The ringing phone roused me from my light doze. I had fallen asleep watching some daytime talk show, I couldn’t remember which one, they all blended together. These shows required so little of my attention that I frequently found myself dropping back off to sleep while they were on. I’d been in the middle of breakfast, as well, and that sat unfinished on the nightstand.
I fumbled for my phone, nearly knocking it, and the discarded breakfast, off the bedside table in the process.
“Hello?” I mumbled, my voice scratchy with sleep.
“Elise? Hey, it’s Julianne.”
Of course it was. It had been weeks since I had last seen Julianne and Paige at Anna’s memorial service. Perhaps she was calling me now because they thought it was time for me to pull myself out of my funk. Well, they were wrong about that - thirty days in, and grief was still my constant companion. I still had plenty of mourning to do. I wouldn’t give in to their cajoling, their attempts at persuasion. I knew that I still needed to separate myself from the world in order to function. I needed them to respect that, and I knew that they did. It would take something pretty spectacular at this point to make me leave the house.
I didn’t know what else to say. It had been so long since I’d talked to her, despite her still regular check ins. I never answered her texts, and she hadn’t called me since Anna died. She couldn’t possibly be calling to chat.
“I hate that I’m asking this of you.”
“We’re at the hospital. Me and Paige.”
“Why?” Julianna paused, and I realized how stupid my question was. Of course: Paige had her. Or was having her baby. “Oh, right,” I said. “The baby.”
“Yeah. Paige is in labor, and it’s not going particularly well. I think it would help if you were here. I understand if that’s not something you can do, but I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.”
I felt a chill at the mere idea of going to that place again. I spent so much time there: when I was on bed rest, hoping that I’d stay pregnant long enough to save my daughter, when I spent every moment sitting at my daughter’s side, praying that she’d live. I felt my heartbeat speed up at the thought.
“You can say no,” Julianna said after a moment. “I mean, Paige doesn’t even know I’m calling you.”
“Jules. Of course I’ll come. I’ll be there in, like, twenty minutes.”
She sighed audibly into the phone. “Oh, thank God. Okay. Great, we’ll see you soon.”
I hung up the phone and pushed myself out of the bed. Paige needed me. I had to get to the hospital as soon as I could. There wasn’t time to take a shower, though I desperately needed one. How long had it been since I had showered? Days, a week? Oh, well. Hopefully I didn’t smell too bad. Maybe clean clothes would be enough.
I scraped my stringy, unwashed hair into a ponytail and traded my dirty yoga pants for my usual maternity jeans and a t-shirt long enough to try to hide those extra pounds. Julianne and Paige would understand why I looked like hell, and anyone that didn’t understand didn’t matter. Anyway, I would be in the labor ward at a hospital, not a fancy restaurant. Certainly there wouldn’t be a dress code.
I called Ben from the car while I drove to the hospital. He sounded shocked to hear from me, and more shocked when I told him why I was calling. He promised to stop by the hospital on his way home from work, unless he heard from me that I had gone back home.
It had been a few weeks since I had left the house, and the weather surprised me. It was full-fledged summer now. It was practically still winter when we had lost Anna. Now the sky was clear and blue, and plants were in bloom all around me. The car was oppressively hot, and I blasted the air conditioner in an attempt to keep from sweating through my shirt. The day we’d lost Anna had been gray, so the Technicolor day shocked me. How could I have shut myself off this much, so much so that I had missed the changing of the seasons? Where had spring gone?
I was worried that seeing the hospital again would bring back all those painful memories. Indeed, when I stepped into the building, I was knocked backward by that smell, the smell of disinfectant, of life and death mixed together. For a moment, I considered heading back home, but today wasn’t about me and my pain. It was about helping Paige, and seeing her joy. I had to be strong because she needed me. I couldn’t be self-centered today. I had wallowed in my sadness for long enough. I needed to be a friend again to someone who had seen me through all of my worst moments, who had done so much to take care of me.
I went directly to the labor and delivery ward, where I had spent so many weeks in bed, trying to stave off my own labor. It was almost surreal. It had never occurred to me that I’d be back here. I wasn’t going to have another baby, so why would I? And yet here I was, on very nearly the day I always should have been here, Anna’s due date only a few days away. In another world, I could have been arriving for my own delivery.
I was directed to Paige’s room. She was only a couple of rooms away from where Anna had been born. Thankfully, it wasn’t the same room. While I’d meant it when I agreed to be here, I didn’t know if I would be able to stand in that room ever again. As I walked past the closed door to the room where my daughter was born, I couldn’t help but place a hand gently against it, saying a brief prayer for whoever was inside, hoping that no one else ever faced what I had when I’d been housed behind that door.
Paige was lying in the bed, wearing the same hospital gown I remembered from my weeks here: beige with blue triangles, snaps at the shoulders. Looking at the gown, I felt the familiar scratch of the many-times-laundered fabric against my skin. The front of the gown bulged with the contraction and heart rate monitors. Again, I felt the pressure against my abdomen, as if it was me in the bed, laboring away.
