Ominous clouds are gathering overhead when Tess loads Emily into the shopping cart and strapped her in. She hasn’t bothered with an umbrella, though Emily’s blue raincoat drapes over the handle of the cart.

Twenty minutes. Give me twenty minutes.

Emily turns the pages of her well-chewed animal book. Content for the moment. “Coo-Coo,” she says and holds up a picture of a white cow.

“That’s right. Cow,” Tess says in a high-pitched, sing-song voice. She smiles, and Emily smiles back.

Twenty minutes. Give me twenty minutes.

Tess glances up when they pass under the security camera, she and wishes she hadn’t. Her hair, unwashed for two days, is pulled into a limp ponytail; her black tee shirt crusted with a variety of stains strains against her overlarge breasts. She’s given up trying to get back into her jeans and wears a pair of gray sweats.

She has to shop and pick up the twins. Jimmy and Nick will barrel into the car, laughing and vying for her attention, when she really wants quiet, but she’ll listen and smile and ask questions because they need her.

Life is always more hectic when James is home. It’s easier when he’s traveling. He always wants diner at six. He wants the kids in bed by eight. He wants the kitchen cleaned. He wants sex. He wants and wants.

“Ca, Ma. Ca.” Emily points to a black and white cat.

“Cat, Emily. That’s very good.” Tess kisses her youngest, the surprise baby who’d come five years after the boys. Three years after she’d lost Alice. She resents James for that too. He was driving when their car was hit. She knows it’s unfair.

Since the accident she’s had a weird recurring dream where she’s running down the Yellow Brick Road, but she’s not heading to the Emerald City. She’s heading for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but when she finds the pot, all the gold inside turns to hair curlers. Tess isn’t sure what it means, though she always did want curly hair.

She has a comfortable life. She volunteers at the boys’ school when she can get her mother to watch Emily. She just has this empty spot in her gut that won’t go away. Sometimes she thinks it’s going to swallow her whole.

Tess unloads her cart and pays for her groceries. Usually, she chats with the clerk, but today, she’s quiet. She has five minutes to get to school.

“Mamamamamama.” Emily’s wail shatters her small shell of concentration. Emily’s book lies on the floor, and she tries to wiggle out of her seat. Blood is welling out of her nose. Since she was a baby, Emily has suffered from intense and unexpected nosebleeds. They aren’t dangerous, and they usually only last a minute, but they are terrifying to Emily and to strangers.

“Is she okay?” The clerk is offering Tess a wad of tissues, which she snatches before she scoops up Emily.

“Yes, thanks. She’s got a little cold. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Tess can feel her cheeks burning as she bends down to grab Emily’s book.

Someone says, “Poor little thing.”

Another voice mutters, “Why would you bring a sick child out in this weather?”

Tess’s eyes are stinging. The clerk, a young girl with spiked black hair and a pierced nose, gives her a sympathetic smile. “Do you need help to your car? I’ll get you help.”

Tess shakes her head. “I’m fine. I—“

But a young guy, one of the developmentally disabled kids the store hires, is already at the cart. Tess knows him vaguely. Ritchie. He wears a bright yellow poncho and gives her a big goofy smile.

“I got the cart,” he says. “Big storm outside. You need an umbrella.”

Tess grabs Emily’s blue raincoat before he goes skipping out the door with her cart. Emily’s arms are thrashing, and Tess barely forces them into the coat. “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay,” she says, but Emily howls louder than the wind.

Tess walks the gauntlet of staring faces, ducking her head down. She passes a couple of teenage boys who look at her as if she’s some kind of circus freak, and she almost laughs when Emily flings out her snotty hand.

“Damn, is that blood?” One of the boys cringes.

The rest of the boys laugh, but at least they aren’t laughing at her.

Ritchie waits just outside the door, and she points to her big SUV. She hates it, but James insisted it was just the right car for a three-child family. Big, substantial. A real mom car.

Ritchie unloads her groceries, but declines a tip. Tess is left standing in the rain, rocking sobbing Emily against her. The little girl’s cries slowly turn to sniffs and finally Tess can slide her into her car seat along with her damp animal book. She shoves aside some of the trash in the back seat: a half-empty bottle of water, a baseball, Nick’s magnetic chess game. The detritus of her children’s lives.

She shuts the car door and walks slowly to the driver’s side ignoring the pouring rain, knowing she’ll be late for the boys, dinner will not be served at six, and James will be disappointed in her once again.

Tess gets into her car and sees that Emily has fallen asleep in the back seat. Rivulets of water run down her face, and she uses the bloody tissues to wipe her arms. Bits of white cling to her wet skin.

There’s nothing to do but go on.

