The following is the first short story in the 5-part story “Wisp.” The parts are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. I think they are best read in that order. This first story does not contain any objectionable material. Feedback is welcome.
On the day Mr. Henry fired Frank Lester, two bodies awaited cremation at the Henry and Green Mortuary and Crematorium: a baby girl and an old woman. They didn’t have anything to do with Frank, alive or dead. At least not before he shoved their coffins into the furnace as his last act. That the act was petty at best, criminal at worst, didn’t cross his mind. Only the need for revenge. The aptness of the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold” struck him as humorous given the body temperature of said bodies, and he snorted on his way out the door.
He didn’t wonder about the baby girl and the old woman, their fated demise at opposite ends of the spectrum. Their lives, the lives of the baby girl and the old woman, were meaningless now except as they intertwined in the greasy smoke curling from the obscene smokestack.
Hee hee hee hoo. Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate on the focal point. Breathe through the contraction.
God had sucked the sunlight out of the sky the day Dr. Iverson had told Laurie and Scott Webber that something was wrong with the pregnancy. Everything turned gray and fuzzy around the edges, even Dr. Iverson’s compassionate face.
Laurie thought about his face now as it peered up at her from between her legs, the white sheet between them acting as a decorous — although fictional — shield. The wrinkles around the guileless blue eyes suggested trust while the wild white hair made him seem bemused. In fact, his entire appearance inspired faith and confidence from the reddish freckles scattered liberally and boyishly across his face and hands to his rumpled doctor’s greens. Even on that dark day, Laurie had put her trust in him. She didn’t just believe him, she believed in him, in the same way that Scott believed in God. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in God, she did with all her heart, but Dr. Iverson had been present in a way that God wasn’t. When she cried in his office, he held her hand. It was as simple, and maybe as complicated, as that.
He pulled the sheet back down and sighed. “You’re about halfway there, about five centimeters. It’s not too late to change your mind, you know.”
Scott brushed damp hair away from her forehead. “It’s up to you, honey.”
She shook her head, for a moment too consumed with grief to speak. She didn’t want drugs. Drugs could guarantee a lessening of the physical pain, but they couldn’t guarantee that she would retain full awareness during labor. If her baby girl was going to live for only a few moments, she didn’t want to miss any of them.
“Rest between the contractions, then, and make sure to do your breathing exercises during the contractions. I’m going to check quickly on a couple of other patients, and I’ll be right back.”
He smiled, handed the chart to the nurse, and left. The nurse, squarish and solid, who looked as though she had seen the births of hundreds of babies, as though she had caught hundreds of babies with her squarish, blunt hands, helped Laurie get her feet out of the stirrups. She straightened the sheet and adjusted the fetal monitor over the belly. In the quiet of the room, the sounds of the distressed heart could be heard clearly.
“Don’t you worry,” she said. “I’ve seen God do amazing things.” She patted Laurie on the knee and turned a pitying smile on Scott before leaving the room.
“It’s the fetus’s heart,” Dr. Iverson had said that day. A large desk, worn at the corners and in need of polishing, dominated the center of the doctor’s consultation office, but he wasn’t sitting behind it. He leaned against it, close to the couple in front of him. “It’s called a ventricular septal defect.”
Laurie squeezed Scott’s hand so hard that she could feel her heartbeat pounding next to his fingers. Breathe, she thought. Just breathe.
“That means there’s a hole in the septum, the wall that divides the two ventricles of the heart. It’s a very large hole — there’s probably more than one — which has caused the left side of the heart to not develop. Because it hasn’t developed, the right side is enlarged. Blood is leaking from the left side to the right, which means poor circulation throughout the rest of the body.”
She let go of Scott’s hand and rested it on her stomach. She could feel the flutter of the baby there. They knew it was a girl but hadn’t picked a name yet. Scott wanted to name her Julie, after a sister of his who had died when she was a teenager. She wanted Hannah, after Hannah in the Bible. Hannah had done everything possible to have a child. Her fervent prayers, and indeed her bargaining with God, had paid off finally. There was no way, she thought, that she would be able to give up her first born to God, as Hannah had done. Now it seemed she would have no choice, no say in the matter. Damn you, God, god damn you.
“What was that sound we heard during the examination? It sounded like a heart murmur,” Scott said.
“That’s the sound of the blood rushing across the hole. Because the blood is leaking,” Dr. Iverson’s voice went relentlessly on, “the lungs are filling with fluid. Right now, of course, the baby is breathing through you, but because of the fluid, the lungs can’t develop.”
“Is she in pain right now?” She couldn’t bear the thought, but she had to know.
“She’s not in pain, but she’s in distress.”
She rubbed the baby, pushing gently here and there, feeling her respond with a gentle kick, Laurie’s favorite game with her. She had never wanted anything in life other than to be a mother. Laurie’s mother, a mid-level advertising exec who had been one of the first women at the executive level in the company, encouraged Laurie to be whatever she wanted to be. There were no more societal restraints on women. She could be a judge or a politician or a CEO. But all Laurie wanted was to be a mother, to have her own children and home, to get involved in church programs and the PTA, to attend all of her children’s soccer games, ballet recitals, and piano lessons. Her mother had not been happy. “But you can be anything,” she had said, her voice plaintive and mortified. “I know,” Laurie had replied with all the conviction her sixteen years could muster, “and this is what I want.” Apparently, women’s lib didn’t apply to all women.
