Renewal – Michael Gardner

John waited for Holly, continually clenching and then unclenching clammy hands. He sat on the edge of the bed, his stomach roiling, his feet tapping the floor incessantly. It never got easier. He always dreaded the confirmation. It was inevitable and yet most of him wanted to delay. Another month, he thought, just one more. I’ll be better prepared then.

There was a soft click from the ensuite door, and then it was opening. John swallowed. He attempted to convey a neutral expression behind which he could hide his growing dismay. Holly emerged from the bathroom, beautiful in her pink nightie. She flicked auburn hair from her smiling blue eyes and, as she held aloft the pregnancy test with the telling blue cross, her face lit up.

John absorbed the jolt to his guts as best he could, but it was hard to give nothing away when he knew he’d be dead before his son was born.

“So, what do you think?” Holly asked expectantly, her smile beginning to falter.

He forced a grin, hoping it didn’t look like a grimace. His mouth felt thick and dry, but he made it move.

“That’s amazing,” he said. And when she squealed and threw herself at him, he almost believed his words. He drew Holly close and rested his head on her shoulder, inhaling her scent of soap and lavender. God, he’d miss this.

“I’ve been wanting this for so long,” she whispered in his ear. “And you’re going to be such a great Dad.”

The dread remained, poking at the base of his stomach, but for the moment he allowed her joy to seep in and settle on top, almost disguising it.

“And you’re going to be an amazing Mum,” he said, and he knew it to be true.

#

Staring up into the blanket of darkness hovering over the bed, John imagined it consuming him. Holly was snoring softly next to him but, despite her proximity, he felt alone.

They’d talked for a long time before bed. Baby names, plans for renovations, cots, prams, and clothes. Her enthusiasm was infectious and, for a short time, he’d immersed himself in the fantasy of fatherhood.

But that seemed long ago. Now, he was focused on bitter reality. There was so much he needed to do before the end.

He’d have to see his lawyers, and soon. They’d tell Holly about the life insurance policy after he was gone. But he also needed to update his ledger and add it to the package they were already holding for his unborn son. He’d need to recommend a replacement for himself at the University. Change the car into Holly’s name. Clean his things out of the back room.

After cycling through his list several times he found his thoughts shifting to the inevitable and imminent pain. His, and his family’s.

He sighed, and rolled onto his side, the pillow hot against his ear.

He’d have to warn Julie, he realised. He knew Holly wouldn’t want his Mum to be first to know about the baby. The two women had never been close, and Julie was to blame for that. But he had to tell her. Maybe if he’d never shared his secret with Julie he could have waited. But what was done was done.

His thoughts began repeating. As they did, he refined his plan here, added something new to his list there. Eventually, he fell into a restless and uneasy sleep.

#

He was back in Scotland, shivering at the top of Heaval hill overlooking the bay. Icy water lapped at Kisimul Castle, a squat building of grey stone on an island off the coast of the village of Castlebay.

Ellie’s labour screams carried on the wind up from the castle. They were laced with anger, which was his fault. He’d promised to give up the drinking and the women that came with it. But he hadn’t. Even after she’d fallen pregnant. Deep down, he’d always assumed that Ellie needed him more than he needed her. She’d had to kick him out for him to realise his mistake. How stupid he’d been. Risking long-term happiness for short-term gratification.

The headaches had begun soon after his expulsion from the castle. A pain that pulsed at the back of his eyes, like needles jabbing him from the inside. The first had lasted for days, and he’d known then that something was wrong. That had been four months ago.

The sun sank in the sky behind him, his thin shadow elongating, stretching down the hill towards the bay. The sharp wind whipped his green and blue kilt and stung his skinny legs. Once, those legs had been planks, but the sickness had eaten away at him, leaving him withered and unable to defy the cold.

Was the sickness divine punishment? Or just bad luck?

As he stood on the hill listening to the birth of his first child, his bones aching, his head throbbing, tears streaming down his cheeks, he was ashamed of the selfish existence he’d led. My whole life has been a waste.