She leans her head against the steering wheel for a moment before she straps on her seat belt and starts the engine.

The rain pours down like it’s the end of the world.

On The Ward

It’s very quiet on the maternity ward tonight. It’s as if the little ones and their mothers know to be quiet and still. I walk down the hall and listen to the tap of my shoes against the linoleum floor. I love evenings like this. They’re so rare. Usually the some little lamb is crying, or one of the nurses is traveling to help one of the new mothers.

I open the door to the nursery and wave to the nurse on duty. As usual, we’ve placed the largest and smallest babies in front. I breathe in the smell of my children and take a mental picture of their small round faces. The largest is a nine and one-half pound, blue-eyed boy with beautiful long lashes and blond hair, the smallest a chocolate drop of a girl with liquid brown eyes and fuzzy black curls who weighs in at almost four pounds.

They are a study in contrasts wrapped in their blue and pink blankets, tiny pink, white and blue striped hats perched on their heads.

On impulse I snap a picture on my phone.

I want to place them in the bassinet together and ask the boy to look out for her, this precious child, born to a mother who’s barely more than a child herself. I want someone to look at this little bundle and realize what a wonderful gift she is before I send her back to a home where her mama has to struggle to put food on the table or maybe struggle with her own demons. I want her to go to a nice happy home like this sweet little blond cherub where he’ll be welcomed and loved, and he won’t live with the fear of going to bed hungry at night.

I’ll fail. The people from Social Services have already been in to talk to her mama. I’ve talked to her mama. She lies in her bed, sullen and unresponsive, except to mutter, “He just walked out on me. How I supposed to work with a baby? What I gonna do now?”

Tomorrow I’ll send two children home, just like I have for the past thirty years. I’ll smile at the parents and wish them and their children well. I’ll wish for miracles. Just like always.

Oh What Fun It Is To Ride

I wake at six-thirty feeling like crap and roll out of bed because I’m too big to get up like a normal person. My father-in-law wants to strap warning lights around my enormous middle and announces, “Here comes the QE II,” whenever we go to my in-laws for dinner, which is almost every Sunday. My own father snaps a photo of me and says, “You’ll look at yourself in a couple months and feel so good.”

I feel like Moby Dick right now. People think I’m having twins. I’m not. I am now officially three weeks late and four days away from induced labor.

Merry Christmas.

I take a shower and pull on one of my husband’s sweaters and the last maternity outfit I still can wear, a huge black jumper that could double as a tent and shuffle downstairs. I stare at the Christmas tree in the family room. Dan and I spent four days putting it together. I broke a chair trying to climb up to reach an upper branch, but it’s finished now. I’d turn on the lights, but that would require me crawling behind the tree to reach the switch, and I’m not sure I’d be able to get out.

“Hey, you’re up early. You okay?” Dan comes down in a pair of pajama pants, no shirt. He’s never cold.

“Just kind of blah.”

“You think it’s the baby?”

“No contractions.”

“Maybe I should take a shower just to be sure. Do I have time?”

“Have a blast. Want breakfast?”

He shakes his head.

It snowed last night, and a thin carpet of white coats the ground. Frost makes lacy patterns on the window, and I think it looks so nice and Christmas-like. Just like a postcard. The baby starts to kick. This baby is either going to be a soccer player or a field goal kicker, I believe. Dan thinks this is fantastic; he should be the one carrying the kicker around all day.

I’m about to start a pot of coffee when I feel a tiny squeeze, not exactly a contraction, just a squeeze. I ignore it until I open the coffee can and throw up in the sink. Not a good sign.


He can’t hear me, so I waddle up the steps. He’s just getting out of the shower.

“I think it might be the baby.”

He blinks for a moment, his blue eyes wide. “Oh. Oh shit. Are you packed?”

“Kind of.” I’m not really. I don’t have any clothes that fit, but I go around the room throwing my big nightgown and some underwear in a bag. Heading to the bathroom, I grab a toothbrush and the extra toothpaste tube Dan bought. I throw in some lipstick and a little eyeliner, not that it will do much, but what the hell.

Dan leaves a message on my doctor’s service.

“Jesus Christ, rush hour on Christmas Eve.”


He kisses my head. “Let go.”

We make it out to his car, but once he pulls out of the garage, we realize that not only has it snowed, there is a fine coat of ice on the ground. The wheels spin and the car fishtails slightly until we reach the road. I can see the white outlines of Dan’s knuckles. Traffic is crawling, and we live twenty-five miles from my hospital.

“Why did you have to pick a doctor in the city?”

I shrug. “I like him.”

When a real contraction strikes now, I wish Dan and I paid more attention in those birth classes, instead of clowning around with our friends. The second contraction comes five minutes later.