I shook my head, forcing the memories away. This was going to be hard. I looked at Paige, putting my concentration on her, the way it needed to be if I was going to get through the day. Her hair was matted with sweat, her face pale and drawn. My poor, exhausted friend.
“You look even worse than I do,” I said after standing in the doorway for a moment, gathering my strength.
She laughed, and then began to cry. I moved to her side and embraced her. She clung to me fiercely.
“Oh, Elise, thank you so much for coming. I can’t even imagine how hard this is.”
I shrugged. “I’m trying not to think about it. What’s happening here?”
Julianne answered me, and I realized she was sitting in a chair in corner of the room. I hadn’t even noticed her. Her hair was tied up in a topknot, and her clothes were wrinkled. I wondered if she’d slept in them. I certainly had enough experience with that, so I knew it when I saw it.
“We checked in Sunday night,” Julianne answered. “That’s when the induction started.”
“Sunday? It’s Tuesday, right?”
“Good Lord, woman. How do you not know what day it is?”
“Well, when you spend all your time in bed watching TV, one day is pretty much the same as the next.”
“Yeah, it’s Tuesday. Paige has been having contractions since, what, eight on Monday morning?”
Paige nodded. “They’ve only been had since last night though.”
“Oh, it’s only been bad for the last twelve hours? Of twenty-four?”
Paige cried out, and I realized she was having a contraction. She scrunched up her face, which got redder as the contraction surged through her.
I gasped. That had to have been the first time I’d ever heard Paige swear. “Language.”
“Well, it hurt.”
“Get an epidural.”
“I have an epidural,” Paige replied.
“I think they did it wrong.”
“If they turn it up enough that I’m comfortable, the contractions stop. We found a happy medium where the contractions keep happening and I don’t feel like I’m going to die.
“Yikes. How is the baby?”
“He’s holding on. Probably literally. He probably has his little hand stuck fast on something in there.”
Paige smiled. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve been better,” I replied honestly. “But you need me.”
“Are you sure you can handle this?”
“Not entirely, but I’m already here. Are you sure you can do this? Twenty-four hours of labor?” I paused, turning to Julianne. “Why didn’t you call me sooner?”
“You know why. I didn’t think you wanted to deal with this. I didn’t think you could deal with this.”
“I will deal with this. Making sure that Paige is okay is more important to me than the fact that this hospital holds bad memories for me.”
Paige cried out in pain again, doubling over as much as she could while lying in bed, trying to breathe through the pain, or push through it, or whatever she was supposed to do. We hadn’t gotten to Lamaze classes, so I was unsure of how things were supposed to go when labor was, well, normal. My labor had taken mere minutes. I had no idea what twenty-four hours of this must have felt like. After a moment, she let go, her whole body relaxing.
“I think they’re getting worse.”
“That’s supposed to be a good sign. I think.”
Julianne came over and handed Paige a Styrofoam cup full of ice chips. “They aren’t letting her eat, in case they have to do the surgery. Which is insane, making her go twenty-four hours with no food. She needs the calories.”
“She’ll be full of energy once the baby’s here. No food, twenty-four hours of pain, I assume no sleep. What a sunny, happy Paige we’ll have on our hands.”
Paige laughed, and poured a few ice chips into her mouth. She crunched on the ice. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain she was in. My labor had been so quick, only a handful of contractions. It didn’t take much effort to expel a one pound baby. I hadn’t had time to get hungry, or tired. Paige’s labor was epic, the kind of thing you heard about in horror stories.
“I won’t do the c-section,” Paige said, “unless he’s in trouble. As long as Nate is fine, I’m not going to force anything on him, or on my body.”
“That’s very brave. How are the doctors taking that?”
“Eh, I think my doctor wants me to finish up so that she can go home.”
“Nice.” I looked over at Julianne. “Jules? How are things?”
She paused. “They’re okay. I could become a mom any day now myself.”
“Those same people who you were so sure would change their minds?”
“Yeah. I’m still kind of sure that they might renege at the last minute, but it is getting down to the wire, so we’re starting to buy a few things for the house. Nothing too big.”
I wanted to make a joke, to offer her the nursery I wasn’t using. Old Elise would have, but the words wouldn’t come out. Clearly I was making steps in some ways, since the joke had popped into my head, but I wasn’t back to normal yet.
“Good luck,” I said instead.
Paige cried out again, another contraction gripping her body. A nurse came in this time, and performed a quick exam on Paige. Julianne wiped the sweat from Paige’s brow while the nurse did her work.
“You’re finally getting closer,” she said, and Paige lit up. “I’d say you’re at an eight.”
“Hooray! Almost there.”
She was almost there, and within the hour we were officially on to pushing. Apparently, my presence was exactly what Paige needed to get her through the labor.
