Still Wife: A Novel In Progress
Below is the prologue of my current work in progress. It is very rough but I've been asked repeatedly to post it. Enjoy!
He was lost. She was in pain and the doctor was nowhere to be found.
“Did you call him?” she asked again of the nurse.
“Of course I did. Not to worry.” She flashed a polite smile to Addy as she readied the stirrups for the doctor’s arrival. She did her best to hide the worried look she knew she was wearing. The fact of the matter was that the doctor was not on his way. In the last ten minutes alone he had been paged six times with no answer. Giving Addy another smile she excused herself to try one more time.
“What the hell is keeping him?”
“I don’t know baby. I’m sure he’s on his way.” Like the nurse, Ben was keeping the expression on his face as positive as possible but he knew that Addy was the only one who could see through. He had hoped the labor pains would be enough to keep her attention away from his ever growing concern but that wasn’t the case. He went for more ice from the cup at the bedside. Addy stopped him.
“No more ice. I have to pee so bad! But that nurse isn’t going to let me get up is she?”
“I doubt that very much,” Ben replied with a half smile. “But I’m sure you’re going to try, aren’t you?”
“You know me so well, don’t you? Yeah. Where is she?”
The nurse came back to the room and asked if Addy was comfortable. Addy let loose a string of obscenities of which Ben didn’t know she was capable. When she finished the nurse said, “I’ll call the anesthesiologist and see what he can do for you. Anything else?”
“I have to pee. Bad.”
“Here you go,” she said, handing a bedpan to Addy. “Is there anything else?” The nurse left with a curt exhalation.
“You didn’t have to be like that. She was really only trying to help. Look, I know you’re in pain-“
“You don’t know anything about this! This is so much worse than I heard it would be.” She shifted to position the bedpan. ‘Want to turn around? Give a girl some privacy.”
“Um, yeah, right. So I know I’ll never know about the pain but still.”
“I’m sorry. I guess I’m a little on edge.”
“Yeah,” he snorted, “who would have guessed that giving birth would be a difficult thing?”
“Shut it, a-hole!” She poked his ribs. “I’m done. Here, take this.” Ben reluctantly took the pan to the bathroom and emptied it. When he returned Addy continued, “Pretty soon it’ll all be okay. The drugs will have kicked in and we’ll have out baby.” She looked at Ben and felt a twinge of something she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but liked nonetheless. It felt almost like their wedding day. Granted, it was easy to recall those feelings since it was only a week and three days since the ceremony. “We’re going to be okay, right? Like, us. And the baby?”
Ben took her hand in his and kissed her wedding band. “Yes. I promise. Always.” He smiled and laid her hand at her side as the door swung open.
“I’m Doctor Jackson.” The man standing before them was not their doctor. He was cold and fast and instantly put Addy on edge.
“Who? Where’s Doctor Jensen?”
“Doctor Jensen was called away on a family emergency. I’m sure it was very serious or he wouldn’t have left you in such a state. Not to worry.” He shot them a reassuring grin that missed the mark. “I have delivered more than two hundred babies in my carreer. You are in good hands.”
“Ben, do something.” Addy ordered. “Ben!”
“Can we step out in the hall for a second?” Addy took a light swing at him but missed. She knew exactly what this meant: he was going to fold and do whatever the doctor wanted. It was his method of dealing with most interactions that had to do with his wife. She didn’t understand why he was not comfortable with confrontation in front of her. Doctor Jackson followed him into the empty hall.
“Look, my wife and I had everything planned with Doctor Jensen. She was-“
“Say no more. I get this all the time. As the doctor on call I have to fill in for whatever is needed. Tonight it’s you guys with the birth. Last night it was two false labors. Tomorrow night, who knows? What I’m saying is that I take care of a lot of different people with a lot of different situations. I can easily take care of yours. I may not have the same bedside manner here but I’m fully capable. If you and your wife just give me the trust and respect you afforded Doctor Jensen we’ll be all set.”
“I understand.” Ben studied his shoes, not at all humiliated that yet another person had walked on him with his full permission. “I guess you’re right. I’ll let Addy know.” Another faked smile.
