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Last October, after the soybeans had peaked at four feet, the corn had spiraled to almost twice that, and the wisteria had shed its purple, a November breeze picked up, pushed out the summer heat, and woke Maggie. She rolled over, tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered, "Let's go swimming." It was two in the morning under a full moon, and I said, "Okay." The tap on the shoulder usually meant she knew something I didn't, and from the moment I'd met her, Maggie had known a lot that I didn't.
We rolled out, grabbed a couple of towels, and held hands down to the river, where Maggie took a swan dive into the South Carolina moonlight. I dropped the towels on the bank and waded in, letting the sandy bottom sift through my toes and the bream shoot between my knees. Leaning backward, I dunked my head, closed my eyes, then let the water roll down my neck as I stood in the waist-deep black river. Summer had run too long, as summers in Digger often do, and the breeze was a welcome comfort. We swam around in the dark water long enough to cool off, and Maggie spread a towel over the bleached white sand. Then she lay down and rested her head on my shoulder, and the moon fell behind the cypress canopy.
A while later, as we walked back to the house, her shoulder tucked under mine, Maggie knew that we had just made our son. I didn't know until four weeks later, when she came bouncing off the front porch and tackled me in the cornfield. Grinning, she shoved a little white stick in my face and pointed at the pink line.
Soon after, I started noticing the changes. They began in our second bedroom. Previously an office, it quickly became "thenursery." Maggie returned from the hardware store with two gallons of blue paint for the walls and one gallon of white for the trim and molding.
"What if she's a girl?" I asked.
"He's not," she said and handed me a paintbrush. So we spread some old sheets across the hardwood floors and started goofing off like Tom and Huck. By the end of the night, we were covered in blue paint and the walls were not, but at least we'd made a start.
The smell of paint drove us out of the house, so Maggie and I shopped the Saturday morning garage sales. We found a used crib for sixty dollars, the top railing dented with teeth marks. Maggie ran her fingers along the dents like Helen Keller reading Braille. "It's perfect," she said.
We set up the crib in the corner of the nursery and made a Sunday afternoon drive to Charleston to the so-called "wholesale" baby outlet. I have never seen more baby stuff in one place in my entire life. And to be honest, before going there, I didn't know half of it existed. When we walked through the sliding glass doors, a recorded voice said, "Welcome to Baby World! If we don't have it, your baby doesn't need it!" The tone of voice gave me my first hint that I was in trouble.
Maggie grabbed two pushcarts, shoved one into my stomach, put on her game face, and said, "Come on!" Midway down the first aisle I was in way over my head. We bought diapers, wipes, pacifiers, a tether for the pacifiers, bottles, nipples for the bottles, liners for the bottles, bottles to hold the bottles and keep the bottles warm, cream for diaper rash, ointment for diaper rash, powder for diaper rash, a car seat, blankets, rattles, a changing table, little buckets to organize all the stuff we had just bought, a baby bag, extra ointment, cream, and powder just for the baby bag, booties, a little hat to keep his head warm, and little books. About halfway through the store I quit counting and just said, "Yes, ma'am."
To Maggie, every detail, no matter how small, had meaning. She must have said, "Oh, look at this," or "Isn't this cute?" a hundred times. When we reached the checkout counter, we were leaning on two ridiculously overflowing carts.
Some marketing genius had stacked the most expensive teddy bears right up in front. Only a blind man was without excuse. Maggie, wearing a baggy pair of denim overalls, batted her big brown eyes and tilted her head. In a deep, whispery, and all-too-seductive voice, she said, "Dylan, this bear's name is Huckleberry."
I just laughed. What else could I do?
I loaded up the truck and started to breathe easy, thinking the damage was over, but we didn't even make it out of the parking lot. Just next door to Baby World stood a maternity clothing store. Maggie, the possessed power shopper, stalked the racks and piled me high for over an hour. When I could no longer see above the heap of clothes in my arms, she led me to the changing room, where, for the first time in my life, a woman actually told me to come inside with her. Maggie shut the door, slid the latch, and pulled her hair up into a bouncy ponytail.
