Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
“This woman really doesn’t have anyone we can notify?”
“Not as far as I know. It’s the only reason I can think of why she would say I’m the father.”
“That poor woman. And that poor little baby. Thank goodness you were there for them. Is there any chance the mother will recover?”
“The doctor didn’t think so. I’m not Beth’s father but I can’t stand thinking of someone so tiny being all alone in the world. Frankly, I’m not sure what to do.”
“Why, you do the right thing! And don’t be telling your mother that you don’t know what that is,” she declared. “I raised you better than that.”
Mick rose and wished her good-night. On the way back to his room he considered her words.
This time I really don’t know what the right thing is. I need Your guidance, Lord. What is it that You want me to do?
He got ready for bed and lay down, but sleep wouldn’t come. Each time he closed his eyes he saw Caitlin’s face. He saw her eyes wide with relief when he’d followed Eddy into her room, and he saw them filled with fear for her baby. Such beautiful eyes, closed perhaps forever, yet repeated in miniature, along with her fearsome scowl, in her daughter’s tiny face.
He barely knew the woman, but he kept hearing her voice. “Stay with Beth. Watch over her for me.” It was the last thing Caitlin had said to him.
Had she sensed that she was dying? Had she been asking him for something more? Was that why she told them he was the father? So her baby girl wouldn’t be left alone?
Mick threw back the quilt and sat up on the side of his bed. The light from a full moon cast a glow into the room. Rising, he crossed to the window. Nikki watched him from her spot at the foot of the bed, but she didn’t bother to get up.
Pulling the curtains aside, he looked out the second-story window of his home and stared at the shadows of the trees in the park behind his property. It was deserted now, but during the day it would be filled with neighborhood children playing on the swings and slides. On nearby benches, smiling young mothers would follow their play with watchful eyes.
Yet across that park and the railroad yards beyond it, there existed a world those happy children would only know in passing or see on TV. It was a world of intense poverty, where children played in filthy streets and lived in crowded, run-down apartments if they were lucky enough to have a home at all, and where mothers seldom smiled because they worried about where the next meal would come from.
Caitlin came from those streets. If she lived, she’d go back there and take little Beth with her. But if Caitlin died, where would her child go? Into foster care until she was old enough to run away and end up like her mother? Or would she be one of the lucky ones playing in a park like this?
He let the curtain fall back into place. None of the children in the park would ever be his. Facing that fact was more painful tonight than it had ever been. Perhaps because, for a moment, when Beth had grasped his finger and gazed up at him, he had known what it felt like to be a father.
He raked his fingers through his hair. He wasn’t responsible for Caitlin or her child, yet somehow the two of them had captured a piece of his heart. He felt connected to them. It wasn’t right that they were alone. They needed someone to care about them. They needed him. Before he could change his mind, he crossed the room to the closet where he pulled on a gray wool cable-knit sweater, a pair of jeans and his sneakers, then he headed out the door.
A fine mist fell as he drove down the dark streets. The swish-swish of his wiper blades was almost mesmerizing. Twenty minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of the hospital. Wondering if he was being a fool, he hurried out of the rain and through the emergency room doors.
At the NICU he showed his wristband, and a nurse answered his questions. Beth was doing as well as could be expected. She invited him in, but he declined. He needed to see Caitlin.
When he entered the ICU and reached her room, he hesitated at the door. What did he hope to accomplish here? Maybe nothing. He pulled a chair up beside her bed. Reaching through the rail, he took hold of her hand.
“Caitlin, it’s Mick,” he said softly, and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. Glancing at the array of machines and blinking lights around her, he sighed. He didn’t know if she could hear him. But if she could, he wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone. He began to talk about her baby.
“We’re calling her Beth for now. She weighs only two pounds. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but she really is a cute, little thing. She looks like you, I think—except kind of scrawny. She has brown hair with a touch of red,” he added and smiled. “I don’t suppose you’re part Irish, are you?”
His words died away in the dimness of the room, and only the sound of the ventilator continued. One breath. One breath.
What should he say? What would a young mother clinging to life want to know about her child? What would he want to know if it were him? His grip on her hand tightened.
“Your baby is doing fine. The nurses are great. They really seem to care about her. One of them called her a fighter. I guess that means she’s going to take after you.”
He studied the small hand he held in his large one. Her fingers were long and delicate, but some of her nails were short and ragged. Did she chew them? He knew so little about her, yet she had entrusted him with her baby.
“Girl, do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve caused me? I don’t know why you told them I was the baby’s father, unless you thought you weren’t going to make it. But I’m not her father, although—well, although I wish I were. She needs her mother—she needs you. You’ve got to hold on.”
