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Precious Things

You'll think you know what the story is about. Then one line will change everything.

By Teralyn PilgrimPublished 3 years ago 18 min read
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Jenna loved this baby so much, but she had no idea what to do with it.

Jenna woke from her nap suddenly in a dark living room that was barely lit by a twilight sky. Outside, one vibrant star hung over the bay and reflected in the water, two lights winking at each other. A human-shaped shadow stood by her.

“Mom?” yawned Jenna. She pulled herself up and stretched her legs one at a time, careful not to stretch too quickly. She’d had a tendency to get charlie horses in the middle of the night ever since she hit her third trimester.

Jenna wasn’t thrilled about being woken up after a long day of work. It’s funny how your favorite place in the world can become a place you dread. Jenna loved her charming bookstore on Main Street, nestled between Orcas Island Café and the post office. She had loved spending most of her childhood there, playing with toys in the kid section or doing homework in the staff room while her mother worked the counter or restocked the shelves. She loved it even more now that she owned it.

Lately, though, she spent her whole day longing to go home. She had been a trooper throughout her pregnancy, but with only two weeks left to go, her body was saying, “Nope, I’m done.” Lying down was all Jenna wanted to do. Pretty much the only thing she wore was the “giving up” skirt her mother had given her. It was basically a tent made of black cotton that was big enough for her to sit with her legs splayed out. When she kept her legs together, like a lady, her sagging stomach cut off the circulation in her thighs.

“What’s going on?” Jenna asked her mother.

“We need to go to the hospital,” she said.

Jenna first thought something was wrong with the baby, but that was ridiculous. Jenna would know before her mother.

“What is it?”

“Amy and David had an accident.”

Jenna fumbled in the darkness for her shoes, which she had to slide her feet into because her stomach was too big for her to reach them. Her mom was already standing at the open door, waiting for her to catch up.

“Careful,” her mom said, out of habit, as Jenna shuffled to the front door in the dark.

In the car, Jenna pulled the seatbelt all the way over her wide girth. Her mom pulled out of the driveway. Jenna’s purse and phone were still on the couch, she realized, but she didn’t go back for it.

“Are they okay?” Jenna asked.

The headlights reflected off the garage door, dimly illuminating the interior of the car, as well as her mother’s face. In the few seconds before the car turned and they were once again in the dark, Jenna read the answer in her expression. Amy and David were not okay.

Amy had always been Jenna’s best friend. From childhood all the way through high school, the two sisters would go to the same birthday parties, sit together during lunch, and sneak notes to one another during class. As adults, they either talked or saw each other on a daily basis. Often Amy would bring lunch to the bookstore, or they’d spend the evening playing board games with Amy’s husband, or they’d talk for hours. At the very least, they’d end the day with a five-minute phone call.

No matter who Jenna met or how many friends she made, no one could wedge themselves between her and her sister. They remained close when Amy shipped off to college on the main land, leaving Jenna and her mother to take care of the bookstore, and even still when she brought a man back with her to the island and married him. This pregnancy brought them closer than ever before.

All growing up, babies excited Amy. Stretching her hands out for any baby she saw, she’d coo, hug, tickle, bounce, and make funny faces until the baby smiled. She longed to be a mother much more than Jenna ever did.

Their mom had taken Amy to the doctor when she was fourteen and hadn’t had a period. That’s when they found out. Amy’s uterus was too small to carry a child to term.

The doctor cheerfully insisted that they shouldn’t worry. Amy had, what, ten years, maybe more, before she would be ready to have children. Doctors might know how to correct small uteruses by then.

Jenna wished the doctor hadn’t said that. Amy held onto a constant, anxious hope. Later, her husband, David, held onto the same hope. They couldn’t keep hoping indefinitely. Ten years came and went, then twelve years, then fifteen. Medicine evolved. It didn’t evolve enough.

Jenna would never forget the way Amy’s face lit up, her mouth forming the shape of an “O,” as she placed her hand on Jenna’s stomach and felt the baby kick for the first time.

