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"Lauck commands respect and provides inspiration...A captivating...exploration of motherhood.
— Publishers Weekly
"An engaging, heartfelt, and often irreverent look at the satisfactions and stresses of rookie parenthood."
— Seattle Post-Intelligencer
It's Mother's Day, actually Mother's Day night, and I lie in bed with Steve. The windows are open, a row of three side by side, and they are draped with linen sheers that dance on the air of May.
Just outside, the wisteria and the lilac bloom purple. Out front, the vines of the white roses tangle around the wood pillars of the porch. Under today's long show of sun, hundreds of those rosebuds burst open, bright white, as if they had a secret they could no longer contain.
As I fall asleep, there are two things: the cool wind with its smell of flowers and the feel of Steve, who breathes deep in his chest on his inhales and lets out little puffs on his exhales.
Then there is something else.
I open my eyes.
Steve's on his back, his puffy breathing shifting into a low snore.
I lie on my side with my legs and arms wound around a pile of pillows and between my legs, there is a wet feeling like I just had an accident.
I roll out of the pillow nest and move the covers aside. I arch my back into the mattress and shove out of bed, stomach first.
I leave Steve and sleep behind, barefoot over the cool wood floors. A hairline of wet runs down the inside of my thigh.
In the bathroom, I close the door and snap on the light.
The white of the bulb makes my eyes burn.
I wad my nightgown in one hand and pull my underwear down with the other.
I have to twist and bend to see past my stomach but down there, it's true. My underwear is soaked through.
I waddle-step myself to the toilet and sit down to get a closer look. The wet spot has no color I can see. I push my underwear off and kick it into the corner. I pull tissue off the roll, dab at myself, once, twice, three times and look at the wad in my hand. I dab again and look. There is no blood there at all, there's not even a shade of pink. It's just amniotic fluid, the bag of waters broken, the baby's indoor swimming pool with a hole in it and that's fine, except my baby isn't due for six more weeks.
I drop the wad of toilet paper into the toilet and rub my hands hard into my face, into my eyes. Black-and-white dots of nothing race wild inside my head.
In the dark of another night, I am seven years old and the heavy shake of a hand opens my eyes.
"Get up, Juniper," my father says.
He lets me go, stands up, and shakes B.J. where he sleeps on the top bunk of our beds.
"Wake up, son," my father says. "We've got to take your mom to a doctor."
Down the hall of our apartment, light spills out of their bedroom and my mother calls for my father in a voice that sounds broken.
He walks long steps out of our room and talks back at us.
"Come on, kids," he says, "get up now."
I get out of bed quick and take up pants folded neat at the end of the bed.
B.J. stays up there in his top bunk and rolls to face the wall.
He's always like that when we get woken up at night.
I snap my pants together and my hands shake hard. I run down the hall, pushing my nightgown into the waistband of my pants.
In their bedroom bathroom, my mother's crumpled on the floor with her bare legs out from her nightgown. She holds the toilet with both hands like she can't let go.
"Momma?" I say.
Her face is shaped like a heart and her eyes are as black as Egyptian stones. On her mouth, I can't tell if it's lipstick or blood. She wipes the red away with the back of her hand and searches for me as if I'm not right there.
I move in closer and when she sees me in the light, she smiles like this is fine, like everything is just fine.
This is fine, I tell myself, everything is just fine.
I flush the toilet and it takes the wadded tissues away.
The walls in our bathroom are a deep green and when we first painted this room, I dipped a duster into silver paint and whispered the edges of feathers over the walls. It was something I read about in a book, this way to blend the seams where plaster meets Sheetrock, but right now, closed in like I am, it looks like some poor bird went insane.
I put my hands on the sink and the porcelain is cold on my skin. In the mirror, my dark eyes are small in the pale of my face and they have no idea what to do next.
All the books I have read say that when it's time for a baby to come, there are contractions and pain, but I don't feel anything.
I push off the sink and thump at my stomach like you'd test a melon, my first finger firing off my thumb. The old sound of being hollow in the center is gone. I move my hand flat, touching the round shape that isn't so round anymore. The skin of me shapes tight to the baby's form and without water in there to help him float, his shoulders are all the way down in my pelvis.
I hold myself around the bottom of my stomach.
"Move, baby, move."
My voice is loud in the crazy bird bathroom, but nothing happens under my hands and quick, my mind swims to the idea of how so many things can go wrong. Babies are born dead or die minutes after or come with half a heart or only one leg. It happens all the time.
I push my fingers deep enough into my pelvis to jog both of us.
"Move!" I say.
There is nothing for a second, and then, he rolls against my hand like,
"Hey, I'm sleeping in here."
I pat against my stomach.
"That's fine," I say, "everything is going to be fine."
I go out of the bathroom then and turn on the overhead in our room. Bright light chases the night off Steve's bare shoulders and I go to his side of the bed.
I look at him with this idea that I should make this a sweet memory he'll never forget. I should be happy, giddy, thrilled. I should say, "Honey, wake up, our baby is coming."
I poke one finger into the muscle of his arm.
"Steve," I say.