He couldn’t think of anything else to say. He bowed his head and sought comfort for himself and for her in the words he knew so well. “Our Father, Who art in heaven...”
* * *
Lost in a strange darkness, Caitlin searched for a way out. She had to find her baby. She didn’t want her daughter to know the terrible, gut-wrenching fear of being left alone—of wondering what she had done that was so bad her own mother would leave her. That was the one promise Caitlin meant to keep. No, she wouldn’t leave her baby—not ever.
Pain came again, deep inside her chest. She cried out, but no sound formed in her mouth. Perhaps it was her heart breaking because she missed her baby so. She tried to move her arms but she couldn’t. Something or someone held her eyes closed.
A faint voice called her name, and Caitlin struggled to listen. Her baby was fine, the voice said. Had she really heard those words? Joy filled her.
She listened closely. She knew this voice. It was a man’s voice. He was praying. The sound of his deep, caring voice saying those simple words brought a sense of comfort unlike anything she had never known.
Then the pain struck again and she began to choke. Somewhere, a shrill alarm sounded.
ick paced the confines of the small waiting room outside the intensive care unit where he’d been ushered, and prayed as the minutes ticked by. Was Caitlin’s life slipping away beyond those doors? What would become of Beth? Why didn’t anyone come and tell him what was going on? Finally, twenty agonizing minutes later, a young doctor appeared. He didn’t look encouraging. Mick prepared himself to hear the worst.
“How is she?”
“Stabilized at the moment. She had some bleeding from her lungs. We’ve managed to control it for now.”
“Thank God.” Relief caused Mick’s tired muscles to betray him, and he sank into one of the blue tweed chairs in the room.
“If it doesn’t reoccur—she has a chance.”
Mick looked up. “You don’t sound very sure of that.”
“Her condition is critical. It’s best not to hold out false hopes.”
“Can I see her?”
“For a few minutes,” the young doctor conceded.
In the unit, Mick paused outside Caitlin’s door. What was he doing here? Why was he getting involved?
Because she didn’t have anyone else.
Stepping up to her bed, he leaned down and whispered, “Don’t worry, Sleeping Beauty. I’ll see that they take good care of you, and of Beth. You aren’t alone. God is with you.”
He pressed her hand but got no response. He studied her quiet, pale face. He had called her Sleeping Beauty, and the name seemed to fit. Her heart-shaped face with its prominent cheekbones and expressive flyaway eyebrows coupled with her short hair gave her an almost elfin appearance. What was it about her that drew him so? Was it only because she was alone that he felt this intense desire to take care of her? Somehow, he knew it was more than that.
Crossing to the door, he glanced back. Caitlin’s chest rose and fell slightly in time with the soft hiss of the ventilator. One breath. One breath.
“Rest easy. I’ll watch over little Beth for you.”
As soon as he said the words a deep sense of satisfaction filled him. This was right. This was what he was meant to do.
After leaving Caitlin, he went to see her baby. Beth lay on her side snuggled in a soft cloth nest covered with tiny red and blue hearts. The ventilator tubing and IV lines were neatly organized now, but a daunting array of machines surrounded her bed. Glancing around the unit he saw a number of other parents who like himself had been drawn here in the middle of the night. Most of them stood by beds looking uncertain, their faces a curious mixture of hope and fear, pride and pity.
He pulled up a stool and sat beside Beth. His heart went out to her. She was so little and so alone in the world.
One of her hands moved up to curl around the tube in her mouth, and her brow furrowed in a frown. Gently, he uncurled her fingers and gave her his thumb to grip instead. “You’re not really alone,” he whispered. “You’ve got the good Lord and me on your side.”
For the longest time, he stared at her tiny face. Each feature so perfect and so new. That she lived at all was nothing short of amazing.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
The words mirrored his own thoughts so closely that he wasn’t sure he’d really heard them. He glanced up and saw a woman seated in a rocker holding a baby on the other side of Beth’s bed. She looked old to be a new mother. Her short, dark hair was streaked with gray at the temples and crow’s-feet gathered at the corners of her eyes, but she was dressed in a hospital gown beneath a yellow print robe.
“I’m sorry. Did you say something?” he asked feeling bemused, or maybe just sleep deprived.
“I said, it’s amazing. They’re so perfectly formed even at such an early age.”
He nodded. “Yes. I never knew.” His throat closed and tears pricked at his eyes. He struggled to regain control and after a moment, he pointed with his chin. “Is yours a boy or a girl?”
Her smile held an odd, sad quality. “I have a little boy.” She lifted the blanket so he could see the baby’s face. The features of a child with Down syndrome were unmistakable.