Over the next hour, my wife modeled each item of clothing while I marveled. The only light was a recessed forty-watt bulb above her head, but when she turned, lifted the ponytail off her neck, and whispered, "Unzip me," the light showered her five-eight frame like Tinkerbell's pixie dust. It fluttered off the blond, fuzzy hair on the back of her neck and the sweat on her top lip, over her square tan shoulders and down into the small of her back, along her thin hips and long runner's legs, and then finally swirled around the muscular shape of her calves.
God, I love my wife.
From shorts to shirts, pants, dresses, skirts, maternity bras, nursing bras, six-month underwear, nine-month underwear, jackets, and sweatshirts, the fashion show continued. As she tried on each item, Maggie stuffed the "eight-pound" pillow inside her waistband, put her hand on her hip, leaned forward on her toes, and looked at herself in the mirror. "Do you think this makes me look fat?"
"Maggs, no man in his right mind would ever answer that question."
"Dylan," she said, pointing her finger, "answer my question."
"If you're lying to me," she said, raising her eyebrows and cocking her head, "you're on the couch."
Leaving the dressing room, Maggie shone in full, glorious, pregnant-woman glow. Three hundred and twenty-seven dollars later, she was ready for any occasion.
Life had never been more vivid, more colorful, as if God had poured the other end of the rainbow all around us. Rows of cotton, corn, soybean, peanuts, and watermelon rose from the dirt and formed a quilted patchwork, sewing itself with kudzu along the sides of the old South Carolina highway. Ancient gnarled and sprawling oaks covered in moss and crawling with red bugs and history swayed in the breeze and stood like silent sentinels over the plowed rows. Naïve and unaware, we rumbled along the seams while Maggie placed my hand on her tummy and smiled.
At twelve weeks we went for the first ultrasound. Maggie was starting to get what she called a "pooch" and could not have been prouder. When the doctor walked in, Maggie was lying on the table with a fetal monitor Velcroed across her stomach, holding my hand. The doc switched on the ultrasound machine, squeezed some gel on her stomach, and started waving the wand over her tummy. When she heard the heartbeat for the first time, Maggie started crying. "Dylan," she whispered, "that's our son."
At sixteen weeks, the nurse confirmed Maggie's intuition. Maggie lay on the same table as the nurse searched her tummy with the ultrasound wand and then stopped when my son gave us a peek at his equipment. "Yep," the nurse said, "it's a boy. Right proud of himself too."
I hit my knees. At twenty-nine years old, I had looked inside my wife's tummy and seen our son. As big as life, with his heart beating, and wiggling around for all the world to see.
That started my conversations with Maggie's stomach. Every night from that day forward, I'd talk to my small and growing son. The three of us would lie in bed; I'd lift Maggie's shirt just over her tummy, press my lips next to the peach-fuzzy skin near her belly button, and we'd talk. Football, girls, school, farming, tractors, dogs, cornfields, friends, colors, anything I could think of. I just wanted my son to know the sound of my voice. After a few days, he started kicking my lips. Before I told him good night, I'd sing "Johnny Appleseed," "Daddy Loves His Sweet Little Boy," "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," or "Jesus Loves Me."
Sometimes in the middle of the night, when the baby kicked or pushed his foot into the side of her stomach, Maggie would grab my hand and place it on her tummy. She never said a word, but I woke up feeling the warmth of my wife's stomach and the outline of my son's foot.
Toward the end of the first trimester, while rummaging through a yard sale, I found a rickety old rocking horse that needed a lot of glue, some elbow grease, and a few coats of white paint. I brought it home, set up my woodworking shop in the barn, and told Maggie to stay out. A week later, I brought it inside and set it next to the crib. Maggie looked at it, and the tears came forth in a flood. I think that was my first realization that new hormones had taken over my wife's body and mind.
Pretty soon the cravings hit. "Sweetheart." It was that whispery, seductive voice again. "I want some fresh, natural peanut butter and Häagen Dazs raspberry sorbet."
I never knew it would be so difficult to find freshly churned natural peanut butter at ten o'clock at night. When I got back to the house, Maggie was standing on the front porch, tapping her foot and wielding a spoon. As soon as I got the lids off, we plopped down in the middle of the den and started double dipping. When she'd polished off the sorbet, she said, "Now, how about a cheeseburger?"
