With your toddler on your hip, you dial 9-1-1.
Johnny pulls at the cord with his pudgy baby fingers. This is before cordless phones. To make the call, you had to make your way to the kitchen, baby in one arm, the other clutching your contracting abdomen. You try not to slip on the water that runs down your leg and trails at your feet.
You can’t call your husband; no one carries cell phones.
Nine Eleven is not yet a national tragedy. It is the day you went to the hospital one year and one day ago to deliver the baby in your arms. The one in your uterus is not meant to be born for another three months.
“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
“My water broke.”
“Is there someone there who can drive you to the hospital?”
“No. I’m home alone with my daughter and my one-year-old.”
“Ma’am, I’m sending an ambulance. Is there a neighbor who can wait with you?”
“No. I’m alone with my babies. It’s too soon.”
“The ambulance will be there soon,” the operator says.
Johnny starts to cry. You shush him as you shift back and forth in your hips to calm him and to ease the contraction wrapped around your mid-section.
“Stay with me?” you say to the operator.
Between contractions, you tell the ambulance driver to take you to St. Mary’s.
“But what about my children?”
The other medic walks next door to see if Mrs. Trapp, the old lady in the wheelchair, can keep them until your mother arrives. She will set them into her car (no one uses car seats) and take them to your sister’s house. She is home with her baby, and another on the way.
“Ma’am, we could take you to Deaconess. It’s right around the corner.”
“No. St. Mary’s. We’re Catholic.”
The medic nods. This is enough information. You don’t need to tell him that your husband works in maintenance there, and your father in the hospital cafeteria, or that your sister worked there as a nurse before she got pregnant.
Inside the ambulance, the medic places an oxygen mask over your face, though you insist you are fine. When the vehicle hits a pothole, your head rises up and the rim of the mask hits you in the face.
You throw up strawberry soda.
Pink vomit runs down your cheek, staining the sheet and your white cotton blouse. The medic removes the mask, wiggles it from end of the hose and replaces it with a clean one. He returns it to your face.
You wipe your cheek on your collar.
The admitting nurse recognizes your name and says to the attendant, “This is Vince’s wife. Someone call down and tell him his wife just came in.”
Ten minutes later, your husband jogs into the room, keys jangling from the belt loop of his steel gray uniform pants. His shirt bears a white patch embroidered with his name above a pocket holding a pencil, a carpenter’s ruler, a tiny screwdriver and his glasses.
The nurse calls your OB. Then she comes back and says that Dr. Young is not available, Dr. Oswald or Dr. England are on call. You can’t remember which one it was.
Vince grabs your hand as you are wheeled up to Labor and Delivery on the fifth floor. He rides with you in the elevator and down a long hallway but then he lets go and you disappear behind double doors. This is a time before fathers are allowed to in the room when their child is born. You must go in alone.
You don’t know yet that you will come out alone.
The nurse hooks you up to an IV. The anesthesiologist arrives. He checks your chart, says hello to the nurses. He slaps another mask on your face.
The last thing you hear is Dr. England (you remember now) charging into the room.
“You son of a bitch. I haven’t even examined her yet.”
You wake up in the maternity ward. You hear a small cry and lift your head to look around, find your baby. All you see is white.
The curtain moves as if in a breeze. A nurse pokes her head around from behind. She slides it back enough so that you see the bed next to you, a woman in a pink quilted bed jacket, a baby to her breast. She dabs a rubber-nippled bottle to its lips. The baby has a tuft of hair pulled up with a tiny pink bow. A man sits in a chair, reading the paper. He stubs out a cigarette in the metal ashtray beside him.
The nurse says, “I’m supposed to give you these shots to dry up your milk.” She pulls the curtain closed again.
“Oh no, I’m planning to breastfeed my baby.”
The nurse places one hand on your arm and moves to untie the strings at your back. You grab both her hands. It hurts when your turn to reach for them.
“No, you don’t understand. I’m not using a bottle.”
Dr. England appears from behind the white shroud.
“What is she doing in here with the mothers?” he demands.