“Who’s going to cut the cord?” Paige’s obstetrician asked, as Paige prepared to push.
Julianne looked over at me. “You’re welcome to it.”
I moved down the bed from Paige’s head to her feet. For a moment, I was repulsed by the sight and smell. There was blood everywhere, though no one seemed concerned.I realized that I had been here, and done this, and it was amazing, though surreal to think that a few months ago I’d done this same thing. I held on to Paige’s knee while she pushed, and I watched her son slide from her body. His first cries were loud, hearty, something that I hadn’t experienced with Anna. Really, everything about this birth had been different from my experience with Anna, like Paige was in a different reality than the one I existed in, but then wasn’t that how our pregnancies had always felt?
After a moment, the doctor handed me the scissors and showed me where to cut. This was such a strange experience. This was the father’s job. Had Ben cut Anna’s cord? Everything had happened so quickly at Anna’s birth, I couldn’t even remember the specifics. I made a mental note to ask Ben if he recalled doing so.
The doctor placed Nate on his mother’s chest. Paige was crying, tears streaming down her cheeks. She had worked so hard for him, and lost so much. I knew she wouldn’t go back and trade anything for this baby. He was everything to her. I knew all of that because I’d been there, and I knew how much I would give to go back. I knew how lucky I was that I was able to be here to see him come into the world.
After a few minutes, she offered to let Julianne and me hold her son. My hands reflexively went up in front of me, warding off the baby, and I immediately hated myself. He was my best friend’s child. I was so, so happy for her that he had finally arrived, after all the trouble. But my arms weren’t ready to hold a child that wasn’t mine.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not there yet.”
“It’s okay,” Paige replied, handing her son to Julianne.
“So,” Julianne asked. “They’re going to ask what to put on the birth certificate.”
“And his last name?”
Paige shrugged. “Harris, I guess. I don’t know. The divorce isn’t over yet. I don’t even know if I’m going to change my name back. I feel like giving Nate my maiden name would send a very specific message to Jake, and I don’t think that I want to send him that message. Not yet, anyway.”
Nathaniel Steven Harris was a beautiful little boy. He weighed eight pounds seven ounces and was twenty-three inches long. A big boy, I had said to Paige seconds after he arrived. Of course my frame of reference was a bit off, but he seemed huge to me. He had dark hair, a tiny bit of it, dusting the top of his head. After a few minutes’ discussion, we decided he had green eyes like his mother.
He began to cry in Julianne’s arms, and she handed him back to his mother. He was clearly hungry. Paige rang for a nurse to come in and help her. She and Nate took a few minutes to get into the breastfeeding rhythm, but they seemed to get it right. I looked at Paige, feeding her son, caressing his head with her free hand. I felt my stomach drop, knowing that I was close to losing my control. This was the exact scene I had wanted when Anna was born.
Anna’s due date was still three days away, but she was already gone. I would never have what Paige was experiencing at this exact moment. I felt the tears beginning to form in my eyes, and then I felt a squeeze on my hand.
“We should go,” Julianne said softly. “To give them some time alone.”
I nodded numbly and followed her from the room. In the hallway, she embraced me.
“I know it’s hard,” she whispered. “You’ve been so strong today.”
My tears began to fall. “I’m so happy that she got here. Really I am. I want to be here too.”
There was nothing to comfort me. In years past, when I saw someone getting what I wanted, I could comfort myself with the thought that I would get there, that I had to keep trying. That wouldn’t work this time. We weren’t going to try again. I was not going to get there. That broke me. I continued to cry, trying my best not to make a scene, not wanting to draw any attention.
“I’ll take you home,” Julianne said. “You can come visit Paige in a couple days when you’re feeling a little bit better.”
“Please don’t tell her that this happened.”
“I won’t. I promise. I know that you’re getting so close to being you again, so I know that you’ll come see Paige soon, and be able to hold that baby, and not have to worry that she’ll see you cry.”
We walked out to the parking lot. When we stepped out into the sunlight, I gulped in the fresh air, clearing the hospital smell from my lungs. That place had gotten inside of me, infesting my body, and I wanted it away from me. By the time we had reached my car, I felt better enough to drive myself home. I thanked Julianne for walking me out.
“Let me know when Paige is at home,” I said. “I’ll come by once she’s settled.”
I vowed to myself that I would keep this promise. I was going to pull myself together, and be a friend to Paige and Julianne from now on. I wouldn’t go on focusing only on myself. No matter how terrible their loss, they had always been there for me when I needed them. It was time for me to go back to being that kind of friend.
Tomorrow. For today, I was going to cry for a while, and then I was probably going to cry a bit more. Today I was going to mourn. I’d mourn again in the future, but in a better way than I had been. I’d start leaving the house again. I’d shower and get dressed in clean clothes every day. I’d get a hobby to occupy my time.
But not today.