Chapter 6: Child's Play
One week after Johnny's shockingly unexpected birth, his mother was well enough to be transferred to Memorial.
Though still in need of rest and intensive physical therapy, Sam seemed to be out of acute danger. In her typically persistent style, she'd managed to convince her caregivers she was strong enough to tolerate the twenty minute ambulance ride from the Academy Hospital to Memorial. She'd gone long enough without being able to see her baby first hand, let alone touch him. Her arms ached for the baby she'd carried the past six months. Having him so cruelly ripped away from her robbed her of the experience of a natural delivery; now she wanted to bond with this fragile new life in any way she could.
Jack stayed close by during that first week. His support never wavering, he was, as always, a source of strength and encouragement. He'd finally gone home to sleep the final two nights, largely at Sam's insistence. The last thing Jack wanted to do was give her cause to worry about his health. She had enough on her mind as it was.
Since Jack's first visit with Johnny, his attitude seemed to shift. It went without saying that a strong connection had been forged with the infant in those initial moments, one that was reinforced each day since then. To Sam's delight and envy, Jack left her side once each day to visit Johnny at Memorial. Although those visits typically were no more than fifteen minutes standing by the isolette, watching and gently touching the baby, it was better than nothing. Those fleeting moments went a long way toward solidifying the bond between father and son.
Jean Sullivan stopped in at least once a day. Sometimes she sat with Sam while Jack was at Memorial; at other times she listened to the both of them pour out their fears. The chaplain offered words of comfort, understanding and hope.
Sam appreciated her words and her presence. And she suspected in his heart of hearts, Jack did as well. She and Jack would probably never be church goers. She didn't even know for certain whether they'd choose to have Johnny baptized. Whatever happened, Sam knew these days of worry and cautious joy had taught life lessons that would stay with her a long while.
Sam remained a patient at Memorial for two weeks, most of her time involved in extensive physical rehabilitation allowing her to regain her independence and ambulate relatively easily with minimal use of assistive devices. During those weeks she contented herself with twice daily visits to the NICU where she sat by Johnny's isolette for all too brief periods of time, talking to him and gently stroking him with one hand through the controlled environment of the high tech incubator. All the same, she longed to hold him in her arms.
One week after Sam went home, her wish came true. The doctors determined that the baby was now able to regulate his body temperature enough to manage some time outside the isolette. Moreover, his overall medical condition was improving. Although he would likely need ventilator support for another few weeks, his prognosis for survival was good. Still, no one was making the O'Neills any promises with regards to the very real possibility of developmental delays and physical disabilities.
"Are you ready?" Jack called from the kitchen.
"Absolutely," Sam said, emerging from the bedroom, supporting most of her weight on crutches. From long experience with multiple injuries, Sam was a pro with crutches, maneuvering with well balanced grace and placing little stress on her lower extremities.
"You look beautiful," Jack said. His loving, appreciative eyes roamed over her body taking in the stylish powder blue jeans and the soft matching V-neck sweater. The color of her outfit accentuated the blue of her eyes and her hair was starting to grow back, a lovely shade of blond.
"Who, me?" Sam teased. "In this old thing? With my buzz cut?"
"Yep," Jack replied. "I'd say our son will be suitably impressed."
She beamed him an appreciative smile.
"I hope so," she said. "I can't wait to finally hold him."
"Yeah," Jack agreed, "me too. It'll be nice to see the little guy out of that box."
"Do you think he'll be alright?" Jack asked.
Swallowing hard, she averted her eyes before responding.
"What?" Sam questioned rhetorically. She knew exactly what he was asking.
"Do you think he'll be alright, you know, normal…," Jack clarified needlessly, wincing as he said the word "normal". He regretted his choice of words even more once he saw the reaction on Sam's face. She suddenly looked stricken.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I just can't … I'm not sure how…"
"I know," she replied. "When we talked about having children, we assumed they'd be healthy. Now, we can't assume anymore. Johnny might have some serious problems."
"Or not," Jack said. "We need to stay positive, not borrow trouble …"
"It's pretty hard to do," she said. "But you're right of course."
Sam and Jack made a conscious decision to avoid further "what if" discussions at least for the time being. It sufficed that they shared each other's fears for their only child. Like every other set of parents they'd have to wait to see what the future had in store and meet the challenges when they were presented. The O'Neills had never been ones to run from challenges. They didn't intend to start now.
"Come on," Jack said. "Johnny's waiting."
Johnny's medical team had arranged a private visiting room for the infant and his parents. His isolette was moved into the adjoining sterile, but much quieter, less crowded room. Furniture consisted of a hospital settee and a simple rocker.
To Jack's dismay he was once again decked out in scrubs and a surgical mask. Sam was treated to the same outfit. But any outfit would have been worth it. Suited up and scrubbed, they entered the visiting area and found Johnny and his nurse waiting for them.
The baby had gained nearly one pound during the first four weeks of his life. He was still tiny, but Sam convinced herself he was a little less fragile. And now, without the strong lights of the NICU, he wasn't wearing the eye protectors he so often sported on previous visits. His eyes were open and though still mildly sedated, he was looking around.
"Have a seat," the NICU nurse said. "I'll bring Johnny to you."
With that the nurse slowly opened the isolette and carefully swaddled the infant, taking care to avoid dislodging any of the tubes and wires still attached to the small body. Then she brought Johnny to his mother.
Sam had gotten used to seeing all the medical paraphernalia surrounding her son. Now, sitting in the rocker with Jack next to her on the settee, she could feel her heart beating rapidly in her chest. She was surprised. The fearless US Air Force Colonel felt the unexpected anxiety of the moment. This was her baby and she was finally going to hold him in her arms.
As the nurse carried Johnny to her, Sam froze for a moment, fearful she might do something to hurt this helpless new life, pull out a tube, dislodge a wire. Almost as rapidly as the feeling of fear surfaced, it left. And in its place came a powerful flood of maternal feeling.
With Jack's eyes fixed on her, Sam lifted the little bundle in her arms. He was so light. She lifted him closer to her face, working to get as close as possible. And at that moment Johnny looked directly at her.
It was magical for both of them. Sam gasped as the baby fixed her with his eyes. He was so beautiful. Whatever the future might hold, he was wonderful, a miracle of creation, wrought by the love of his parents. In her eyes he was perfect, just waiting to grow into the full term baby, then the little boy he was meant to be. And at that particular moment, she knew he would do exactly that.
Though the lower half of her face was covered by the surgical mask, Sam was sure Johnny could see her smile reflected in her eyes. For now that would have to be enough. Soon he'd be able to see her face. Soon she'd be able to count his fingers and toes at her leisure. Soon he'd be able to breathe on his own. He'd get there. With his small weight in her arms she was certain of it.
"You're wonderful," she said softly.
"Yes he is," Jack echoed, his hand coming over to gently touch Sam's arm.
Sam looked up from Johnny long enough to see the tears in Jack's eyes.
"You okay? She asked.
"More than okay, Sam," he said. "I'm sitting here with my family."
Sam's eyes beamed her smile to Jack. Through his tears he smiled as well.
"And the two of you are more than any man could ask for," Jack added. "Whatever happens, we'll be good together, all three of us."
Sam couldn't have agreed more.
A/N: This completes Finding Faith.
Thank you to all the faithful readers and reviewers who have followed the story.
I have thoughts for a follow-up which would focus on little Johnny's first year, and touch on some of the struggles he and his parents would face. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading all of your stories!