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The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon
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Juniper French was born four months early, at 23 weeks’ gestation. She weighed 1 pound, 4 ounces, and her twiggy body was the length of a Barbie doll. Her head was smaller than a tennis ball, her skin was nearly translucent, and through her chest you could see her flickering heart. Babies like Juniper, born at the edge of viability, trigger the question: Which is the greater act of love — to save her, or to let her go?
Kelley and Thomas French chose to fight for Juniper’s life, and this is their incredible tale. In one exquisite memoir, the authors explore the border between what is possible and what is right. They marvel at the science that conceived and sustained their daughter and the love that made the difference. They probe the bond between a mother and a baby, between a husband and a wife. They trace the journey of their family from its fragile beginning to the miraculous survival of their now thriving daughter.
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This is a work of nonfiction, based on our family's experiences at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, and our reporting there in the years since. Nothing has been invented. Almost all of the scenes are based on notes we took during our daughter's stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. We checked our notes and recollections through interviews with many of the doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners who cared for our daughter and through our review of her seven-thousand-page medical chart.
She arrived at the edge of what is possible and what is right, the shadowland between life and death, hubris and hope. Her eyes were fused shut. The plates of her skull were half formed, leaving her head more squishy than solid. Her skin was so translucent that just below the surface we could see the shuddering fist of her heart.
The doctors and nurses ringed her plastic box, summoning all of their arts and deploying all of their machines, working at the limit of human capability to keep her with us. We soon forgot what day it was, what we had been doing before we arrived in this place—our jobs, our plans, the vanities that had defined us. We'd been dropped inside a tunnel and were down so deep there was no way back.
She was perpetually dying, then not dying, then dying again. Slowly, we discovered that the only escape was to create a world for her beyond the box. So we filled her endless night with possibilities and sang her songs about the sun and read her books in which children could fly. We shared the story of how we had fought to make her ours. We told her the parts that humbled us, the moments that broke us. The frailties and failings that conspired against her creation.
If we made her long to know what happened next, maybe we could keep her with us until dawn.
Fallen creatures should not always be rescued. I have always known that, and yet. When I was fourteen, a friend offered me a baby bird, cupped in her palms. She'd found it among the pine needles in the Florida horse pasture where we spent our days.
His body was a blue heap of twigs wrapped in rice paper, threaded with veins and sugared with fuzz. His bobblehead teetered on a stalk of a neck, and his sealed eyes bulged blindly. His mouth was a gaping maw of need.
He was exotic and thrilling. In my suburban backyard, I had defended the naked rat babies in the compost pile from the threat of my father's shovel, begged for the lives of the raccoon family in the attic. I'd raised stray kittens in the garage, puppies in the family room, and bunnies on the back porch. So that day, when my mom picked me up, I climbed into her old red Ford Falcon holding a shoe box and not expecting her to object. My parents had plenty of flaws, but their gift to me was the freedom to explore.
I was finishing my freshman year of high school. I was awkward and often alone. I knew this bird was, in the scheme of things, not special. But his heart fluttered in my hands. I carried him into the living room and set him up in an old, cracked aquarium I found in the garage. I put in a branch or two from the magnolia in the yard, a sad attempt to make his habitat more natural.
It's probable that someone asked what was the point. Even if I saved him, he couldn't live in our house, like a parakeet, and he couldn't go free. Those were distant concerns. I soaked chicken feed in warm water and offered it every couple of hours in a syringe. It slid down his throat with a satisfying glug. I felt the divide between the civilized and the wild. Wasn't I barely civilized myself, always bumping into invisible boundaries, finding the shape of the world? I was powerless in the halls at school, powerless over my too-big teeth, my disobedient hair, and my dad, who decapitated the baby rats in the compost pile, blasted the raccoons out of the attic with a Remington twelve-gauge, sold my puppies, gave away my bunnies, and took my kittens to the pound.
This bird's small life, whatever it would become, was in my hands. I would protect him as long as I could. The next day, his lashless eyes peeled open. The first thing he saw was me, staring at him through the glass.
