Twilight settled over the lake. The summer night was calm, and the mirror-smooth surface of the water shimmered in the fading light. The squealing laughter of children at play echoed; they were taking advantage of the last days of freedom before the beginning of another school year. Lights twinkled through the windows of houses surrounding the lake, beacons of domesticity shining in the encroaching darkness.
Kate sat in her rocking chair with a glass of wine and looked out of her bedroom window, taking in the tranquil sight. She was already dressed for the evening; she and Paul were supposed to be going to yet another dinner party. All she wanted to do was crawl into bed. The thought of pasting a smile on her face and making inane small talk was enough to make her scream.
Unconsciously, she laid one hand over her stomach as she stared at the still water. There was no tranquility in her thoughts. She thought it was unfair, somehow, that the rest of the world seemed at peace when she was in turmoil. Today was the worst she'd had in a long time, but this day always was a bad one for her.
"Kate, I'm going to run to the market and get a bottle of wine. Do you need anything?" Paul called from the living room.
"No, I'm fine," she replied. It was a lie, of course. She wasn't fine at all; what she needed couldn't be found at the market, though.
She picked up a blanket from the arm of the rocking chair and laid it across her lap. It was light pink and fuzzy. She knew it would probably leave lint on her white linen sundress, but she didn't care. It still smelled faintly of baby laundry detergent, the sweetest scent in the world. Tears sprang to her eyes for the millionth time and she thought of Emily.
Her beautiful Emily, the sweetest girl in all the world.
She and Paul had tried for five years to have a baby. It had been alternating frustrating and sad. Finally, at her gynecologist's insistence, they'd gone to see a fertility specialist. Dr. Chen was a kind man, with a gentle smile and a soft voice. He ran many tests on her and Paul to determine what the cause of their infertility was.
Finally, Dr. Chen diagnosed her with polycystic ovarian syndrome; her case wasn't particularly severe, and he assured her it was treatable with medication. He'd put her on several hormones, and within six months, she was pregnant.
Kate remembered the day that she took the pregnancy test. She'd taken dozens of them over the years, and they'd all been negative. She hadn't expected this one to be any different, but there were two little blue lines instead of just one. She hadn't trusted her own eyes, so she'd called Paul in to verify what she was seeing. He'd looked shocked and said, "Does this mean what I think it does?"
They called everyone they could think of to tell them the happy news. Her mom, of course, cried, and her dad laughed and said, "Way to go." Her sisters immediately wanted to buy the baby presents and demanded to know how she planned to decorate the baby's nursery.
Then, the morning sickness hit. It was pure misery—she threw up every morning for the first four months. It was exhausting. Once it cleared, though, she felt amazing; she was full of energy and glowed with good health. Her stomach started to swell, slightly at first, then with rapidness. When she was at five months pregnant, they'd found out they were having a girl, which thrilled her. She'd always wanted a little girl. She and Paul finally settled on the name Emily Rose, for her and Paul's grandmothers.
Decorating the nursery was the most fun she'd had in ages. She'd found the cutest baby bedding—teddy bears having a tea party. It was pink gingham. She painted the walls a matching light pink. All the furniture was white with pink flowers. Her mom had sent the baby a bear. It was the softest, fluffiest, pinkest bear Kate had ever seen. It was perfect!
One day, when she was seven months along, she'd been shopping. She was supposed to be buying a shirt for Paul, but there was the sweetest little children's boutique at the outdoor mall she was at, so she stopped inside. She'd wanted to find a dress for Emily's dedication. The boutique had an adorable little frock; it was white satin with an overlay of chiffon embroidered with purple flowers.
She was just about to pay for the dress when pain, sudden and breathtaking, surged through her lower abdomen. The cramping caused her to double over. The salesgirl asked her if she needed help, and all she could do was nod. She felt the blood drain from her face as a wave of dizziness swept over her.
She didn't remember hitting the floor a few seconds later. Something sticky was running down her legs. She touched it tentatively; she realized, dazed, it was blood. She screamed, wiping her hand on her khaki shorts. The bloodstain was a dark, rich red. A keening wail burst out of her as she clutched her stomach; another cramp swept through her. She felt as if her inner organs were being torn apart.
Vaguely, it registered that the salesgirl was telling her that an ambulance was on the way. "Hold on, baby girl," Kate cried, rubbing her belly. "Mommy's going to take you to the doctor real soon." Within minutes, the paramedics had her on the stretcher and loaded her inside the ambulance. The sirens were loud and frightening, and Kate forced herself to take deep breaths so she wouldn't faint again.
The rest of what happened was a blur. All she remembered was a nurse hooking her up to monitors and wheeling her into emergency surgery. An anesthesiologist put an IV into her arm and a mask over her face and then darkness filled her vision. She didn't really remember hearing a diagnosis, but she knew they were trying to save her baby.
When she woke, she felt vaguely sore and disoriented. She blinked a few times, trying to remember where she was. The memory of her pain flooded over her, and she pulled the oxygen mask off her face. The room was dim, but she could see enough to know that Paul was in the room sitting in a chair beside her.
"What happened?" she asked. Her throat was dry, causing her voice to crack.
