God, it hurt.
I kind of knew that it would. But not like this. Somehow I had thought that it would be manageable. But I couldn't even breathe.
And suddenly that was all that they were saying. Breathe. Just breathe.
As if filling my chest with air would somehow cure the pain. All it did was give ammunition to my fury. I took a deep lungful and exhaled my anger into the room, cursing all who stood near.
It didn't sound like my voice. I wasn't capable of such venom. I didn't know I had even heard of the words I now screamed to anyone that was in range.
And then suddenly it was beginning to ebb away. The pain and the anger. Everything slowly receded, leaving only the memory of the agony and the guilt for how I had reacted. I kept my eyes closed, dreading the hurt I would see in their faces. How could I have said such things? How could they ever forgive me?
I lay still and could hear my heart thudding in my ears. Then from somewhere beyond the dizzy side-effects of hyperventilating came a gentle voice. Trying to be soothing. Trying to be helpful. Trying way too hard.
A lingering trace of anger bubbled within me and I thought I heard my dry, cracked voice telling her to shut the hell up. A momentary pause. Perhaps a sharp intake of stunned breath. Oh god. I really had said it.
A gentle squeeze of the hand that was entwined in my own and I knew that she understood.
It wasn't her fault. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
I can't do this. I can't.
A soft, careful response to the contrary. Another sweet attempt to reassure me. And again I'm asking her to please stop telling me that everything is okay. Everything is definitely not okay.
He should be here. He promised he'd be here.
And suddenly it's there again. Pain like no other I've ever experienced. Growing exponentially. Building to a crescendo of my screams.
My mind is a chaos of terror and agony. Dizzy lights are dancing somewhere in the blackness behind my tightly closed eyes and my chest feels tight.
And now someone else is shouting. No, not shouting. Just firm and assured. A new voice but one that is somehow vaguely familiar. Her careful assertiveness edges past the panic and I cling to her words.
"Stay calm. You can do this."
There's an honesty amid her even tone and I find myself wanting so much to believe her.
"Look at me."
The pain again sinks away, fading into a memory that makes my weary body shudder. I crack open one eye, wincing against the brightness of the subtle magnolia room. I take a glance again, meet the eyes that are regarding me with such kindness. Eyes that tell me that I'm not the first, and won't be the last, to feel this way.
She nods silently. Everything will be fine.
God, I want to believe her.
She looks away for a moment, attention drawn to the monitor beside me, her smile never faltering as she assesses, decides, plans.
My eyes have adjusted to the glaring lights and I take a moment to look around me. I see the clock on the wall and realise in dismay that the eternity it seems has passed since we arrived here is actually only ten minutes.
I know because I checked the time when we arrived. I wanted to know when he'd be here. I'd already calculated the time his journey would take and I had needed something else to focus on. Counting the minutes late he would be seemed like good idea at the time.
And then I turn to the other woman beside me. She hesitates for a moment. My previous words have stung and she is unsure if more are about to erupt. God, I'm sorry. I force a smile to my lips and pray that it conveys all that I want to say right now.
She leans forward in her chair and places her free hand – the one that is not going blue in my tight grasp – on my shoulder. And something lingers in the smile that dances tentatively on her thin mouth. An understanding. A memory. A connection.
Suddenly I know her. Not her name, her role, her relationship to me but who she really is. I've known her for two years but until now I've never really seen her.
She squeezes my fingers again. Perhaps to relieve some of the pressure of my grip. Perhaps to remind me how tight I am holding onto her. Or perhaps to convey what I sense she is trying to tell me. She's been here. She knows how much this hurts. She remembers being this terrified.
The pain comes again and I fight to keep my eyes open. I force air in and out of my lungs in steady, deep breaths, focusing on the nods of encouragement and reassurance that she gives me.
"I'm so proud of you."
The pain begins to fade and I sigh in relief. I did it. I can do this.
"There aren't words to tell you how proud."
Her free hand glides up onto my face, resting on my cheek for a moment before then stroking my wet fringe back from my forehead. I close my eyes again and sink into the soothing calm of her presence.
"And I'm going to kill that son of mine if he doesn't get here soon!"
Oh god, what if he doesn't get here? What if something happens to him? What if it already has? He would never knowingly not be here. He promised me. He promised.
Quickly she has stood and perched on the edge of the bed. She gathers me into her arms and clutches me tightly. I hadn't realised I was crying but I can hear her telling me it's okay to and I'm suddenly shaking with frightened, exhausted sobs.
I'm so glad she's here. She hadn't planned to be. And, in truth, I hadn't even considered it. We have never really been that close. Until now.
