by Marie Anderson
Just before the sun rose on a warm June day, the baby came.
The baby was wrong. From the moment the doctor placed her on Sarah’s stomach, Noah could see that the baby was wrong.
He cut the umbilical cord. His hands shook. The voices of the two nurses and doctor made noises Noah couldn’t understand. Sarah’s mouth opened and closed, soundless, and her hands fluttered like white flags over the baby. Surrender, fluttered the white hands.
Noah shook his head. “Excuse me,” he mumbled to the plump nurse who seemed to be blocking him. He pushed past her. “I’ll be right back.” He fled the delivery room.
When he finally returned to the hospital, the sun was setting. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday, but his stomach felt sour and heavy. He was exhausted, though he’d spent all day back at their little brick raised ranch, mostly on the couch staring at the TV. When the landline rang, he didn’t answer. When he heard Sarah crying on the answering machine, he stumbled into the baby’s room. He lay on the floor between the new maple crib and the old oak rocker. He looked at the walls he’d painted pink seven months earlier, when they’d learned their baby was a girl. He looked at the crib, bought by Sarah’s mom, costing more than one of Noah’s paychecks. Finally, he looked at the rocking chair, and finally, the tears came, loud sobs that cramped his stomach, burned his throat
The rocking chair had come from Noah’s childhood home, where his widowed dad still lived. It was the chair Noah had been rocked in as a baby. Later, when MS confined his mom to a wheelchair, Noah always sat in the rocker during their visits together.
Pneumonia took his mom before Sarah, five years into their marriage, finally did become pregnant.
What would his mom have said about this baby?
Noah knew what his father would say. He dreaded his father’s reaction. Maybe his father would be killed in a car accident, or die of a heart attack, before Noah would have to present this new baby to him. Lying on the floor in the pink-walled room destined for the baby, Noah felt his face burn with shame for even thinking this. He loved his dad, but his dad would not love this baby.
Noah presented his driver’s license at the hospital’s reception desk, was told the room number, and received his visitor’s pass. He took an elevator to the third floor. He shuffled down a wide, empty hallway to the nursery, head bowed, shoulders hunched, every muscle aching. He felt like an old man, though he was only 36, athletic and fit, the starting pitcher and leadoff batter on the bricklayer union’s softball team.
He was missing tonight’s game. At the next game, they’d all be expecting him to have pictures of his new baby girl. A lot of the players’ wives attended the games, their babies in their laps, toddlers at their feet. That would never happen for him. He’d quit the team before he’d let that happen.
He reached the nursery and pressed his forehead against the viewing window. There she was, the bundle bearing his surname. Girl Beglan.
He and Sarah had planned to name her Claire, his mother’s name.
Noah looked at the baby. He shook his head.
The bundle slept, her hands shrunk into fists. Noah clenched his own hands and shoved them into the pockets of his jeans. He stared down at his mortar-speckled boots.
No way. He would never be able to feel like this child was his. Someone had messed up. The clinic had messed up. He’d sue them all: the clinic, the fertility doctor, the labs.
Sarah would object to a lawsuit probably. Too bad. She’d had her way getting pregnant with donor insemination. Now it was his turn to get something out of this disastrous outcome.
It was a disaster. There’d be no pretending he was the father. There’d be no fooling anyone, especially himself. This child would be a constant reminder that he was a dead end. Not a complete man
He could not give this child his mother’s name.
“So you shoot blanks,” was how the fertility doctor had dismissed Noah’s problem. “Nowadays that’s no impediment to parenthood. I have a good success rate with AI. And you’ll be able to pick a donor who resembles you. Anonymous, of course. No worries about any involvement from the donor beyond supplying the product.
While Dr. Duplantier talked, Noah looked at the large framed photo on the credenza behind the doctor’s desk. The photo was fashionably black and white in a silver frame. Three boys smiled at Noah from the photo, their teeth large and square like the doctor’s, with the doctor’s dark curly hair and curved eyes.
I want a child of me, Noah wanted to shout. Instead he sighed and let Sarah rest her hand on his thigh.
“An orphan,” he said. “I guess that’s what I am. A reverse orphan. A parent without a child, without the ability to have a child.”
“Noah,” Sarah said. “It’s not who has a child. It’s who loves a child.”
They’d had this conversation many times, and Noah knew that the doctor’s office was not an appropriate place to have it again. The doctor was tapping his fingers. Impatient? Bored? How dare he tap his fingers!
