Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
She concentrated on opening her eyes. Bit by bit, her eyelids lifted and a room came into focus. There was dark blue tiled floor and wallpaper with lines of deep blue flowers running up a pale blue background. It was a room she’d never seen before. She tried, but she simply couldn’t keep her eyes open and the room faded away.
* * *
Lloyd Winston’s office turned out to be on the same floor as the NICU, and the office was as untidy as the man himself. His desk and file cabinets were piled high with books, forms and folders. Empty foam cups overflowed from the trash can. He cleared off a portion of the desk by moving its contents to a stack on the floor, then sat down. Mick took a seat and waited for him to speak.
Flipping open his briefcase, Winston pulled out a file. “I understand you haven’t signed the paternity papers for your daughter. Do you realize that until you do, you’re not legally the baby’s parent?”
“I understand that,” Mick answered. “The situation with Caitlin and myself is a bit—well—unusual.” Mick watched the man’s confusion grow as he explained how he and Caitlin had met. When he finished, Winston leaned back and pressed his fingertips together over his ample paunch.
“You’d like me to believe that after meeting you for the first time, out of the blue, a woman, who may or may not think she’s dying, names you as her baby’s father?” His tone held more than a hint of disbelief.
“That’s what happened.”
Winston leaned forward and stared at Mick intently. “I know that taking on the responsibility of caring for a critically ill infant can be very daunting. It’s understandable that you’re reluctant to admit to being the child’s father.”
Mick leveled his gaze at the overstuffed social worker. “I’m a firefighter. Walking into a burning building is daunting. Trust me. Beth is not my biological child.”
The man’s eyes widened at Mick’s tone. “I see. This certainly complicates things. Dr. Wright tells me the child needs surgery. I’ll have to get a court order to make her a ward of the state right away.”
Mick frowned. “She has a mother. She doesn’t need to be made a ward of the state.”
“Ms. Williams’s condition prevents her from giving consent for any procedure, and I understand her recovery is doubtful. Since she’s incapacitated and you are not any relation to the child, the state must assume care.”
“For how long?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“How long will Beth be a ward of the state?”
“Until we can locate a relative. Which we might have done by now if you had come forward with the truth sooner.”
“What if you can’t locate anyone?”
“If we don’t, she’ll remain a ward of the state and go into foster care when she leaves here.”
A knock sounded at the door, and a nurse from the NICU looked in. “Mr. O’Callaghan, you’re wanted in the unit.”
Mick shoved out of his chair. “Is something wrong with Beth?” Fear sent his heart hammering wildly.
“I’m afraid so,” she said. “Please come with me.”
ick rushed into the NICU. A crowd surrounded Beth’s bed. The monitor above it alarmed as the blip of her heart rate barely moved across the screen. He stopped a nurse hurrying past him, glad to see it was Sandra Carter. “What’s wrong?”
“Doctor, the father is here,” she said.
“Good.” The man in green scrubs looked at Mick. “X-rays show your daughter has suffered a collapsed lung and the air trapped inside her chest is putting pressure on her heart.”
Sick with fear and powerless to help, Mick couldn’t take his eyes off Beth’s pale, gray color. She wasn’t moving.
Someone touched his shoulder. Glancing over, he saw Lloyd Winston standing beside him. “They’ll do everything they can,” he said gently.
“Prep her, then we’ll get a chest tube in,” the doctor barked orders before turning to Mick. “I understand you have some medical background. Do you know what we’re doing?”
Mick nodded. “You’re going to put a tube in her chest and suck the air out so her lung can reexpand. Will she be all right?”
“I believe so.” Dr. Myers opened a small plastic pack and pulled out a surgical gown. Quickly, he donned it as Sandra poured dark brown liquid antiseptic over the skin on Beth’s chest. “Have X-ray standing by, and give her a dose of fentanyl for the pain,” he instructed.
“Yes, Doctor. Her oxygen saturation is forty.”
“Gloves! Where are my gloves?” he snapped.
“Right here.” Another nurse peeled open a package. He pulled them on.
Beside Mick, Lloyd Winston spoke. “You don’t have to watch this. We can wait outside,” he offered.
“No, I’m fine,” Mick answered. How long had her heart rate and oxygen levels been this low? Five minutes? Longer? How much time did she have left before she suffered brain damage? Was it already too late?
As the doctor worked, Mick’s gaze stayed glued to the monitor. After what seemed like an eternity, Beth’s heart rate climbed to eighty, then one hundred. Slowly, the color of her skin changed from gray, to mottled blue then to a pale pink. One little leg kicked feebly under the drape, and Mick sagged with relief. “Thank You, Lord.”
Sandra glanced at Mick and frowned. “Hey, we don’t do adults in here. Someone get Dad a chair.”
“I’m all right.” Mike tried to wave aside her concern.
“No, you’re not. You’re white as a sheet. Lloyd, take him out to the waiting room.”
“I want to stay,” Mick protested. What if her other lung collapsed? She could die, he knew it.
“I know you want to stay,” Sandra said, “but this isn’t something you need to watch. She’s not feeling the pain, I promise you that.”