She has always seemed a little wary of me, a little detached. I had come into their lives unexpectedly and she had not adjusted as quickly as him. He was her golden boy, her eldest; her handsome, successful, oh-so eligible bachelor son. She had lived with him ever since his father had died and suddenly this new woman in his life must have seemed a threat to their happy existence.
She was never unkind. Just guarded. Which is why the two of us spending time alone together, as we had this morning, was such a rare occurrence.
I had dreaded it at first, which was stupid really. We lived in the same house, for goodness sake. But we were both skilled at somehow avoiding one another, staying well away from the potential ignition that two similarly strong-minded women might spark off.
This morning was his idea. She had wanted to buy something more for the room I had spent every day perfecting. The room with its subtle pastels and dewy-eyed teddy bears that heralded the inevitable arrival of something so wondrous. So amazing. So terrifying.
We had taken the bus together to the mall; she didn't drive and I could no longer squeeze in behind the wheel. It was during our third lap of the overly-priced nursery store that it happened. We had been caught in the magnetic tug of matching accessories that we so didn't need and shared a knowing smile with each other. She had giggled excitedly in sudden wild abandon and it was infectious. I laughed with her and then felt the wetness of my weakened pelvic floor betraying me.
It didn't stop. I looked down in horror and saw the yellow-green liquid trickling down my bare legs and pooling on the carpet that surrounded my swollen, sandled feet.
"Oh my god!" She was suddenly in a panic beside me, clutching at my arm and holding me upright. It made me chuckle; the thought that the leak might somehow cause me to slowly deflate. Chuckling brought another gush of fluid.
"Okay, okay!" She stammered in a strangely shrill mix of thrill and terror. "Stay calm."
"I am." I replied smoothly.
"Um – oh god – we need to get you to – oh god – the hospital!"
I nodded a reply and placed my hand over the fingers that were gripping my arm a little too tightly. "And we will. It'll be fine."
"Of course. Yes. I know." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, forcing a smile to her lips.
"Are you okay, ma'am?"
I looked up at the sales assistant and smiled a reply. But she wasn't talking to me. She was frowning in concern at my rapidly paling mother-in-law.
"We're fine." I urged quickly, carefully. "I'm afraid I need a towel."
The sales assistant glanced at the matching Egyptian cotton collections beside me and her frown grew. I glanced at the floor and her eyes followed mine.
It was surprise mixed with revulsion and it made my cheeks flush. It wasn't exactly my fault.
The young girl nodded in not very convincing understanding and then offered me a slight smile. "You get complimentary gift vouchers if … erm … that happens."
Somehow I had won the argument and we had hailed a taxi as opposed to dialling 911. A few of the other women in the store had been a little more practical and a little less disgusted with me and I had cleaned myself up and shoved the sanitary towels they had offered into my soaked underwear. I sat awkwardly on the leather back seat of the cab on top of a wad of newspaper that the driver had unceremoniously slid beneath me and again dialled the number into my cell phone.
She clutched my hand so tightly that I no longer worried about my wedding ring getting stuck on my swollen fingers; they would fall off soon and that would end the problem. "He's out of the office." I replied quietly.
"Oh. Have they paged him?"
It didn't matter. We would go to the hospital, the doctors would tell me what I already knew and then we'd go home to wait for it all to start. He'd be home long before us and we could tell him all about it.
It began as a dull ache somewhere at the base of my spine. A niggling, annoying background pain that was generally no worse than it had been for the past few days but would suddenly build into just enough to make me clench my teeth every once in a while.
She noticed that I was falling quieter. The concern in her lined face told me that she had seen my face flushing and the sweat forming at my temples. I smiled in reassurance and told her I was fine. But in the late afternoon traffic of the busy town I could feel the panic building.
It wasn't long before I was crying and it seemed only minutes before the first colourful metaphors escaped my lips. I had called his work, his mobile and his pager four times from the cab and was getting more frustrated with the computerised answering service that kept cheerily replying.
Too fast. It was all too fast. I only wanted a few things from the store. It was only meant to be a short wander round the mall and then lunch. Not this. Not now. Not today.
They smiled in encouragement and tried to tell me that it was a good thing. Advanced labour, they said. All over soon, they cooed. And amid the talk of drugs and positions and internals and breathing techniques, all I could think was that I couldn't decide about any of it without him.
"I'm so proud of you."
I leaned forward and rested my head on her shoulder, moaning appreciatively as she stroked my hair. "Where is he?" I whispered hoarsely.
