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Baby Steps for Kelley Benham

This author knew she had a story of a lifetime when her daughter, Juniper, was born four months too soon. But if your main protagonist can’t talk, what’s a Pulitzer-nominated writer to do?


By Kelley Benham

 

As I lay inverted and strapped to a hospital bed, body boiling from an intravenous chemical cocktail, struggling to understand the doctor as he detailed the many ways our unborn baby could die, it did occur to me that this could someday make a good story.

It seems absurd to have a thought like that at a time like that. But my husband and I see stories everywhere, and it would be a lie to deny that we saw one then. It was the worst moment of our lives. Even worse moments lay ahead. Our baby was about to be born four months too soon, unfinished and unlikely to live. We had to decide whether to try to save her or let her die.

I don’t know who said it out loud – that one or both of us might someday write about this. We dropped the subject pretty quickly. Writing was something that used to matter. Writers were the people we used to be. We were shedding that life and entering a new one, and it was confusing and strange, and it hurt. The writing didn’t matter. We didn’t matter. Our baby came, one pound of raw human, and she could not breathe.

You know what matters when nothing else does? A baby, breathing.

“Are you going to write about this?” the nurses would ask.

We had to say we didn’t know.

Through 196 days in the hospital, we kept the idea at a superstitious safe distance. We were consumed by the effort of survival – ours and our baby’s. We rarely discussed it in terms of a story, and if we did, we felt lousy about it.

A happy ending seemed nebulous and remote. If our daughter had died, maybe there could be a story in that for someone, but not for me. I could not have written it. I can only imagine that I would have never written anything again. I’d be rocking in some kind of institution, frozen in pain.

Juniper did not die. She lived and thrived and learned to smile and laugh. She came home with us and spit up and rolled over and pooped. Though I am skilled at talking myself out of stories, I knew this was one I could not avoid.

It was the most powerful story I would ever have to tell. I knew the arc, knew the characters, knew the scenes. I’d already bled for it. How hard could the writing be?

Except I hadn’t written anything in six years, and I’d never written anything that meant this much.

I spent 15 minutes on a one-page proposal to my editor and dear friend, Mike Wilson, the managing editor at the Tampa Bay Times. Much of the language in that quick memo ended up in the published story.

Mike — This is the story of a baby born way too soon. She came squawking into the world four months early, with her eyes fused shut, with a pair of sticky, barely formed lungs and translucent skin through which you could see her flickering heart. She was exactly the length of a Barbie doll and weighed one pound, four ounces. She was dark and bruised, twiggy and fragile. A baby bird fallen from the nest. …

Mike had held my hand in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and he’d stood beside Tom and me as we’d baptized our baby with a cup of sterile hospital water. He didn’t need much convincing. The only reservation any of us had was whether it made sense for me to try to write about something so personal so soon.

Writing can be a means of therapy or self-discovery, but the results of those efforts should almost never be inflicted on an audience. I am a classic introvert. I didn’t post my ultrasounds, or even mention of my pregnancy, on Facebook. Most of my family had no idea that my daughter was conceived in a lab with the egg of a donor. So the idea of sharing all that in a newspaper was a little weird, but the idea of sharing it just to contribute to the cliché heap of American feature writing was appalling.

I promised my editors that my story would not be overly personal.

I don’t want the story to read like my diary, I wrote in the proposal.

And then I begged them: “If this isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, don’t put it in the newspaper.”

I envisioned a deeply reported medical story exploring the science and ethics of saving babies born so soon. The title in my mind was “The Zero Zone.” Catchy but not intimate, it focused on the least interesting of the Five W’s. Mike, who always helps me sift through the W’s and locate the missing ones, wisely deflected my enthusiasm for that title. “Let’s wait and see,” he said.

To write this story, I knew I had to separate my emotions from my journalism. I had to treat my story like it was about someone else.

I started seeing a counselor who specialized in trauma and post-traumatic stress so I could work out any issues in her office rather in the pages of our newspaper. She warned that writing the story might make the memories more painful and lasting. But I was OK with that. I just wanted to be able to compartmentalize, to step deeply into my own character in order to remember as much as I could and then to step out of it and return to the present so I could write with the proper distance and context.

The therapist walked me through some exercises where mentally I could take out a difficult memory, deal with it and then put it away for later. The image in my head was of a snorting, crazy-eyed bull I could barely control. I learned to wrestle him back into the barn and slam the door.

I hurled myself into the reporting in February of 2012, when Juniper had been home from the hospital for three months. I didn’t think deeply about theme or focus then, and looking back I know that’s because I was avoiding the hard work of self-analysis.

Instead, I met with the hospital’s press wrangler, Ann Miller, who made everything easy. She set the tone for our working relationship by coming to the house and sitting with me at the dining room table while Juniper fidgeted in my arms.

I gave her a wish list of interview requests, starting with 23 essential names of people who had worked directly with Juniper. I asked for demographics on the unit in the month Juniper was born, to put extreme prematurity in context relative to other issues like drug addiction and genetic abnormalities. I asked for a tour of the areas of the NICU a parent would not normally see, such as doctor’s hideouts and the nurses’ coffee pot, if such a thing existed. I asked for details on exactly what happens when a baby dies, and I asked to be put in contact with parents who were in the hospital at the same time we were, whose kids either died or went home disabled.

The list went on and on. Ann didn’t flinch.

“I’ll get right on it,” she said.

I didn’t get everything I asked for, but I got more than I needed.

When I picked up the medical chart at the hospital, it came out on a giant cart, in two big boxes. It was 7,000 pages. Thankfully, no one asked for the usual fee: $1 per page.

“Can I get you guys a case of copy paper?” I offered.

