BY CARMEN SIERING
When Tom and Kelley French’s daughter, Juniper, was born at 23 weeks gestation, she weighed just 1 pound and 4 ounces. She couldn’t see or cry. Her skin was so fragile, her parents couldn’t hold her.
“It’s so terrifying that it’s almost hard to connect or engage,” Kelley says. “We had to figure out how to be her parents. And not how to be her parents someday, but right then. We were making choices about who we were in that moment as a family.”
One of the choices they made was to set a tiny iPod inside the incubator with Juniper to drown out the sounds of the machines keeping her alive. On that iPod were the songs that resonated most with her parents — the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Tom, 58, has been a Springsteen fan since his teens. He knows he’s attended more than 90 concerts. “But I haven’t counted in awhile,” he says.
Kelley, 42, laughs and adds, “We kind of had a deal when we got together. If I could have animals, then I would go with him to see Springsteen.”
“He’s part of our everyday lives,” says Tom, who sang Springsteen songs to Juniper even before she was born. “Later, when Juniper was a baby, she slept with a cover of The River and said, ‘Night, night, Bruce.’ He’s been part of the family.”
Tom and Kelley, both journalists and professors in The Media School at Indiana University, wrote a book about the experience: Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon (Little, Brown and Company). They travel a lot, making public appearances at everything from book signings to medical conferences. But one trip, and the public reaction to it, stands out a bit more than the others.
On October 10, Kelley wrote a blog post titled “Dear Bruce: The Thing We Wanted To Say.” It went viral, reposted on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter hundreds of thousands of times, and appearing online in places such as The Huffington Post.
“I really did write it for an audience of one,” Kelley says. “I was kind of surprised at how many people read it. I think 150,000 people read it in just the first few days. And the comments were really moving. So many people have a story like this.”
In the post, Kelley writes about traveling to Springsteen’s book signing of his biography in Boston “because we’ve been trying for five years to find a way to thank you. We believe your music helped save our baby daughter’s life.”
Tom explains that the monitors attached to Juniper were very sensitive to emotional shifts as well as to things like efficiency of breathing. “When we played Springsteen, her numbers would go up,” he says. “When we stopped, or played a song she didn’t like, her numbers would go down. It was very clear.”
Tom and Kelley had promised Juniper, now a healthy 5-year-old, that if she made it out of the hospital, one day they would take her to see Springsteen in concert. They kept that promise, taking her to her first Springsteen concert in Louisville, Kentucky, earlier in the year.
But it was the book signing in October that touched Kelley, and so many others. In the blog post, Kelley writes that it was over in seconds, with a wave and a smile and a quick photograph. Which was enough for Juniper: “She wasn’t disappointed that the moment was so brief. ‘He already knows me,’ she said. ‘He sang to me all those songs.’”
To learn more, visit juniperbook.com.