“You’ll come and get me if...things get worse.” Mick stared into her eyes. She nodded and he knew she understood what he was asking.
In the waiting area, he paced back and forth. Ten steps across, ten steps back. The same blue tweed chairs as in the adult ICU sat against the walls. It seemed that all he did anymore was wait—with fear grinding in his gut while doctors and nurses tried to save first Caitlin, and now Beth again.
Please, Lord, let Beth be okay. She’s so little. Hold her in Your hands and keep her safe.
Lloyd sat and watched Mick. “Can I get you something?”
“If you have a prayer to spare for her, that wouldn’t come amiss.”
“Certainly. I have one for her and one for you, as well. I’ve seen a lot a babies get chest tubes. It isn’t as serious as you think.”
Mick knew better. It was deadly serious, but he couldn’t find the words to tell a stranger that he feared Beth might die. Some of what he was feeling must have shown on his face.
“It’s okay to be scared,” Lloyd Winston said.
Mick sank into a chair beside the social worker. “I know. How do you deal with this kind of pain every day?”
“You said you’re a firefighter? Don’t tell me you haven’t seen some bad things yourself.”
Dropping his head to stare at his clenched hands, Mick nodded. He’d seen his share of terrible things—things a man couldn’t unsee. There were days when he wanted to quit. If not for the Lord’s grace, he might have.
“I expect it’s the same for both of us,” Winston continued. “We got into our lines of work to make a difference. We stay because, not every day, but some days we do make a difference in people’s lives.”
Mick nodded, surprised at how well the man understood him. He’d made a snap judgment about Lloyd Winston, thinking the man was an overworked bureaucrat who didn’t care. He was wrong. It was evident that Lloyd cared a lot.
Mick’s smile faded. “What will happen if Beth doesn’t make it? If she dies—what will happen?”
“Usually, the body remains here until the family chooses a mortuary, but in this case, she’ll be taken to the city morgue. If no one claims the body after three or four months they’ll bury her. The city provides plots for unclaimed bodies.”
“What’ll happen if she lives, but her mother doesn’t?”
“As I said, she’ll be placed in foster care.”
“No.” Mick heard the word, but almost didn’t believe he had said it. Was he really considering such a deception?
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Winston stared at him.
“Beth isn’t going into foster care. I know her mother wouldn’t want that.”
Is this what You want, Lord?
Was he losing his mind? Saying that Beth was his child was a lie. But Mick couldn’t hand her over to strangers—whether she lived or died. Wasn’t this what Caitlin wanted? For him to take care of her child if she couldn’t? He was adopting Beth with her mother’s blessing. His troubled conscience grew quiet.
“I’ll sign the paternity papers.”
Winston left and returned a few minutes later. Mick took the form and stared at the blank line on the bottom. Signing it would give the child of a stranger his name. Legally, Beth would become his responsibility forever. It would be up to him to make a home for her, to see that she got to school on time for the first day of kindergarten, to see that she had the money to go to college. He’d become responsible for medical bills that could leave him in debt until he was an old man. If she died today, he would plan her funeral.
Was this right? Was it truly what God wanted of him? If he didn’t do this, could he live with himself? Could he walk away and go on with his life knowing he had let Caitlin down? He knew that he couldn’t.
I’m sorry for this lie, Lord, but I believe in my heart that this is what You are asking of me. Please help me to do the right thing.
Bending forward, he scrawled his name on the line.
“Mick, you can come in now.” Sandra stood in the doorway.
He leaped to his feet. “Is she okay?”
“She’s stable. Come and see for yourself.”
He followed her into the nursery. A clear tube stained with droplets of blood protruded from Beth’s right side and led to a plastic box below her bed. In its chambers, a column of water bubbled freely.
“It looks weird,” Sandra said, “but it doesn’t hurt her.”
Beth was alive, that was all that mattered to Mick.
Thank You, God. Make me worthy of this gift.
He slipped a tentative finger beneath the baby’s limp hand. She lay pale and quiet, making no move to grip his finger as she’d done before. Sandra pulled a tall stool over beside the bed, and Mick nodded his thanks. Sitting down, he tilted his face to gaze at his baby.
His baby. His daughter. A warm glow replaced the chill in the center of his chest. She belonged to him, legally, if not by blood. How often had he wondered what it would be like? Wondered if he could love an adopted child the same as his own flesh and blood? Now he knew. He’d come to love Beth the first moment she had frowned at him. He loved the way she wrinkled her brow, and he loved her long, delicate fingers. He loved the way she kicked her feet over the edge of her bunting, and the way she fussed until someone changed her diaper when she was wet. He couldn’t imagine loving any child more.
As he sat watching her and trying to imagine a future together he saw Beth’s face contort into a grimace. She stiffened her arms, holding them out straight. Her whole body twitched. He looked for help. “Sandra, something’s wrong.”
She came quickly to the bedside. She took hold of the baby’s arm, but it continued to jerk. “Let me get the doctor.”
She returned with Dr. Myers. “How long?” he asked, watching the baby intently.