The reporting was tedious, extensive, emotional. I had to mentally step in and out of character as I interviewed the people who had saved my baby’s life. I gained a new perspective in my talks with national authorities on bioethics, economics and epidemiology. I came to appreciate my daughter even more.

I wrote Part One of the story pretty easily. I thought of the lead in the car. I knew I had to get the baby born in the first 5,000 words, and that meant I had to skip any in-depth discussion of infertility, bed rest, baby yearnings and vaginal bleeding. Thank God. Because I didn’t want to write about that stuff anyway.

I finished Part One in about a week. I preened it for some time, then sent it off to Mike, who texted me something a little profane that meant he liked it. When we went through it more closely, he said that I’d made it too dispassionate. It wasn’t personal enough. He pushed me to write a much stronger and more meaningful nut section. That is the same advice he has given me on nearly every story I have ever written.

As I was simultaneously revising Part One and starting to write Part Two, I had to admit that I had no idea where I was headed. My lack of planning was an amateur mistake. I could no longer dodge the big questions:

What is the story really about?

Who is the main character?

I tried to sketch an outline and realized no amount of reporting could replace the harder work of sitting still and alone in a room and thinking.

What is the theme of the story, in a single word?

Frontier … the neonatal intensive care unit is a frontier in medicine. My daughter was born on the frontier between viability and futility. OK, good.

Who is the story about?

Juniper.

Wait.

The main character of a story has to have some measure of control. I knew this from painful hours of studying in grad school with my mentor and tormentor, Jon Franklin.

“What is the definition of story?” he would ask again and again.

Like cadets, we learned to recite: “A sympathetic character confronts a problem, struggles to overcome it, realizes what he needs to do to solve it, and either succeeds or fails.” I flunked Franklin’s class, but I remembered that much.

A one-pound baby was not going to cut it as a main character. She was certainly sympathetic, but she couldn’t even speak. And while her will and her strength would emerge as essential to the story, she didn’t have enough control over what was being done to her.

So that left ... me? I had no control either. I was a poor offering of a mother. I couldn’t conceive her, couldn’t carry her, couldn’t feed her. All I’d done was stand mutely by her incubator, helpless and afraid.

The doctors? They made the big decisions, but ... no.

I sketched crappy outline after crappy outline on legal pads.

“I can’t be the main character,” I said to my husband. “I didn’t do anything.”

Tom is not only a good and patient listener. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner who knows more about writing serial narratives for newspapers than just about anyone in the country. What he said was so startling I actually took notes.

He said that I had fought for Juniper from before she was conceived, dragging along a reluctant and frightened man, kicking his a— all the way to the altar and into the fertility clinic. He said I’d willed her into existence, and I’d carried her and nurtured her even as my own body went into revolt, and I’d held onto her beyond all hope or expectation until she could be born just complete enough to have a chance. And then I’d anchored myself to breast pumps for eight to 10 hours a day, and rejected pain meds, and staggered through the hospital to bring her milk, and then I’d stood light-headed and shaking by her incubator and summoned a soothing voice to tell her that she was not alone.

I had made myself into her mother, the hard way, by doing all the small and thankless things that mothers do.

He was pacing, and he looked a little fierce, and I was typing and stunned. And then he said:

“I just want some credit at some f—ing point when you’re on Oprah or whatever and you’ve become the symbol of motherhood. I want you to look into the camera and say my husband is the one who helped me to see what I’ve done. Will you say that? Will you f—ing say that?”

So, reader, I am saying it now.

He helped me see that when I reached into her incubator, I made a choice to engage, and not to run. He helped me see that my painful treks to the NICU ferrying thimblefuls of milk were important, and that such a scene should open Part Two. It was through a series of those small and difficult gestures, and not through biology or luck, that I became my baby’s mother.

“It’s not a story about a frontier,” Tom said, and by then, I already knew it.

“What’s it about?” he asked. “Say it.”

I couldn’t. Themes are often clichés, and I hate clichés. What was I going to say? This is a story about the healing power of love?

But that’s the truth.

In revisions, I kept trying to sharpen the theme without sounding like a Lifetime movie. Day One ended up saying this:

She would come squawking into the world unfinished and vulnerable. Conceived artificially, she would have to grow in an artificial womb. She would reveal to us the wonders of medicine and science, and the limits of those things. She would show us the ferocity of our most primal instincts.

A sci-fi baby in an engineered world, she’d teach me, against all possible odds, what it means to be a mom.

Tom would shake his head. “I can’t believe you didn’t use the word love.”

My editor, Mike, pushed me through some important restructuring, through sharpening the meaning and big ideas. He eliminated long science and ethics sections and helped me through some tricky point-of-view problems.

We remained stuck on a title. I guess that’s because titles force you to distill the theme of a piece into just a few words, and in this case, I’d been working backward for too long.

“The Zero Zone” felt too detached. Mike had known it on some level from the start. Tom had known it. Now even I could see it.

I was too buried in the project to pull back and see it fresh. The deadline grew closer. Layouts were being designed. Promo copy was being written. I didn’t worry too much, because my editor has a gift for titles. Mike also had more distance on the project, and, as the father of three magnificent human beings, he had more perspective on the dizzying, terrifying arc of this parenting thing.

As we wrapped up the editing, Mike’s only daughter headed off to college. Because he had a newspaper to run in a town that was hosting a major political convention, he couldn’t take Lena to school, drop her off at her dorm, say goodbye the right way. The best he could do was to take her to the airport, where she buried her face in his neck for a long while.

He posted the photo on Facebook later.

The caption? Never let go.

Not long after that, he called my cell phone. “I have your title,” he said.  

 

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This author knew she had a story of a lifetime when her daughter, Juniper, was born four months too soon. But if your main protagonist can’t talk, what’s a Pulitzer-nominated writer to do?
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