His lashes lift a little.
I poke harder and Steve opens one eye.
"What?" he says.
I put both hands under the curve of my stomach.
"I think it's time."
Steve opens both of his eyes and sucks in a deep breath, lifting up on his elbow. He blinks himself awake and on his face is a look like he doesn't trust me.
"Are you kidding?"
I want to laugh, but can't get the sound up. I shake my head and hear myself talking fast enough to make it right.
"My water broke a few minutes ago, but there's no blood - I checked - and then I got the baby to move so I think it's fine, it's just early, that's all."
When I stop talking, he pulls himself up and his face is full of questions.
"What do we do now?" he says.
My father always knows what to do. He moves so sure and his voice is deep and strong, but I can tell he's scared too. It's there in how his dusty spice eyes move fast, how his voice is out of breath and how he pushes his hand through the thick of his dark hair over and over again.
He comes in the bathroom behind me and pushes his hair back on his head.
"Janet," he says, "we gotta go."
"No, Bud," my mother says. "I don't want to go."
Her smile is broken by a line of blood out the side of her mouth and blood swims in the toilet.
My father moves around me and lifts her off the floor. She cries, "No, no, no," but he doesn't listen. He goes past me and out the bathroom door.
"Bring the blanket, Jenny," he says.
My father stops in the hall and yells.
"Bryan Joseph Lauck, get your butt out of bed."
I pull their throw blanket off the end of the bed and run after them.
"What about her robe?" I say.
My father takes her through the living room and his voice is so deep and so strong.
"Fine," he says, "bring her robe too."
Steve is clean-cut like the boy next door. He's got blue eyes, the baby face of innocence, and this confidence that comes from a life that hasn't hit him hard enough to fill him with doubt. He's not arrogant but he's on the edge of cocky, and if you ask, he'll give you advice on almost anything. What makes it worse is that most of the time he's right. Sometimes it bugs me that he knows everything, but right now I'd love a little advice. He looks like he wants the same thing from me though, and since it is my body, I figure it can't hurt to fake it for a while.
I put my hand on the cool skin of his shoulder and talk in a smooth voice that says I know more than I do.
"Why don't you call the doctor for me, ask her what we should do now and if this is a problem," I say, "and in the meantime, I'll double-check the book."
It's not much of a plan, but Steve nods like he's thankful for it. He throws the covers off his legs and goes downstairs, his bare feet slapping fast on the steps.
I go to the other side of the bed and get the bible of pregnancy, What to Expect When You're Expecting. I flip it open to the last chapter and the words read, "Water breaks. Go to the hospital. You're having a baby."
I let the book fold shut and toss it on the bed. I can't go anywhere without a bag.
Between my closet and the bathroom, I pull things together. There's a backpack for my stuff, extra underwear, clothes, a brush, my hair dryer, toothbrush, and a washcloth. I throw everything on the end of the bed and waddle myself into the nursery. In here, the crib is set against the wall, there's a mobile of dancing teddy bears over, and the window has teddy bear window shades to block out the light. I get a bag out of the closet and load it with a dozen tiny diapers, two outfits, a bib, another bib, a coat, a teddy bear, a jar of petroleum jelly, a tube of diaper ointment, and three blankets.
"Why are you packing all that stuff?" Steve says.
I almost jump out of myself, his voice is that much of a surprise, and I put my hands over my scared heart.
Steve stands at the door in his boxer shorts and on his face is the look he gets when he's pretty sure you're nuts, or at least doing something he can't understand.
The blankets I was trying to shove in fall on the floor.
I push my hand through my hair to calm myself since, honestly, I can't explain anything right now. I put one hand on the baby's dresser and pin a look on Steve instead.
"What did the doctor say?" I say.
Steve looks at the bag and rubs his hand over the whiskers on his face.
"We have to go to the hospital," he says.
"Did she say this is a problem?" I say. "Did she say it's too soon?"
"No," he says.
"No what?" I say.
I tilt my head to the side.
"No, it's not a problem?" I say. "Or no, it's not too soon, or what? Did you even talk to Dr. Bell?"
"I didn't talk to Dr. Bell," he says.
"She's not on call."
"Who did you talk to?" I say.
"Another doctor, the one who is on call," he says.
"So why do we have to come in?" I say. "Is this like an emergency?"
"She didn't say that," Steve says.
"Well, what did she say?"
"To come in."
I stare him down hard as if more answers will come eventually, but he's a big fat blank. I throw my hands up in the air.
"Jeez, Steve," I say, "you didn't ask if it was too soon?"
"No," he says, "you just told me to call the doctor."
I wave him to get out of my way and he backs out of the doorway.
"I told you to ask if it was too soon," I say.
"No, you didn't," he says.
"Yes, I did," I say.
I push past him and go into our room.
"Why didn't you call them yourself?" he says.
"Forget it," I say, "I'll just look it up."
I dig my book from the pile of underwear and toiletries and flip to the chapter titled "34 Weeks." I'm shaking so hard, I have to hold my arm at the elbow while I read.
"At thirty-four weeks, your baby is almost fully formed and could be born with very few complications," I read.