The last eight months had been nothing but a feverish blur of baby preparedness. Jenna mostly sat back and watched, chewing on Tums with her feet propped up and her hands resting on her stomach, and tried to act interested as her sister went nuts getting everything ready. The diaper bag Amy bought matched the nursery theme Amy picked out…great, Jenna said, that’s great. The sleeping schedule recommendations from this parenting book contradicted the sleeping schedule recommendations in this other parenting book…super, wow, that’s so interesting.

Every conversation revolved around the baby. Amy devoured pregnancy tidbits, like how swollen Jenna’s feet were getting, how her stomach was so big it knocked over stacks of books at the store, and how just drinking water gave her heartburn. Every fetal kick and squirm mattered. Jenna told Amy all she could about the pregnancy, even if it took hours to explain it all, even if that was all they talked about anymore.

Jenna never thought past the delivery. She’d get notification on her phone every week about how the baby was growing and what symptoms she should look out for. If anyone asked how big the baby was, she could instantly respond with a fruit or vegetable: “It’s a strawberry. It’s a tomato. It’s a pumpkin.” Even though she had gone to all the birthing classes with her sister, Jenna would still get out her phone in the middle of the night and read about labor.

The two of them made a good team.

The road dove into the trees and came up for air at ledges overlooking the moon-lit ocean. Her mother swerved in and out of darkness and Jenna worried they might slide off a cliff. She held her hands on her stomach, and she held her breath.

Neither of them spoke until they reached the center of town with its bright lights and straight roads. Her mother finally explained what had happened. Amy had been swimming on the beach at sun set. She had always been a strong swimmer, so no one knew exactly what went wrong. Between waves she rose for breath and dove back down, rose and dove. Then, she didn’t come up. David was sitting in the sand and he jutted up to his feet. When she finally surfaced, she gasped and gulped for air before slipping back into the chilled ocean foam. “She’s drowning,” David shouted, and he ran into the waves.

“There’s water in their lungs,” her mother explained. “The doctors are trying to get it out.”

She said nothing about what that meant: recovery time, whether this was life-threatening…nothing. Jenna wanted to hear numbers. She wanted to know how afraid she should be.

Jenna waddled as fast as she could through the doors of the ICU. Doctor Moore was there, examining a chart by the nurses’ desk. He had practiced medicine on the island since before Jenna could remember. He often chatted with Amy and David in the grocery store and occasionally stopped by the bookstore to ask about the baby. When he saw the two of them his face lit with recognition, but not with joy.

“How are they?” asked her mother.

He said, “We’re working to clear the fluid out of Amy’s lungs. Paramedics revived her on the beach.”

“Thank heavens,” her mother said.

He heavily added, “But. Revival doesn’t always mean anything. Sometimes drowning happens over the course of several days.”

“She’s drowning?” Jenna cried. Her mother grabbed Jenna’s arm for support.

“We’re doing everything we can to help her,” said Doctor Moore.

“And David?”

“I’m sorry. He died shortly after the paramedics brought him in.”

Jenna covered her mouth with her hands.

“Amy and David got hypoxia,” he explained gently. “That’s a continued lack of oxygen. The saltwater they breathed in is hypertonic to blood, which means it pulled water from the bloodstream into the lungs and they filled up with fluid. This caused cardiac arrest in both of them…”

Jenna said, “But Amy is still alive. Does that mean she’ll be alright?”

He looked down. He shook his head.

“What does that mean?” Jenna demanded. She didn’t want him to let her down gently. She wanted him to drop the truth on her, even if it knocked her to the ground.

“The cardiac arrest deprived her brain of oxygen for too long.” He didn’t continue.

“Too long for what?”

“Is she brain dead?” her mother asked.

He hesitated. “If she survives the night, yes. She will be.”

Her mother’s legs gave out. Jenna struggled to keep her upright.

“Can we see her?” Jenna asked.

“Of course. Just be careful of the life support.”

Beside the door of room 201, the names Amy Donahue and David Donahue were hand-written in thick black letters behind a square plastic shield. Jenna and her mother stood in front of it and trembled in each other’s arms, neither willing to go inside. But Amy was dying in that room, alone. Jenna stepped away from her mother and pushed back the door.

They heard the indifferent beeping of a monitor before they saw Amy. She was lying in a plastic hospital bed. Her head was limp to the side. Her mouth was wrapped around a respirator that pumped a mechanic wheeze. A hundred tubes came out of her like a tangle of forest vines, each one leading to another bag, another machine. Her skin was pale pink-and-blue, like the inside of an oyster shell.