His voice booms. You see the baby next to you startle in her mother’s arms.
“Get her to a private room. Now.”
The nurse scuttles out, comes back with a wheelchair. You assume she is taking you to see your baby. Your breasts ache with tingling. You put your hands to them, push the soft washed cotton of your hospital gown to your nipples. It feels like sandpaper, and you crave the wet warm suck of your baby’s mouth, the only release for what ails you.
The nurse pushes you down the hall and into an empty room at the end. You see a bed made up with sheets and white woven blanket. The nurse helps you into bed and tucks you in as Dr. England comes in.
“Carolyn, the baby had some problems.”
You have not heard him cry. You have not held him. You do not know how long you have been here. Instead of asking about your baby, you say, what day is it?
You came here yesterday in the ambulance. You remember that. You remember the doctor coming in. You don’t remember anything after that.
“The baby died early this morning, Carolyn. Vince named him James.”
James Vincent was the name you had picked out for a boy.
It was a boy.
You have a daughter and two sons.
You look at the clock. The hands say ten o’clock. It is still morning. He said James died this morning.
Dr. England keeps talking. “He was born with a membrane over his lungs. It made it hard for him to breathe. And he had an underdeveloped heart. And a club foot. It was just too soon for him to live.”
When Vince arrives, he tells you that the nurse named Maggie Hensel called the house this morning to say that James had died, and that she, a baptized Catholic, had baptized him before he stopped breathing.
You interrupt your story here to tell me that not everyone would do something like that. If you baptize someone, you say, and they don’t die, you are responsible for their soul.
When your husband tells you this, you begin to cry.
Vince has to go. Someone has broken the lock on a supply closet. Sister Imelda comes to sit with you. She cries too.
Later you will learn that she gets called to task for getting personally involved with a patient. The following year, you say, she does not renew her vows. She leaves the order and returns to her parent’s farm in northern Indiana to raise goats and chickens. She lives there until her death.
You cannot get out of bed for several days. You allow the nurse to give you two shots, one in each breast, to dry up the milk. Still it comes, in thick hot tears like sap seeping from a cut place in the bark of a maple tree, like sadness that you try to hold in but continues to bubble up from some secret core inside you.
You tell Vince you want to have a funeral.
He is a member of our family, you say.
He is my son, you tell him.
Vince agrees. He goes to the funeral home and picks out a tiny white casket with blue satin lining. He selects a small white gown to clothe James’s body. All this falls to Vince, because you have not yet been able to get out of bed.
At the viewing, Vince watches the undertaker close the small box and carry it in his arms, too small to require pallbearers, to the hearse. That evening at the hospital, he tells you that he wanted to climb inside and ride with his son to the cemetery. He tells you that your mother took a picture of the casket and flowers for you.
You lie in your hospital bed, crying milk tears.
Fifty years later, when I ask you if you were sad to miss his funeral, you say, no.
You say you were the one who wanted it that way.
All this time, I blamed the Church. I hated a religion that would bury a woman’s child before she could be there to say good-bye, all to save the baby’s soul from purgatory, but you tell me this story, and I understand.
It is nearly midnight now. You and I have been talking for hours.
I stand up.
I want to sleep, but I ask one more question.
Have you been to his grave?
You say, oh gosh, not for years. He still doesn’t have a headstone. Someday, your dad and I want to buy him one.
I earned my MFA in Fiction Writing from Spalding University in 2010. My work is varied and does not follow traditional rules of genre. I write short stories, essays and hybrid works. My stories have been published in PoemMemoirStory, Tishman Review and Fourth and Sycamore. My collection Three Sisters was named as a finalist by Dock Street Press in their Sou’wester First Book Award. I also create narrative textiles combining story with salvaged fabric and found objects. This past January, I co-directed a community theater production of Four Spirits: The Play by Sena Jeter Naslund. In my blog Sophie Speaks (julieandsophiespeak.blogspot.com), I wrote about learning to balance my creative work and family life as I recopied Anna Karenina by hand, as Sophia Tolstoy did for her husband. I am currently at work on a new hybrid essay/story collection.