Christmas, angel trees, Salvation Army Bell Ringers and Toys for Tots. While my family loves and participates in all those events, for us, our big holiday to give back is Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving wasn’t always our most meaningful holiday. Like many families, it was a blip on the radar, a day to stuff ourselves full of turkey before we dragged out the Christmas décor. Then in 2008, a week before Thanksgiving, my water broke at 35 weeks. My son was admitted to the NICU and, suddenly, we were thrust into the world of the NICU. Gone were our holiday shopping plans and planning for a Christmas baby. Instead, we spent our days talking to medical personnel, waiting for our son to breathe with the help of a machine, and wondering when we could hold our baby.
Amidst my fear and grief, I knew we were very lucky. Yes, our son was sick and needed a vent. Yes, he could (and does) have life-long complications from being born at 35 weeks. However, every time I walked into the parents lounge to clean my pump parts, I had to pass by four tiny micro-preemies. Each of the babies weighed less than 2 pounds, and each one was battling a possibly deadly complication of being born too soon: perforated intestines, infections, severe brain bleeds. While I feared for my son, the fear these parents had for their children was deeper, more palatable.
One family in particular really touched my husband and myself. The mother was four hours away from her home, living at a Ronald McDonald House. As we made plans to spend Thanksgiving with Engineer Husband’s family who lived a mile from the hospital, I knew this mom would be spending it alone, eating in the hospital cafeteria. I remember looking at my husband and saying, “I wish we could bring Thanksgiving dinner to all the parents up here. They shouldn’t have to leave their babies for dinner or eat in the cafeteria.”
“Well,” he said after a moment, “why can’t we?”
That first Thanksgiving in 2008 was a bit haphazard. We had been planning on attending Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws, so we had no “proper” Thanksgiving food at our house- including the turkey! My husband quickly ran out to buy all the ingredients to make dinner for all the parents at the NICU. When I left the house Thanksgiving morning, the turkey was on the grill and my children were happily mixing cream of mushroom soup in with green beans. We had no plans, other than to let the social worker in on the secret and hope we could find a spot to put all the food.
With the help of the (surprised) social worker, my husband set up a late Thanksgiving lunch in the surgical waiting room. We guess that we fed about 50 parents that first year, with enough leftovers for many of them to have lunch the next day.
Since 2008, Thanksgiving Dinner at the NICU has grown. We’ve gone from a small meal in a tiny waiting room to (in 2012) three long tables groaning with food. My husband now brines and grills three turkeys every year; two for the NICU and one for our own dinner. A team of volunteers, organized via Facebook, brings the desserts and sides. The charity that is run by parents of NICU graduates, Circle of Hope NICU Foundation, brings the paper goods. And every year, we hear from several new people, “You fed us last year and we want to help out this year! You have no idea how much we appreciated Thanksgiving dinner last year!”
But we do know. And that’s why it keeps happening every year.
When people hear what we do, they like to tell us that we are amazing. While it’s nice to hear, our family is not amazing. It’s the little babies, babies like those four down the hall from PuddinPie’s room, who are amazing. They are our inspiration and the reason we keep coming back every year. We hope that by feeding the parents, body and soul, we are bringing a bright spot to what otherwise might be a dark and gloomy holiday season.