“Right.” Noah stared at the doctor’s disrespectful fingers. “So. What would we say to people? I mean, if the procedure works.”
Maybe the procedure wouldn’t work. Would never work. They’d run out of money or they’d run out of youth, and then there’d be no more stranger’s “product” intruding into their marriage. Noah felt a surge of hope that brought a smile to his face.
Sarah, misunderstanding, smiled back and reached for his hand. He let her hold it.
“We’d say, great news everyone! We’re having baby! We, Noah. You and me. Together. This wouldn’t happen without you, Noah.”
“It would happen without me.” Noah pulled his hand from her grasp.
Sarah’s smile faded. The doctor busied himself with his computer keyboard.
“Not the important part, Noah.” Her voice shook. “Not the part where together we help our child grow into a lovable, capable human being, where together we—”
“Shut up!” Noah interrupted. “I get it!”
Sarah flinched. “If I were the one who couldn’t . . . couldn’t give you a child, I’d let a donor help us. I would. I’d do it for you.”
“For me? Don’t you mean for us?”
The doctor cleared his throat. “It’s no one’s business how your baby gets here,” he said.
“No one need ever know,” Sarah whispered. “We’ll tell no one.”
Noah looked into his wife’s wet blue eyes. Of course what she was saying wasn’t true. Eventually, they’d have to tell the child. Wouldn’t they?
Sarah lifted her hands and pushed them through her long red hair, over and over, until her hands fell shaking into her lap.
Noah reached over. He covered her trembling hands with his own. He nodded.
They bought a house, small but in a safe suburb with good public schools and only a 30 minute commute into the city where Sarah taught third grade and where most of Noah’s bricklaying jobs were.
Two people approached. Noah watched them press their palms against the nursery window.
The man was short, balding. Blue bubble gum cigars sprouted from his flannel shirt pocket. The woman was black, gently wrinkled, her hair a cloud of soft white. A pink-flowered duster billowed over her. She wore spotless white tennis shoes and pink socks.
She looked like the perfect grandmother, Noah thought, soft, sweet, and capable—how his own mother would have looked if MS hadn’t slowly crippled her.
“That one yours?”
Noah flinched, but the man was not looking at him.
“Oh, she sure is a cute little bowl of chocolate pudding,” the woman said. “But my grandbaby isn’t here yet. My daughter is upstairs right now, in labor. I just came down here to give her and her husband a little privacy from me.”
Noah looked at the cute little bowl of chocolate pudding, the only dark child in the nursery. Her round face scrunched in earnest, busy sleep.
“There’s my little guy,” the man said. “Boy Carlson. We’re naming him Duke, after my father. Duke Charles Carlson. He’s got the Duke nose, everyone says!
Noah stared at Boy Carlson, the baby bald, red-faced, squinty-eyed. Jealousy squeezed, so fierce that for a moment Noah couldn’t breathe.
“He’s darling,” the woman said. “He looks regal, just like a royal duke!”
“Aw,” the man replied. “I know he’s kinda goofy-looking right now. Newborns all look kinda goofy, don’t they? My wife says they all look like Winston Churchill.”
Not Sarah’s, Noah thought. Heat stung his eyes.
“Which one’s yours?”
Noah looked at the man who was now smiling at him, the woman too, dimples in her soft wrinkled cheeks. Their smiles enraged him.
“None of them.” He turned away from their puzzled frowns and hurried down the corridor. Something heavy filled his chest.
He stumbled into Sarah’s room. She lay on the bed, her eyes closed. He entered her bathroom and stared at the stranger in the mirror. Bloodshot eyes squinted in a gray-white face. Blonde hair stubbled his chin.
Sarah’s screams during labor had left her voice raspy and fragile. She called his name again.
He trudged to her bedside. Her red hair fanned across the pillow in curly tangles. He wanted to smooth it, stroke it. He shoved his hands into his pockets.
“We should tell our families,” she said. “We should let them know. And we have to name her.” She touched his arm. “It doesn’t have to be your mother’s name. Not anymore.”
Noah shook his head.
“We have to name her,” Sarah said. “She’s ours.”
“Not mine,” Noah heard himself say. His face burned.
Sarah groaned. Her lips trembled. From the corridor came the sound of wheels rolling on the tile floor. Noah froze. He had to leave. Now. Move, he told himself. Get out. But his legs felt heavy, the way they sometimes did when he tried to escape terrors in his nightmares.
