We both sat in front of the empty desk. Specks of dust danced in the sunlight above the medical files that were strewn from one corner of the oak desktop to the other. I gingerly placed my hands on top of my large stomach and closed my eyes. What was going to happen? Paranoia caused nightmares of a dark and sad future to play across the screen of my mind.
A warm hand covered my own and I looked up. Eric, my husband, smiled down at me. I knew he wanted to say something comforting and reassuring, and I needed to hear it. Please, I silently pleaded, tell me everything is going to be okay. Tell me nothing bad is going to happen. But he couldn't. Neither of us knew what was going to happen, and Eric had never lied to me before.
The door behind us opened. I couldn't turn around. I knew it was the doctor, but I didn't want to see his face. He stepped in front of us and I finally looked up. His figure was silhouetted by the sunlight streaming through the windows. His face was darkened by shadows. I couldn't read his expression, but somehow I knew what was coming.
"I know that we told you several months ago that he had a good chance at a normal life," he said in a deep voice, "But we were wrong. I'm sorry, but your son will be born with AIDS. He won't live beyond his first year." I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest by a vice, and that vice was now clamping down on my lungs. "You have two options. The first is to go through with the pregnancy. The short time that he would live would be in the hospital. He would be very sick until the day he dies. Your second option is abortion. I know it's late in your pregnancy, but you would be sparing him a lot of pain. I don't expect an immediate decision. Please, go home and discuss it together. Call me when you come to a decision."
We had clearly been dismissed. Eric stood, but I couldn't move. He gently took my hand. "Come on Madison, it's time to go." He pulled me out of my seat and led me to the door.
My head was screaming in anger, sadness and confusion. This couldn't be happening! This wasn't happening to me! I didn't deserve this! By the time we stepped outside of the hospital, I was in denial.
"He's a liar," I hissed under my breath.
Eric looked down at me, confused. "What?"
"That doctor is a liar," I repeated through gritted teeth.
"Maddie, don't be ri-"
"He's a LIAR!" I screamed, "He's a dirty liar! My son is going to live! He's going to live a long and normal life! I want my baby! I'm going to have my baby!"
The tears that had been searching for a way out since I had received the news finally poured down my cheeks. Eric pulled me into his arms, tears falling down from his own eyes. I sobbed uncontrollably, completely oblivious to the people walking past me, watching with a look of fear and concern.
"I'm sorry, honey," Eric whispered. "I'm so sorry this had to happen."
"It's all my fault."
"No it's not. You can't blame yourself for this."
"But it's my fault," I said to his shoulder. "I did stupid things and now my baby's going to die. It's all my fault."
I pulled away from him. "Please don't say it Eric. I just want to go home."
There was complete silence as we drove down the road. I stared out the window. Several years ago, I could not have imagined myself in this position. In high school, I had been the girl that every girl wanted to be. I could get every guy I wanted. And I had. I never thought that it could lead to this. I never thought that my actions were hurting anyone. When I went to college and met Eric, I straightened out my life; decided it was time to grow up. I hadn't thought to be tested for STDs until after I had married Eric and become pregnant. But it was already too late. The damage was done, and now I was going to lose my baby.
We pulled into the drive way of our little three bedroom house. I stood outside and looked at the white shutters and brick red front door. It was my dream house. Who could have imagined the nightmare of a life it was containing. Eric got out of the car and put his arms around me.
"I've got to get to work," he said, "Are you going to be okay?"
I nodded, but didn't say a word. He kissed the top of my head and walked back to the car. He opened the door and hesitated to look at me again. I could see the reluctance and uncertainty on his face. I gulped back the lump in my throat and managed to choke out the words, "I'll be fine, go ahead."
I watched as he climbed into the car and drove away, then headed inside. I kicked off my shoes inside the front door and looked around me. The house was quiet and felt emptier than usual. Eric had wanted to get a dog, but I insisted that he wait until after the baby was born. I walked down the hallway, my bare feet not making a sound on the carpeted floors. Eric and I had both wanted wood floors, but were worried about the baby learning to walk on them.
I reached the door at the end of the hall and placed my hand on the door handle. With a deep breath, I turned the knob and pushed open the door. It opened without a sound. A month ago, the door had creaked when you opened it, but I had made Eric oil it because I was worried that the sound would wake up the baby when we went to check on him during his naps.
