It was Christmas Eve, and Jane was damned if she was going to the hospital again. Though the baby wasn’t due for another two weeks, she’d been to the maternity ward twice in the past eight days. Each time, the labor pains, so steady and insistent at home, had petered out and eventually stopped.
She hadn’t had false labor with any of the other four kids. Her doctor said it was because she was older now. She hoped it didn’t mean anything more worrisome than that. Not that she was really worried. Just tired. And heavy. And ready for it to be over. It wasn’t fair of God to tease her at this point. But maybe that’s who God was, a tease, like the bully who offers another child candy, then snatches it away, laughing, just as the trusting child reaches out for it. Maybe, at least, that was one face of God. If she thought about it, she could probably gather up some other anecdotal evidence. But she was too tired to think, and too busy. Christmas Eve, with the kids in a delirium of anticipation, and Mike working overtime, and her parents coming for dinner, and the oven yet to clean. She always cleaned the oven when she knew her mother was coming, even though her mother never looked inside it. But Jane didn’t think she could manage it today. Not the size she was. Not with the erratic cramps.
The hospital had kept her overnight both times, just in case labor resumed. Unable to sleep, she’d roamed the halls, envious of the other women groaning in their beds or being rushed down the hall to the delivery room, even more envious of the swaddled newborns in their bassinets. When she waddled up to the wide window of the nursery to look at the babies, the fathers there moved away, as if embarrassed by her huge belly. Jane was a small woman, only five-two, and her babies were always large, nine or ten pounds, so in the later months of pregnancy, her belly jutted out like the rounded prow of a small boat. She had to stand sideways at the kitchen sink to reach the faucets.
“Is the tree ready yet? Can we start?”
The two oldest, Carol, born on Christmas Eve 13 years ago, and Val, two years later on Valentine’s Day, stood in the open doorway, their thick woolen clothing and expectant, hopeful expressions making them look younger than they were. The holiday girls, Jane’s father always called them. He was the kind of man who never tired of repeating a line or phrase that had once evoked laughter or even a smile.
Jane’s mother would have scolded the girls for the snow melting off their boots on to the recently-swept floor and for the cold air flowing into the room from the open door, but Jane wasn’t that kind of mother. She inhabited the mess and ruckus of children as a fish inhabits water, taking it for granted as a natural environment.
“Where are the boys?” Jane said.
“They’re still sledding,” Carol said. “I told them to come home after only two more times.”
Sam and Troy, aged six and seven, would have been all right staying longer on their own. The sledding street was only a block away, and there were at least 20 neighborhood children out there, but Carol was an inveterate caretaker, whether she’d been assigned to be or not. Jane occasionally worried that the girl took too much responsibility on herself, but mostly Jane counted on just that. Now she looked appraisingly at the Douglas fir Mike had set up this morning. It had been sitting outside, its branches bound up with twine, for two days, but after several hours in the warm living room, the branches had relaxed and lowered, reclaiming the tree’s conical shape.
“Yes, it’s ready,” she told the girls. “Go get the lights.”
Hurriedly, they pulled off their boots, tossed them outside onto the porch and slammed the door. They hung their coats and hats and mittens on hooks and ran upstairs, jostling each other. They returned quickly, Val carrying a tangle of Christmas tree lights and Carol with a towel to put on the floor beneath their dripping coats.
By the time Sam and Troy came in, having, indeed, stayed longer than two more rides, the lights were done and half the ornaments were hung. They didn’t object. Putting on the tinsel was their domain. But they usually tired of slowly laying single strands on the tips of branches, as Jane instructed anew every year, and gleefully resorted to tossing handfuls of tinsel at the tree, letting it catch wherever it would. Carol picked off the worst clumps later on, carefully shaking them out and re-hanging them properly. The boys didn’t care if their work was undone, despite the implied criticism. Their pleasure was in action.
Jane appreciated Carol’s fixing the sloppy tinsel. Jane was sentimental about Christmas trees. In her childhood, the tradition had been that the tree was left unadorned on Christmas Eve. When she and her sisters descended the stairs next morning, there it would stand in all its glittering glory, the transformation first ascribed to Santa Claus, later to the adults of the family. Some of the magic was lost once Jane was allowed, in her teens, to participate in trimming the tree late on Christmas Eve, but she still enjoyed the beauty of the finished product. It still seemed a small miracle.