David laid in the other bed. His arms were straight at his sides and a sheet was perfectly tucked around his body. No tubes came out of him.

Jenna and her mom pulled up chairs and sat on either side of Amy’s bed. She took one hand and her mom took the other. They watched her face in silence for hours.

Amy passed just as the sun was rising. When the nurse turned off the monitor and called the time of death, Jenna let go of her sister’s cold hand.

Jenna wished she could have heard her sister’s last words. She knew what Amy would have said. With her hand over Jenna’s stomach, she would have told her to take care of the baby.

But she had still wanted to hear her voice one last time.

They returned to Jenna’s house. They sat on couches across from one another, not looking at each other, each in a stunned stupor.

Outside her window, birds flew over the pine-clad valley and skimmed the surface of the cold Pacific bay. It was a perfect house with a perfect view of the sea on a perfect island, and it usually made Jenna feel very peaceful.

The baby was visibly moving in her stomach. Jenna could see the nudge of an elbow and the jab of a heel as it thrashed around, like it was clamoring to get out. Amy had insisted that the baby wasn’t “clamoring.” When babies are born, they’re comforted by swaddling, ambient sounds, and movement. They want to be reminded of the womb. It must be very happy nestled inside her.

Amy would never swaddle the baby now. Jenna didn’t even know how to do it.

That selfish bitch.

Amy went and got herself killed two weeks before she would become a mother. Jenna wanted to know what was so damn important about swimming in the frigid ocean that Amy would risk her life and die, right before Jenna gave birth. She would never be able to ask.

Her mother spoke softly. “Do you want to talk about…” She looked at Jenna’s stomach.

“I can’t do it,” said Jenna. “Not by myself. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” It felt like she couldn’t breathe. She started to hyperventilate.

“Calm down,” said her mother.

“Amy…Amy was supposed…to be here.”

Her mother sat next to her and put a hand on Jenna’s. “I’m here. I’ll teach you how to take care of a baby. I’ll stay here you while you recover. I’ll watch the baby when you go back to work. It will be alright. I’m here, Jenna.”

Jenna wrapped her arms around her huge stomach and cried. She loved this child so much, but she had no idea what to do with it.

Jenna sat in her own hospital bed, this time in the labor and delivery ward. She watched her contractions come and go on a monitor. A nurse came in, shoved her fingers up Jenna’s vagina, and grinned.

“It’s go time,” she said in a chipper, high-pitched tone. “Are you so excited to meet your baby?” She was new to the island.

Jenna didn’t answer her question. Excited? Grief had made it difficult to feel anything at all.

Water burst from between Jenna’s legs and hit the floor with a splash. The nurse pressed a button on a wall and people came flooding in: another nurse, the doctor, an intern, and two pediatricians. The doctor situated herself between Jenna’s legs.

I’m not ready, Jenna thought, but her body disagreed and it pushed.

After two hours, the baby slipped out of Jenna’s fluid and into the doctor’s hands.

Jenna collapsed backwards while everything around her seemed to happen at double speed. Her mom feverishly snapped pictures of the staff attending to the little human that had come out of her. Amy was going to put those pictures in a baby book. Now Jenna would have to do it.

The nurse cleaned the still-goopy infant, swaddled her, and put a tiny pink-and-blue striped hat on her head. She lifted the angry infant in front of Jenna Lion King-style and said, “Look, it’s your Mommy!”

All the color drained out of Jenna’s face.

Her mother put a hand on her arm. “I’d like to hold the baby,” she said quickly.

The nurse’s smile changed to a confused frown. She handed the baby over and left with all the other doctors and nurses. The bustling room was once again still.

Her mother rocked the baby and rubbed a thumb against its cheek. Jenna watched the baby’s tiny face as it gradually stopped crying. It baffled her that she had carried the baby for nine months, yet they didn’t know each other.

With tears in her eyes, her mother said, “She’s perfect.”

Jenna reached over and stroked the baby’s soft cheek. “Yes, she is.”

“What’s her name?”

“Lily.”

