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A mother will do what it takes ...

By Heidi UnruhPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 11 min read

He still has her eyes, Anna decides as she studies him across her mahogany table. But the wide mouth — that must be from his father.

“I can’t believe it,” he keeps saying. “I’ve been looking for you so long.”

She soaks in his voice, his face. But another image keeps surfacing. In her mind's eye she keeps seeing his infant picture from the maternity ward, one of the two photos that she keeps hidden under her bed.

He reaches out and puts his hand in hers. It lays there for a heartbeat before she returns the clasp. She asks quietly, “You can forgive – your mother?”

“Long ago,” he says. His voice drifts, riding into the past. “I used to be angry. After I found out. I never even knew I was adopted until my fourteenth birthday—and then, wham! In high school I did a lot of stupid stuff. I, ah …” He finds her eyes again. “Senior year I got my girlfriend pregnant.”

He pauses, glancing up at her, eyebrows slightly furrowed, like a puppy waiting to be scolded. She nods at him with compassion.

“Overnight, my whole world changed–again. I thought I’d have to give up the scholarship, work some cruddy job to pay for diapers. Mom and Dad, I mean, my adoptive mom and dad …” His mouth works around the awkwardness. “They were ready to kick me out. And I didn’t even love the baby’s mother. In fact, we couldn’t stand each other by the time he was born. I thought my life had ended."

His voice grows thick. “Then we lost the baby. And suddenly he was the only thing in the world I really wanted.”

“I know exactly what you mean ...” The words fly from her like light bouncing off a mirror.

“That’s when I decided I would find you someday. Because your kid is always your kid, no matter what happens. I guess I thought if I couldn’t have my son, at least I could give you yours back.”

Her eyes sting with tears, but he laughs. “My first psychological breakthrough. No wonder I became a therapist.”

He sketches for her the adult chapters of his life: finishing college, finding love, finishing grad school, losing love, his first disastrous day as a therapist, his last conversation with his dying adoptive father.

“I always imagined my son getting an education, having a good career, doing something to help others,” she says. He smiles proudly.

“I never stopped trying to find you. But it wasn’t easy. The adoption agency had shut down and all I had was my birthdate and the city where I was born. I didn’t even know which hospital it was. No one would tell me anything. But I kept looking.”

“Everything was so secretive back then,” Anna says, apologetically. “That’s just the way things were. It’s different now.”

“Finally, I hired a detective,” he continues. “She got around the rules somehow and recovered some records. Baby boy, born on my birthdate, placed immediately in state custody.”

Two boys born that day, she is thinking, seeing again in her mind the hidden photos.

“Then, it was just a matter of time before the detective tracked you down. And here I am, …” He pauses a beat. “… Mom.”

Her heart skips, but she can’t find any words.

He sucks in an anxious breath. “Are you—are you okay with my being here? Calling you Mom?”

A flame flickers in her mind’s eye, leaping from the lighter she plans to use to burn the photos, along with the death certificate. “I made a promise I’d find you someday too,” she says, then clamps her mouth shut. But she can’t hold back the tears.

“All that matters is that we have a new beginning,” he says gently.

Sniffling, she reaches over and touches his cheek. “You had such a wrinkled up little face.”

Anna envisions his wrinkled infant face in the photo, barely visible between the swaddling blanket and the oversized knit cap. He is cradled in the arms of his mother Melanie, in the crowded maternity ward at the city hospital. In the picture, Anna is hugging Melanie as tightly as Anna's enormous belly would allow. To Melanie’s left, at the far edge of the photo, the social worker’s hands are visible, clutching a clipboard.

Less than a minute later, those hands took the squirming infant, and Melanie crumpled onto the bed.

“Are you sure?” Anna kept asking Melanie, who was convulsed with tears. “It’s not too late to change your mind. I could run after her and bring him back to you.”

“No, no, no,” Melanie’s muffled voice choked out. “Just stop. It’s for the best, for him. You know I can’t bring him to the shelter. We’ll just end up back on the street. I can’t take care of him. I can’t—It’s for the best. Just let him go.”

“Yes, yes, of course," Anna soothed. "You're doing the best thing for him. You're a good mom, a good person.” She smoothed her friend’s wild hair, handed her tissues. “You’ll be okay. Just squeeze my hand. It will all be okay.”

Melanie shook her head as she clutched the tissues without wiping away the snot and tears.

Anna leaned close to her ear. “I’ll find your son someday,” she whispered. “I promise.” Then, hand on her own belly, she rose to go to the bathroom.

I’ll never let them take you, Jonah, she thought fiercely to the son in her womb. We won’t end up like Melanie. We’ll stay together. And I’ll find your soul brother too. I’ll do what it takes. I promise.

Then Anna's water broke.

The two pregnant women had bonded in the women’s shelter, sharing similar stories of being turned out by parents who drew the line at becoming grandparents. But there the similarities ended.

Anna intended to go back to college once her son was old enough for day care. Her shelter stay was a temporary nightmare, a detour from her real life, where everything had a plan and a place.

Melanie had dropped out of high school, even before she discovered she was pregnant. Her main goal, her guiding star, was be safe. The shelter was her refuge, her barricade from violence and chaos, her last hope. If she stayed there she could get on a waiting list for her own apartment. The shelter did not allow children.

Anna and Melanie had gone round and round about their future as their bellies grew rounder and rounder.

“I can’t do it,” Melanie would say. “I’m not strong like you.”

