When journalists Tom and Kelley B. French's daughter, Juniper, was born at 23 weeks gestation and on the cusp of viability, they couldn't hold her. Weighing just one pound and four ounces, she was "raw and red, her eyes were fused shut, and through her translucent skin we could see her flickering heart," Kelley French, 42, wrote on her website.
"She couldn’t see, couldn’t cry, couldn’t be fed or held. If we stroked her, they said, her skin could slide off. She knew nothing but needle sticks and isolation and darkness."
But the one thing Juniper could do was hear. Tom French, 58, told TODAY Parents that for much of the time that she was in the NICU, they knew they could lose Juniper at any moment, and they didn't want to waste a single day with her. So while they couldn't hold and cuddle her with the warmth of their hands and arms, they used what they know best to nurture her instead: stories. "Stories are my religion," said Tom, a Pulitzer Prize winner. "They connect us, they hold us together, they keep us from going over the edge."
Kelley and Tom read Winnie the Pooh and the Harry Potter books to their daughter while she lay in an incubator in a dark room that mimicked a womb, fighting for her life, for 196 days in a St. Petersburg, Florida, hospital. When they weren't reading to her, Tom placed a tiny iPod beside Juniper in the incubator and played the music of Bruce Springsteen, a singer he has loved for almost 40 years.
Tom French said that while she was in that dark incubator, his daughter didn't know there was a whole world out there waiting for her. "She was literally 'waiting on a sunny day,'" he said, citing Juniper's favorite Springsteen song even now that she is a healthy and strong 5-year-old kindergartner.
"I've been following [Springsteen's] music and feeling he was at my side, singing thoughts that were already in my head that I had never articulated before, since I was 19 years old," he said. "I knew she understood none of the literal surface meaning of the words in his songs, but she could sense meaning, and the emotion of the meaning, underneath and my very deep connection to Springsteen’s music," he said.
"She heard my life in that music. It’s all there," he said. When French was finally able to hold his little girl for the first time, he said, "It never even occurred to me to try to sing anything else than 'Thunder Road' to her."
The Frenches believe that Springsteen's music actually helped keep their daughter alive those many months in the NICU, when she hovered on the brink of death many times. "Stories can save lives," Tom French told TODAY Parents. "It's not theoretical — we've watched it. When she was having a really hard day I would read to her and sing to her, and her numbers on her monitor would go up instantly. When I thought she had enough and took a break, her numbers would drop, and the nurses would say, I think you better get back over here. These stories brought our daughter back from the edge."
Juniper recently attended her first Springsteen concert in Louisville, Kentucky, where she sang along to "The River" set and danced in her seat. Earlier this week, they traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from their home in Indiana, where the Frenches are currently professors at Indiana University's Journalism School, just for the day so she could meet The Boss himself at his book signing for his autobiography at the Harvard Coop bookstore. Kelley French wrote on their website that when the brief meeting came, she couldn't tell Springsteen all he had meant to her and to her daughter, so she wrote him a note and placed it inside a copy of the Frenches' own book about Juniper's birth, "Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon," and left it for him.
When Kelley asked Juniper what she wanted to say to Bruce, Juniper replied, "I love him, and I want Hermione to be my president." Kelley said Juniper did not mind that the meeting was quick: "He already knows me. He sang to me all those songs," she said.
"All our worst moments, and our best, are tied up in your lyrics," Kelley French, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist herself for a series of articles she wrote about Juniper's birth and survival, wrote to Springsteen in her letter. "Our story is tangled in yours."
Their story, they hope, is not just for other parents of preemies or even parents at all, but for anyone going through something hard with someone they love, Tom French said. "We really hope our story can help other people," he said, just as Springsteen's stories have helped and comforted them — and now, their daughter.