If I StayGayle Forman
“I hope your girlfriend’s okay,” the other mumbles. And then they disappear toward the glow of some vending machines.
Kim, who has met Willow all of twice, flings herself into her arms. “Thank you!” she murmurs into her neck.
Willow hugs her back, pats her on the shoulders before letting go. She rubs her eyes and winces out a brittle laugh. “What in the hell were you two thinking?” she asks.
“I want to see Mia,” Adam says.
Willow turns to look at Adam and it’s like someone has unscrewed her valve, letting all her air escape. She deflates. She reaches out and touches Adam’s cheek. “Of course you do. ” She wipes her eyes with the heel of her hand.
“Are you okay?” Kim asks.
Willow ignores the question. “Let’s see about getting you in to Mia. ”
Adam perks up when he hears this. “You think you can? That old nurse has it in for me. ”
“If that old nurse is who I think she is, it doesn’t matter if she has it in for you. It’s not up to her. Let’s check in with Mia’s grandparents and then I’ll find out who’s in charge of breaking the rules around here and get you in to see your girl. She needs you now. More than ever. ”
Adam swivels around and hugs Willow with such force that her feet lift up off the ground.
Willow to the rescue. Just the way she rescued Henry, Dad’s best friend and bandmate, who, once upon a time, was a total drunk playboy. When he and Willow had been dating a few weeks, she told him to straighten out and dry out or say good-bye. Dad said that lots of girls had given Henry ultimatums, tried to force him to settle down, and lots of girls had been left crying on the sidewalk. But when Willow packed her toothbrush and told Henry to grow up, Henry was the one who cried. Then he dried his tears, grew up, got sober and monogamous. Eight years later, here they are, with a baby, no less. Willow is formidable that way. Probably why after she and Henry got together she became Mom’s best friend; she was another tough-as-nails, tender-as-kittens, feminist bitch. And probably why she was one of Dad’s favorite people, even though she hated the Ramones and thought baseball was boring, while Dad lived for the Ramones and thought baseball was a religious institution.
Now Willow is here. Willow the nurse. Willow who doesn’t take no for an answer is here. She’ll get Adam in to see me. She’ll take care of everything. Hooray! I want to shout. Willow is here!
I’m so busy celebrating Willow’s arrival that the implication of her being here takes a few moments to sink in, but when it does, it hits me like a jolt of electricity.
Willow is here. And if she’s here, if she’s in my hospital, it means that there isn’t any reason for her to be in her hospital. I know her well enough to know that she never would have left him there. Even with me here, she would’ve stayed with him. He was broken, and brought to her for fixing. He was her patient. Her priority.
I think about the fact that Gran and Gramps are in Portland with me. And that all anyone in that waiting room is talking about is me, how they are avoiding mentioning Mom or Dad or Teddy. I think about Willow’s face, which looks like it has been scrubbed clean of all joy. And I think about what she told Adam, that I need him now. More than ever.
And that’s how I know. Teddy. He’s gone, too.
Mom went into labor three days before Christmas, and she insisted we go holiday shopping together.
“Shouldn’t you like lie down or go to the birthing center or something?” I asked.
Mom grimaced through a cramp. “Nah. The contractions aren’t that bad and are still like twenty minutes apart. I cleaned our entire house, from top to bottom, while I was in early labor with you. ”
“Putting the labor in labor,” I joked.
“You’re a smart-ass, you know that?” Mom said. She took a few breaths. “I’ve got a ways to go. Now come on. Let’s take the bus to the mall. I’m not up to driving. ”
“Shouldn’t we call Dad?” I asked.
Mom laughed at that. “Please, it’s enough for me to have to birth this baby. I don’t need to deal with him, too. We’ll call him when I’m ready to pop. I’d much rather have you around. ”
So Mom and I wandered around the mall, stopping every couple minutes so she could sit down and take deep breaths and squeeze my wrist so hard it left angry red marks. Still, it was a weirdly fun and productive morning. We bought presents for Gran and Gramps (a sweater with an angel on it and a new book about Abraham Lincoln) and toys for the baby and a new pair of rain boots for me. Usually we waited for the holiday sales to buy stuff like that, but Mom said that this year we’d be too busy changing diapers. “Now’s not the time to be cheap. Ow, f**k. Sorry, Mia. Come on. Let’s go get pie. ”
We went to Marie Callender’s. Mom had a slice of pumpkin and of banana cream. I had blueberry. When she was done, she pushed her plate away and announced she was ready to go to the midwife.
We’d never really talked about my being there or not being there. I went everywhere with Mom and Dad at that point, so it was just kind of assumed. We met a nerve-racked Dad at the birthing center, which was nothing like a doctor’s office. It was the ground floor of a house, the inside decked out with beds and Jacuzzi tubs, the medical equipment discreetly tucked away. The hippie midwife led Mom inside and Dad asked me if I wanted to come, too. By now, I could hear Mom screaming profanities.
“I can call Gran and she’ll pick you up,” Dad said, wincing at Mom’s barrage. “This might take a while. ”
I shook my head. Mom needed me. She’d said so. I sat down on one of the floral couches and picked up a magazine with a goofy-looking bald baby on the cover. Dad disappeared into the room with the bed.
“Music! Goddammit! Music!” Mom screamed.
“We have some lovely Enya. Very soothing,” the midwife said.
“Fuck Enya!” Mom screamed. “Melvins. Earth. Now!”