As I looked around the room, I tried to see it as more than just a nursery. I couldn't. The room screamed "baby". There were already blankets and a teddy bear in the crib. The changing table had diapers and baby clothes folded neatly in the cubby holes. I had been convinced that I was prepared to have this baby. I hadn't been prepared for this. I took the teddy out of the crib and pushed my face into the soft fur. Still clutching the toy close to my chest, I sat in the rocking chair in the corner of the room. The chair where I was supposed to sit and nurse my son. Where I was supposed to sing him to sleep.
Fresh tears dripped onto the teddy's head. Hiccupping sobs racked my body for several minutes before I felt a soft kick on the inside of my stomach. I had once thought the kick felt so strong, but now it seemed so weak. I stroked my stomach softly and whispered, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to make you sick." Another sob escaped my lips as I pleaded with my unborn son, "Please, please forgive me. I never meant to hurt you. Mommy's so sorry."
There was another kick, and then he was still. I wanted to curl up in the rocking chair and cry forever, but my large stomach wouldn't let me. So, I slipped to the floor and, using the teddy as a pillow, cried until I slept.
A pair of warm arms wrapped themselves around me, waking me from my dreamless sleep. The room was dark, and I could see the moon through the window above the crib where my son would never sleep. Eric's sad face filled my vision. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, "I shouldn't have left you alone." I curled closer against his chest, still holding the teddy bear. He pulled the furry comforter out of my arms and looked at it with sadness for a moment before smiling. "I never thought I'd come home to find you sleeping with another man. Especially this one."
I looked up at him with a smile and then, for the first time all day, we laughed. It felt good to let go of my problems and laugh, even if it was only for a moment. We both laughed for much longer than his stupid joke warranted, simply because of the relief it brought. After laughing for as long as we could without feeling like a pair of total idiots, we were silent for a long time.
Finally, Eric brought up the subject that we both wanted so badly to avoid. "What are we going to do?" he asked.
I didn't answer at first, being entirely unsure myself. I silently prayed for an answer to come to me, for some type of revelation. Suddenly, I felt the faintest kick against my stomach again. I smiled and took one of Eric's hands, pressing it against my abdomen. A moment later, there was another kick, and a smile spread across Eric's face as well.
"He wants a chance," I whispered in the darkness, "He wants to see us before he goes."
I watched as Eric's green eyes filled with tears. He nodded slowly. "I think you're right."
I tasted the salt of my own tears as I said, "And I want to see him so bad, Eric. I just want to hold our baby. Even if it's only for a little while."
"Me too," he answered.
He kissed my lips, then pulled me closer to him. I buried my face against his chest and closed my eyes. The teddy bear lay a little way away, forgotten.
"This was a mistake!" I screamed through the pain.
"No it wasn't, Maddie," Eric reassured me, "This was the right thing to do."
"What do you know!?" I snapped.
He looked in my eyes and said, nearly as loudly as me, "Because, this is our baby. He wants a chance Maddie, remember? He wants to see us! Don't you want to see our baby?" I nodded, tears and sweat streaming down my cheeks. He smiled and said quietly, "Then let's see him."
I took a deep breath and screamed again. A moment later, a much feebler scream replaced my own. I looked around, trying to see my son, but all I could see were doctors and nurses swarming in one large group, shouting instructions to one another. Then suddenly, they were gone, taking my baby with them. One young woman remained behind to take care of me.
"When can I see him?" I asked quietly.
She looked at us with great pity. "I'm sorry, but I don't know. But I promise you will see him. I'll make sure of it. For now, you should rest."
I thanked her, then turned to Eric. He kissed my sweat-soaked forehead and smiled. "I love you," he whispered, "No matter what happens." I smiled and nodded, then drifted off into an exhausted sleep. The delivery had been hard, but something told me that it was only going to get harder from here.
It wasn't long before I was woken again by voices entering the room. I opened my eyes to see the young woman I had spoken to, holding a small bundle of blue fabric. Eric helped me to sit up and the bundle was extended towards me. I took it gently, marveling at how light it was. Eric peered over my shoulder as I stared in wonder at the pale face surrounded by blue fabric. His eyes were a bright blue and a tuft of dark hair peeked out from below the matching blue beanie.
"Hi handsome," I whispered.