In Mike’s family, the tree had been up and trimmed by the first week of December, and he, an only child, had always helped. On their first Christmas as a married couple, Mike had been amused at Jane’s vehement insistence that the tree couldn’t go up until the 24th. He’d been equally amused at her code for decorating — which ornaments went near the top of the tree, which at the back; the distribution of colors among the light bulbs; and the precise draping of the tinsel, which he called icicles. Sometimes Jane would surreptitiously move ornaments he’d hung. He pretended not to notice. Until their fourth Christmas. Mike decorated the tree by himself that year, setting it up while she was still in the hospital. Seeing it when she walked in the door on December 26th, baby Carol in her arms, she’d burst into tears.
Now, decorating the tree was the children’s task. Jane simply watched, sometimes recommending placement of an ornament, but mostly not. Still, if she found herself alone in the room later, she’d sometimes move an ornament or pick off a piece of crumpled tinsel or a cookie or peppermint cane that had been bitten into. She continued making these adjustments even days after Christmas, when everyone else seemed to have forgotten the tree and paid it no mind, as if its gaudy residence in their house were no more remarkable than the useful coffee table and the dusty bookcase.
It was dark outside by the time the tree was finished. The girls were clanging around the kitchen making hot chocolate. The boys were upstairs playing checkers. Mike had phoned to say he was on his way home and that he’d bought a big wreath for the front door from a Salvation Army lot that was practically giving them away. Jane sat slumped on the couch admiring the tree. There were no other lights on in the room except for the tree lights. It was almost like sitting by firelight. She ought to get up and go to the kitchen. Her parents would be arriving in an hour. She was serving a deli supper, but she wanted to set everything out nicely on platters and in serving bowls, and let the meats and cheeses lose some of their refrigerator chill. She ought to iron the tablecloth. Maybe she’d ask Carol to do that. Carol, 13 today. How did the years go by so fast? A trite observation, but no less true for it. Jane’s uterus contracted tightly. She held her breath, then let it out slowly as the contraction faded.
“Soon, baby mine,” she said, stroking her belly. “But not yet. We’ve got a crowded evening to get through first. And this is your sister’s day. Wait for your own. It’s always better to wait for your own.”
Jane slid the melting rump end of an ice cream cake into the dog’s dish. Jersey, drooling but well-trained, waited until Jane had laboriously straightened up and stepped aside before he dipped his head to the dish and started gobbling. One ice cream cake, the kids’ favorite of chocolate cake swirled with vanilla ice cream, had been fully consumed. The left-over that Jersey was enjoying was from the other cake, a concession to grown-up tastes for nuts and rum.
“Merry Christmas, boy,” Jane said, amused by the dog’s gluttonous glee.
She was alone in the kitchen, having shooed everyone to the living room. The table had been mostly cleared. Dessert plates were stacked next to the sink, waiting to be rinsed. A fresh pot of coffee was on the verge of percolating. Mike had already taken cups and milk and sugar to the living room on a tray.
Jane sat down clumsily, glad for a few minutes of solitude. Only a little longer and her parents would leave for their house up the street, the house Jane had grown up in, and she could corral the over-excited children to bed. Then another hour, less if she were lucky, to finish assembling the doll house for Val. Mike still had to attach the training wheels to the bike for Sam, too, but now that it had begun snowing, he’d want to take Jersey for a walk.
Mike was romantic about snow. At the first snowfall last year, he’d transferred the boys to his and Jane’s bed downstairs so that he and Jane could sleep squeezed together in Troy’s twin bed with only the roof between them and the falling snow. He’d want Jane to walk with him tonight, but she just couldn’t. The labor pains had petered out during dinner, so she was hoping to grab a bit of solid sleep before dawn. The kids would be up before then, but Carol would keep them upstairs digging into their Christmas stockings until the sky showed an infusion of gray light. Then they’d send her downstairs to whisper urgently at Jane and Mike’s door. Carol could be trusted on both sides not to give away any surprises she’d spot as she passed through the living room on her way to her parents’ bedroom at the back of the house.
Mike wouldn’t push Jane about the walk, but she knew he’d be disappointed when she declined to go. His face would show it. His face showed everything. Which was fortunate, in a way, because he was awkward when trying to express feelings in words. Though this was the fifth time around, Mike still didn’t seem to understand how burdening pregnancy could be. Natural enough, Jane supposed, since he couldn’t experience it directly. Maybe, she thought, I don’t complain enough.
