scrub away any invisible threats to my children’s health that might be lurking on my arms and under my fingernails. I remembered the way Elijah looked reading a bedtime story to his babies as they lay inside their incubators, eyes screwed shut and tiny bodies red and wrinkly, the way Sophie looked with an IV sticking out of the top of her head. I remembered the way the nurses taught me to never set anything on the floor of a hospital and the way I begged God with every breath to send my babies home.
I remembered my joy and fear and gratitude and utter exhaustion as I looked at those scribbled notes, and I felt so much love and compassion for us as we were then, a Mama and a Daddy in way over our heads. We were confused and we were so, so tired and we were overjoyed. We would look at each other and say, “Can you believe we have TWO babies?!” We were practically babies ourselves.
These statements, mostly medical bills, were all 8 and 9 years old. Technically, it was well past time to off-load them. I had the girls’ medical records tucked safely into different folders. I grabbed the bills to toss them into the shred pile, and then I hesitated. It felt strange, almost sacreligious, to banish this history of our early life as a family to the recycling center. Because what would we be - where would we be - without it?
Trauma of any kind is so formative and aggresively shapes us. The entrance of our children into the world completely rewrites everything we previously knew and believed about our lives. Trauma involving the entrance of our children into the world? That is some intense stuff. It has the power to inform - even dictate - every thought, action, and response that we have about and toward our kids. Sophie and Aida’s time in the NICU was a clear and physical manifestation of my fears, and what I imagine are the universal fears of parents all over the world - will my child be okay? What will happen if she’s not? What will happen if she is hurt, maligned, wayward, unhappy, dissatisfied, injured? What will happen if my child dies?
After some significant internal back-and-forth, I tossed them. I’m focusing this year on shedding things, on clearing space in our home and in my mind, on letting go of things I thought I needed but really don’t. Material possessions, certain beliefs about myself and those I love, old and lingering fears – I am out of patience and out of strength to carry things that only weigh me down.
Here’s what really matters – we lived those days. They changed us. My body bears scars and my heart does, too. The joy, the exhaustion, the tears, the laughter – they have been woven into the fabric of our family’s history, an embroidery of sorts that is constantly being added to, amended, new colors and designs taking form on every side. And the fear? We looked it square in the eye. We lived with the suffocating discomfort. We walked through it. We came out on the other side. We developed a little bit of grit and a few calluses and these things have served us well as we’ve again faced heartache and the fear that it can bring.
I don’t need a stack of papers with scribbled notes to remind me of all of that. I can see it in the 5 pairs of blue eyes that look into mine each night around the dinner table. Here is where our history exists. Here is where our story lives.