God, what he wouldn’t give to do it all over, and better. He could have made so much more of what he’d been given if only he’d understood the things he did now.

Ellie delivered an extended shriek and, soon after, a great pain exploded in his head. The dewy grass, the rocky crags, the bay and the castle, all of it became white light. He screamed, and then everything was black.

Black.

And black.

But then illumination came from an orange glow and he found himself confined and wet, enclosed in a tight, fleshy cage. He couldn’t control his limbs. They were not his own. Small, slimy, and jerky.

On impulse, he twisted towards the orange light. At the same time he was suddenly pushed from behind by a strong, contracting muscle. His prison squeezed and pushed until light filled his eyes, until cool air caressed his head, until he was out, and cold, and blinded, and scared. Several hard blinks cleared his eyes and there, looking down on him, larger than he ever remembered her, was Ellie. The angry expression of the last few months had melted.

“I think,” she whispered to him, “I’ll name you Johne MacNeil.”

He tried to speak, but the only sound that emerged was a gurgle.

#

The tears had dried, but Julie’s eyes remained red. She sat, hunched at her kitchen table, nursing a cup of tea. John sipped his own tea, waiting for her to speak.

“I guess this means I need to make good with her?” she finally said.

“Mum, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. But I’d definitely appreciate it if you could make amends before … my transition.”

“Hmm,” Julie said. She raised the cup to her mouth and took a long, loud slurp. She placed her cup back on the table with a clink.

John watched her closely.

“I’ll need her permission to see you when you became my grandson, so I kind of have to make more of an effort, don’t I?”

“I’m sure Holly would appreciate that.”

Julie gave a short, sharp, “ha”, like she didn’t believe him.

“Does she know about you, like I do?”

John paused, and then looked down at the table.

“No. I’ve never told anyone but you.”

“Well, that’s wrong. You should tell her.”

John’s eyes widened in surprise.

“But —”

“Just because we don’t always get along doesn’t mean I want her to suffer. Telling me helped me cope. And God knows she’ll need something to help her cope when you start getting sick.”

John opened his mouth, then shut it quickly and turned away. He nearly blurted out that telling Julie was a mistake. It might have made her feel better, but it had also led to her jealousy of Holly. But he learned from his mistakes. Make each life better than the next. That was the aim. Better job, less pain, happier families. And no more jealousy.

“Do you remember when we met?” Julie asked, her tone softer.

He returned his gaze to Julie, then smiled.

“Of course.”

He saw her again as he had that first day. The tight blue jumper, the white miniskirt. Beautiful, confident, comfortable in her own skin.

“Have I changed much?” Julie asked, breaking his reverie.

“You’re my mother now.”

“I know that,” Julie snapped, “and you’re my son. But you know what I mean.”

John chuckled, shaking his head.

“No. Not much. The spark I remember, the fight, it’s all still there. And you still know how to order me around.”

She smiled. The first since he’d given her the news.

“Speaking of which, you can help me take some garden waste to the tip.”

John took Julie’s empty cup from her and placed it along with his in the sink.

“She will forgive me, won’t she?” Julie asked, staring out across the table towards the backyard. “I mean, I realise I’ve been petty at times. Even nasty on occasion. I couldn’t help it, you know. Seeing you with her …”

John was shocked by the fear he heard in his mother’s voice. But then, he realised, if she couldn’t reconcile with Holly, there was a chance she’d lose him for good and she’d have no one to blame but herself.

“Yes, Mum. She will if you’re genuine. Holly’s not the type to hold grudges.”

Julie sat there for a time, staring off into space. Finally, she sighed and rose to her feet. She took John’s hands in hers and looked up at him, determined.

“Ok,” she said. “I’ll make this right. You just watch.”

#

John sat at the breakfast bar watching Holly mix cake batter. The small, tight bump that was her belly pushed against her shirt.

He hit call on his phone and raised it to his ear. There was a soft click, and then Julie’s voice.

“Hello.”

“Hi, Mum, it’s me.” Holly turned and checked the oven, but John could tell she was listening.

“Hi, honey. What’s up?”