Jersey, licking his jowls, came and laid his head on Jane’s lap.
“You’re welcome,” she said, stroking his back.
Suddenly, a wave of nausea swept over her. She pushed the dog away and rushed to the sink, but the nausea passed as quickly as it had arisen. She stood still, monitoring her uterus for cramps, but none came.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay.”
She carried the coffee pot into the living room. Everyone looked up when she entered. They’d been waiting for her. It was time for the final rituals of Christmas Eve, which were Carol opening birthday presents, followed by the adults exchanging gifts. That part would be briefer this year because Jane and Mike had made a pact not to get each other presents as an economy measure. Jane had been working on a poem for him, but that was a gift to be handed in private. She’d managed a serviceable draft last week, but dissatisfied, she’d scrapped it this morning. She might still salvage something by tomorrow — she had a few fresh phrases jotted on a paper towel in her pocket.
It was the first poem she’d written in six months, and she hadn’t been exactly prolific before then, either. She’d done it for two reasons. Because she didn’t like not giving Mike anything at Christmas, and because she wanted to see if she could still string words together in any satisfactory way. It was hard enough not having the time or energy to write. She didn’t want to think she’d lost the ability as well. Was it like riding a bicycle: once mastered, always owned? Or was it, as she feared in her deepest heart, something that, if neglected, would shrivel away to nothingness? Her real love was not poetry, where, in truth, she tended to be a bit purple, but writing stories, and there was the old novel, too, abandoned years ago, when Sam was a baby. She still held out hopes of returning to that one day. When the kids were grown? How far off that was, even though, as she’d thought this afternoon when marveling that Carol was 13, the years did fly by. But would she still have the same notions about the novel by then? Would her scribbled notes, her tentative chapters pencilled on mismatched sheets of paper, some that wide-lined newsprint that first-graders use, make any sense to her then? Would they if she re-read them now? Who would care, anyway, if she never caught on a page the thoughts and desires and observations that peppered her fragmented days? Who would know they were there to care about?
“Janey,” her mother said, when she’d sat down on the couch beside her, “are you feeling all right?”
“Yes, Mom. Just wool-gathering.”
“Here, let me pour.”
Jane’s mother dispensed coffee into the four waiting cups. Carol passed them around.
“Now, Carol, sit down,” Jane’s mother said. “Poppop and I have a special gift for you.”
Grinning, Carol sat in an easy chair, and her grandfather placed a large, brightly wrapped box on her lap.
“It’s heavy,” Carol said, raising her eyebrows in joyful suspense. She began tearing at the wrappings.
“It’s a big present,” Jane’s mother said. “So it’s for your birthday and for Christmas.”
Carol looked up at her grandmother for the briefest instant, her hands still busy working the tight-fitting lid off the large white box. She wore the slightest frown, and her eyes were puzzled. It could have been an expression of effort coupled with mounting anticipation and curiosity. But Jane saw that it was more, a kind of wistful resignation, almost a woundedness. Glancing around at the faces watching Carol struggle to open the impressive box, Jane saw that no one else seemed to have noticed.
Jane had always been fastidious about keeping Carol’s birthday gifts separate from her Christmas gifts, so that her birthday would be as well-marked as those of the other children. Now, for the first time, Carol was receiving a double-duty gift. It was understandable. Gifts appropriate for an older child were more costly. Jane knew Carol would understand, did understand. But she’d seen, in that brief pause, that she didn’t like it. She doesn’t complain enough either, Jane thought.
One afternoon a few weeks ago, Carol had come home upset from a baby-sitting job at a neighbors’ house. She’d witnessed a cross exchange between the husband and wife, who had walked in the door snapping at each other. With a few quick questions, Jane ascertained that it hadn’t been a serious or strenuous fight.
“They were being so mean,” Carol had said. She was close to tears.
“People are like that sometimes, darling.”
Jane ached to take the girl into her lap, but she didn’t really have a lap any longer, so all she could do was sit beside her and put her arm around her.
“I don’t want to grow up, Mom.”
“But you argue with your brothers and your sister, and with your friends once in a while.”
“I know. It’s not that. Grown-ups don’t…a lot of the time, they don’t…look happy.”