"They couldn't stop the bleeding, so they had to do a c-section," Paul said softly, stroking her hand.
"It's too soon!" she exclaimed. "Where's Emily?"
"In the NICU," he said. "Kate, the doctors are doing all they can, but…" His voice caught and he cleared his throat. "But she's not doing well. Her lungs aren't developed enough, and her little heart can't keep up. They aren't very hopeful."
Tears welled up and spilled down her cheeks. "No, Paul, no. It wasn't supposed to be like this." She took two shuddering breaths before the sobs overtook her. Paul rubbed her back, sniffling.
"I'm sorry, Kate, that's not all. They had to do a hysterectomy. Your uterus sustained too much damage."
The scream burst out of her; she barely recognized that she was the one who made it. She screamed and screamed until her throat burned, and when she couldn't scream anymore, she whimpered. Finally, she wiped the tears away and said, "I need to see my baby."
"I don't know if you can," Paul said.
Kate turned and felt her eyes bore into his. "I swear to God, Paul, that if you don't take me to my little girl, I will hate you for the rest of my life." She meant every word.
Something in her voice must have convinced him, because he helped ease her into a wheelchair. He pushed her down the hall while she held her IV pole. When they arrived at the NICU wing, he spoke to the nurse on duty in hushed, urgent tones. Whatever he said to the nurse worked, and she led them over to a tiny incubator.
Kate thought she had no tears left, but when she saw her sweet Emily, fresh ones rolled down her cheeks. She was on a ventilator and a small tube protruded out of her little rosebud mouth. Her head was covered in downy dark hair that peeked out from under a bitty pink knit cap. Her little eyes were closed; Kate wondered what color they were. Dark lashes touched her reddish cheeks. She was too small; there wasn't a bit of fat to been seen on her tiny frame, and her skin was ruddy. She was wearing the tiniest tee shirt Kate had ever seen, and her diaper seemed absurdly large.
"She's so little." The desire to hold her baby overwhelmed her. It wasn't right; her arms ached to cradle her little one to her chest. If only she could sing her a lullaby and stroke that hair, she just knew Emily would be all right. "Hi, baby. Mommy's here. It's gonna be all right."
One of Emily's monitors beeped loudly in alarm. A nurse swept into the room and pushed them aside. A sudden swarm of doctors and nurses descended on their baby; one doctor called out sharp commands that Kate didn't understand as they attended Emily. They worked hurriedly for several minutes; then the monitor made one long, sustained beep. That, Kate understood.
"Time of death, 10:09 pm," the doctor said.
That was the day that Kate died, too. She'd never gotten a chance to hold her living baby, to kiss her little fingers and toes, to rock her to sleep. The nurses unhooked baby Emily from all of the equipment and let Kate hold her. As the warmth fled her daughter's body, she sang to her, weeping.
She'd gone a little mad afterwards. Her doctor told Paul it was a normal reaction, but he'd never quite looked at her the same again. She suspected that he was afraid she'd snap at any moment, and frankly, she figured his fears weren't unjustified. She felt off-balance on a good day, and on the bad ones, she wished she were dead. She'd even been on a suicide watch while she was in the hospital.
The worst day had been when she'd come home. Paul had the nursery packed up and repainted a stark white. She knew he was trying to help, afraid the sight of the lovingly decorated room would send her over the edge. She'd flown into a rage, hitting and punching him until he bore bruises on his arms. She'd thrown open the carefully packed boxes until she recovered Emily's bear and one of the soft blankets she'd bought. She sat on the floor, cradling them to her chest, rocking back and forth and crooning a broken lullaby. Paul left her like that, unable to deal with her grief. She'd never quite forgiven him for not being strong enough for her. It wasn't fair, she knew; he was grieving, too. Yet, she couldn't help resenting him somehow.
Now, three years later, they just existed in the same space, barely speaking to one another. He slept in the guest room, and most nights, she slept in her rocking chair, holding the pink bear and crying until she passed out from exhaustion. Sometimes, she imagined she heard a baby's cry in the middle of the night before realizing it was just her mind playing tricks on her.
She knew he had a mistress. He didn't try to hide it from her. She knew she should be hurt, but truthfully, she couldn't summon up the energy to care. She hoped the woman gave him some comfort. God knew she couldn't.
She rose from her chair, taking the blanket with her. Paul would be home soon. She sat on her bed and looked at the prescription bottle on her nightstand. Her doctor had prescribed sleeping pills for her along with antidepressants. Neither of them worked, at least not in the recommended dosage.
She set down her wineglass and opened the nightstand drawer. A sheaf of creamy notepaper and matching envelopes lay inside. She took out a sheet and one envelope, along with a pen, and wrote Paul a brief note. She folded the paper inside and stuffed it inside the envelope. Writing Paul's name on the outside, she laid it on the nightstand.
She opened the bottle and shook a large handful of the sleeping pills into her hand. One by one, she downed them with a sip of wine. When she was done, she lie on the bed and rolled on her side, cuddling the sweet-smelling blanket to her face.
It wasn't long before she felt drowsy. She closed her eyes and smiled.
As the darkness closed over her, she murmured, "Happy birthday, Emily."