“Just ringing to give you some good news,” John said, “Holly’s pregnant.”

“So you’re finally telling people. That took long enough. So when can I visit and sort this mess out?”

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re excited,” John replied. He watched Holly straighten and tilt her head slightly. “And we’re both really happy.”

“Maybe I should talk to her now. Actually, that’s a good idea. Put her on.”

“No,” John shot back quickly. Holly was hovering over the bowl, but she wasn’t mixing. She was looking at John. He forced a smile to his lips. “No, not much morning sickness. Holly is really well. Glowing actually,” he said, regretting doing so instantly. It didn’t sound like him. Holly’s smirk said as much.

“Well, bad luck. I will talk to her. And if you don’t put her on now, I’ll just call her phone.”

Jesus, Mum. God, she was a stubborn woman.

“Ha, yes. Good one. I guess I can do that.”

“Good. But before you go — how are you, honey? Are you feeling ok?”

John paused. The headaches had already started.

“Yep, fine,” he lied.

Julie sighed. He wondered if she knew he was lying. Probably. But she didn’t say anything.

“Ok, pass me to Holly.”

John covered the mouth piece with his hand.

“She wants to speak to you,” John said, offering the phone to Holly.

Holly’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Really?” she mouthed silently, looking dubious.

John shrugged, then nodded.

“She’s going to be a grandmother. She’s excited.”

Holly hesitated for a moment, then reached out and took the phone. She turned her back on John and walked from the kitchen towards the hall.

“Hi, Julie. How are you?”

A pause. John stood up, took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water.

“Thanks, Julie. We’re happy too.”

There was a long pause. John watched Holly’s face intently. He could hear the buzz of Julie’s voice from far away, but he couldn’t make out what she was saying. Holly’s face softened.

“Oh, thanks. Yes, me too. Look … no, fair enough.”

Another long pause.

Holly was nodding now. She looked at John and raised her eyebrows, then turned and disappeared down the hall. John drank his water and then sat at the bench again. It was best to wait. He shouldn’t eavesdrop.

A couple of minutes later Holly returned and gave him his phone. Without saying a word, she returned to stirring the batter.

“Well?” John asked.

“Did you put her up to that?”

“I honestly have no idea what you talked about. What did she say?”

Holly stared at him, examining his face for a lie. But he saw that she found none. Her gaze softened.

“I never thought the old girl would surprise me. She apologised. She wants to fix things between us. She said she wants to be a good grandmother and a decent mother-in-law.”

John smiled. This was good. It’d make things easier, for them and him.

“And you need to put some sheets on the spare bed. She’s coming to visit on the weekend.”

“Oh. And you’re ok with that?”

Holly looked up from the batter.

“I don’t know. But I think we have to give it a shot, right? For our little girl or boy.”

#

John awoke in darkness with the coppery tang of blood at the back of his throat. He put a hand to his face and it came away slick. Shit. He turned and saw that Holly was still asleep. He sniffed hard, rose from the bed and then shuffled into the ensuite. He closed the door and turned on the light. Looking back at him in the mirror was something from a horror movie. Blood streamed from his nose, down over his mouth and neck and out across his pyjama top. Shit, shit, shit, John thought. He wrenched toilet paper from the roll and balled it up and held it to his nose. How the hell was he going to clean this up before Holly woke?

Then Holly screamed.

John threw the door open and found Holly shaking, pointing at the bloody sheets.

“It’s ok, honey, its ok,” John mumbled. “I’m ok. Just a bleeding nose.”

“That’s not just a fucking bleeding nose, John. I thought you’d been murdered. Look at the blood. Look at it.”

John looked into her wide eyes. He saw the shock, fear and panic, and he suddenly felt guilty. This is going to hurt her as much as me. But what could he do about it? This was his life now. And hers, he realised.

“I’ll clean it up. I just need a minute to stop the flow,” he said softly.

Holly rose from the bed and took a deep, shuddering breath.

“I’ll wet a cloth,” she said, taking a tentative step towards him. She reached out with a trembling hand and took hold of his arm. Her short nightie clung to the bulge of her stomach.