The bird grew fast. He sprouted feathers in tufts and stalks. He morphed into a bright, squawking blue jay. He lived in my bedroom, far enough from the main living area of the house that I got away with it, for a while. He perched on my ceiling fan, and I put the daily St. Petersburg Times underneath to catch the poop. Every morning he landed on my chin and tap-tap-tapped on my nose with his beak. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. He drank Coke from the rim of my can. He pecked at birdseed and scraps of my dinner, which I often ate in my room, alone. He liked to perch on my shoulder or on top of my head, clutching with his dinosaur feet. Sometimes he caught rides on the back of our pug dog, Wrinkles, who was too dense mentally and physically to object. I'd take him outside and he'd visit the scrub pines, but he always came back to my shoulder. I hoped strangers would see us and believe I had magical powers. I felt like I did.
Eventually my mom said I had to let him go. He'd often find me on my walk to school and ride on my head part of the way there or back. After a few weeks, I came home and found him dead on the back porch. I guess I'd broken him in ways I couldn't foresee. He'd had nowhere else to go, no other safe place to land.
I grew up. I had dogs and horses. I smelled of hay and dirt. I imagined that someday I'd have a farm, with room for all the wild or broken baby things. I knew also, even though I never babysat or played with dolls, that I'd have a daughter.
She would be fierce and wild and dirty and drag a kitten under one arm. She would climb trees and sing. I would not forget what it was like to be a kid and to love something warm and alive. I would not forget how it felt to be afraid—afraid to make friends, to dance in public, to be seen at the beach, to talk in class, to bring home a boy. I'd protect her wildness. She'd bring home a stray cat or a rabbit or a baby bird. I'd show her how to care for it, to protect its wildness. I'd teach her when and how to let go.
It was a certainty, not a wish. When I was little, I'd asked my mom how you got a baby. She said, "Well, first, you have to want one." She didn't explain further, so I guess it stuck in my mind that the wanting was the only essential ingredient. The wanting was what mattered.
When our daughter was born—after everything went wrong, and the certainty turned to longing and the longing drowned out everything—she looked just like that baby bird. She was knobby, papery, translucent, and blind. Not all fallen things should be rescued, I understood. But no one was going to say no if we wanted to try. Who was more helpless, her or us? Her toothless mouth gaped in need. We stared at her through a wall of glass.
To understand the improbability of her, the odds against that first breath, we must go back to that summer I raised the blue jay. Because that was also the summer I met Tom, who had a small but crucial cameo in my teenage life. I've wrestled in the years since with the absurdity of it all. Because even if the story had ended there, it would have been strange enough.
Tom was one of the speakers at a high school journalism camp I attended. He was a hotshot reporter in his thirties, married with two small boys. I had been reading the St. Petersburg Times since the fifth grade. I loved the mischief in his columns railing against school administrators who would censor high school journalists. I loved the compassion and ambition in his book-length series about a murdered woman in Gulfport. His stories were daring and absorbing, like novels. I swooned over his byline: Thomas French.
He wore a purple shirt and zebra-striped shoelaces that day, which was off-putting. His glasses swallowed his face. His hair, dark and floppy across his forehead, was already turning gray. He was sweet, but he was a nerd, which I found somehow reassuring. I had no self-confidence, and though people told me all the time that I was a good writer, I knew they were just being kind. Tom had insecurities, too. He kept swigging Diet Coke and glancing out the window and running his hands through his hair. His nerves somehow made the work he was doing seem more achievable.
He told us to see past authority figures with their titles and their passive-voice pronouncements and unearth the unofficial story, the real story, bubbling under the surface. He told us to take the reader into the "secret garden"—the back of the nail salon, the corner of the teachers' lounge, the places where collusions were formed and power was transferred. Real stories did not arrive via press release. They did not announce themselves, but they were all around us, for the plucking. He told us our interests were not trivial. The things we cared about mattered. We mattered.
I wrote about him that day. In the paragraph that journalists call the nut, which is supposed to distill the thing to its essence, I wrote: He never does anything halfway.
I didn't fall in love, break up his marriage, and steal his children. That would have been absurd, and a felony. But I changed. I opened up. I started noticing the beauty in small details, the sublime in the everyday. Those lessons stayed with me, became part of me.
I graduated from high school, started college, and interned in the summers at the St. Petersburg Times. I fell in love, a few times.
