Monday, April 9, 2012

Brothers


For their sheer weirdness, the dreams of babies stuck in my mind. They began a month into my job at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota Foundation.

In one dream, I'm in a square, white room without doors or windows. An infant is crying in another room, but I can't get to him. I frantically search for a way out. The baby is in trouble and needs my help. In another dream, I'm treading water in a deep pool while holding an infant over my shoulders. We are alone, and the baby needs to stay dry and safe. "Don't worry," I tell him. "I won't let you slip."

My waking hours had been spent talking with Children's donors about our care for preemies, those infants born months ahead of schedule and weighing anywhere between a dozen ounces to a couple pounds. The technologies and skills available to a Children's preemie never cease to amaze me, like surgery on a heart smaller than a quarter. As a representative of Children's Foundation, I show donors how their generosity helps patients like these tiny babies.

Those dreams, though, made me reflect upon the purpose of my new job. I'd never dreamed about homeless people while serving as a Street Outreach Coordinator, or about scholarships while working at a liberal arts college. But now, while walking past preemies in their incubators, a warmth would blossom within my chest. I wanted to hold each one. I wanted to reassure the parents. And I found myself -- a guy whose passion is hiking the forested hills of northern Minnesota -- dreaming about babies like a nesting mother. Yes, this job was different from any before it: Children's mission was reminding me of my little brothers Joey and Tim.

I was born around twenty-eight weeks gestation, weighed a hair over two pounds, and spent several months in an incubator. Many people know that I was a preemie. I even used my early birth as a selling point in my employment application to Children's. But I rarely told people that my late brother, Joey, had also been a preemie.

Growing up, Joey was less of a brother to me than one of  my earliest childhood memories. He was born at twenty-one weeks in 1985. Unlike today, medical technology at that time could not keep him alive. Joey was with us for less than five minutes.


A single photograph exists of me holding Joey, just after he'd died. Mom sits on a couch beside me, her mouth curved downward. Her body, wrapped in a terrycloth robe, radiates heartbreak and fatigue. Dad leans forward, as he loves to do with his children, engaging me in conversation about my brother. And I look at the photographer without smiling. I remember feeling confused and disappointed. "You kept asking why he wouldn't open his eyes," my mom later told me. "You were so excited to be a big brother."

I became a big brother again, to a healthy baby boy named Tim, one year later. I remember feeling elated. But while I'd had big plans to be a model brother for Joey, I rarely acted on them with Tim. I didn't teach Tim to play baseball or protect him from bullies. I didn't talk with him about girls. I often either mocked or ignored him. We didn't have an authentic conversation until we reached our mid-twenties, and he was the one who initiated it.

Perhaps, I thought, those dreams were saying less about the past than they were about the present. Children's mission was reminding me of what I never had with Joey, but it was also reminding me of what I appreciate about Tim. He has become an exceptional violinist, a young man with character, and a loyal, compassionate friend to many people. I'm very proud of Tim's accomplishments.

And now I can help other kids, because Children's encourages its youngsters to imagine similar accomplishments in life. Many of our patient families lack the money to pay for treatments, let alone music lessons or painting classes. So, Children's integrates the fine arts and community outreach into its model of care -- a model where no family is ever turned away -- and I watch kids benefit from that care every day.

My hope is that these kids will grow into young adults like Tim, and I feel that working for such a mission has expanded the space in my heart for people. Like memories of my little brothers, the work I do at Children's encourages me to grow beyond my boundaries and to care for others. Together, those memories and experiences continue to make me a better person.