“Tomorrow, I’m booking you in to see Doctor Rouch.”

“Honestly, I’m fine.”

“No you’re not, John. This is not normal and I’m taking you to see my doctor. Understand?”

John smiled beneath the ball of crimson toilet paper. He loved her for wanting to look out for him better than he did himself. And despite knowing what the diagnosis would be, his heart clenched at Holly’s concern.

“Ok.”

“Good. Now, let’s clean you up.”

#

John watched the steam rising from his coffee. He wondered where the time had gone since Holly had first taken him to the doctor. As with previous transitions, life had become disjointed. Jumping forward and then slowing when he least expected. Sometimes, he wished he could just skip to the end.

“Sorry?” he inquired, looking up at Julie, who sat across the table from him.

“I said,” she repeated, “what did the specialist say?”

“Same thing they said thirty six years ago. Cancer.”

“Oh, come on. Medicine has advanced a hell of a lot since the eighties. What options do you have?”

John rolled his eyes.

“Chemotherapy, and then maybe surgery. But you and I know better.”

John inhaled the earthy aroma of his coffee. He lifted the cup to his lips, sipping slowly, deliberately, as Julie pushed her chair back from the table with a screech and stood.

“So you’re not even going to try?” She stomped to the kitchen sink where she dropped her cup with a clang.

“I don’t know. Holly wants me to —”

“But you know better, right?”

John remained silent as he watched Julie return to the table and plant both hands on it, leaning over him.

“You selfish child. Holly wants you to live. I want you to live. But you, you’re already thinking about the next life. How to make it better. How to get a better job. A better wife. Don’t you think I know Holly is my upgrade?”

“Oh, come on.”

“I know and you know. Everything is about what you can improve. Have you ever stopped to think that what you already have might be damn perfect? And if not perfect, then close enough?”

John sighed. He didn’t need this now.

“Mum, I’m going to die. It’s inevitable. But you know I’ll be back. And you’ll both still have me.”

“But maybe you don’t have to die, damn it,” Julie hissed, tears in her eyes. “I don’t know why I even bother. It was the same last time. You don’t fight, you don’t try to hold on. You don’t even have the courtesy to let us comfort you or grieve with you. You just bloody disappear into yourself.”

“I’m going for a walk.” He stood up and moved towards the front door.

“Just try the chemo. Show Holly and me you’re not completely selfish, ok?”

He paused at the door and turned back. Behind her angry posturing, John saw anguish in Julie’s eyes. Was he as bad as she said? He hadn’t meant to hurt her last time and he didn’t want to hurt her now. He loved her and Holly more than they could possibly know. But chemo couldn’t stop the transition. But then, maybe that wasn’t the point. If seeing him try relieved a little of Julie’s and Holly’s pain, then maybe a little extra suffering on his part could be worthwhile.

“I’ll think about it,” he responded. He pulled the door open and slipped outside.

#

Time was a hundred kilogram weight attached to John’s mind. He battled his heavy eyelids as the second hand on the clock on the wall made one painful jerk after another. His hospital gown itched and his arm was cold as poison dripped from a transparent bag into a tube, down to his left wrist where it entered his vein through the cannula. The room had the faint scent of chlorine. The liquid would make him sick later, he knew. But now it dripped, like the second hand, slowly. He was trapped in a moment that he’d like to move past.

Time was becoming more inconsistent as he neared the end. He dreaded the long pauses. He nearly had everything prepared for a successful transition and yet, here he was, treading water, watching the second hand, tick, tick, tick. Why did time barely move when he was by himself?

A pang of bitterness assaulted him as he cursed Holly for abandoning him today. But just as quickly he pushed his selfish thought away. It’s me who should have been with her. A twenty week scan and he wasn’t there to see Holly’s face when she found out they were having a boy. God, he was a shit.

He suddenly longed for home. To talk to her. To see her joy. To hold onto that moment.

The clock tick, tick, ticked.