“Glad to hear it. Let’s go deliver your baby, dad.”
Ben sheepishly walked back into the room. Avoiding eye contact he sat at the foot of the bed and rested a hand on the stirrup. He mumbled some syllables but Addy wasn’t going to let him get away with it. “Speak up now. What did you guys talk about? Are we doing this with him?”
“I can’t believe this Ben! Didn’t we talk about this? Doctor Jensen is the only one who knows exactly what we’re doing here. Doctor Jensen is the only one who-“
“All that matters is you’re having a baby and he’s helping. At least he’s trying to. Please let him help. Let me help. Doctor Jackson has delivered many babies before and helped a lot of people. Let him help us.”
“I guess we don’t really have that much of a choice.” She looked Jackson in the eyes for the first time since he entered the room. “So you help people, huh?”
“I try. But usually they have to let me. That is my job after all.”
“Yup. I guess it is.” She sighed and set her jaw. “Okay. Let’s have this baby.”
Doctor Jackson called for the nurse to bring a few more supplies as he instructed Addy to place her feet up and told Ben where to stand. The nurse arrived, smiled at Addy and asked how she was doing.
“Good. A little pain. Did you ever find that anesthesiologist?”
“Yes. But he said that he can’t help you. You already had the maximum dose for a woman of your size. I’m sorry.”
“Right. Thanks anyway.”
“Okay,” said Doctor Jackson. “Let’s see where we are.” His hands disappeared under her gown causing her to jump. “Sorry about that! I though you knew what was going to happen.”
“I knew, I just wasn’t expecting it just then.”
“Well, I have good news. It’s time to start the process.” He removed his gloves and picked up a clipboard from the table to his left. “The nurse has it here that your contractions are three minutes apart. Correct?”
“Yeah. But they seem a lot more spaced out than that. That’s probably normal, right? Like the pain makes things feel different and stuff?”
“Pain does have a lot of ways of throwing one off, to be sure. Let me take a look at the chart again.”
The nurse was busy getting some instruments ready and poking her head out into the hallway to call for more of this and more of those. Addy was focusing on her breathing as Doctor Jensen had instructed, even though her breath kept catching in her throat. Ben searched the doctor’s face from across the small room for any hint of what exactly it was he was trying to find in the charts. What was there that no one else had noticed until now? Was it her breathing? Ben had noticed it too. It had only been happening for the past thirty minutes or so but he had assumed it was stress related. Why would that be there? It wouldn’t be. It couldn’t be. What then?
“Well, actually your chart looks good. Nothing to worry about.” He looked Addy in the eye, then Ben. “Is there anything else we should know before we start? No doubt you both know how taxing this is on the body.”
“Taxing. Yeah. That’s a word to use when it’s not your body. Um, nope. We’re ready to push. Right hun?”
“Huh? Yeah. Ready.”
He hadn’t thought about it before that moment but the doctor’s question made him wonder. He couldn’t imagine why Addy would keep anything from him or the other nurses but Jackson had him second guessing himself and her. Hadn’t she gone to the doctor just a few weeks before? Wasn’t there something they did that she wasn’t sure about and - wasn’t there a test?
“Earth to Ben.” She waved a shaky hand at his face. He looked past it and into her bloodshot, almost sunken eyes. She was pale and sweating but he felt no heat from her body. His eyes traced an IV cord up her forearm and shoulder where it disappeared under her gown and reappeared behind her neck. From there it snaked up to a bag holding a clear fluid of unknown composition or reason. He kept the blank expression on his face and shook his head. Addy looked at the doctor and nodded. Ben was suddenly nauseated.
“Addy, wasn’t there something you were going to tell me about that appointment you had last week? Something happened there, right?” He was speaking too loudly for the small room. He didn’t care. He rarely had bad feelings about things but when he did he paid close attention to them. Addy wasn’t so inclined and even less so at this point. Before she could respond with something that may or may not have been the truth a heavy contraction came over her.
“Oh God! This one is the worst yet!”