Rick was first. I loved him like a drug. But after three years I left him because I knew he'd never have kids. It shouldn't have mattered yet; I was just twenty-two. But my wild little girl was already real to me. Next came Bill—my brilliant and soulful journalism professor. When I moved to south Florida to take a teaching job, I let him slip away. Then came a chiseled and easygoing personal trainer, whom I left for grad school, and a series of interchangeable D.C. intellectuals. I broke up with one because he was too skinny and another because he sweated too much.
When I found Tom again, I was twenty-eight. I hated dating, bars, and men in their twenties. I was finishing grad school in Maryland and trying to land a job at the St. Pete Times. Tom was in his early forties. He had won a Pulitzer Prize, gotten divorced, and ditched the glasses. His face was leaner, his hair almost silver. His boys were in elementary school. He had a longtime girlfriend who was older than him. "A sweet woman," he called her.
We had dinner when I went to Florida for a job interview. It wasn't a date, but he was so easy to talk to it started to feel like one. He talked on and on about how he still wanted a daughter. I picked at my trout as my ovaries did somersaults. He still had that openness I remembered. He baked cookies. He volunteered in his boys' classrooms and hand-made their Halloween costumes. He wasn't afraid to talk about hard things. He was the exact opposite of most of the men I'd ever known. Dinner lasted four and a half hours.
I e-mailed my friend Lucia: I would marry him, end of story. He gave me a hug at the end, and I can smell him in my hair.
We had a crazy chemistry that caught me by surprise, because he was wrong in so many ways. He was too old, too short, too divorced. He disliked animals, dirt, vegetables, exercise, unfamiliar foods, home repair, and the outdoors. He was emotional and overly sensitive. He talked too much. And the girlfriend.
That summer he came up to Baltimore to teach at a nearby college. I drove over and watched him lecture about writing using Monet. He explained how the artist observed the transformation of the Rouen Cathedral in the shifting light of the passing sun and how, on the page, respecting the natural sequence gives a story shape and power. When I was around Tom, I felt like I was bathing in a different light.
The next day, I met him again, and before we could leave his hotel for dinner, he launched into an angsty discussion of our by-now-undeniable mutual attraction, invoking his girlfriend by name. "I am a nice guy," he said. "But I am human, and I am not married." Shut up, my brain was screaming, the attraction dissipating. "So I have to make a decision and"—Christ, was he still talking?—"and I want you to respect—"
I kissed him to make him stop talking. To make him forget the girlfriend, or any previous or concurrent women, or any version of himself that had ever existed that was afraid to begin again. I kissed him to say, If you never do this again, you'll miss it for the rest of your long, static life.
"Why me?" he asked hours later, hair and shirt all a mess. Whatever I'd done had not calmed his insecurity. He seemed love drunk, sure, but lost.
I did my best to answer. He was interested in the world, its history, its richness, its forces and counterforces. All its crazy beauty became magnified and reflected in him, and when I was around him, it rained on me.
I saw him the next day and the next. Driving home one afternoon I was overwhelmed by the urge to pee. I pulled over at the National Cathedral, where surely they had clean bathrooms. I walked around inside that place, a temple to the things man can build and the things beyond his understanding, the afternoon sun streaming through stained glass. Man's filter and God's light. A service was starting, so I hung around. I wasn't religious, but I was in love, and that felt like religion. I lit a candle. When I left, the light had changed again. It was foggy and dark, and I thought of Tom, the world spinning around him, exerting its forces, and I hoped that inside him, something would move.
Over the next few months, I moved to Florida and started my job, and tried to allow the tension to build. Tom would call, late. I came to expect it.
"You're like this vast, unexplored continent," he said one night on the phone. "And I could wander around it forever."
He paid attention. He listened. He remembered the things I said and tried his best to make sense of them. With him, I grew more aware of myself. Everything that mattered to me—love, writing, parenting—began with a heart in a conversation. He was good at that. He was better at that than anyone I had ever known.
"Writing is a concentrated form of paying attention," he told me. "And so is singing, and kissing and praying."
He said he loved me. He said he was going to break up with the girlfriend, but then he didn't. He didn't want to hurt her. He needed to "understand."