#

John was frozen mid-heave, unable to breathe, unable to move, long after the last of the liquid had been expelled from his stomach and splattered against the bowl. Still, his diaphragm lurched and squeezed. His face ached, his mouth locked open until, finally, the spasm relented and he sucked in air.

Cold beads of sweat ran into his eyes. All John could do was stare at an area of clean porcelain at the back of the bowl, somehow untouched by his assault. His pallid hands clung to the toilet and shook.

Finally, certain he had nothing more to give, he slumped to the cool tiled floor, exhausted and empty. He hated this. This nothing right now. And the one before that, and before that.

But he knew his life wasn’t just a series of empty moments. There was substance in between. He tried hard to recall the details of his trip with Holly to the coast last weekend, but nothing stood out.

Why? Why was right now so clear and last weekend — when he knew he felt good — a haze? Was it him, or the sickness?

#

He woke up screaming. Holly turned and held him for a glorious moment, with her plump belly pushed into his trembling back. Then she was gone, asleep, and he was alone in the dark as time ticked wearily on. One more moment, alone, cold.

But that wasn’t right, was it? He thought hard. And then he realised that she had held him for at least an hour. She would have held him longer, he was sure, but he had pushed her away and asked her to sleep.

It was him who’d sought solitude, not her.

#

John was hunched over a box of his old journals. He picked out the most recent one and began to peruse it, surprised to find that it had been years since he’d made an entry. That was odd. He hadn’t intentionally decided to stop, he just had. And yet he’d been religious about keeping these journals for generations. He’d relied upon them to help him clarify the life lessons that he’d record in his ledger. He returned the book to the box and picked out another at random and began to read.

He didn’t hear Holly come in, so he gave a little start when she squeezed him from behind, her large belly pushed into his bony back.

“Oh,” he said, turning, “you’re here.”

“I’m always here”.

Holly was kneeling on the carpet, smiling. He looked her over for what felt like the first time in months. Her belly was round and tight, her hair thick and shiny. She looked so fresh, so clear. It was like he’d just surfaced from a deep ocean dive — strange to be above the water’s surface, but wonderful to be breathing real air.

“Hey,” he said, admiring her. How had he missed all of this?

“Hey yourself. What are you doing?”

“I was feeling all right, so I decided to clean my junk out of the back room.”

Holly’s smile faltered. John saw the discomfort in her eyes. She knows I’m cleaning up for when I’m gone, he thought.

“We need to make room for the baby, right?” John lied. He forced a smile to his lips. “But I got distracted. Do you remember I used to keep journals?”

Holly hesitated, but then smiled again.

“Yes, of course. Did you find anything good?”

John furrowed his brow.

“I was just reading about our first trip to the coast.”

“Broulee?”

“Yes. It was supposed to be a surprise, remember? But it ended up a disaster.”

“I don’t know if I’d use the word disaster,” Holly said. She shifted position, moving until she sat alongside John. He felt her warmth and breathed her in. She took the journal from him and started running her finger down the page.

“We got stuck in traffic in the mountains, so the three hour trip took five. And when we got there, we couldn’t find anywhere decent to stay because I hadn’t booked ahead — so we ended up in that terrible caravan park.”

“Rings a bell,” Holly said, flipping through the pages of the journal. “But what about the rest?”

“What do you mean?” He picked up another of his books.

“What about the walk along the beach we took the day after we arrived? That storm came in and we found a quiet place on the sand and sat there, just watching the lightning off the coast. Sitting there in your arms, that was perfect for me. Well worth the couple of inconveniences we faced to get to that moment, don’t you think?”

John looked at Holly, confused.

“You’re serious, aren’t you? You don’t remember how dull that drive was, how shitty the accommodation?”

Holly chuckled, shaking her head. She dropped the journal, leaned over and kissed him.

“When you find something good, come get me. I’m putting dinner on.”

Holly rose to her feet and left the room.

John flipped through more journals. They read like a checklist of what had gone wrong in his life. An essay he could have written better at university. A wooden table he tried to make that was never level. An anniversary dinner he burnt. Holly was right. None of this was important.