“Don’t push just yet, Addy. Let’s ride this one out.” Pulling on new gloves the doctor got between the stirrups and checked her progress. “Just breathe and think of holding your new baby. Ben get by her head and stroke her hair?” Ben moved up, still dazed. He did as the doctor suggested but it didn’t help Addy or him.
“It’s going to be okay, baby.” A lie. He knew it. He tried not to think about it. “You can push soon.” Ben said this more for his benefit than hers. “How does your head feel? Light? Do you need more ice chips?”
“Enough with the damn chips already, Benjamin!” He jumped back in his chair at the forcefulness of her words. After a few moments he slowly reached out and continued to stroke her hair.
“It’s okay Addy. Just breathe.” Jackson looked at Addy's heart monitor readout and then at his watch. He turned his attention to the smaller machine attached to her stomach and then finally at Ben. ”Can I see you out in the hall for a moment? We’ll be right back, Addy. Stay strong. It’s almost time to push.”
“Um, yeah. Sure.” He leaned over and kissed Addy on the forehead. “We’ll be right back. Is the contraction over? Like all the way?”
“Yes.” She was out of breath. “It’s strange though. I feel them super strong at the beginning then in just a few seconds later the pain is gone. Like it was never there in the first place. That’s normal? Doctor?”
Jackson avoided her searching gaze. “Pain is different for everyone. There are no real normals when it comes to that. Now Ben, if you would join me.” He motioned for the door. “And nurses, please give this nice young lady a few minutes to breathe. I’ll call you back in a few moments.”
“Hurry please. I won’t be relaxing too much while you guys are gone.” For the first time since the labor pains had started more than ten hours before Addy showed the concern she had been trying to hold in. Ben looked away but nodded.
As soon as the door was safely closed behind them Doctor Jackson said bluntly, “I know there is something she’s not telling us but I have a feeling you won’t be of much help. She hasn’t told you anything, has she? I know you asked her in there but think back. Is there anything health related at all? Even the smallest thing may be of help. Think.”
“I don’t…I mean…I don’t think so.” Ben stammered and rocked on his heels like a middle school boy at his first dance. He searched his mind deeper than he ever had for anything that may now seem out of place over the last few weeks. Anything, especially since she had gone to the cardiologist.
“Look, I understand that since I’m not your primary doc you don’t want to open up to me as freely as you would Doctor Jensen but this is more serious than I think you know.” He paused. “This is a matter of life and death.”
The words fell hard on Ben’s ears and lingered in them for a long moment. He wanted so badly to go back into the room and just be with his wife and have the baby and pretend that everything was just fine - just as they had planned. But life and death? What the hell is that, he thought. That can’t be true. Life and death? Are those my choices?
“I filled out the paperwork when we got here. Um, I think I got it all. Allergies, previous surgeries, things like that. I mean, there’s no other drug or anything like that she’s on. She’s been healthy for the most part the whole pregnancy. I just-“
Jackson cut him off, “What do you mean “most part”?”
“I don’t know exactly but she was complaining a few weeks back, well, maybe more than that, like a month or so, that she was short of breath.” He suddenly remembered what he was searching for in the room. “She fainted.”
“Fainted? What do you mean? Like how? What was she doing when it happened?”
“I don’t know. I was at work. Shit! Why didn’t I write this down? Why the hell didn’t I ask her about this before? Why the hell didn’t I tell you guys? Fuck! It’s all my fault.” Ben felt as if his chest was about to explode.
“Calm down, friend. Just slow down and think. Don’t worry about not telling us sooner. The point is we know now and maybe we can do something. Just tell me more. Why did she faint? Was it the shortness of breath?”
Ben scoured his mind and pushed his hand against his chest. “I think so. She went to a cardiologist though. Our G.P. sent her. It was about, uh, two weeks ago maybe. I can’t be sure right now.”
“Cardiologist? Why a cardiologist if she was short of breath?” Ben shook his head and shrugged. “Do you have to see a G.P. to see a specialist with your insurance?”
“Uh, yeah. Why?”
“What’s your G.P’s name?”
“We don’t really have one. We had a practice we went to but we saw any doctor. I don’t think we saw the same one twice. Jensen was the closest we had to a normal doctor.”