Jenna had mentioned the name “Lily” as a possibility, and Amy had latched onto it. Jenna insisted that she didn’t need to have the final say, but no, Lily was it. Amy wouldn’t hear of calling the baby anything else.

“Lily needs to breast feed,” said her mom. “You have to do it within the first hour to establish a good supply.”

“But – I don’t know how.” Jenna’s heart constricted. She had been so preoccupied – with the funeral, with mourning – that she forgot to read about it.

None of this was right. She didn’t even have the sense to learn how to breastfeed before giving birth. How was she going to raise this child?

“I’ll show you how,” said her mom. “I brought the nursing pillow.”

Her mother wrapped the pillow around Jenna’s midsection and situated the baby at her breast. Jenna couldn’t watch. Tears slipped from her eyes as Lily latched on, even though she squeezed them tightly closed.

Lily was crying in her nursery. Or my old office, as Jenna still thought of it, even though her desk and shelves were now tucked into a corner of her bedroom and the “office” was full of baby furniture. At the sound, her stomach dropped with dread. Crying meant breastfeeding. Breastfeeding meant the sensation of half a dozen Exacto knives shooting through her nipple.

The last two weeks had been nothing but nursing and napping. She depended on her mom for trips to the store and survived on a fridge full of donated casseroles. Some of the casseroles were for the birth, and others were still leftover from the funeral.

Jenna dragged her fatigued body out of her bedroom but stopped briefly on the way to look at how moonlight flooded the living room. Her mother was asleep on a fold-out bed, where she had camped out, curled on her side with the blankets wrapped only to her waist. She had promised to carry the baby to Jenna’s room when she cried, but she was snoring softly.

Inside the nursery, Lily’s face scrunched up in hungry anger. She was a red, wrinkled, odd thing that usually just stared into space and made jerking movements with her head. Where were the chubby cheeks, the peals of laughter, and the games of peek-a-boo?

Sitting in the rocking chair sent a searing pain through Jenna’s pelvic floor. It was time for an ice pack and a Percoset – and probably another sanitary napkin. None of the pregnancy books said she was going to bleed like a spigot for six weeks– but Lily was screeching for food, so it would all have to wait.

Jenna struggled to situate the baby, the nursing pillow, and the collar of her nightgown. Lily shouted her impatience. Jenna held an aching breast, which was swollen to twice its size, and stroked her nipple along Lily’s cheek, like her mom had shown her. Lily turned her head and opened her mouth wide, but her mouth closed before Jenna could get her nipple into it.

“I’m just as frustrated as you are,” Jenna said as the baby scowled.

After some awkward fumbling, Lily latched and the sharp pain made Jenna gasp. It only felt like having her nipple ripped off for a second, and then the rhythmic sucking was actually kind of soothing. Jenna gazed in awe at the tiny human she had made. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

The nursery was hideous. It was done up in garishly bright cartoon animals. Amy said bright colors and simple shapes were good for developing brains. Jenna had made no comment; Amy’s determination to put together a perfect nursery bordered on madness. It took hours of online shopping to find each item. She even got a mobile custom-made, for heaven’s sake, because she couldn’t find one that was just right.

Jenna could hardly stand to be in it. Not only was the nursery not right for Jenna, but somehow – and she couldn’t fathom how she knew this, but she just did – it wasn’t right for Lily.

Once when Amy was on Pinterest, she scrolled past a certain picture without glancing at it. In the few seconds Jenna could see it before it was gone, the picture clicked in her mind, as if the baby had whispered, “That’s the one.” She dismissed the feeling and Amy bought what she wanted.

In the end, Jenna only contributed one thing to the nursery. She added it after Amy’s death. It was a framed photograph.

Jenna had wanted the gender to be a surprise. Of course, Amy had gone with Jenna to see the ultrasound. On the screen the baby squirmed and Amy dabbed back tears. Jenna told the technician to write down the gender and did a big reveal with their friends and family. Jenna stood by with a camera as Amy and David opened a box filled with pink balloons. She captured the ecstatic look on their faces as they realized their surrogate was giving them a girl.