How to answer that? Of course, grown-ups weren’t always happy. Were children? Or did children simply inhabit the present so fully that when they were happy, they had no memory of the painful times? A child’s pain could be very complex, but a child’s happiness was usually simple. Jane wanted to lie to her daughter and brush away her anxiety as she might brush a tangle out of her hair, but she had to concede that grown-ups did lose the capacity for a child’s brand of pure happiness.
“It is hard, sometimes, being a grown-up. But we can be happy. Not in the same way as children are, maybe. A different kind of happiness. You’ll see.”
“I guess I have to,” Carol muttered glumly.
Jane smiled at her and kissed the top of her head.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, you know. Growing up. You’ll have time to get used to it, to figure it out. And it doesn’t just mean giving things up or losing things. You gain some things, too.”
“Like staying up later?”
“Like that. And lots more. You’ll see. It’ll be all right.”
The obstreperous box lid finally came off, and Carol lifted a pair of figure skates out of the box. She was thrilled. She put the skates on the floor and ran to her grandmother and then to her grandfather and gave them each hearty hugs and multiple thank you’s. Val picked up one skate and examined it covetously. Mike inspected the other one.
“These are very good skates, Carol,” he said. “You’ll be the fastest kid on the pond with these.”
“After me,” Troy declared.
“And me,” Sam chimed in, though he was still using two-bladed beginner’s skates and spent more time on his bottom than on his feet.
“In your dreams,” Val said under her breath. Ever prickly, she was civilized enough to know that Christmas Eve was not a time for open disharmony. Jane shot her a warning look anyway.
“Try them on for fit,” Jane’s father was telling Carol.
Carol sat down and pulled on the skates, lacing them all the way up.
“They’re perfect,” she said, holding her skinny legs out straight and admiring the bright white skates and their shining silver blades.
“You should get pom-poms for them,” Val said. “Red ones.”
“Maybe I will,” Carol replied, grinning.
“If this snowfall isn’t too heavy,” Mike said, “I’ll take you to Greenwood Lake on Saturday. We’ll give those skates a real work-out there.”
Carol nodded enthusiastically.
“Can I come, too?” Val asked.
“What?” Mike looked up from a foil wrapped box his mother-in-law had just put on his lap. “Oh, sure, if you want.”
“And me? And me?” the boys chimed in.
“No,” Mike said, “Greenwood Lake skating is just for big kids.”
Christmas morning had proceeded as boisterously as usual. Now it was 3:00 in the afternoon, and the house was quiet. Mike had taken the boys sledding, and the girls were at a friend’s house. Jane was grateful for the lull, but there was a mild gloom to it, a kind of disappointment particular to Christmas afternoons.
Jane hadn’t given Mike the poem. Awakened by intermittent cramps, she’d slipped out of bed to work on it at the dining room table, which was still festooned with a poinsettia print tablecloth and scattered with crumpled napkins. But the poem hadn’t come together well enough, and she was too tired to stay with it. She’d save it for another time, their anniversary in March, perhaps. She wouldn’t tell Mike when she’d begun it.
Jane heard the washing machine in the basement grind to halt. She wanted to catch a quick nap while everyone was out, but she decided to load the dryer first. She descended the basement stairs slowly, one hand along the wall for balance. Also slowly, she started moving the wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. She felt somnolent, her mind blank, her movements automatic and oddly hypnotic. She was halfway through her task when the first pains hit. And hit was the operative word. The contractions were far more powerful than those that had been nagging her all week, and very close together. They felt like the pangs of late labor, but how could they be? All her other labors had been long, drawn-out affairs. Should she have gone to the hospital last night after all? No, she couldn’t have faced the chance of another empty venture.
She turned and looked at the stairs. How would she ever get up them? She must get to the phone. She waited out another contraction, gripping the edge of the wash tub and trying, with moderate success, to keep her breathing slow and steady. Before the contraction had fully ebbed away, she struck out for the stairs, but just as she lifted her foot onto the first step, her membranes broke, and a flood of clear amniotic fluid splashed emphatically onto the cement floor. Another contraction, the strongest yet, doubled her over, and she leaned against the rough, whitewashed wall and cursed, as much in frustration as pain. Was she going to have her baby here, in the basement? Alone? Strangely, she wasn’t afraid. There was no space for fear. She rocked her pelvis through the next contraction, which helped a little with the pain.
