Big girls do it pregnant, p.13
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       Big Girls Do It Pregnant, p.13

         Part #10 of Big Girls Do It series by Jasinda Wilder
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  An hour passed, taffy-stretched slow in some moments, and rocket-ship fast in others.

  A technician moved an ultrasound wand over Anna's belly, and even Jeff could see the truth: Caleb was still breech.

  Chapter 8: ANNA

  I didn't want to scream anymore. I wanted to be that tough kind of woman who endures the pain of childbirth in silence; my throat ached, scraped raw, because I wasn't that kind of woman. I sucked in long breaths, eyes closed and knees drawn up, fingers clutching the bed railing so hard I didn't think I could let go on my own.

  I felt Jeff next to me, and I knew he felt helpless. I wanted to tell him it was okay, it would be worth it all when we held our little babies. Words wouldn't come out, though, stolen as another wave of excruciation sliced through me.

  I heard voices, felt something wet and cold on my belly, then a hard probing and sliding across my skin: an ultrasound. I tried to pry my eyes open to see the screen, but my sight was blurred and wavering.

  "He's still breech," a voice said. "We'll have to do an emergency C-section."

  I wanted to cry, but I also knew it would mean an end to the pain.

  I saw ceiling tiles overhead, moving. Long breaths in and out, wrenching pain, more voices, fluorescent lights, doors opening, Jeff telling me to breathe, it's okay, baby, just breathe for me, in and out, breathe in and one, two three, more pain, things happening to my body, motion, blue papery fabric wrapped over me. Things happened around me, and then the massive clenching pressure of contractions stopped and I could breathe. The absence of pain was so blessed, so incredible that I was woozy, dizzy, disoriented with relief. I felt Jeff's hand in mine. I forced my eyes open, relieved all over again that the pain had stopped, and I knew I should know why, but didn't.

  "Hi." It was all I could manage.

  "Hi, baby. We're in the OR." Jeff's voice was tender and quiet.

  "I can't feel my toes." I tried to wiggle them; nothing. "What happened to my toes?"

  "Anesthetic, Anna." Jeff's fingers squeezed mine. His strength and warmth was reassuring.

  "So I still have my toes?" It seemed important, but I wasn't sure why. I felt foggy and delirious.

  "Yes, honey. You still have your toes." Jeff was laughing, and I saw his face above me, smiling at me.

  I sucked in deep breaths, blew them out, and gradually clarity returned. "They're doing the C-section?"

  Jeff nodded. "There you are. Back with me now?" He brushed strands of sweat-damp hair away from my face. "Yeah. Caleb is still breech, and they can't wait any longer."

  A wall of blue blocked my sight of my body from the waist down, but Jeff was by my head, dressed in scrubs, with worry etched on his rugged features. I felt pressure on my belly, tugging. Voices issuing calm instructions floated to me from the other side of the partition. I was glad I couldn't see what was going on. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a nurse turn away from my body, and her gloved hands were coated in blood. I had to look away, focused on Jeff's jawline, hard and strong and rough with days' worth of beard. It kind of suited him, actually.

  "I don't think I tell you enough how handsome you are, Jeff." I was filled with fear and excitement and panic and worry, and it seemed like an important thing to tell him.

  He looked down at me, carving a caressing line down my cheekbone with his thumb. "You're amazing, Anna. I love you so much. You're doing great. They've almost got the first baby out."

  I felt a strange pulling sensation, and then I heard a sound that would forever be imprinted on my soul: the shuddering breath and stuttering cry of a wailing infant. Jeff's face contorted as he watched over the top of the curtain, and I could read the play of emotions across his face: awe, amazement, wonder, love, shock.

  "It's Niall, honey. They have Niall. God, she's beautiful, she's perfect. Just like you." His voice caught, and he blinked hard several times.

  A few heartbeats passed, and then a female voice spoke up. "Dad? You want to cut the rest of the cord?"

  I turned my head to the side. A warmer sat a few feet away, this side of the curtain and away from the sterile surgical area. Niall lay on the warmer, mostly cleaned up and kicking and wailing, waving tiny fists. A nurse had a length of purplish-red umbilical cord clamped off and held it out to Jeff, while another handed him a pair of odd-looking scissors. Jeff turned to look back at me, and I smiled my encouragement at him, barely recognizing the activity still happening to the rest of me. He slid the scissors between the clamps and cut the cord, and then Niall was wrapped in a blanket and handed to Jeff.