He realised that he’d taken the same outlook into the last six months. Ignore the good, focus on the moments that should have been better, the things that he might improve next time. He forced himself to remember. Not the chemo, not throwing up — the real moments. The memories hit him hard. Holly holding him in the night. Holly forcing him to eat when he didn’t feel like it. Holly laughing with Julie.

He sat there, stunned. He understood now why he’d stopped keeping the journals. There was nothing that he could learn from them that would help him find anyone better than Holly in his next life.

When he finally moved again, it was to bundle up all of his journals in his arms and take them out to the bin. Then he went into the kitchen, walked up to Holly who was mixing dough, and turned her and kissed her before she could say a word. After her initial surprise, her lips softened and she responded warmly.

John pulled back.

“Forget that, let’s go out tonight. I’m feeling hungry for once.”

Holly’s eyes glistened.

“I’d like that.”

#

John awoke to the sound of Holly crying, and he noticed that his right side was damp.

“John, something’s wrong. I think the baby’s coming early.”

John’s heart lurched.

“It’s ok. Everything will be fine. I’ll call the hospital,” John said, jumping up and grabbing his phone. What was happening? He wasn’t sick enough yet. He always knew when time was up. He felt it in his bones. A brittleness and a sickness that was all consuming. But he still felt very much here. This had never happened before. Was it the chemo?

The midwife on the phone reassured him and asked him to get Holly to the hospital as quickly as possible. After the midwife hung up, he phoned Julie.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she said, hanging up abruptly.

Then he helped Holly to the car, comforting her as best he could, knowing he might not be with her much longer.

#

John held Holly’s hand tightly while Doctors Roberts and England talked quietly in the corner of the room. The midwife, Sally, examined Holly, who lay on her side, pillows propped under her left hip. John fought the urge to vomit, and ignored the weakness in his legs. He didn’t know how long he could continue standing, but he’d let Holly squeeze his hand while he could. Because he wanted to be here, damn it, to share this experience with her.

Just then, he heard Julie loudly remonstrating outside the birth suite doors.

“What do you mean I can’t go in? They’re my family and I want to see them.”

“You can let her in,” Holly said, panting between contractions. “I’d like her in here. Please.”

The doctors looked at John. John nodded, and soon Julie was standing next to him dabbing Holly’s face with a warm cloth.

“Nice to see you’re still here,” Julie directed to John as Holly squeezed his hand and moaned as another contraction took hold. John leaned against the bed for support, easing the strain on his tiring legs.

The two doctors separated. Doctor Roberts began to set up a radiant warmer nearby. Doctor England consulted briefly with Sally, and then moved towards Holly’s feet.

“Ok, Holly,” Doctor England said, “I know we’ve been saying to resist the urge to push, but on the next contraction, it’s time to push.”

“Oh, thank God,” Holly panted. And soon she was groaning loudly, her face screwed up tight as pain hit again.

“Ok, that’s great,” the doctor said. Sally, who was to John’s left, pulled Holly’s leg further towards her. “I can see the baby’s head.”

John rose up a little to get a better view and, holy shit, he could see it too. Just the top of some wet, dark hair, but it was amazing. He tried to hold himself erect to keep his eyes on his son, but then his legs wobbled and he suddenly felt dizzy.

He reached out, trying to grasp at the bed, but his eyes fluttered and, from somewhere distant, he heard a thud and a clatter.

The world was black, but with an orange glow. He was cosy and warm and yet encompassed by a deep, aching sadness he had never experienced before. Julie would never chastise him again as his mother and Holly would cease to be his wife. He would lose so much. There would be no more of Holly’s smile — the special one she reserved for when he pleased her. No more watching her brush her hair as she hummed softly to herself. No more cakes. He felt it all wash past and over him, slipping through his fingers. It would soon be replaced with that look of sadness he always saw in his new mother.

He was squeezed and pushed. Time was nearly up. John panicked and bucked and kicked. For once, he was not excited about the prospect of a new life. He was happy now, here. And wasn’t that all that mattered? He hated to admit it, but Julie was right. Some people never came close to having all he did and he’d been letting it all go.