“He has a lot of hair,” Mick said, trying to find something kind to say.
She ran her fingers through the baby’s long hair. “Yes, he does. It’s so very soft,” she said almost to herself.
The baby began to fuss. She snuggled him closer and patted him until he hushed. She looked at Mick and smiled. “I wanted to thank you for the lovely saying on your daughter’s bed.”
Mick glanced at the foot of Beth’s bed. His Irish blessing had been written in green ink and surrounded by little green shamrocks drawn on a plain white card and taped to the clear Plexiglas panel. “It’s something my mother says.”
“It helped me so much.”
Smiling gently, he said, “I’m glad.”
She tucked her son’s hand back inside the blanket. “When I first saw my son—first realized what was wrong with him, I thought it would have been better if he had gone to be with the angels—” Her voice cracked. She blinked back tears when she looked at Mick. “Isn’t that terrible?”
Mick found himself at a loss as to how to answer her, but the nurse had come back to the bedside. She dropped an arm around the woman and gave her a quick hug.
“No, it isn’t terrible. We can’t help the way we feel. Disappointment, fear, sadness—they’re all feelings that catch us by surprise when something goes wrong.”
“I do love him, you know. It’s just that we’ve waited so long for a child. I’m almost forty. He was going to be our only one,” her voice trailed into silence.
A moment later she patted the nurse’s arm. “You’ve all been wonderful. Thank you. And you.” She looked at Mick. “Your mother’s saying pointed out to me that God knows what He’s doing. My son wasn’t meant to be an angel in heaven. He was meant to be an angel here on Earth, like your little girl.”
Gazing at Beth’s frail form, surrounded by everything modern medicine offered, he could only pray the woman was right.
* * *
“You look like death warmed over.”
Mick closed the door of his locker and cast Woody an exasperated glance. “Thanks. I could say the same about you.”
Towering a head taller than Mick, Woody Mills, a Kansas farm boy turned Chicago firefighter and a close friend, grinned. He pulled his cowboy hat off and ran a hand through a blond crew cut that closely resembled the stubble of the wheat fields he’d left behind. “Tough night?”
Mick nodded. “I never made it to bed.”
He wasn’t looking forward to staying up another twenty-four hours. Maybe they’d have a quiet shift, and he could grab a few hours in the sack.
“Woody!” They both turned at the sound of the shout. Their watch commander, Captain Mitchell, appeared in the open doorway. “Ziggy needs help in the kitchen. Give him a hand.”
Mick groaned, and Woody laughed. “That’s right, Mick’O. It’s Ziggy’s week to cook. So guess what we’re having?”
Mick leaned his head against the locker. “Spaghetti. Why can’t he cook something—anything—else? He knows I hate spaghetti.”
“Then it’ll be a good week to go on a diet. Besides, the rest of us like it, so you lose.” Still chuckling, Woody left the room.
The gong sounded suddenly and Mick raced for his gear along with the other men. He never found the time that day for a nap or for a plate of spaghetti. Two structure fires kept the company out for most of his shift. It was late the following morning when he found the time to call the hospital to check on Caitlin and the baby.
Caitlin’s condition was unchanged, but the news about Beth was less encouraging. She was requiring higher oxygen and higher ventilator pressures, and she’d developed a heart murmur.
“Her murmur is due to a PDA,” Dr. Wright explained to Mick over the phone. “It’s a condition that often occurs in very premature infants. Before a baby is born very little blood goes to the lungs. As the blood is pumped out of the heart, it passes through a small opening called the ductus arteriosus and goes back to the placenta for oxygen. After a baby is born, this artery closes naturally, and blood flows to the lungs. But in many premature infants, it doesn’t close and that’s a problem. We can treat her with medication, but if that fails, she’ll need surgery.”
“Isn’t surgery risky for such a small baby?”
“PDA ligation is a routine procedure, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It may close after the drug is given. I’m optimistic but this is one of the complications I mentioned. I’ll keep you informed. Also, our social worker needs to talk to you about signing paternity papers.”
It was the perfect opening to admit that he wasn’t Beth’s father. Only, he didn’t take it.
* * *
Inside the odd darkness, Caitlin drifted all alone. Sometimes it was as dark as midnight, other times it grew vaguely light, like the morning sky before the sun rose, but never light enough to let her see her surroundings. Voices spoke to her, telling her to open her eyes or move her fingers. She tried, but nothing happened. When the voices stopped, she was alone again.