I toss the book back on the bed and put my hands on my hips, as if I've made a major declaration. Steve looks at me, at the book on the bed and then at me again, and shakes his head.
"What does that mean?" he says.
Honestly, I don't know what it means, but I can't say that. I'm still faking it. I lean long over the bed instead and pull the backpack out of the pile of stuff.
"It means this is fine," I say. "Thirty-four weeks is fine, don't worry, everything will be fine."
In my mother's room, I get her robe off the floor and it's a puddle of white silk with purple flowers in the design. No matter how sick she is, her nightgowns always match her robes. My mother is always in style.
B.J. is in the living room with his jeans pulled up but not zipped, and he wrestles with a wadded-up T-shirt. He goes slow out the door, T-shirt over his head, and he pushes his arms through the arm holes, only he moves like it's Sunday morning and we have all day to play.
Behind him, my head is about to explode from how slow he goes.
"Come on," I say, "move it!"
B.J. stops cold and I stop just short of mashing up against his back. He puts a hand on the jamb to block me. His dark hair is over at the wide angle of his side part and his dark eyes stare me down.
"You move," B.J. says.
Outside, the car door slams and my father goes around his low-slung sports car to open his own door.
"Goddammit, you kids, let's go already," he yells from the street and I can see him out there through the gate of B.J.'s arm.
B.J. looks at me for a long time and right then, I want to be as big as he is. I want to kick the shit out of him, except part of me knows he's not mad at me. He's seen all of this before and more; hospital runs, waiting in the car, operations and pills for the voices she says she hears in the night. He's tired and he's given up, it's right there in the dark of his eyes that are so much different than mine. I've seen a lot too, I've seen almost everything that he has seen, but I'm not like that. I never give up.
I shove past him and the slick of her robe gives just enough slide to get by. He hits me up the back of my head, just barely, just enough to hurt, but it's fine. I'm free to run to the car where my father waits, free not to look back, free not to care.
When Steve and I leave, it's past one in the morning and Mother's Day is over. My back hurts low down deep, but it's not terrible. It's more like being squeezed too hard.
In the car, we've packed the baby car seat, the baby bag, a CD player Steve gave me this morning for my first Mother's Day, and a whole stack of music for the right background sound. We've got extra water, extra juice in a cooler, and I even have my favorite pillow. As we leave, though, it feels like I've left something behind.
Steve backs down our long driveway and I watch out the window.
Our house lifts in the night, just right with its three coats of fresh paint, its windows that have been washed, and its driveway that's been swept clean. Inside is just as nice with more fresh paint, new pipes, and wood floors that shine like spilled honey. It's a safe-and-perfect-from-the-outside house to fit our safe-and-perfect-from-the-outside life to fit Steve who is safe-and-perfect-from-the-outside too. He's ready for all this, he's always wanted to be a husband, a homeowner, and a father. I thought I was ready too. I wanted to be ready, but deep down I don't think I'm ready. I'm not strong enough. I don't think I can do it. I want this baby, I do, but something is missing inside of me.
Steve pulls out of the driveway and onto the street.
A deep pain digs at my back and catches my breath. I want to keep looking back, but I can't anymore.
I move myself in the seat to face front and Steve puts his hand on my leg.
"Are you okay?" he says. "Is it a contraction?"
I shake my head no, I'm not okay, and nod my head yes, it's a contraction.
My father's car is so small, being in the backseat is almost like being in the front seat. In the back, I hold my father's seat with both my hands and I can see my mother slumped down. Her eyes are closed.
B.J. is wedged tight next to me and his leg and shoulder are pressed against mine. He keeps shoving against me and I shove back.
My father drives fast and the sound of the engine is deep into my body, like a very big man clearing his throat for a long time.
I ignore B.J. and keep my eye on her. Even now, like this, she's so beautiful it hurts. Her dark hair is curled around her heart of a face and there is something about the fine lines of her bones that make her a woman, but also a little girl, like me.
She's been sick as long as I can remember. She's walked with crutches, two, then one, then none. She's gone away, come back and gone away again, and had operations on places I can't understand. One time, she lifted her nightgown so I could see her whole stomach. It was a wicked mess of sliced and sewn lines, a tic-tac-toe where no one ever won.
"I hate doctors," she said, "they never seem to get it right."
I touched over those scars and traced her lines and I hated doctors too. I hated how they cut her so many times. I hated how they forced a tube between her legs that pulled urine into a bag she kept on the floor. I hated how they gave her so many different pills, poisons that made her sleep, and made her talk in circles and even made her mad enough to give up on her life on the day she tried to overdose.
My father makes a hard left into the driveway where a bright red sign reads EMERGENCY.
Excerpted from Show Me the Way by Jennifer Lauck Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Lauck . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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PART ONE: THE PAST
Show Me the Way
Never Say Never
Brothers and Sisters
PART TWO: THE PRESENT
Getting the Blues
What Haunts the Night
Child Abuse Awareness Week
PART THREE: THE FUTURE
The First Pancake
It Takes a Village
Life Is What Happens
Posted December 19, 2013
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