For the first time since I’d met her, she looked casual rather than professional. With her hair up in a high ponytail, she was wearing a denim jacket and had very little make-up on her face. She smiled at something the woman across from her, a pretty redhead, was saying and I couldn’t help but smile, too.
As I neared their table, I saw Stephanie freeze even though she hadn’t seen me yet. I came to a stop in front of the table and looked down at her.
“City Roast.” She glanced up and the small smile she had on her face transformed into a full on grin. “Can’t handle even a single morning away from me?”
I shook my head and chuckled at her teasing tone. “Nope. I really can’t.”
The two of us maintained eye contact for a moment and it was only broken when Stephanie flinched.
“Ow. I mean- Jared, this is my best friend, Alyssa Hogan. Alyssa, this is Jared Hart.”
The redhead smiled, focusing her crystal blue eyes on me as she held out her hand. “Nice to meet you. I’ve heard quite a bit about you.”
“I hope they’re all good things,” I replied, shaking her hand lightly before gesturing to their empty dishes. “Just finishing up?”
“Yeah, what about you?” Stephanie reached up and subtly ran a hand across her hair. I nodded and glanced behind me even though I couldn’t see my table from where we were.
“I’m here with a few friends from work. One last meal out before I started having a constant dining companion.”
“The cutest dining companion, though,” she added with a grin. I chuckled and shrugged my shoulders.
“Very true. I’m going to go pick him up after this.” I blew out a breath. “I’m nervous as all hell.”
“You’re going to do great. I’m very rarely wrong.”
I laughed and kept my eyes on hers. “I don’t doubt that. I’ll let you two get back to breakfast but I’ll talk to you this week?”
“Definitely.” She nodded and tilted her head slightly as she looked up at me. “We’ll work out a time for me to come over. Give Chris a kiss for me?”
“I will.” I smiled at her friend. “It was nice meeting you, Alyssa. And Stephanie…” I focused my gaze on her beautiful, pale blue eyes. “It’s always good seeing you.”
Without waiting for her to reply, I turned to head back to my table. I was only a couple of feet away when Stephanie said, “Ouch! Stop kicking me!”
“That’s your coffee buddy?” It sounded like Alyssa was trying to whisper but it was more like a whisper-yell.
“You didn’t have to kick me, bitch,” Stephanie grumbled in reply. “That really hurt.”
I laughed and kept walking, too far away to hear them in the busy diner anymore. It was nice to know that Stephanie was just as affected by me as I was her, though.
“We thought you got lost,” Travis said when I got back to the table. “What’s with the goofy grin?”
“Just ran into someone I know.” I settled in at the table and listened to the conversation, contributing lightly.
When the check came, Dave snatched it away before I could grab it and grinned while reaching for his wallet. “I’ve got this. You have to get going to get your boy. Still want to go alone?”
“Yeah, thanks for the offer, though.” Dave had been telling me all week that he’d go with me to pick up Chris for moral support but this was something I needed to do on my own. If I couldn’t even pick him up from the hospital alone, how was I going to take care of him at home by myself?
I thanked the guys, who both offered me last minute words of encouragement, and got into my car to head to the hospital. Nerves had my hands shaking when I started my engine and I felt like a gigantic wuss. I could face a boardroom full of people but a little baby had me scared out of my freakin’ mind.
The drive to the hospital was quick and I grabbed both the diaper bag and the car seat from the back to take in with me. As I rode the elevator up to the fourth floor, I tried to settle my nerves. It was going to be fine. We were going to be fine.
I was buzzed into the maternity wing and headed right for where Christopher was. After washing my hands, I stuck my head in and met Kara’s eyes. She smiled when she saw me and gestured me in. I shook my head and motioned towards the items in the hall.
“Do I bring in my car seat?”
She nodded and had me put it off to the side. “I’ll help you get him in and the straps adjusted when it’s time to go. You’re just in time, though. Your son just woke up and is hungry.”
Kara handed me a bottle and I moved to the crib where Chris was. He was whimpering with his head turned while he attempted to suck on his arm. That was the moment when I realized I’d never picked him up on my own. Someone had always put him in my arms for me.
“How do I pick him up?”