“How long had you been seeing him?”
“Long enough. Well, it’s not uncommon for people to see any general practitioner in order to secure a specialist. All it costs is a copay. The real question is why the cardiologist? What did that doctor see that would prompt them to send her?”
“I wish I knew. The breathing trouble started not long after we found out the baby was on its way. There was one time at the mall when we had to call First Aid. That was as bad as it had gotten until she passed out. Damn it. Why didn’t I remember that earlier?”
“Well, can you elaborate on that now?”
“Sorry. All I know is that it happened. Like I said, I was at work. When I got home she told me that she was doing the dishes and got dizzy. She went to lay down on the couch but didn’t quite make it. Thank God she fell backwards onto the couch and not forward on the coffee table.”
Jackson considered this for a moment but was interrupted by Addy screaming at the top of her voice.
“What’s wrong Addy? Contraction?” Jackson asked before he had reached the threshold. Monitors blared, answering him for Addy.
She was crying. Thick tears streamed down her face. What little color she had held in her cheeks was gone now. “I…I don’t know. I was laying here and I…” she was trying to regain her composure but couldn’t help gasping for air. “The baby!”
“What about the baby?” Jackson asked calmly. “It’s all okay Addy. Just tell us. Tell us what’s happening. I’m here and so is Ben. The nurses are right outside if we need them. Go on.”
“The baby. It moved. Not moved. Lurched. I counted to thirty. It didn’t move again. It didn’t…didn’t move at all. My baby! My God! What the hell is wrong with my baby?”
“Nurse!” Jackson did nothing to hide the immediacy in his tone. “Nurse! Why is the heart monitor audio on for the mother but not the child in this room?” She was silent, mouthing words but nothing came out. “God damn it! Tell me!”
Finally a feeble looking old woman, a candy striper, walked into the room. “I believe I’m to blame,” she said timidly.
Calmly Jackson said, “Go get a nurse. Tell her it’s urgent. She needs to get here now. Ask for two, in fact. Now. Go!”
“Yes, Mommy?” he smiled. Addy saw straight through it.
“There’s something wrong with my baby?”
“I think so. I need a nurse to help me figure that out. Lay back and keep your feet up.” She did as she was told as the shock quickly worked its way from her head to her toes.
“Ben, I need you over here. Come on around to this side and help me hold this cord in place. I’m going to give you another IV, Addy. You’re going to feel a pinch and a bit of pressure just like before. Okay?”
“Where is that nurse?” Jackson wondered aloud. “Can I please get some damn help in here already?” His loud tone made Ben jump. Finally a nurse, new to the three of them, assumed a position at the foot of the bed. She smiled at Jackson but was met with stern eyes. “This woman’s child is in danger because of something you ladies did. Or rather, what you failed to do. Wipe that damn look off your face or I’ll see to it that you are looking for a new job come morning. Understood?” The woman could only nod. “Good. Now adjust the lap belt and make sure we have a strong reading. Let’s get down to business. Are there more nurses if I need them out there or are they all as occupied as you seemed to be?”
“There are two others, doctor.” She looked away sheepishly.
“Three?” he said. “Three? And you’re only now coming in here? Rest assured I’ll be talking to your supervisor tomorrow.”
Ben spoke up, “Oh, it’s not all that bad. No worries. What really matters is that she’s here now and we can get going on fixing whatever happened. What did happen?”
Jackson shook his head. Addy looked up and Ben. He stroked a few stray strands of hair from her face and whispered an almost silent story in her ear. She leaned in to hear it, her head coming to rest on the very edge of the pillow. Ben began his story from the beginning, in case Addy had missed anything.