  Just as I'll never forget the first time I heard Niall's crying voice, I'll never forget that image: Jeff, huge arms flexing in the sleeves of his scrub shirt as he reached for his daughter, a tiny, wailing bundle of swaddling blanket and waving fists fitting snugly into the crook of his arms. His face, so handsome, turning soft and tender and awestruck. The feather-light kiss of his lips to her forehead, the barely contained emotions warring on his features. His eyes smiling at me, looking at me with such love that my heart couldn't contain it all.

  The strange tugging sensation came again, and then I heard Caleb's voice cry his displeasure.

  Jeff was next to me again, and this time he couldn't hold it back. A tear slipped down his cheek, and he bent over me, kissed my forehead, then my lips. "Anna, god, Anna. Caleb is here. Caleb is out. He's so amazing." He looked down at me, his deep brown eyes soft with emotion, wet with tears. "I love you so much. You did it. God, Anna. I'm so proud of you."

  The cord-cutting ritual happened again, and then Caleb was hurried away, all too soon. I barely got a glimpse of him, and then he was gone.

  "Will I get to hold them soon?" It was all I could think of. I reached for Jeff, now cradled in Jeff's arms, only to discover that my arms were strapped to the table.

  A young male face, acne-scarred, hair contained in the stupid-looking sterile hat, a mask around his mouth, appeared from behind the curtain. "You'll get to hold them soon, Mrs. Cartwright. You have to get stitched up first, okay? As soon as you're able, we'll bring your babies to you."

  "Can I at least kiss Caleb?" I had to touch one of my babies at the very least. I had to know it was all real, that this was happening, that it wasn't a dream, that my babies were healthy.

  The nurse nodded his approval and Jeff brought Caleb over to me, crouched down and put Caleb's forehead to my lips. When my lips touched his skin, when I saw his thick thatch of dark wet hair, I lost it. Tears streamed down my face, and I couldn't wipe them away.

  Another nurse took Caleb from Jeff and set him in the warmer, recording his weight, stretched him out and marked his height at head and foot on the paper liner with a pen, and then Caleb was gone and Jeff was next to me, wiping my face with gentle fingers.

  The next few hours passed with startling swiftness. I was wheeled out of the OR, unstrapped--to my great relief--and brought to a recovery room. I was shaking uncontrollably, my hands trembling so badly Jeff had to hold the straw in a can of soda to my lips, because when I tried to pick up the can on my own, I shook it so bad it sloshed over my hand. I ached so badly. The anesthetic was wearing off, and my entire lower half was a knotted mass of pins and needles, as if my legs had fallen asleep. The pins and needles got so bad that I wanted to scream. It felt like a thousand bees were buzzing under my skin, crawling and stinging. I rubbed my thighs almost frantically, trying to erase the sensation, but it didn't work. Eventually, Jeff took one of my legs and settled it across his lap and began massaging the muscles, starting at my thigh and working his way down to my calf and then my foot, moving to the other leg and repeating the process.

  It was the best massage I'd ever gotten.

  An older, silver-haired woman in the colorful pattern-printed scrubs of an NICU nurse entered the recovery room, followed by two other women in plain dark blue scrubs.

  "Ready to meet your babies?" the NICU nurse asked.

  "God, yes. How are they doing?" I tried to stand up, but didn't even manage to rock forward
to a fully sitting position.

  "Why don't you let us help you into a wheelchair, and we'll take to them so you can find out for yourself?" The nurse, whose name tag announced her name as Sheila, helped me get my feet under me.

  I was helped into a wheelchair, and they pushed me down endless corridors and around corners and through open doorways to the NICU ward. It was a wide room with rows of incubators and warmers, smelling of baby and milk and hospital. Machines buzzed quietly and efficiently, a baby fussed hungrily in one of the warmers, and in one corner a nurse cradled a baby in her arms, teasing the baby's lips with a bottle of formula.

  Jeff walked beside me as I was wheeled to a stop between side-by-side incubators. I looked from one baby to the other, drinking in their features, seeing my nose, Jeff's eyes, a mixup of both of us. I couldn't tell them apart. I didn't know which was which. Shouldn't I be able tell? Guilt hit me. These were my babies, and I didn't know which was which? Did that mean I was a bad mommy? I had to hold back tears.