“What the hell?” Dan looks at me half-crazed. “Those contractions are supposed to be twenty minutes apart.”

“I can’t help it. It’s not a picnic for me either. Oh shit, here comes another.”


He’s trying to weave in and out of traffic, but it’s slow going. Dan is cursing and banging the steering wheel. “Goddamn it! Jesus Christ, move! I’m not delivering this baby!”

“Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!”


“I can’t breathe! It hurts. You breathe!”

“Take a deep breath and let it out slowly.”

“If you know so much, you have this baby. Arrrrrrrrrgh!” I bend over, which is difficult because I don’t bend very far. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”

We finally reach the edge of the city at which point Dan decides to give up on traffic laws altogether. “Hold on,” he says.

With contractions coming three minutes apart I don’t argue.

“Arrrrrgh. It’s coming. It’s coming. I feel it.”

“No, it’s not. Cross your legs! Breathe!”

“You breathe!” I’d hit him, but I’m afraid we’d have an accident.

Just like in the movies, we run every light, cars honking, people jumping out of our way. Because this morning has been a traffic accident bonanza, however, there are no cops. Miraculously, we have avoided hitting anyone, but my heart must sound like a race horse.

Sweat runs in rivulets down Dan’s face. If he grips the wheel any tighter, I think it will break.

We screech around three corners and finally Dan wedges the car into a space in front of the hospital where two cops and the valet approach the car.

She’s in labor!” Dan says. The cops look skeptical at first. Until they open the door.

I can’t get out of the car myself. Dan grabs one arm and a cop takes the other. As soon as i stand, my water breaks. I think, my boots are ruined.

Dan pats my back.

“Jesus Christ, get this girl a wheelchair!” the cop says in semi-panic.

Within moments I find myself in the relative calm of the the Labor room, my enormous belly wrapped with a monitor strap. A resident does a quick pelvic.

“You’re eight centimeters, dilated, Mrs. Gardiner. I’m afraid it’s too late for an epidural,” the resident says. “We’ll wait for your doctor. He’ll be here in five minutes. He’s just finishing with another delivery.”

“I want drugs!” I’m crying now, and Dan tries to put his arms around me.

“You can hit me,” he says. I take the opportunity to land a good one in his stomach.

“Maybe we can get her a little something to take the edge off,” the resident says.

After the shot of whatever, I’m a little calmer, but still in pain. The doctor comes in from time to time to check me. Nurses offer me ice chips and sandwiches to Dan. I don’t know why they offer him sandwiches, but I’m too tired to care. Time stretches out and looses meaning. At some point my doctor comes in to tell me that the baby isn’t moving down and is going into fetal distress. He wants to do an emergency C-Section.

Silently, Dan and I both nod. I want Dan in the OR, I say. It’s not a problem. While they prep me, they send him out. I feel like a big slab of beef. When I say that to the nurse, she laughs, and says, “It’ll be okay, honey.”

The funny thing is after the epidural, I feel no more pain. Dan holds my hand, and they wheel me into the OR. I tell the anesthesiologist that anesthesia makes me sick. He straps a bag to the the pole. “Don’t worry. I have something for you,” he says. “Let me know if you feel sick.”

When I do, he does something, and suddenly I feel all better and kind of floaty. I smile and squeeze Dan’s fingers, though I really want to kiss the anesthesiologist.

“Have they started?” I say, and Dan smiles.

“Baby, you’re opened up like a Sunbeam Alpine with it’s engine being rebuilt.”

Dan likes classic cars. I guess it’s better than comparing me to a gutted fish.

“You have a little girl,” my doctor says. “Congratulations.” He looks around. “What time is it?”

A nurse double checks. “It’s exactly two seconds after midnight. You have the first Christmas baby in the hospital, honey. Now there’s a real present.”

When they wheel me out, the anesthesiologist attaches another bag to my IV. “This should take care of everything,” he says. He’s really cute. Tall, dark, and handsome, and he has good drugs.

“I love you,” I say.

He laughs. “That what all the women say.” He’s gone, probably off to break another heart.

Dan appears with the nurse and our baby who lies in an incubator. We decide right then to call her Caroline, which is kind of Christmasy, but not. Dan says being born on Christmas kind of sucks. Just the same, baby Caroline is an excellent Christmas present, and she does have beautiful blue-green eyes that sparkle under the long black lashes she inherited from her Dad.

Just as I’m finally falling asleep at three-thirty I hear a baby wailing. The nurse comes in to take my vitals, and I say, “Oh, boy, do you have a wailer.”

She gives me a look that’s somewhere between amusement and pity. “Honey, that one’s yours, and she’s mighty hungry. I was just about to bring her in. Merry Christmas.”