In a flurry of white uniforms, a tall, robust grey-haired woman emerged from the group, quietly giving orders. Rodger stood in the middle, clasping Adele’s hand, noting the pin on the nurse’s uniform: Mary Richards, Head Nurse. The procession moved toward the doors. Rodger stepped up to the head nurse.
“Where the hell is the doctor?”
“Train accident south side.”
“What the…” Rodger’s voice dissolved with Adele’s scream. He dogged the nurse’s footsteps. “Are you going to deliver our baby?”
“Yes,” she started to move past him.
Rodger straightened. “Have you done it before?”
She looked over her shoulder at him. “Over five hundred in World War I, mister.”
Rodger danced around her. “Let me assist.”
She pointed to a room down the hall as Adele was wheeled into the delivery room. “Wait there.”
Rodger’s heart thumped erratically inside his chest. “I have to be with her.”
“You’re not a doctor.” The woman stepped toward the basin and began lathering her hands.
Rodger followed her, pressing his advantage. “I’ve just come from a tour of duty at the hospital at Bose. You can check with the head nurse there.” He stood in front of her so that she could not enter the other room. Adele’s pants and groans echoed in the next room.
The head nurse whirled around and whispered savagely, “Scrub up!”
As he had seen the nurse do, he lathered with the soap and dried his hands. He turned as a young nurse tugged on his sleeve so that she could slip the gloves onto his hands. Stabbing pains shot through his injured shoulder as he slid his arms into a gown the nurse held for him. Nurses moved as if in patterns, knowing what they were about.
“Rodger! Rod-ger!” Adele cried out.
Rodger surveyed the room, allowing his gaze to lock with the eyes of the head nurse. He nodded briskly at her, then walked over and stood by the head of Adele’s bed, not daring to touch her. Her face was bathed in sweat and tears.
Rodger bent over her. “It’s all right, honey,” he soothed over and over.
“Goddamn it, Rodger! Adele swore, “It’s not all right!”
“What can I do?” He mopped her forehead with a towel given to him by a nurse. The head nurse, bowed over Adele’s draped legs, spoke calmly, evenly.
“You’re doing fine. The baby’s in a good position. Try to breathe with the pains and push only when I tell you.” She shot Rodger a hostile look. “You stay there.”
Adele focused on the head nurse and breathed jaggedly in and out, timing each breath to the pains. She no longer looked at Rodger. She pushed, exhaling a loud groan.
He suddenly felt stranded in this roomful of women. As he caught their reflections in the mirror above the table, he thought of the first time he met Adele.
To relieve some of the boredom during intermittent flights, Rodger would meet the RAF Bristol Bombay transport when it arrived and help the crew unload. The Sunday flight usually came in late afternoon, and there would be a party of sorts for the overnight crew with ample supplies of beer and hard liquor.
At the deafening sounds of the incoming plane, Rodger had gazed skyward and marveled at the monster’s dexterity as the four‑engine bomber came effortlessly gliding down for a perfect mid‑field landing. He saluted the unseen captain.
He had continued watching as the magnificent bird taxied into the revetment. Then, squinting hard, his breath had come more quickly as he became aware of the emerging backside of a woman from the cockpit; absolutely no way such curves could belong to a man! No, not one but two women—-the co‑pilot was a woman, too.
Rodger wiped Adele’s forehead again. “It’s going to be all right, honey. It’ll be over soon,” he consoled.
The irony of it! he thought. He hadn’t wanted anything to do with her as pilot of a transport. Or with any of the British Air Transport Auxiliary, or their women pilots trained to ferry transports and the like around the country. Women had no business operating machines and learning the technical skills it took to fly. While Rodger conceded they might be capable, they could hardly be reliable. Not that they could help being that way, simply because they were subject to hormones the way a man was not. Rodger found it foolish and dangerous to all concerned to have women in the air over enemy territory. She surely had proven him wrong. She had been rightly confident of herself and her crew, never losing a plane or any one of her crew.
“Rodger, the baby…,” Adele dug her fingers into his arm.
He gripped her hand, lacing his fingers into hers. At least she hadn’t outranked him.
Rodger smiled down at Adele. She eased her head back and sighed. “I’m glad I didn’t let you get away,” he whispered.
He had, at the last minute, invited her out to dinner. They had spent the better part of the night discussing airplanes. She really knew her stuff.
“Oh! The baby’s coming!” she cried out in pain, laughing at the same time.
Rodger tensed. A wave of nausea hit him.
“Oh, God, please!” he breathed. “Please don’t take this one from me.”
The room became deathly silent. Rodger’s head lightened for a moment. He exhaled. He turned and looked at the mirror. As the baby’s head became visible, he edged to the end of the table.
The bloody hands of the nurse grasped the baby’s head. She whispered to the nurse beside her. Rodger caught her last words: “….cord is around the neck. Clamp it!”
Rodger’s heart contracted. He stood elbow to elbow with the head nurse as she eased the tiny body out. It slid out, blood-streaked and blue.
Adele called to him, a note of alarm in her voice. “Is the baby all right?”
He couldn’t move. The ugly beast of terror rose in his chest, choking him. A nurse cut the umbilical cord, whisked the baby away to the far side of the room. Two white forms loomed over the baby, hands ministering it, blocking his view.