“I’ve got it covered,” Dad said. Then he popped a CD of the loudest, churningest, guitar-heaviest music I’d ever heard. It made all the fast-paced punk songs Dad normally listened to sound like harp music. This music was primal and that seemed to make Mom feel better. She started making these low guttural noises. I just sat there quietly. Every so often she’d scream my name and I’d scamper inside. Mom would look up at me, her face plastered with sweat. Don’t be scared, she’d whisper. Women can handle the worst kind of pain. You’ll find out one day. Then she’d scream f**k again.
I’d seen a couple of births on that cable-TV show, and people usually yelled for a while; sometimes they swore and it had to be bleeped, but it never took longer than half an hour. After three hours, Mom and the Melvins were still screaming along. The whole birthing center felt tropically humid, even though it was forty degrees outside.
Henry dropped by. When he came inside and heard the noise, he froze in his tracks. I knew that the whole kid-thing freaked him out. I’d overheard Mom and Dad talking about that, and Henry’s refusal to grow up. He’d apparently been shocked when Mom and Dad had me, and now was completely bewildered that they chose to have a second. They’d both been relieved when he and Willow had gotten back together. “Finally, a grown-up in Henry’s life,” Mom had said.
Henry looked at me; his face was pale and sweaty. “Holy shit, Mee. Should you be hearing this? Should I be hearing this?”
I shrugged. Henry sat down next to me. “I’ve got the flu or something, but your Dad just called asking me to bring some food. So here I am,” he said, proffering a Taco Bell bag reeking of onions. Mom let out another moan. “I should go. Don’t want me spreading germs or anything. ” Mom screamed even louder and Henry practically jumped in his seat. “You sure you wanna hang around for this? You can come back to my place. Willow’s there, taking care of me. ” He grinned when he mentioned her name. “She can take care of you, too. ” He stood up to leave.
“No. I’m fine. Mom needs me. Dad’s kind of freaking out, though. ”
“Did he puke yet?” Henry asked, sitting back down on the couch. I laughed, but then saw from his face that he was serious.
“He threw up when you were coming. Almost fainted on the floor. Not that I can blame him. But the dude was a mess, the doctors wanted to kick him out . . . said they were going to if you didn’t come out within a half hour. That got your mom so pissed off she pushed you out five minutes later. ” Henry smiled, leaning back into the sofa. “So the story goes. But I’ll tell you this: He cried like a motherfucking baby when you were born. ”
“I’ve heard that part. ”
“Heard what part?” Dad asked breathlessly. He grabbed the bag from Henry. “Taco Bell, Henry?”
“Dinner of champions,” Henry said.
“It’ll do. I’m starving. It’s intense in there. Got to keep up my strength. ”
Henry winked at me. Dad pulled out a burrito and offered one to me. I shook my head. Dad had started unwrapping his meal when Mom let out a growl and then started screaming at the midwife that she was ready to push.
The midwife poked her head out the door. “I think we’re getting close, so maybe you should save dinner for later,” she said. “Come on back. ”
Henry practically bolted out the front door. I followed Dad into the bedroom where Mom was sitting now, panting like a sick dog. “Would you like to watch?” the midwife asked Dad, but he just swayed and turned a pale shade of green.
“I’m probably better up here,” he said, grasping Mom’s hand, which she violently shook off.
No one asked me if I wanted to watch. I just automatically went to stand next to the midwife. It was pretty gross, I’ll admit. Lots of blood. And I’d certainly never seen my mom so full-on frontal before. But it felt strangely normal for me to be there. The midwife was telling Mom to push, then hold, then push. “Go baby, go baby, go baby go,” she chanted. “You’re almost there!” she cheered. Mom looked like she wanted to smack her.
When Teddy slid out, he was head up, facing the ceiling, so that the first thing he saw was me. He didn’t come out squalling like you see on TV. He was just quiet. His eyes were open, staring straight at me. He held my gaze as the midwife suctioned out his nose. “It’s a boy,” she shouted.
The midwife put Teddy on Mom’s belly. “Do you want to cut the cord?” she asked Dad. Dad waved his hands no, too overcome or nauseous to speak.
“I’ll do it,” I offered.
The midwife held the cord taut and told me where to cut. Teddy lay still, his gray eyes wide open, still staring at me.
Mom always said that it was because Teddy saw me first, and because I cut his cord, that somewhere deep down he thought I was his mother. “It’s like those goslings,” Mom joked. “Imprinting on a zoologist, not the mama goose, because he was the first one they saw when they hatched. ”
She exaggerated. Teddy didn’t really think I was his mother, but there were certain things that only I could do for him. When he was a baby and going through his nightly fussy period, he’d only calm down after I played him a lullaby on my cello. When he started getting into Harry Potter, only I was allowed to read a chapter to him every night. And when he’d skin a knee or bump his head, if I was around he would not stop crying until I bestowed a magic kiss on the injury, after which he’d miraculously recover.
I know that all the magic kisses in the world probably couldn’t have helped him today. But I would do anything to have been able to give him one.
10:40 P. M.
I run away.
I leave Adam, Kim, and Willow in the lobby and I just start careening through the hospital. I don’t realize I’m looking for the pediatric ward until I get there. I tear through the halls, past rooms with nervous four-year-olds sleeping restlessly before tomorrow’s tonsillectomies, past the neonatal ICU with babies the size of fists, hooked up to more tubes than I am, past the pediatric oncology unit where bald cancer patients sleep under cheerful murals of rainbows and balloons. I’m looking for him, even though I know I won’t find him. Still, I have to keep looking.