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facts & arguments

KATY LEMAY/The Globe and Mail

I've never been a fan of doing laundry. My mother takes great pride in her laundry skills, and she has often expressed her disapproval regarding my haphazard laundry habits. The once-white-but-suddenly-grey underpants that emerge after having been tossed in the wash with the blue jeans are her particular pet peeve. When I was younger and still lived under her roof, she would complain that I had bent the laundry when she had specifically asked me to fold the laundry. Apparently there is a difference.

I married someone who also cares very little about laundry, although he does his fair share of it. Neither of us can be bothered to iron. We subscribe to the 'use the dryer to take out the wrinkles' school of thought. But because my mother still believes that a man's shirts should be pressed, you will often find her set up at my ironing board, watching my television while she irons my husband's shirts. That is a mother's love.

And now the story of my own journey as a mother – one for whom laundry also emerged as a language of love. I became a mother on the night before Mother's Day this year. Our baby boy wasn't expected until the end of August, but instead burst onto the scene precisely three and a half months too soon. And so began many long days, weeks and months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Everything changed and my world became very small, which is exactly what all new parents say. But my particular world was 850 grams small, and my waking moments were spent in a crowded corner of the NICU.

All I could do was sit and look at this tiny little being and the wires, tubes, monitors and machines that would keep him alive. Everything in me needed to care for him, to nurture him. And I had to watch helplessly as the professionals did the caring and the machines did the nurturing for me. I have always been a fixer; I find great satisfaction in making things happen. I am not so good at letting things happen. And here I was, completely useless save for the breast milk I diligently supplied so that a machine could send it down a tube into Henry's tiny stomach, one millilitre at a time. There was nothing else I could do for my sweet boy. And since I couldn't save my baby, I had to let go.

And then came the laundry.

It began when a nurse told me that if I wanted to do something, to participate somehow, I could provide the bedding for Baby Henry. The NICU nurses understand the importance of bedding. You would not believe the care and thought that goes into selecting the perfect linens to reflect the personalities of the premature babies, and to please the parents who will spend hours staring at their wee ones through the plexiglass of the incubator. I know this, because I watched with amusement as each shift's nurses chose blankets for their charges. And I was not surprised to learn that these same nurses donate blankets to the NICU instead of exchanging gifts at Christmas. Some of them even sew blankets and quilts for their itty-bitty patients. They take their linens very seriously, and I am grateful.

And we all appreciate a clean bed when we are sick. When I was ill as a child, my mom would put me in the bath and, once I was all cleaned up and towelled off, I would snuggle with my dad until she had my bed ready. To crawl back into bed with those cool, fresh sheets was medicine for me as a child. My mom knew exactly what to do. There is just something about clean sheets.

And so, with that in mind, I began to do laundry for Henry. If I couldn't dress my tiny, fragile boy, I would dress his bed. I sought out the most beautiful receiving blankets to line the ugly plastic box in which my baby lived. Only the best organic lavender baby laundry soap was good enough. I would journey home after a day in the hospital and immediately set about washing those blankets. In the morning, I would be up early so that I could get them all ready before we had to leave again for the hospital. Each blanket was ironed, and ironed again – I had spent years in Africa, where the housekeepers ironed all clothing to kill germs and parasites, so ironing became my mission. I had to protect Henry from the germs that could so easily kill him. Each blanket was ironed until there were no more germs or wrinkles. I folded them fastidiously and organized them in Ziploc bags, labelling each package with Henry's name. Everything had to be perfect. As I worked, I prayed. As I prayed, I worked. And in doing the laundry, I found my peace.

The challenges that face a premature infant are enormous and it is a terrifying and exhausting ordeal for families. But it's our story and we honour it. Baby Henry survived, and even thrived, and so did his parents. Because, as we told ourselves again and again, life is hard but God is good. When I could do nothing else to save my child, I could pump, pray and do laundry. It was my labour of love, my spiritual discipline, and my sanity.

These days, Henry is a chubby, smiling infant with an enormous capacity for eating and puking. Laundry is pretty far down on my list now, even though there is more of it than ever before. And there's certainly no time for ironing – Henry lives in the land of the wrinkled with the rest of us now. But that's just fine. Because now my time is best spent caring for and nurturing our tiny miracle. The laundry can wait.

Kari Raymer Bishop lives in Paris, Ont.