“A minute now,” Sandra replied.
“You’re right. Looks like a seizure. Let’s get an EEG and give her a loading dose of phenobarbital. I’ll write the orders.”
Mick caught the doctor’s arm before he could turn away. “What would cause her to have a seizure?”
“I can’t say for sure. We’ll have to do some tests. We’ll let you know the results as soon as we get them.”
Mick stayed with Beth for another hour, then he left the NICU and made his way down to the adult intensive care unit where he waited to be allowed in to see Caitlin. Her nurse for the evening gave him the first encouraging news he’d had since the day Beth was born. Caitlin was assisting the ventilator at times by breathing on her own.
“Does this mean she’s waking up?”
The nurse shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. Patients in a coma can often breathe without a vent.”
“I see.” And he did. If Caitlin came off of the ventilator but didn’t wake up, she might live in a vegetative state for years.
He opened Caitlin’s door and stepped into the dimly lit room. She lay on her side facing the window. Beyond the dark panes of glass, the lights of the city glowed brightly, and traffic streamed by on the streets below. Cars filled with people who had homes and families waiting. Everyone had somewhere to go. Everyone except the woman on the bed.
What he knew of her life had been filled with pain. Had she ever known a safe night in the arms of someone she loved? Would she have a chance for any of those things, or would she live out her life caught between waking and dying, kept alive by tube feedings and overworked nurses?
Pulling up a chair, he sat beside her and took her hand. “I had to make a choice today, Caitlin. I signed paternity papers. Beth is now legally my child. Our child, I guess. As strange as this sounds, in my heart I feel sure it’s what you wanted. It’s the only way I can look after her.”
He watched the ventilator for a while, but he couldn’t tell if it was breathing for her or if she was breathing by herself.
“I’d like to tell you that things are going well for her, but the truth is, she’s in a lot of trouble. It was touch and go all day today.”
Tears pricked his eyes, and his throat closed around the words he didn’t want to say. “I don’t know if she’s going to make it, Caitlin. And I don’t know how I’m going to face it if she doesn’t. I love her already—I do.”
He wiped his eyes with the back of one hand and drew a shaky breath. “I have to believe she’s going to be okay. I have faith, and I’ve prayed more in the past few days than in any time in my life.”
He leaned forward and brushed his knuckles down the soft skin of her cheek. “Lady, you have no idea of the mess you started. I’m not even sure how I’m going to explain this to my family. Frankly, they’re going to think I’m certifiable.”
* * *
“You did what?”
“That can’t be legal, can it?”
Mick listened to the protests and objections of his older sisters as they sat at the oak table in his kitchen three days later. He knew they would react this way. That was why he’d called them together, to get the protests over with all at once. Then maybe he could get some sleep.
Beth’s lung was healing, but an EEG confirmed she was having seizures. The doctors had started her on a drug called phenobarbital to control them. Soon after that, she had gone to surgery to close her patent ductus arteriosus, and Mick had spent agonizing hours in the surgical waiting room with Pastor Frank and Lloyd Winston at his side for support.
The surgery had gone well, and Beth’s condition had finally stabilized enough for Mick to feel that he could spend some time at home. Thank goodness his mother was better and didn’t require his constant care. The last few days had seemed longer than a month. He was bone tired, but he needed to get this meeting over with.
“What about this child’s real father? Don’t you think he has something to say about this?” Mary demanded, crossing her arms over her ample bosom and rattling the lid of a dainty teapot that sat in the center of the table.
Mary was the oldest, and he expected the most opposition from her. He’d often joked that he’d been born with three mothers instead of one. Alice, the sister closest to him in age, was his senior by twelve years. His mother sat at the table with them but she remained quiet.
Mick said, “According to Caitlin the baby’s father is dead. She told me when we first met that there isn’t anyone.”
Mary’s frown deepened. “Even so, I can’t see why you think you need to be the child’s parent. Did you even consider the financial obligation you’re taking on? You’ll have to support this child until she’s eighteen even if her mother recovers.”
“I know that.”
Mary’s lips pressed into a thin line. “And if her mother doesn’t recover? Do you think you can raise a child alone?”
“Yes, I do,” he answered with more confidence than he felt. He’d asked himself these questions and more over the past several days. He might not be the best parent in the world, but he intended to give it his best shot.
He looked at each of his sisters in turn. “She’s a tiny, helpless baby—so tiny I could hold her in one hand, and she doesn’t have a soul in the world to care for her. No one should have to go through the things she is going through alone.”
“Will she...will she be right?” Alice asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Children like this—aren’t they—sometimes mentally challenged?”
Mary looked at him with pity. “Oh, Mick, what have you gotten yourself into?”
He wanted to ignore their questions. He knew the possibilities, but it didn’t change the way he felt. Beth was his, for better or for worse.
“It’s too soon to tell if she will have disabilities,” he said. “Tests show she had a small bleed in her brain. A Grade Two, they called it. Some babies do have problems after that, but some do fine. We can only hope and pray she’ll be healthy, but it doesn’t matter.”