  "Which one is which?" I asked, my voice quavering.

  Sheila smiled at me, understanding pouring from her in nearly visible waves. "It's perfectly normal to not be able to tell them apart yet, hon." She reached into one of the incubators and carefully lifted the swaddled bundle out, settling it in my arms.

  It? Had I just thought of my baby as an it? Another shudder ran through me.

  "This is your daughter," Sheila said, fussing with the little cotton cap on Niall's head, tugging it farther down around her ears.

  Niall was awake and quiet, brown eyes wide, searching, roving, and then...she fixed her eyes on me, focusing. A hot rush of emotion hit me, a Niagara flood of love and overwhelming protective need and awe and wonder. I'd made this warm thing in my arms, this little human, this tiny person. She was mine. Mine and Jeff's. I looked up at him, smiled at him, felt his love wash over me.

  Sheila smiled at us, patted me on the back. "Dad, you can hold Caleb if you want, then you can trade. They're doing very well, both of them. They have mild jaundice, but that's normal for any baby, premature twins especially. They're breathing fairly well, although they'll need some help now and again. We'll have to see how they eat, though."

  "How big are they?" I asked.

  "Niall is three pounds, nine ounces, seventeen point three inches," Sheila answered. "Caleb is three pounds, four ounces, and sixteen point eight inches. They've both taken a bottle, but Caleb had a bit of trouble latching on. His sister didn't have any trouble, though. She latched on right away and sucked the bottle down like a champ."

  I looked at Caleb, nestled in Jeff's powerful arms. "Let's switch," I said. "I want to hold him now."

  Jeff slipped his hand under Niall in my arms, lifted her free, and for a moment had both of his babies in his arms. His smile in that moment was one of absolute joy. I saw his phone denting the breast pocket of his scrubs, so I reached up and grabbed it out of the pocket, pulled up the camera function, and took several pictures of my husband holding both of his children. He settled them both in my arms, and I felt the same look of contentment wash over me. I saw Jeff snapping pictures out of the corner of my eye, but I had eyes only for my babies. Niall, on the left, drowsing now, eyes closing, hands lax against her chin, Caleb on the right, fussing noisily, mouth working open and closed, hands waving and little fingers flexing.

  Such tiny fingers. Everything about them was small. So fragile. So perfect.

  Jeff took Niall from me, and then Sheila brought me a bottle. I held it to Caleb's lips, and he nuzzled it with his mouth but didn't take it. He cried louder, his mews of hunger turning to wails of anger. A drop of formula touched his tongue, and he wailed even harder but refused to take the nipple of the bottle. Sheila showed me how to encourage him to take it, teasing his upper lip with the dripping tip. After several tries, he latched on and began sucking, his cries silencing.

  "Will I be able to breastfeed them?" I asked.

  Sheila stood back, watching him drink. "Yes, of course. For now we need to be able to monitor how much they're eating, though, so we'll have to continue to bottle-feed them. They both have to be at least four pounds, eight ounces, and able to drink an entire bottle at every feeding before they go home. We might have you try to breastfeed them the next time they're hungry, just to see how they latch on."

  "How long will they be here, do you think?" Jeff asked.

  Sheila shrugged. "It depends, really. A few days at least, maybe a week or two."

  It wouldn't end up working out quite that easily, though. I didn't know that then, of course.

  Chapter 9: JAMIE

  A week and half had passed since I'd had Samantha. She'd done well enough after birth that they'd sent her home, but now, as I held her in my arms, I worried. Her legs were mottled various shades of red and pink, splotches of color and paleness alternating like the patches of a jaguar. She seemed to be struggling to breathe, sucking in hard for each breath, lifting her chin to gasp for air. Her shirt was hiked up around her armpits, and I watched as her stomach dipped in with each breath, distending with each exhale, her diaphragm showing at the inhale.

  Something was wrong.

  Chase was out on the back porch of Kelly's house, where we were staying until we got the okay to drive home to New York. The sliding glass door was open, and I could hear the start-and-stop guitar of Chase writing a song. I glanced back down at Samantha, her sleeping face looking distressed.

  Kelly sat down on the couch next to me. "How are we doing, Mama?"