It was pleasant here. No pain, no hunger, no cold; none of the things she’d come to expect in life. The urge to remain here was overwhelming, but she couldn’t stay. She had to find her baby. Once she found her baby she’d never be alone ever again. She would always have someone to love and be loved by in return.
At times, a man’s voice came. Deep and low, mellow as the notes of a song, it pulled Caitlin away from the darkness. He spoke to her now, and she knew he was watching over her little girl. Her baby wasn’t lost at all.
The voice told her all kinds of things—how much the baby weighed and how cute she was. Sometimes the voice spoke about people Caitlin didn’t know, but that didn’t matter. Sometimes, he spoke about God, and how much God loved her. He spoke about having faith in the face of terrible things. His voice was like a rope that she held on to in the darkness. If she didn’t let go, she could follow the sound and find her way out.
Now his voice was saying goodbye and she hated knowing that he was going away. She felt safe when he was near.
Something soft and warm touched her cheek gently. The fog grew light and pale around her. She opened her eyes and the image of a man with deep auburn hair and a kind face swam into focus for an instant, then the fog closed over her again.
“She opened her eyes!” Excited, Mick stared at Caitlin and prayed he hadn’t imagined it.
“What did you say?” The nurse, who’d just entered the room, looked at him in surprise.
“She opened her eyes! She looked at me.”
It’d been five days since Caitlin had slipped into a coma, and for the last two days Mick had divided his waking hours between sitting with Beth, whose condition was slowly worsening, and sitting with Caitlin. This was the first sign of any spontaneous movement from her.
“Caitlin, open your eyes,” the nurse coaxed. Nothing.
Mick leaned close to Caitlin’s ear. “Come on, Sleeping Beauty. I know you’re in there. Give me a sign.”
Again nothing. The nurse pinched the skin on the back of Caitlin’s hand, then lifted her eyelid. Turning to him the nurse asked, “What were you doing when she moved?”
A flush heated Mick’s face. “I was getting ready to leave, and I kissed her cheek,” he admitted, feeling foolish.
Giving him a sad smile, the nurse touched his arm. “Sometimes we see the things we want to see, even if they’re not really there. How is her baby doing?”
Mick glanced at Caitlin’s still form and motioned with his head. The nurse followed him from the room. Once outside, he raked a hand through his hair and said, “Beth isn’t good. Her heart hasn’t responded to the medication they’ve given her. It looks like she’ll need surgery.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Are you Mr. O’Callaghan?” Mick turned to see an overweight man with thin gray hair standing in the hall. His ill-fitting, dark blue jacket hung open displaying a wrinkled white shirt stained with a dribble of coffee. He held a scuffed black briefcase in one hand.
“Yes, I’m O’Callaghan,” Mick answered.
“I’m glad I finally caught up with you. I’m Lloyd Winston, the social worker for the NICU.”
“What can I do for you?”
Mr. Winston glanced at the nurse, then said, “Why don’t you come to my office. We can speak in private there.”
Mick held out a hand. “Lead the way.”
* * *
“Have you got a minute to help me change this bed?”
Caitlin heard voices clearly this time—they were right beside her. Cool hands touched her body. She struggled to open her eyes, and for a moment, the blurred forms of two women came into view. Abruptly, they pulled her onto her side, and the movement sent waves of dizziness and pain crashing through her.
“Isn’t she the saddest case?”
“I heard the baby might not make it.”
“I heard that, too. Hand me the lotion.”
One of them smeared cold liquid across Caitlin’s back. Were they talking about her baby? She fought to concentrate.
“My cousin had a little boy that was born prematurely. He’s five now, but he’s blind and deaf. She feeds him through a tube in his stomach, and he takes round-the-clock care.”
“It’s awful to see my cousin tied her whole life to a child who’s so damaged that he can’t even smile at her. At five, he’s hard to move and lift to change his diapers. Think what it’s going to be like when he’s twenty-five.”
My baby’s not damaged. She’s perfect.
Caitlin wanted to shout at them. She wanted to cover her ears with her hands, but her arms were deadweights.
From the moment she suspected she was pregnant, she had wanted a little girl. Her daughter was going to grow up to run and laugh and give her mother a dozen hugs a day. They would have each other forever. Caitlin would never leave her baby hungry, or hurting, or scared and alone in the dark the way she had been treated as a child.
Without warning, Caitlin was rolled to her other side. Her joints and muscles cried out in protest and nausea churned in her stomach. She moaned, but no sound escaped her. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes.
“It’s time for her to stay on her left side. Can you help me change the sheets on that patient in room eight?”
The sound of their voices faded away, and Caitlin was alone again, but she was glad they were gone. She didn’t want to hear about a child who was deaf and blind. She had to find her own baby.