"I think too much," he told me.
"I can't split myself in two," he said.
"I have told myself I need some time."
Weeks turned to months turned to years. At work, I wrote about a rooster attack, a garbage-truck race, and a man who spent twenty-six years on death row. I got promoted twice and landed my dream job on the feature staff. My new boss, Mike Wilson, was one of Tom's closest friends and fast becoming mine, too. I had a cubicle with a window, and I could see Tom from my desk.
I bought a four-bedroom house that I shared with my neurotic, emotional Weimaraner, Huckleberry. The house was too big, and the emptiness made me feel more alone. I spent all of my spare time nesting. I scraped paint, built a fence, planted bird-of-paradise. I replaced doorknobs, hinges, siding, molding, light fixtures, fans. I hung a swing from the branch of a broad live oak. I knew where the nursery and tree house would go.
I fostered puppies for the local animal rescue. Whatever it was in me that had once wanted to save that blue jay had swelled. By now I'd fostered hundreds of puppies for four different shelters in three cities. My mom, who lived nearby, would bottle-feed them and talk to them and cradle them belly up in her arms like furry grandbabies.
Tom faded in and out as I drew him in and pushed him away. He bought a cramped cinderblock house that I hated—a clear sign, I told myself, of our incompatibility. While he dithered, I dated other fine, available, confident, attractive, dog-loving, baby-wanting men. I always stopped returning their calls. I was stuck.
Ex-Boyfriend Number One, Rick, put it to me plain. "You know who you ought to marry?" he asked one day on the phone. "Tom French."
Ugh, I told him. That guy's a disaster.
Tom was the one I wanted, though. I couldn't will myself to want anything else.
I refused to believe that the frightened, scattered version of himself he presented to me was real. Inside that shell was a guy who didn't just love Springsteen, he had seen him in concert seventy times, always up front, screaming the lyrics. He couldn't just write a story, he had to write a nine-part series that took five years. In things that mattered, he chose to commit. He never does anything halfway. Even my fifteen-year-old self had known this.
I stubbornly believed, as so many women believe about so many men, that I could help him rediscover the best parts of himself, the person he might have been had divorce and middle age not beaten him blind.
I wanted my kids to talk to me like Tom's sons talked to him. I wanted to watch Nat and Sam grow up. I wanted my kids to share their love of Shakespeare and South Park. They were already two of the finest humans I'd ever met—generous and joyful and funny. Tom was damaged, but they were perfect. And he was part of the reason.
I watched Tom sing with them as they incorrectly loaded the dishwasher with unrinsed plates. He overlooked the patches in the mostly mowed lawn. He bought out the first three rows for their performance in Urinetown. Together, they debated the narrative arc of Battlestar Galactica, Team America, and the gospel of the Boss. The kitchen forever smelled of bacon, and the floor stuck to my feet. It all melded into an exuberant mess that I could imagine as my life.
One night after work, not thinking, I turned in to his neighborhood. The street was a circle, and I wandered around it for a while, wondering what in the hell I was doing there, until, suddenly, I was passing in front of his house. It was December, and the blinds were open in the front windows, and the light was warm inside. Nat and Sam were at the dinner table, and Tom and the girlfriend were sitting down to join them.
What did you expect, stalker? This is not your family. Find your own goddamn family.
I hated myself. I had wasted so much time. I spent another Christmas with my parents. My mom worked that morning. When I woke up, the house was empty.
Almost imperceptibly, Tom turned cold on the subject of more kids. He had a million reasons, none of which made sense. At first I brushed it off, because of course he wanted more kids, but he retreated behind some invisible shield.
He made me playlists full of promises, and I'd sing along in my car, searching for meaning, and then I'd find duplicates on his computer, made for other women. He spent long hours on the phone with God-knows-who. I kept asking him who she was. He always lied.
"Listen," Rick said. "You tell that motherfucker you are not going to beg."
My counselor said I should move on, buy sperm from a bank, have a baby on my own. It started to not seem crazy.
Tom slept too easily, always with his back to me. I could never sleep, lying next to so much confusion, so I'd just watch him breathe. With my finger, I'd slowly trace messages on his back, all the things I couldn't say, as it rose and fell and rose and fell.