“Mom?” Carol’s voice came from the kitchen right above. “Mom, we’re home.”
“Carol,” Jane tried to shout, but it came out raspy and low. “Carol,” she repeated, not much louder. Now that rescue was at hand, she began, paradoxically, to feel afraid.
“Mom?” Carol called again.
“Let’s go upstairs and play that new board game you got,” Jane heard Val say.
At the next contraction, Jane let herself roar. It was a liberating feeling, and, as a bonus, it brought her daughters clambering down the stairs. They stopped midway, halted by the sight of their mother in such obvious physical distress.
“Mom?” Val said in a terrified voice. “What’s the matter with you?”
Another contraction prevented Jane from answering. She rocked her pelvis again and uttered a low, guttural moan. Carol cautiously descended two more steps.
“I’m okay,” Jane whispered. “It’s the baby coming.”
“Go to Nanny’s,” Carol ordered Val. “Tell her to call the ambulance.”
Val didn’t move. She kept staring at her mother. Another contraction had taken hold, and Jane was rocking and moaning. Carol came closer. Jane felt the girl’s hand on her shoulder.
“Do you want to sit down?” Carol asked.
Jane shook her head no. She reached out her arm, and Carol stepped underneath it. She’d be there to lean on when the next contraction rose up.
“Juliette,” Jane said as she felt a contraction gathering. Her next door neighbor would arrive more quickly than her mother and would be calmer. She’d call the doctor — they had the same obstetrician. She’d get hold of Mike and deal with the kids.
“Go get Juliette,” Carol told her sister.
Val started to whimper when she saw Jane begin to rock again.
“Now!” Carol commanded.
Val raced up the stairs, tripping on the top one, but not falling all the way down and not breaking her pace. They heard her slam out the side door. She hadn’t stopped to put on her coat. Jane knew that later, when Val told the story, she’d be the heroine of the piece, an obstetric Paul Revere. If she developed a bruise on her shin from having banged it against the edge of the step, all the better.
Jane and Carol went through four more contractions in the basement. Jane tried to lean most of her weight against the wall, but she kept her arm across Carol’s thin shoulders, and at the height of each contraction she gripped the child hard. The girl had her arm around Jane’s waist. In the spaces between contractions, she instinctively rubbed her mother’s back. Neither of them spoke. Jane didn’t want to deliver her baby in the basement, but she felt, with Carol there, that she could last a long time in this unlikely place if she had to. She felt safe and absurdly unconcerned. What would happen would happen. Carol wouldn’t desert her. She knew that as deeply as she knew anything in her life.
“Yoo-hoo,” came Juliette’s hearty voice from the kitchen. “The cavalry’s here!”
In the next instant, she was down the stairs and in charge.
“All right, now, let’s get you away from that cold, hard wall,” she said to Jane.
She moved in so that Jane could lean on her. Carol had to step back to get out of the way.
“You don’t feel like pushing yet, do you? Please God, tell me you don’t feel like pushing. No? Great!”
“Carol,” Juliette continued, twisting her head around to address her. “Would you go to my house? I left the twins. They’re napping, but they’re due to wake up.”
Jane moaned, and Juliette’s attention shifted.
“That’s it. One more. It’s okay. I called the doc. We’ll be hearing the sirens any minute. I sent Charlie to the sledding hill to get Mike. He’ll meet you at the hospital.”
Val was squatting at the top of the stairs, enrapt.
“Val,” Juliette said, “go get your brothers and bring them to my house. Carol, there are some cans of Chef Boy-ar-dee in the pantry, enough for everybody. And call your grandmother.”
“I know, I know,” Carol mumbled as she passed the two women and started up the stairs.
Jane thought she detected a note of sullenness in the girl’s tone, but the awareness of it came to her from a distance, as if she were hearing a foghorn in a movie. She was absorbed in being the tenant of her tumultuous body. Not even Juliette, close against her, talking in her ear, seemed completely real.
Jane watched Carol mount the stairs, her shoulders curved forward in the mild stoop Mike was always trying to correct. The girl looked back just before moving out of sight into the kitchen. Momentarily at peace between contractions, Jane smiled at her as best she could. It’s all right, she wanted to say, it’s going to be all right. But her breath wouldn’t form words. She heard sirens approaching. She felt her uterus shift and make the first tentative push. The baby was claiming its day. No time for words now. Carol would just have to understand. Carol would understand.