“Put the bottle down first,” Kara instructed and I did so immediately. “For the first month or so, he doesn’t have the muscle strength in his neck to hold his head up, so it’s your job to help, Daddy. Scoop him up by placing one hand under his head and the other under his back.”
I followed her instructions, lifting him into my hands and maneuvering him until he was cradled in one arm, leaving my other free. “Oh. That wasn’t too bad.”
Kara chuckled with a nod. “Right? Now you can feed him.”
I’d probably only spent a total of fifteen hours with this baby in his whole life but I felt completely at peace with him in my arms. It was amazing how less scary it was holding him in that moment than it had been four days before when Stephanie placed him in my arms.
I fed him, burped him, and changed his diaper before encountering another first- changing his clothes. I’d brought a couple of outfits and Kara showed me how to put on a weird thing called a onesie (“You’re not going to break his arms, Jared. You have to get them in the sleeves.”) as well as a pair of sleeper pajamas (“Your buttons are mismatched.”)
She talked to me about bathing him with just a washcloth for another week or so and I learned far more about the umbilical stump than I ever wanted to know. I changed another diaper, that one completely disgusting, and discussed the importance of keeping his nails trimmed. I must have looked overwhelmed because Kara’s face was sympathetic.
“What are your plans long-term, Mr. Hart? Are you planning on putting him in daycare or hiring a nanny?”
I’d thought about the nanny thing so many times. I had even gone so far as to send out feelers for long-term, live in nannies that could help. I didn’t want that for Christopher, though. I didn’t have any living family still on that earth and I was determined to be the best damn father I could be to that little boy.
“I’ll be home with him for the next two months and then he’ll go into the onsite daycare facility I have at work. No nannies.”
“If you change your mind, there’s no shame in getting help. But for what it’s worth, I think you’re going to do great.” She pat my shoulder once and had to turn to help another parent.
I was in the NICU for almost three hours before Dr. Struthers showed up, apologizing for being late. I didn’t mind, though. I wasn’t in a hurry.
He went over my son’s file again and reiterated that he was completely healthy. He also gave me a list of recommended pediatricians and told me that he should see someone in a week or so to get his first round of shots.
Another employee came in around that same time with a few different forms I had to sign. One of them was the birth certificate and I carefully spelled out the names I’d chosen to give to my son. The middle name had been easier to pick than I’d expected and I felt that it was perfect.
“Okay. I’ll file this paperwork,” the woman said as she stamped the form I’d just signed. “You should be able to pick up a copy of the birth certificate in about two weeks. We’ll file everything with social security for you and his card will come in the mail in about six to eight weeks.”
I delayed as long as possible but before I knew it, the baby lojack was off of his ankle, Chris was buckled into his seat, the straps were adjusted, and I was loaded down with four extra bags on top of the diaper bag. Kara had the extra bags and had offered to walk out to my car with me.
I thanked the doctor and the rest of the NICU staff before stepping out of the door and feeling the panic hit me tenfold. The safety net was officially gone and Chris’s wellbeing was all on my shoulders.
“You’re going to be fine,” Kara said as we rode down the elevator together. “There’s no shame in calling for help, either. If you feel overwhelmed, just call us here and anyone in my department can walk you through something or talk you off the ledge.”
I nodded my head gratefully as we stepped out of the elevator. “Thank you. I really appreciate that.”
“Another good one to utilize is Stephanie. She’s a really good person, Jared, and she’ll do whatever she can to help you.”
I glanced over at her while we moved down the hallway. “I would be lost without her already.”
Kara smiled, as if my words made her happy, and didn’t say anything else until we made it to the door. She showed me how to cover Chris’s seat with a receiving blanket and when we go to the car, demonstrated the best way to get it in the backseat. Once it was clicked in and secure, we both straightened up and she sighed.
“Have some faith in yourself. You’re going to be a great father to this little boy. You need to give yourself some slack, too. You aren’t perfect. Okay?”
She surprised me by wrapping her arms around my middle and giving me a swift hug. “Good luck, Jared.”
I returned her hug and thanked her when we separated. She turned to head into the hospital and I focused my gaze on the window of my car, staring at where my son was currently sleeping. A month ago, everything had been normal and now...
I opened the driver’s side door and slid into my seat. I stared into the mirror as I started the engine.
“Okay, Christopher. Let’s go home, son.”