Eric put one arm around me and reached forward to touch the tiny hand that peeked out from a fold in the blanket. The baby's hand opened, then closed around Eric's finger. It didn't even close all the way around it. Both Eric and I started to cry again. It was a different sort of crying than we had done for the past month. We cried in mixed joy and sadness. Here was our beautiful baby boy, but how long would he be here?
"My little angel," I said quietly, "Sweet little Gabriel."
I suddenly noticed the doctor standing at the foot of the bed. When he saw that I had acknowledged his presence, he took a step forward. "I need to speak to both of you about what you need to expect."
The momentary joy disappeared and I pulled Gabriel closer to my chest. Eric's arms wrapped around both of us protectively, as if trying to keep out any bad news that might come.
The doctor continued. "You may take your son home. There's nothing more we can do for him here. He has no more than two months. I suggest you take advantage of it."
I looked down at Gabriel. His chest rose and fell with his breaths and I tried not to imagine the time when it would cease to rise anymore.
One month after Gabriel's birth, I had nearly forgotten that he was sick. I mentally blocked out the little reminders, like the checkups and Eric taking off of work to be with him. I didn't want to think about saying goodbye to my son so soon after saying hello.
It was after midnight when Gabriel woke us both up, crying. Eric sat up, but I placed a hand on his chest, told him to go back to sleep, and slipped out of bed. I crossed the hall to Gabriel's room and picked him up out of the crib. He continued to scream for several minutes as I rocked him in the rocking chair. Finally his cries subsided and I waited for his gasping breath to return to normal. It didn't.
I looked down and saw, in the glow of the nightlight, a pair of pale blue lips fruitlessly gasping for air. I stood and quickly started patting him on the chest, trying to get air back into his tiny lungs. It wasn't working.
"No, no, no," I pleaded, patting his chest more frantically.
Suddenly, his lips stopped moving. He stared up at me, his blue eyes wide and glazed. I stared back, my hand becoming still on his chest, feeling the faint heartbeat grow fainter still. "I'm so sorry, Gabe. Please don't go." His tiny hand reached up towards my thumb, but never made it. The little fingers closed in the air and fell back down. His bright eyes closed. A breath of air escaped his blue lips. I felt the heartbeat disappear.
"No, Gabriel. Gabriel! Gabriel!" I screamed my son's name repeatedly, willing to see him looking up at me again, hoping to feel his tiny hand around my finger. I sank into the rocking chair, still screaming at the tiny lifeless body that I was clutching desperately to my chest.
Eric ran into the room and I looked up at him through tear-blurred eyes. "Eric, he's not moving! I can't get him to move!"
He knelt beside me and touched our baby's chest, face, and hands. Then, he reached forward to take him from me.
"No!" I screamed, clutching the body still closer to my bosom.
"Maddie," he whispered calmly, though his own chest was shaking with sobs, "He's gone. Gabe's gone."
Trembling, I loosened my grip on my son and allowed his father to take him. Eric carried him to the crib, wrapped him in a blanket, and laid him down, covering the angelic face with another blanket. I stood and tried to run to the crib to hold him again. Eric grabbed me and held me tightly against his chest. I fought him, kicking and punching as hard as I could, but he only pulled me closer.
I finally gave in and clutched at his shirt, trying to hold onto anything solid. He sank into the rocking chair, pulling me onto his lap and rocking me like I had rocked my baby just minutes ago.
I knelt in front of the tiny headstone, the wind tearing petals off of the white rose I placed at its base. I kissed my fingertips and touched the name Gabriel Conner inscribed in the center. I stood and wrapped my arm around Eric's waist. We stood in silence. I closed my eyes and rested my head on Eric's shoulder. No tears came this time. It had been too long.
I had made mistakes in my life that still hurt, and they had hurt my son and my husband. But I had come to terms with my mistakes. I was putting my ghosts to rest. I was learning to cope with the guilt of killing my son. My baby was gone, but I was still alive, I still had my husband, and I had to keep living the best life I could. I know it's what he would have wanted. It seems strange to me that such a small person that I knew for such a small amount of time could take up such a large place in my heart.
Eric kissed my forehead and handed me the red leash. "Come on Angel," I called to the young retriever, "Let's go." The puppy bounded ahead, and Eric and I followed.
The wind tore off another pure white petal and pressed it against the cold marble stone. Above it was the inscription:
April 12th, 2003 – May 19th, 2003
Our little angel has his wings…