“Then let me take care of you. I can get an apartment. We can watch each other’s kids when we go to school and to work. They can grow up like brothers.”

“Anna, I’m due a month before you. How are you going to get a job and a deposit for an apartment in time? Where am I supposed to bring home the baby?”

“We’ll figure it out. Don’t you have a friend who can take the baby, just for a little while? Another relative besides your mom—your grandma, or an aunt?”

Melanie stared Anna down. “My grandma smacked my aunt and my ma around. My aunt smacks her kids around. My uncle … No way are any of them getting anywhere near my baby.”

“Maybe your mom will change her mind once she sees how cute your baby is.” She patted Melanie’s belly affectionately.

Melanie snorted. “Maybe, but I won’t change my mind about how crappy a mother she is. I’m never going back to that life.” She leaned over to return the belly pat. “What about your parents? They won’t take you in?”

“Oh, sure. But on one condition. I give him to my married sister and pretend I’m his aunt.”

“So why not pretend? At least you’d get to be around him. And he’d be taken care of.”

Anna looked off into the distance. “I don’t think I’d be any good at pretending. I’d let it slip somehow. And I would die inside every time he called my sister ‘mom.’ I can’t imagine letting my kid think someone else is his mother.”

Melanie jerked to her feet and her eyes scrunched up with tears.

Anna pleaded repentantly, “Oh, Melanie, I didn’t mean …” She reached out, but Melanie twisted away.

“It’s my decision,” Melanie finally said, her voice low but steady. “You can support it or not, but I have to do what I think is best for him. For us both.”

“It’s your decision,” Anna repeated, and Melanie allowed her to wrap her in a hug, their tummies bumping.

When Melanie’s time came Anna stayed by her side through the delivery, soothing her and letting her grip her hand so tightly her fingers went numb. It will be my turn in a few weeks, Anna couldn’t help thinking with a thrill. I’ll be the one crying out with the contractions, squeezing Melanie’s hand, making that last push—then finally getting to hold his little body, look into his eyes.

“Are you sure you want to hold him?” In the flurry of post-birth activity Anna hadn’t noticed the social worker enter the room. “It makes things that much harder.” Her voice and demeanor carried professional compassion, her hands carried a clipboard.

“I’m sure,” Melanie insisted weakly, stretching out her hands. “Just give us a minute.” She held him bundled up in her arms, still shaking a little. The social worker stepped aside, but not too far.

“Oh, Melanie, he’s a wonder,” Anna breathed as she studied his face. Suddenly his eyes opened a crack and he stared right into her. “Look, he has your eyes! You can tell he’s going to be one smart kid.” Anna stroked his wrinkled cheek as Melanie gazed at him, shining and speechless.

Then Anna fished the disposable camera she had bought at the gift shop out of her purse. She handed it to the orderly who was bagging up soiled linens. “Take a picture, please?”

As the social worker clucked her disapproval, the orderly snapped the photo. Anna stowed the camera back in her purse as the social worker gently but firmly took Melanie’s son from her arms.

And that was when Anna's water broke.

She cried out in a sudden agonizing spasm and Melanie called out to the orderly who had taken their picture. Anna writhed on the floor. She was vaguely aware of being placed on a stretcher, then moved to a bed as various people did various things to her, none of which relieved her pulsing pain.

Melanie stood by her side. “Just feel my hand,” she said over and over. “Just listen to my voice. It’s going to be okay.”

“Do they know it’s not time yet? They have to make him wait!” Anna cried.

“Oh, no, honey, it’s time when your body says it’s time,” said a nurse.

Anna screamed, then whimpered. She could not feel Melanie gripping her hand. She could feel nothing except the pain.

There was a burst of noisome activity around her, and then suddenly she opened her eyes and she was alone with Melanie and the doctor.

“What’s going on?” Her pain was subsiding, her mind clearing. “Where’s my son?”

Melanie’s eyes were wide and filled with tears. “Oh, Anna …”

The doctor explained everything to her. His words entered and exited her mind like a needle that had lost its thread. Her mind, her belly, her heart were empty. Just one question was left to her.

“Can I hold him?”

She wrapped Jonah from tiny head to tiny toe in his blanket, and held him in her arms as Melanie stood beside her, a supportive hand on her back. Such a tiny bundle to hold every dream she had ever dreamed. Such a beautiful little face. Such a peaceful face, eyes closed but not in sleep, never to dream. She would never know what his eyes looked like.

The nurse cleared her throat, took a step toward Anna. But Melanie held up her hand. She reached into Anna's purse, took out the camera, and handed it to the nurse.

Anna never saw Melanie again. When she returned to the shelter after several days in the hospital, Melanie was gone. She heard that Melanie had left with an old boyfriend. Anna asked around, but no one knew how to track her down.

Years later, after Anna had graduated college and moved away, she mailed a donation check to the shelter. One of the staff wrote her a thank-you note. This is how Anna learned that Melanie had died of an overdose, alone, in the same hospital where her son had been born.

“A new beginning,” Anna now repeats after Melanie’s son.

I’ll do what it takes. She imagines the small flame creeping over both photos of mothers and sons, climbing up the edges of Jonah’s death certificate, turning the past to ash.

Short Story

About the Creator

Heidi Unruh

My passion is "coming alongside people and their good ideas, so great work can shine!" I do this as a developmental editor, writing coach, and author of 6 nonfiction books. Creating fiction, poetry and plays is pure joy!

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