In the beginning, I saw Kelley only in secret, at midnight. My official girlfriend lived an hour north of Tampa, which made it simple to steal away. She was a kind and faithful woman who would have done anything for me. Late at night, I would call and tell her about my day and listen as she told me about hers, and then I would tell her I loved her and taste the ashes of those words in my mouth.
Speeding down the interstate toward Kelley's bed, I would put on the faraway face I wore whenever I knew I was committing a sin but was not ready to feel the shame. Kelley lived at the other end of the county, which meant there was always too much time to reflect. Usually I waited until I was on the Bayside Bridge, skirting north over Tampa Bay, before I called to tell her I was on my way.
"Where are you now?" she would ask.
"Maybe fifteen minutes away."
"What would you do if I said no?"
When she said this, I'd stare out at the pavement rushing toward me, the pelicans swooping in and out of the shadows, the black water stretching on either side. She wasn't about to stop me, and both of us knew it. I heard the anger in Kelley's voice, and below that an awful sadness. She was better than this and couldn't understand why I was not. But I also could hear that my brashness satisfied something in her. She wanted me to claim her. She was biding her time, hoping that I would redeem myself with a ring, a house, a baby. That was the problem. I had worn a ring once, for many bitter years. The only good things to come out of that marriage had been Nat and Sam. They were growing up fast and would soon be headed for college. I could not see the point of starting over.
Behind the wheel of my SUV, I turned up the stereo to shut out my brain. On these midnight drives, I gravitated toward dreamlike songs of isolation. The Stones and "Moonlight Mile," Springsteen quietly vanishing into a pitch-black night in "Stolen Car." What I listened to the most was Beth Orton's Daybreaker, the desolation in her voice, the sense of someone who had gone too far and would never be the same. How much damage was I causing, especially to myself? Despite my distrust in marriage, I yearned for the simplicity of the vows. I was hopeless at being single. I did better with clear-cut rules, a handbook written by God. Though I had long since drifted from my Catholic upbringing, the nuns lived on inside my head.
By now I would be off the bridge and turning onto Sunset Point Road, cutting west past the darkened fronts of taquerias and gun shops, past convenience-store parking lots where teenagers lingered in the neon clouds emanating from the Budweiser logos in the front windows. Halfway down there was a little strip mall, the Time Plaza, with a big clock out front that had stopped working. Every time I drove by, I held my breath and asked myself if it were possible for me to have died without knowing it.
Just beyond the turnoff for Kelley's street, there was a flashing yellow light. When I spied it in the distance, I clicked ahead to the last track on Daybreaker, "Thinking About Tomorrow," and sang along with Orton as she told her lover farewell, even though she was made for him and created for him. Good-bye, so long, so long. This was our song, Kelley's and mine. She just didn't know it yet.
She was always waiting when I arrived, a vision materializing in my headlights. She would stand in front of her big glass front door, her long brown hair falling soft over her shoulders. Neither of us said a word. I could never get over the way she folded into my arms.
I said as little as possible, and explained myself not at all. These late-night visits weren't just lust, I was sure. I had never been wired for superficial experiences and had no interest in flings. Though I had no right to say such things, I told Kelley over and over that I loved her and tasted the ashes of those words, too, even though they were true.
In the middle of the night, I would wake and feel her breathing against my shoulder. I wanted to stay forever. I wanted to leave right away. The dog, Huck, had the good sense not to trust me. When I stirred and headed for the bathroom, he would wake and stalk me with his yellow eyes. Sometimes he growled. Once, he padded over and blocked my path. I was wearing only a T-shirt, and before I knew it, he had lightly fastened his teeth through the bottom of the shirt and onto my crotch, daring me to move. A second or two later, he let go.
That morning, when I told Kelley, she laughed.
"Huck didn't bite you," she said. "If he'd wanted to bite you, he would have."
She was staring at me now, no longer smiling.
"Besides," she said, "you deserve it."
She always told the unvarnished truth. At the newspaper, when I showed her early drafts of my stories, she wouldn't say, "I can see what you're going for here." She would toss the printout on my desk and say, "Um, it went on too long. You're doing that wordy thing again."