  I looked at her, and I knew my worry was stamped on my face. "She looks like she's having trouble breathing."

  Kelly took Samantha from me, resting the baby face up on her legs. She pressed her thumb into Samantha's skin, watching as the thumbprint remained for several seconds before disappearing. She pushed up Samantha's shirt a bit more and watched her chest retract and expand with each breath, tilting her watch upside down to time the space between breaths.

  Kelly turned to me with concern in her eyes. "I think you need to take her to the E.R., Jamie. I don't have an at-home pulse oximeter to measure it, but I'm pretty sure Samantha's levels are low. It could be RSV."

  That was a word I'd heard tossed about before they let us bring her home. I wasn't sure what it was exactly, but I knew it had something to do with her breathing. "Will she be okay?"

  Kelly wouldn't quite meet my eyes. "You need to take her to the hospital to get checked out, sweetie."

  I picked up Samantha and held her to my chest. "Get Chase, tell him what's going on. I'll get Sam in her car seat."

  Within minutes, we were making the short trip back to Beaumont. Chase dropped Sam, Kelly, and me off at the emergency entrance and went to park the car. We were hustled to a triage room almost immediately, probably thanks to the fact that the nurses all knew Kelly. Chase joined us shortly thereafter, and then after more than thirty minutes, a young Indian man in a lab coat--looking too young to me to possibly be a doctor--checked over Samantha, almost cursorily.

  "It is RSV, there is no doubt. She is not yet coughing or wheezing that I have seen, so it does not seem to be bronchiolitis as yet, but that is my worry. Her pulse-ox is seventy-four, which is very worrisomely low. It should be one hundred, or very close to it." He traced a fingernail along her diaphragm, which was visible at every inhale. "You can see here that she is having to work to take in breaths. I am going to admit her and have her taken up to the pediatric ward."

  I struggled to keep my tears of panic at bay. "What can you do to help her?"

  He gave me a serious, compassionate look. "Unfortunately, at her young age, there is nothing we can give her beyond saline and a little very diluted oxygen. She is too newly born to be given steroids or anything like that." His faint accent lilted at every other syllable. "We will monitor her, and we will do everything that we are able to keep your daughter healthy."

  After an hour's wait, a nurse showed up to take us to the pediatric ward several floors up. My heart pounded, and I ha
d to focus on deep breathing to keep from breaking down. Chase's hand in mine was a lifeline, warm and solid and comforting. It was all that kept me sane.

  The room was tiny, barely ten feet wide and fifteen long, split in half by a thin curtain. Against either wall was a huge crib that could be converted into an incubator. A well-built male nurse in his thirties with sandy blond hair cropped short and a day's worth of stubble on his fair skin greeted us warmly. He introduced himself as Brian, and said he'd be our nurse until shift change in four hours. He spent several minutes with Samantha, checking her over himself, familiarizing himself with her chart, taking her temperature, listening to her breathing with a stethoscope, changing her from her own clothes to a hospital onesie that allowed him to attach monitor leads to her wrist and and a pulse-oximeter to her big toe.

  That was what broke me: the sight of my baby, not even two weeks old, with a miniature cannula inserted into her nose and trailing over her shoulder, red and green wires with monitor leads taped to her wrist, an oximeter pinching her big toe, glowing red. I collapsed backward into a plasticky leather recliner, buried my face in my hands, and sobbed. Chase didn't try to comfort me beyond a heavy hand on my shoulder.

  "I know it's scary to see her like this," Brian said, "but she's going to be okay. We're going to take great care of her, and you'll be home as soon as possible."

  I nodded, barely hearing him. It didn't seem like it was going to be okay. Samantha lay in the crib, swaddled in a blanket with the lead wires trailing out near her shoulder, eyes narrowed but open. Her little mouth was partially open, and she was visibly struggling to draw in breath. I could only watch her, eyes burning with unshed tears, and try to breathe for her. I sucked in a breath as she did, let out mine with her, as if I could lend her my oxygen, as if I could heal her with sheer force of will.

  Hours passed, streaming by like water, then stopping to creep by in a sludge-slow crawl. I sat in the chair, watching Samantha try to breathe, ignoring Chase's attempts to call me. At some point, Kelly left. Each labored breath in caused my heart to ache.

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