As we drove home from the grocery store, my 8-year-old and I had one of those uninterrupted talks that only happen in the car or by the glow of a night light past bedtime. We chatted about left-handed scissors and mused over how math problems get longer as you get older, and saved the best of our words for discussing theater dreams.

“Mom, do you think I will get to wear a microphone?” he asked in his small voice, still full of little boy. He’s trying out for a play soon and wants nothing more than a lead role, one where he is heard.

I danced over the right answer in my mind. He’s young for a lead part, but his voice spills all kinds of colors, and I believe any role he plays despite knowing the boy underneath.

“I think you’ve got everything it takes to be a main character” I told him, “but we’ll just have to wait and see. There are other fun roles too right? And don’t you just love being onstage?”

I stole a peek at him in the rear-view mirror as a smile lifted his lips and his eyes and his back-to-school haircut. What I didn’t tell him was that he has already done it. He has already captured the lead role, the first chair, the captain of all the teams suiting up for all the sports, just because he’s here.

His heart rate dipped wildly at 28 weeks of gestation, delivering him to a waiting NICU team, slick and barely crying at 1 pound 14 ounces. Time was not a luxury, so the neonatologist didn’t waste it explaining the prognosis for premature males with such a tumultuous beginning. They survive less, require more, leave the NICU last.

I’ve fed bits and pieces of his rocky start to my son, spooning doses small enough for his young mind to understand. He knows he arrived early and was very, very tiny. He knows the wall of his incubator held me up for nearly three months, and that bringing him home from the hospital felt like winning the lottery while eating chocolate cake and flying to Disney World.

What he doesn’t know is that his Apgar scores were so low they were whispered. He doesn’t know how breathing shook his chest.

He doesn’t know he was intubated, then extubated, then graduated to oxygen tubes in his nose in a much shorter time than his doctors predicted.

He doesn’t know I walked into the NICU every day with my eyes focused on him because I couldn’t see another baby die, and I walked out searching for my heart because I was sure I’d left it in his bed.

He doesn’t know about the time they explained the long-term damages of prematurity to us, with shiny pamphlets and words such as brain damage and cerebral palsy in bold print.

He doesn’t know about the beeping of monitors that throbbed beneath my skin and the ice water pumping through my veins when his heart rate dipped dangerously low or frighteningly high.

He doesn’t know my tears puddled on his head the first time I held him to my skin, and soaked through my hospital gown when the nurse took him back.

He has no idea he trained like an Olympic athlete to hold on to his share of air and nutrients and a body temperature of 98.3. He doesn’t remember the blue tint of a NICU light or the distinct rumble made by nurses and doctors mingled with life support machines.

His only memories are the pictures he’s old enough to see and the stories we fill with detail as he grows.

When he’s old enough to carry it all, or when he needs to be reminded of the 12 rounds of fight inside him, I will tell him how close he came to not being here — that he survived more in his first three months than most battle their entire lives.

For right now, though, I settle into the contentment of a sparkly afternoon spent with my miracle of a boy. The promise of auditions and shows and standing ovations pile high over the head of my budding actor.

“No matter what role you get, you are my superstar. You know that, right?” I ask him as I squeeze his hand, offering him help he no longer needs to hop out of the car.

“I know, Mom,” he replies as he squeezes me back and goes off to rehearse his audition song.

His opening act is just beginning.

Jessica Watson is a freelance writer and mom to five (four in her arms and one in her heart). She is the author of the children’s book “Soon.” Find her at

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