There was nothing nice about Kelley, at least nothing she carried around like a badge. She didn't care about self-promotion. In my head I kept a list of her quiet acts of kindness. She volunteered at an elementary school and mentored a fifth-grade girl. She had donated bone marrow, simply because there was a shortage. I knew about her work with unwanted dogs, of course, and how she had stolen a starving Doberman from a crack house. She brought pregnant dogs into her guest room and helped them birth their puppies. One night, she'd delivered ten German shepherds, and then when she realized more puppies were stuck inside the mom, she had reached in and pulled out four more squirmers and given them mouth-to-nose resuscitation, breathing them back to life.
Kelley was always rescuing vulnerable creatures. Especially pit bulls. She felt a kinship with powerful animals. She often spoke of how much she wanted to touch a tiger. In those days I was reporting on the zoo in Tampa and following the keepers who watched over two Sumatrans. Kelley asked if I could arrange an encounter. Maybe she could pet one.
"A tiger," I said, studying her face for some hint that she was joking. "You'll be lucky not to lose an arm."
"I would be careful. I would only pet the tiger for a second."
She was a puzzle I could never solve. She did not seem to need anything, except what I would not give her. Though she made her living with words, she was not a big talker. Sometimes I would ask her a question, and fifteen minutes would pass before she answered, usually in a pronouncement of crystalline concision. Mysterious and self-contained, she refused to be understood before she was ready. The only time I avoided conversation was late at night, when Kelley asked me when the hiding would finally end.
"You know, you don't have to figure this out all by yourself," she said. "I wish you'd let me in there with you."
- "Raw, rough and wrenchingly tender....An almost universal story of love and determination and strength."—USA Today
- "An extraordinary memoir."—O, the Oprah Magazine
- "Beautifully written...it will stay with you long after you finish."—Good Housekeeping
- "Riveting."—Tampa Bay Times
- "This book is a tender, fierce and breathtaking miracle."—People
- "Two skilled journalists collaborate on the most personal of stories: their extremely premature daughter's struggle to survive....A fierce and fact-filled love story with few holds barred."—Kirkus Reviews
- "I probably would have read Juniper in one sitting, but I had to stop because I was crying too hard....The Frenches make their fear, panic and grief real....A well-told, fast-paced and emotionally affecting memoir."—Terri Rupar, Washington Post
- "A twisting, harrowing, at times painful but powerful memoir, fiercely reported and written with exquisite sensitivity and openness."—Dallas News
- "[A] mom must-read....Juniper will capture your attention and heart from its difficult beginning to its hard-won happy ending."—Parents
- "The Frenches put forth a love story about their daughter, with highs and lows throughout and moments of sheer joy that will keep readers involved until the very last page. This achingly tender memoir is also a roller-coaster....The narrative sparks a need to reassess the meaning of a miracle, and the story will resonate for days after the last word. With sharp prose, honoring the simple and the profound, this book should be in the hands of every parent--indeed, of everyone."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"This is what happens when two great writers join together to tell something really worth telling. This book, of a life barely there, breaks your heart on one page, and makes you want to pump your fist in the air just a few paragraphs later. It is an achingly lovely book, all the lovelier because it is true."
—Rick Bragg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
"This surprising, enlightening book transcends categories. Heartfelt as a memoir, richly researched as narrative journalism, and as propulsive and literary as a novel, JUNIPER offers the rewards of all great books. It alters and expands your understanding of being human."
—Sheri Fink, author of Five Days at Memorial
"This tender and ferocious book offers all of the taut, gritty storytelling of the journalists who wrote it--and all of the lovesick hope of the parents they're becoming. I read it cover-to-cover in a single breathless, nail-bitten evening."
—Catherine Newman, author of Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy
"Kelley and Thomas French are two of America's best narrative journalists, and here is their most important story yet. JUNIPER is an astonishingly intimate and honest account of a mother, a father, and a complicated baby whose very existence calls into question every easy assumption about what a life means. This is a deeply moving and meaningful book."
—David Finkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Thank You for Your Service
- "These two excellent journalists bring their keen eyes to the most personal and wrenching of stories. A powerful book."—Tracy Kidder
- On Sale
- Oct 10, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little Brown Spark