Hee hee hee hoo. Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate on the focal point. Breathe through the contraction. The day nurse went on a lunch break but stayed at the nurse’s station. Laurie could hear an afternoon news program on the television. They were calling a household with the prefix “724” to say the key word and win cash. Scott placed an ice chip between her cracked lips, but the truth was, she just wanted him to go away. She loved him, but every time she looked at him, she was reminded that their child was going to die and that she hadn’t had much say in the matter.
She had felt it even back then, that her concerns, opinions, beliefs, heartbreak didn’t matter. “What do you mean by ‘distress’?” she had asked.
Scott briefly shook his head and intruded on the end of her words. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Smaller holes tend to heal over time. This one won’t.”
That was when she had started to cry, and Dr. Iverson took her hand. Warm, dry, and wrinkled, his hand comforted her.
“Because of the congestive heart failure, I can prescribe medications such as digitalis to control the symptoms. However, once the baby is born, it won’t do any good.”
“What about surgery?”
“We can attempt surgical closure of the defect with the use of a Gore-tex patch. It would be a large patch, and might not cover all the holes. If we did surgery, I would recommend a C-section as soon as the fetus is able to sustain life outside the womb, possibly at 30 to 32 weeks.”
“What would the chances be?”
Laurie hated the way the two men talked back and forth as though they were discussing stock options and not a human life. She withdrew her hand from Dr. Iverson’s and placed it back on the baby. I’m here, little one. You are safe with me, my baby girl.
“I’ll be honest with you. The prognosis isn’t good. We would take the baby into surgery immediately, and she would stay in NICU for several months. The longest she might live is six months, and most, if not all, of that time would be spent in the hospital.”
“Could I still hold her?” Laurie asked.
“No. She would be in an incubation unit. It would be too risky to have her pick up an infection. She simply wouldn’t be able to fight it off.”
Hee hee hee hoo. Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate on the focal point. Breathe through the contraction. “Another one already?” Scott asked. She simply nodded.
They discussed it long into the night. What good would it do to have the surgery, only to have her die soon after?
Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate. Breathe through the contraction.
It would be better, they at last decided, to bring her home and let her die at home, surrounded by the people who loved her, in her mother’s arms.
Hee hee hee hoo. Concentrate. Breathe.
Dr. Iverson lifted the sheet. When had he come back in? “You’re doing great, Laurie. During the next contraction, I want you to bear down. Push as hard as you can.”
The next hour became a blur in her mind as she pushed with every contraction and fell asleep between them. Then she pushed and felt the baby slide out of her as though all her hopes, dreams, love, and life itself were pouring out in that single rush of fluid, as though something vital had been lost.
She heard her baby’s cry, small and weak, before she fell asleep. She was awake in seconds, sorrow at losing those few seconds nibbling at her. Scott brushed her hair away from her forehead and kissed her. “Father Washington is on his way.”
She nodded mutely and held her arms out for her baby girl. Dr. Iverson handed the white-wrapped bundle into her arms, and Laurie looked at her daughter. Reddish-brown hair, as fine as the cotton that floated by the windows in the summer, capped her perfectly formed head. Pale lashes brushed the blue-tinted cheeks. In the quietus of the room — the beeping of the fetal monitor stilled, the whirring of futile machines silent — Laurie could hear the labored breathing and the little hitch in the breath as air tried to pass through blood-filled lungs.
“When you go to God, little one,” she whispered in the down of her hair, “know that you were loved and wanted.” Her own breath hitched as air tried to pass through sorrow. She kissed the top of her head, wanting for the moment to go on into eternity.
Scott held her for a moment, whispering his own words into her being, and then he handed her back to Laurie, turning his back on them as sobs wracked his body.
Father Washington came in, somber, godly, resplendent in baptismal robes. He embraced Scott first, letting him cry against his shoulder while his huge black hands patted his back. When he turned to Laurie, he cupped her chin in his hand, a true father to this woman who felt so much like a little girl. She wanted to ask why but trusted instead in the warmth of his old and grieving eyes, filled with love and sorrow but also an unearthly calm.
He took the baby and held her close. He uncovered her head in preparation of the baptism. “What is her name?” he asked, his normally sonorous voice muted and hushed as though this very room, sterile and dismal, had become the holy of holies.
Scott opened his mouth to reply, but Laurie rushed in, her determination and strength growing in the face of sudden adulthood. “Grace. Her name is Grace.”
Laurie listened as Father Washington poured the water over her head, In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, washing her clean of all human stain, making her like Eve on the day of her creation. Then came the oil crossing her forehead, In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, preparing her with these final rites to meet God.
The breathing became more labored, loud in this antiseptic cathedral. Father Washington draped a small crucifix over her head, kissed her, and handed her over to Laurie, who took her, held her close to her breast, whispered a last prayer in her ear, and handed her up to God.
In the hallway, strangely removed from holiness, two nurses argued about whether someone had really killed her lover on The Young and the Restless.
* * *