At the end of her second trimester, she became pretty self-conscious. The least little thing really set her off. One morning, while studying her face in the mirror, she screamed, "What is that? Dylan Styles, get in here!"
Usually when Maggs calls me by both names, it means I've done something wrong. Left the toilet seat up or the toothpaste cap off, not taken the trash out, not killed every single roach and spider within two square miles of the house, or tried something sneaky and gotten caught. The tone in her voice told me I had just gotten caught.
I walked into the bathroom and found Maggs up on her toes, leaning over the sink and looking down at her chin, which was just a few inches from the mirror. Holding a magnifying glass, she said again, "What is that?"
I took the magnifying glass and smiled. Studying her chin, I saw a single black hair about a centimeter long protruding from it. "Well, Maggs, I'd say you're growing a beard." I know, I know, but I couldn't resist.
She shrieked and slapped me on the shoulder. "Get it off! Right now! Hurry!"
I reached into the drawer and pulled out a Swiss Army knife and slipped the little tweezers out of the side with my fingernail. "You know, Maggs, if this thing really takes off, we might be able to get you a job with the carnival."
"Dylan Styles," she said, pointing that crooked finger again, "if you want any loving for the rest of your life, you better quit right now." Maybe I was pushing it a little, but Maggs needed a perspective change. So I handed her the shaving cream and said, "Here, it's for sensitive skin."
Thirty seconds later, she had me balled up in the fetal position on the den floor, trying to pull out what few chest hairs I have. When she had adequately plucked me, she raised her fists like a boxer ready to start round two. "Dylan Styles, you better shut up and pull this evil thing off my chin."
Underneath the bathroom light, I pulled out the single rogue hair, placed it on her outstretched palm, and returned to the kitchen, laughing. Maggs spent the next hour poring over her face in the mirror.
Soon after, she lost sight of her toes. The baby was getting bigger and growing straight out like a basketball attached to a pole. Maggs stood helplessly in front of the mirror with an open nail polish bottle and wailed, "I'm fat! How can you love me when I look like this?" Then the tears came, so I did the only thing I could. I took her hand, sat her down on the couch, poured her a glass of ice water with a slice of orange, stretched out her legs, and painted her toenails.
When she was seven months along, I came in after dark one evening and heard her sloshing in the bathtub, talking to herself. I poked my head in and saw her holding a pink razor, trying to shave her legs. She had already cut her ankle. So I sat on the ledge, took the razor, held her heel, and shaved my wife's legs.
Somewhere around seven and a half months, I sat down to dinner-a dinner Maggie insisted on cooking-and found a package wrapped in brown paper. Untying the ribbon, I peeled open the paper to find a green T-shirt with World's Greatest Dad sewn on the front. I wore it every day for a week.
Getting heavier and feeling less mobile every day, Maggie nevertheless sewed the bumper for the crib and tied it in. The pattern featured stripes, baseballs, footballs, bats, and little freckle-faced boys. I bought a Pop Warner football and a Little League baseball glove and placed them inside the crib. On the floor beneath I clustered Matchbox cars, a miniature train set, and building blocks. When we were finished decorating, there was little room left for our son.
In the late afternoons of her last trimester, Maggie tired more easily, and I tried to convince her to take naps. Occasionally she'd give in. Two weeks before her due date, which was August 1, her legs, hands, and feet swelled, and her breasts became sore and tender. A week away, Braxton Hicks contractions set in, and the doctor told her to keep her feet up and get more rest.
"Try not to get too excited," he said. "This could take a while."
For some reason, and I'm not sure why, I had thought that as Maggie's tummy grew larger and she got more uncomfortable, she'd have less affection for me. I mean, physically. It only made sense. I had tried to prepare myself by blocking it out-Don't even think about it-but that time never came. Just three days before delivery, she tapped me on the shoulder. . . .