Rodger heard the head nurse softly talking to Adele. He shifted his body so that he could turn his head over his right shoulder and look from Adele to the nurse.
“You’ve got a baby girl. Now give me a big push for the placenta. That’s it,” she encouraged Adele. “It’s better this way, no anesthetics. You’ll recover faster.”
Adele’s face contorted. As she relaxed, her features softened as she beamed up at Rodger. Rodger drew a mask over his face, flattening out his fear. But he dared not trust his voice.
A petite woman stepped briskly up to the head nurse, one hand cupped under the baby’s head, the other beneath the tiny butt. The mouth moved, twisting like a newborn bird’s. Rodger gasped. His eyes suddenly filled with tears. He forced himself not to blink, until the stinging went away. He looked up into the boring eyes of the head nurse. And smiled. She held her gloved hands, oozing with strings of thick blood, in front of her, and pointed to Rodger with an elbow.
“Give the new father his baby daughter.”
Rodger opened his mouth to protest, but no sound came out. The nurse turned and thrust the baby into his arms.
He froze. Bloody mucus dripped onto his gown. Little arms and legs churned. Her face puckered. She squawked. The cries grew louder and louder, a crescendo in a room of smiling women.
“Oh, damn,” murmured Rodger.
Adele laughingly scolded him. “That’s no way to welcome your daughter, Rodger.”
With careful steps, he walked to Adele and placed the baby girl into her outstretched hands.
“Did you count her toes?”
Rodger numbly shook his head. Watching Adele as she cradled her baby, cooing to her, he thought the room began to undulate. He sucked in air, carefully releasing it. His body began to tingle and warm. He reached out to touch the wrinkled head of his baby.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Adele looked up, awed.
Rodger stroked the baby’s forehead. “Yes. Did you count her toes?”
Adele’s deep, throaty laughter pealed throughout the room.
A nurse swooped down and carried the baby off, talking over her shoulder. “I’ll bring her to you later, all cleaned up. My, isn’t she pretty!”
The head nurse brushed past Rodger. “You can come with me.”
Rodger followed her into a room where he, too, took off the gown, and snapped each glove from his hands. His pants were splattered with blood. He waited until the nurse was leaving before he spoke.
“Should I wait here, or come back later?”
The woman’s face cracked into a broad smile. “Come back at six. Give your wife a rest.”
“Hey! Thanks!” Rodger went to shake her hand, but overcome by a sudden shyness, dropped his arms to his side, then shrugged his shoulders. He heaved a sigh. “Doc Adams thought she might not be born alive.”
The nurse leaned close enough she could have kissed him on the cheek. “You’re welcome. Congratulations. She’s a healthy, little girl.”
Rodger walked to the car in a daze. He propped himself against the warm metal of the car door, crossed his arms over his chest, and just stood watching the traffic. He saw Ada, Kyle, and his mother getting out of the Chevy in the parking lot. He could talk to them later. He knew he had to get out of here unseen by family or he wouldn’t have another chance to be alone for a while. And he had something he had to say to his dad. He got into the car and, taking the side road, drove to the cemetery.
He sat for a long while in the car, staring at the walnut tree that shaded his father’s grave. He reached for his coat, heaped in the corner of the back seat, and fumbled in the pockets until he collected the boxes of medals. He laid them out on the front seat, fingering the outlines. Then he gathered them all, got out of the car to make his way to his father’s plot.
He knelt beside the soft, overturned dirt at the head of the grave, set aside the medals and dug into the moist earth with his hands. Deeper he dug, his tears streaming unchecked down his face. He dug, ignoring his shoulder afire with prickling pains. He scraped his finger and the blood ran and streaked the brown earth, but he dug, flinging the dirt to one side. He bored deeper. When the hole was deep enough, wide enough, he stopped. Sitting back upon his heels, he wiped his muddied hands upon his pants. He threw in the boxes of medals and clattering, they piled upon themselves. Then he pushed the dirt over and tamped it down.
It was done.
He stood up, running his sleeve across his face, drying the tears.
“Those belonged to you, Dad,” he said aloud.
Rooting for keys in his pocket, he pulled out the bead Mary Elizabeth had given him. He chewed on his lip, looking at it for a long time. He played it in circles in the palm of his hand, thinking of his newborn daughter. Perhaps he’d stop at the jewelry store and find a gold chain for the bead. He’d give it to his daughter on her twelfth birthday.
He put the bead safely back into his pocket then unlocked the trunk and dumped the clothes out of his knapsack. Mary Elizabeth’s doll flopped out onto the pile of clothing. Rodger scooped it up, slammed the trunk down, and walked back to the grave.
At the head of the grave he channeled the soft ground until he had a large hole. He held the doll with its smudged face and sightless eyes in the palm of his hand. Folding the limp arms across the midriff, he laid her down in the grave, packing the earth around her.
A birth for a death, he thought. It’s all a game of balance.
With deliberate steps, he walked back to the car and slid onto the hot seat then hurriedly cranked the window down for some air. He turned over the engine, welcoming the vibrations as the car moved ahead. He leaned out the window, searching the bright, sunlit sky, gave thumbs up, and shouted heavenward, “She made it!”
Then, putting on his sunglasses and edging the car forward, he whispered, “Thank God.”
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