So he scrambled, trying to hold onto his life. He pushed aside the pain and the minutiae, and sought out the real moments. Holly’s laughter. Holly rubbing his back as he fell asleep in a sweat. Julie ordering him around her garden. He held on tightly and ignored the opportunities for improvement ahead. He remembered and focused and saw with clarity the glint in Holly’s smiling eyes as she told him he would be a Dad. He saw it and felt it — the new possibilities of his life continuing.

The black withdrew rapidly and was replaced with bright lights.

He felt arms around him, lifting him into a chair.

“No you don’t, you selfish bastard,” Julie whispered in his ear. “You’re staying here and seeing this.”

“Yes, Mum,” John mumbled. He opened his eyes and saw tears in Julie’s. Her face was ashen, but she smiled, relieved. Sally hovered just behind Julie, concern etched across her face. Julie leaned closer again.

“Are you back for good?” she whispered, tears splashing his face.

“I hope so.”

“He’s ok, love,” Julie said to Holly, wiping at her eyes. “He’s just a bit dizzy. A quick rest will fix him up.”

But Holly didn’t respond. She was groaning, panting, crying, straining.

“That’s good. Very good, Holly. Just one more and … done,” Doctor England said.

John saw the obstetrician hold up a tiny baby, who opened its mouth and wailed.

“Congratulations. A baby boy.”

In a wave of activity, the cord was cut and the baby was passed to Doctor Roberts, who quickly laid it down on the radiant warmer where she checked him over under the heat lamp.

Julie helped John to his feet, his arm around her shoulders. Holly lay on her back, her eyes clenched shut, like she was afraid to open them and confirm that her son was real.

“Hey,” John whispered, leaning close to her and kissing her on the cheek. “You did it.”

She opened her eyes and looked into his.

“You’re ok?”

“I’m fine,” he said, smiling.

Doctor Roberts was suddenly standing by the bed and handing Holly her baby. She accepted him, her mouth agape, but no words came out. She just stared at their tiny son, soundlessly, breathlessly, a tiny presence in her loving embrace.

“Being premature, he’ll need to spend time in the special care nursery. But everything looks great,” Doctor Roberts said.

John ran his hand delicately over his son’s slick scalp and he felt an electric pulse through his fingertips as tears welled in his eyes.

“He’s beautiful,” Julie said, as she shifted under John’s weight. And he was, John saw. Because he looked like Holly.

#

“Now, you’re sure?” Holly asked. She stood just inside the front door, her eyes flitting from John, to Daniel cradled in his arms, and then back to John.

“Yes, I told you, go. We’ll be fine.”

“But you’re still recovering. You’ve —”

“I’ve been in remission for a month. I’m fine. You’ve spent enough time caring for the two of us. It’s time to spend a little time on you.”

John gently ushered Holly out the door. She stepped outside reluctantly, her brow furrowed, her mouth a frown.

“Call me if anything goes wrong, ok?” she said. “I’m just down the road at the hairdressers, so I can be back in five minutes.”

“Will you get going?” John said, laughing. “We’re fine.”

She hesitated, then leaned forward and kissed John and then Daniel. After one last look at both of them, she finally turned and walked away from the house.

John shook his head, and then stepped back inside, closing the door behind him. He glanced down at his son to find him in the middle of a big, gummy yawn, and he was suddenly struck by a recollection of what it had been like, beginning life again. He didn’t miss it. He’d done it so often that it had become a well-rehearsed play. Yet since Daniel’s birth he’d been assaulted by a kaleidoscope of emotions — protectiveness, pride, worry, doubt, and sheer, unbridled joy. After such a long time on this earth, it was amazing to be completely uncertain about what he was doing because he was experiencing something new.

John inhaled deeply, and smiled down at his son who was looking up at him with big, curious eyes.

“Ok, little man. Time for bed,” he said. He laid Daniel down in his basinet and then stood nearby, watching as Daniel’s eyelids drooped, sprung open, and then slowly closed. This was one glorious moment worth holding on to.

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