Your mother hated me but her disdain was nothing compared to your father. I know they still don’t really approve of me but you’re mine now and you have been since our first date. Remember that? You wore that blue top and jeans that I bet you knew were just a little loose. Just loose enough to not let me see too much. You’ve always been that way. You love to make me guess what’s just…beyond. That’s just out of reach or view. Now that I think about it I suppose you are exactly what you always try to hide. You’ve always been just out of reach even when I’m holding you. Even now, I’m smelling your hair and running my thumb across the bridge of your nose and I feel like I’m watching things happen from a distance. Like I shouldn’t be here, not this close. You’re simply too much. Too much for me. Too much for this world. You, Adelia Sterling, are too much for everything. You belong in the beyond, somewhere more impressive than with me. You’re meant to be longed for but never touched. You have everything a man - or simply a human - could ever wish to have but never expect to receive. Not because you aren’t worth it but because you are worth too much. You’re more than priceless. Thank you for letting me get close enough to love you. I love you, Misses Sterling.
As he leaned in to kiss her forehead a loud flat tone echoed in the small room. The nurse jumped and Jackson cursed loudly as they both lunged for the machine that was screaming its warning. Ben didn’t move. It was a signal that a heartbeat had stopped, that someone was dead. He stood transfixed by the sound for a few moments. A hard question hit him square in the face: whose heart had stopped beating?
“Addy!” Jackson yelled. “Addy? Stay with me, kiddo. Addy, come on. Ben, talk to her. Now!”
“I, uh, Addy. It’s me baby. It’s Ben. I’m not going to cry and I’m not going to be afraid, just like you always tell me. Now I need you to do the same. Listen to Doctor Jackson. He’ll make everything okay.” He looked at the doctor. “Right doc? And the baby too?” Jackson didn’t answer. “Doc?” Ben was quickly becoming agitated. “What the fuck is going on, doc?”
“I think the most important thing for you to do right now is talk to your wife and let her know that everything is going to be okay. Can you do that for me, Ben? Can you do that for Addy?”
“Yeah.” Ben took a deep breath and leaned back over Addy to once again kiss her forehead. As his lips brushed the fine skin above her right eye he involuntarily flinched. “She’s cold. Freezing. Shouldn’t she be sweating? I mean she’s still clammy but…she’s cold.”
“Shit!” Jackson made no attempt to hide the immediacy in his voice. Ben noted something else there, too. Fear. “Nurse, take vitals.” He swung the door open and shouted, “You! Get me a crash cart and you assemble the instruments for a Caesarean Section!”
“What is it? What’s happening to my wife?”
“Look Ben, I’m going to tell you straight, this isn’t good. I’m not totally sure but I think your wife has something called an aortic stenosis. It’s a heart condition that can go undiagnosed for years but can be very dangerous if given the right conditions.”
“Like childbirth,” Jackson said. “More specifically the epidural medication. Even at its lowest dose it could, and I think did, aggravate the condition.” Ben was still confused. Jackson noticed and went on, “Your wife’s fainting is, well, it could be, a symptom of the stenosis. Irregular heart beats and shortness of breath are also symptoms.”
“Um, okay. What do we do now? I need to help. What can I do to help?”
“Right now just keep talking to her. You might not realize it but it’ll help a lot.” Jackson looked at the nurse who was just finishing taking a pulse reading and kept a stone face when she shook her head. “Okay, Ben. Here it is again, straight up. You’re wife’s heart has slowed to a dangerous rate. Please step aside and let the nurses and I do our job. We’re going to try to stabilize her now. Please sit over there. If it gets too much for you to handle you can step outside. If you stay you can continue to talk to her from that chair.” Turning his attention back to the scene in front of him he asked loudly, “Where the hell is that crash cart?”
“Right here doctor.” A chubby nurse rushed in pushing a small cart and fumbled for the plug before it had come to a complete stop. She plugged it in and the doctor grabbed for the paddles.
“One of you answer me this: are we getting a heartbeat from the baby? I’m not seeing one register on the machine.” All the nurses gathered around the monitor and studied it for what must have been a moment too long. “Well? Yes or No?” he asked angrily. All three nurses sadly shook their heads.
“Damn it.” He lowered the paddles and turned to Ben. “I never thought I’d ever have to say this. You have a choice to make right now. And I need an answer in the next ten seconds. We can attempt to save one life tonight. You need to tell me what life that will be: your wife or your baby.”
The sensation of a dry heave worked its way up Ben’s throat and manifested itself at his lips.
“I need an answer now, Ben.”
He looked at the doctor and blinked.