While Amy made plans of what kind of mother she would be, Jenna was equally excited about becoming an aunt. She would be the perpetually-single and perpetually-fun relative who sunbathed with Lily on the beach, fed her junk food, and ogled over hot men in movies when they had sleepovers. Basically, she’d be an overall bad influence. When mother and daughter didn’t see eye-to-eye, Jenna was going to be the person Lily ran to. She even had a vague daydream of Lily in a college dorm with pictures of the two of them taped to the edges of her mirror, and Lily would point to the pictures and tell all her friends about the fun times she’d had with her cool aunt.

Girls didn’t become best friends with their moms. They shouted “I hate you” at their moms.

Even though Amy was gone, everything had to be exactly the way her sister had wanted it. Jenna insisted on this. Whether or not to breastfeed was easy. Amy had been adamant about breastfeeding her own child. She had attached her non-lactating breast to a thumping machine for hours each day until a thin stream of milk finally squirted through the nozzle. Beyond that, Jenna was tearing her hair out trying to understand her sister’s intentions. The sizable stack of parenting books on her nightstand bombarded her with feeding charts, immunization dates, symptoms of illnesses and their treatments, expected milestones, and safety tips. Every time she opened one of Amy’s books, she’d soon get overwhelmed and close it.

I can’t do this, she’d think. I can’t do this.

So she would do nothing to change the ugly nursery. Neither would she chuck all the parenting books in the trash and set them on fire. She certainly wasn’t going to teach Lily to call her “Mommy” like the nurse had suggested, not when her real mom had pined for her so long and was now gone.

Jenna felt the rip of loss keenly – the loss of her sister, the loss of who Jenna had wanted to be, and the greatest loss of all: the loss of a mother for Lily. She started to cry.

It was wrong. It was all wrong. If Jenna didn’t find her own way through this, if she spent her life parenting in the shadow of her dead sister…she would burst. She would lose her mind.

After twenty minutes nursing on each breast, Lily’s fists softened. Her eyes drooped and her head went slack as she fell asleep. Slowly – ever so slowly – Jenna eased out of the chair and held her breath as she lowered the baby back into her crib. Asleep like this, Lily was exquisitely peaceful.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to her. “You deserve better. But I’ll try. I’ll really try.”

The next day, Jenna left the house for the first time since giving birth. The freedom of getting outside and going to the store, even if it was just a hardware store, was pure joy. Still, all she could think about was whether or not the baby needed her, and it didn’t take long before her breasts filled up with milk and felt hard as rocks.

Back home in her driveway, she heard Lily screaming from inside the house. Her milk tingled and stung as it let down in response. In the living room, her exasperated mother held the baby out to her.

“I think I’m going to get out, too,” said her mom. “Maybe take a walk.”

Jenna nursed in her bedroom until Lily fell asleep, then placed her in the middle of the bed and eased away. Carefully, Jenna closed the door.

She had two hours. Give or take.

Wincing but determined, Jenna dragged all the nursery furniture into the center of the room, put blue tape on the moldings, and opened new paint cans.

In the picture she had seen on Pinterest, the walls were dark blue and everything else was white. White furniture, white bedding, white framed-mirrors, white rug, and a shimmery white curtain, all against a midnight background. Pixie lights were strung along the ceiling to look like stars, a crystal chandelier cast rays of gentle light, and paintings hung on the wall of girls surrounded by white lilies holding lanterns that glowed. The room made Jenna think of lilies floating in a lake at nighttime with stars glimmering on the water. It was unlike anything Jenna had ever seen. Maybe that’s why she loved it. Or maybe it just made sense for this baby.

Jenna made a deep blue streak against the stark white walls. The satisfying contrast gave her an unexpected thrill. New daydreams popped into her head now. She would keep Lily in the bookstore with her, like her mother had, and Lily would grow up playing among the shelves. She would read books in a white armchair with Lily nestled under her arm. She’d help Lily put on princess dresses and pin crowns on top of her head. They’d have dance parties all over the house.

Two walls were done when Lily started crying. Before going in, Jenna took a second to stand back and admire her progress. It would be beautiful, once it all came together.

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About the Creator

Teralyn Pilgrim

Teralyn Pilgrim has an MFA in Creative Writing from Western New England University and a BA in English from Brigham Young University. Her work has been published in the Copperfield Review.

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