A week past her due date, the first real contraction hit. Maggie could tell the difference immediately. She was walking across the kitchen when she grabbed the countertop, bit her bottom lip, and closed her eyes. I grabbed The Bag and Huckleberry and met her at the truck. I was driving ninety miles an hour and honking at every car that got in my way when Maggs gently put her hand on my thigh and whispered, "Dylan, we have time."
I pulled into the maternity drop-off, and a nurse met us at the car. When I found Maggie on the second floor, the doctor was checking her.
"Two centimeters," he said, taking off his latex gloves. "Go home; get some sleep, I'll see you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow?" I said. "You can't send us home. My wife's having a baby."
The doctor smiled. "Yes, she is. But not today. Go get a nice dinner, then take her home. And"-he handed two pills to Maggie-"this will help take the edge off."
Helping Maggie into the truck, I said, "Your choice. Anywhere you want."
Maggie smiled, licked her lips, and pointed. A few minutes later we were sitting in the Burger King, where Maggie downed a Whopper with cheese, large fries, a cheeseburger, and a chocolate shake. I ate half a cheeseburger and two French fries.
That night Maggie slept in fits, and I slept not at all. I just lay there in the dark, watching her face and brushing her Audrey Hepburn hair out of her Bette Davis eyes.
At six o'clock Maggie bit her lip again, and I carried her to the truck.
"Four centimeters," the doctor said as he pulled the gown over Maggie's legs. "It's time to walk."
So we did. Every floor. Every hallway. Every sidewalk.
Walking through the orthopedic ward six hours later, Maggie grunted and grabbed the railing, and one of her knees buckled. I grabbed a wheelchair, punched the elevator button, and tapped my foot down to the second floor.
The doctor was on the phone at the nurses' station, but he hung up quickly when he saw her face. We stretched her out on the bed, strapped the fetal monitor over her stomach, and I cradled her head in my hands while the doctor listened.
"Okay, Maggie, get comfortable." Then he pulled out this long plastic thing and asked the nurse to cover it with gel. "I'm going to break your water and start you on Pitocin."
While I was thinking, You're not sticking that thing in my wife, Maggie sighed and gripped my hand so hard her knuckles turned white.
"That means two things: it will bring on your labor more quickly, and"-he paused as the fluid gushed out-"your contractions will hurt a bit more."
"That's okay," Maggie said, while the nurse swabbed her right arm with alcohol and inserted the IV needle.
Fifteen minutes later, the pain really started. I sat next to the bed, holding a wet towel on her forehead, and fought the growing knot in my stomach. By midnight Maggie was drenched in sweat and growing pale. I called the nurse and asked, "Can we do anything? Please!"
Within a few minutes the anesthesiologist came in and asked Maggie, "You about ready for some drugs?"
Without batting an eye, I said, "Yes, sir."
Maggie sat up and leaned as far forward as her stomach would let her. The doctor walked around behind her and inserted the epidural in the middle of her spine just as another contraction hit. Maggie moaned but didn't move an inch.
God, please take care of my wife.
Breathing heavily, Maggie lay back down and propped her knees up. After one more contraction, the epidural kicked in. Her shoulders relaxed, and she lost the feeling in her legs. At that moment, if I had had a million dollars, I would have given every penny to that man. I almost kissed him on the mouth.
The next two hours were better than the last two days together. We watched the monitor, the rise and fall of every contraction-"Oh, that was a good one," listened to the heartbeat, laughed, talked about names, and tried not to think about what was next. It was surreal to think our son would be there, in our arms, in a matter of moments. We held hands, I sang to her tummy, and we sat there in quiet most of the time.
About one-thirty, the lady next door had trouble with her delivery, and they had to wheel her off for an emergency C-section. I've never heard anybody scream like that in all my life. I didn't know what to think. I do know that it got to Maggie. She tried not to show it, but it did.
At two o'clock, the doctor checked her for the last time. "Ten centimeters, and 100 percent effaced. Okay, Maggie, you can start pushing. We'll have a birthday today."
Maggie was a champ. I was real proud of her. She pushed and I coached, "One-two-three . . . " I'd count and she'd crunch her chin to her stomach, eyes closed and with a death grip on my hand, and push.
That was two days and ten lifetimes ago.