“Hello, Mom! And there’s our runaway Dad!” The nurse’s cheerful voice filled the room. It was the plump nurse, the one in the delivery room who’d acted as though nothing were amiss. Not like the other nurse and the doctor who had spoken in quiet monotones and kept their expressions smooth and flat as they looked from him to the baby.
From the cart the nurse had rolled into the room came squeaky cries.
“Baby’s hungry, Mom. Dad, why don’t you open the bottle for Mom while I hand Baby to her?”
“I . . . I’ve gotta go,” Noah stammered, but the nurse thrust the squeaking bundle into his arms.
“Nonsense,” she said. With graceful motions, the nurse opened a small glass bottle of formula and held it to the baby’s mouth. The baby’s squeaks softened.
“Hold it for her, Dad,” the nurse said.
He took hold of the bottle. His legs trembled. The nurse guided him into the rocking chair. Then she bustled from the room without another word.
Panicked, Noah looked at Sarah.
She gazed at him, her blue eyes wet. “I wanted to nurse,” she said, “but the sedatives they gave me . . .”
Noah nodded. The baby felt warm and light in his arms, so light, like a loaf of bread. He brushed his forefinger against her fuzzy dark hair. “It’s so soft,” he murmured.
Sarah smiled, her teeth pearls behind her cracked lips.
Noah looked down at the baby in his arms. Suddenly, she opened her eyes wide, gazed at nothing in particular, and clenched them shut again. For just a moment, she’d looked at the world from Noah’s arms, but it was long enough for Noah to see the flash of brown. A dark brown, not his blue eyes, not Sarah’s blue eyes. But somebody’s. Somebody she would never know. A whole connection to biological father and family lost to her forever.
His fault. His fault.
The insight hit him with the force of a sledgehammer, cracking his self-absorbed sorrow.
It wasn’t just his loss.
“This isn’t the child I should have had.” He looked at Sarah. Her face collapsed. Tears streamed from her eyes. He shook his head. “But, you know, I’m not the father she should have had.”
“Noah, you can love your baby. You can!”
“I’m not talking about love, Sarah. It’s not just me, my loss of a biological child. This baby will never know a whole family of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents.” His voice broke. “Father. She’ll never know her father.”
“Noah. Look at me. Please.”
“I can hear you without looking at you, Sarah.”
“This little girl is alive because of you, Noah. Because of me and you. She wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
“So you’re saying that’s a small price to pay for being alive? Half your heritage, your birthright, is a mystery! But hey, you’re here! Be glad!”
“Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying!”
Noah shook his head. “My dad’s gonna freak.”
Sarah sighed. “Yeah, He probably will.”
“Your parents, though, they’ll be cool.”
“Yeah. I think they will be. But your dad, he’ll come around.”
“No, I don’t think so. It was hard enough having his good Catholic son marry a Jewish girl.”
“But I converted,” Sarah murmured. “For you.”
Noah kept his gaze on the baby in his arms. And I did this, he thought, for you.
The baby felt so warm and cozy in his arms. And fragile. Right now his arms were the only thing protecting her from . . . what?
“Little orphan,” he murmured. “Me too. But now I got you. And you got me. And we both have Sarah. Your mommy.”
“Noah,” Sarah whispered. “Thank you.”
He rocked slowly as the baby drank. The rocking chair squeaked against the rubbery gray floor. It seemed to Noah as though it squeaked the name he and Sarah had chosen for a daughter.
His mother, dead six years. Her name.
He listened. Claire, squeaked the rocker. Claire.
The baby slept. Noah set the nearly empty bottle on the floor.
“Should I burp her or something?”
“I guess, well, I don’t know. She’s sleeping?”
Noah looked down at the baby. “She’s out,” he said. “I guess I won’t burp her just yet.”
He lifted his forefinger and gently stroked the baby’s cheek. Claire, he prayed as he rocked the baby. He watched his finger tremble from her cheek to the tip of her nose, and it seemed to him that his finger looked more gold than white against her milk-chocolate skin.
She was beautiful, this child. She was perfect. She was theirs.
He looked at his wife. “Let’s name her Claire,” he said.
Marie Anderson is a Chicago area mother of three. After dropping out of The University of Chicago Law School, she worked in schools and offices and has written over 100 short stories. Her work has appeared in over three dozen publications, including Lamplight, Gathering Storm, Brain Child, Writer’s Digest, Woman’s World, Downstate Story, St. Anthony Messenger, Liguorian, Every Day Fiction, and Mental Paper Cuts. In her daily life, she strives for tidiness, timeliness, and simplicity.