"He'll be here." She responded softly. "Shh … I'm here, honey …"
Her voice was soothing. So similar in tone and accent to his. So different from the Eastern drawl of my own mother's voice. She and Dad were in Europe and I had called to tell them what was happening. They'd get a flight back as soon as they could butI knew how long the journey would seem to them.
The rhythm of the pulsing monitor gently drowned out some of the worries in my mind for a moment and I listened to the tune. I then felt movement inside me and I frowned slightly. Oh god. In the midst of the chaos I had actually forgotten about him.
"Is my baby okay?"
The nurse mumbled an affirmative and replenished the cold flannel on my neck. "He's doing just fine."
Oh god. Is he?
"But … the water is - "
"It's okay, honey." She smiled again, "He's fine."
I frowned at the print-out that slithered from the daunting looking monitor and tried to see in the jagged pattern the reassurance that she could interpret. The water was darkening as it drained. It could be nothing, she had said, or he could be distressed. Right now the gyroscopic lines told her it was the former and I had no choice but to believe her. But what if she was wrong? What if he was trying to tell me something? What if the nagging doubt in the back of my mind was what I should be listening to and not her?
An almost imperceptible sigh of exasperation and her smile faltered a little. "Everything is fine. You just stay focused. You can do this."
I closed my eyes and let out a heavy sigh. Ten years, she had said. Ten years of looking after women just like me. She must know what she's talking about. So why do I get the feeling that I'm losing him?
Too fast. Too much to take in. Too fast.
They said this was a good thing. No need to speed up what was already happening quicker than expected. Oh god. Why did I say no to the drugs? Why did I think that being alert and away from the side-effects was a good plan?
His mom could sense it approaching. Maybe it was my body language, maybe it was the change in my grip on her flesh but she knew at the same time I did that another contraction was coming. She steadied herself, braced herself for the crying and the leaning and the language.
This time there was a new sensation. The pain reached its usual crescendo and my whole body shuddered. I heard myself grunting like some feral creature and a new fear gripped me. Oh god I couldguess what this was.
As the pain faded, I could hear the gentle tone of an alarm and I lifted my head to frown at the nurse.
"It's okay, sweetie," She nodded towards the intercom system, "The doctor is on her way."
"No!" I gasped, "No! This can't happen now! I need my husband! He has to be here!"
"The baby's coming, honey." The nurse smiled in sympathy, "There's not much you can do about it."
"No!" I argued angrily and swung my legs over the side of the bed.
"What are you doing?" The nurse laughed in amusement and concern.
I stood trembling beside the bed, ignoring the worry on my mother-in-law's tired face and the quick advice of the nurse. "No!" I repeated loudly, "I don't like this! I need him here!"
"Okay, honey, okay." The nurse soothed gently, hands raised in reassurance. "Just get back in the bed. It'll all be fine."
"No! I can't do this without him!" I sobbed suddenly, "I won't do this without him! I want to go home!"
"Oh, I'd like to see you try!" The nurse chided gently and made her way around the bed towards me. "Now, come on. Back into bed."
"No!" I yelled and then gasped as suddenly my legs buckled beneath me. I grabbed the bed for support and my head swam as the silent approach of another contraction suddenly took my breath away. And there was no doubting it this time. The scream tore threw my throat as I gripped the mattress and could do nothing but push.
"Oh god, no. Not like this." The nurse urged hurriedly. "You have to get onto the bed!"
Now my mother-in-law was also joining in. She and the nurse pulled at my limbs and tried to heave me back onto the safety of the delivery bed but I couldn't move. My legs felt weak and I was sure they would simply crumble beneath me at any moment. I slumped forward onto the bed and buried my face into the sheets, sobbing in terror and pain.
"What's going on in here?" The new voice was gentle and there was a hint of amusement.
The pain ceased and I listened to the nurse explaining my momentary madness. I looked up and saw my doctor nodding in understanding. "I need my husband." I croaked dryly.
"I know, I know." She crossed the room and leaned down on the bed opposite me. She placed her hands on mine and sighed heavily. "Believe me, Mrs Tracy, I know how frightened you are. But it will be fine. I promise you."
I looked into her kind face and wanted so much to believe her but she was wrong.
"Now. Are you going to get back on the bed and let me help you have this baby?"
"No." I groaned and closed my eyes as the dull warning of more pain began again. "I'm waiting for my husband."
I was sure I heard all three of them sigh in frustration but I ignored them. This wasn't going to happen without him. I didn't do anything without him. I started my day with his smile and could only get to sleep if he was near. He was who I had to call after I'd seen a scary movie with friends and he was who I had to ramble to when I was happy. There was no way on earth I could do this without him.
"Come on now, Mrs. Tracy." The doctor urged in her careful but firm tone. "Be reasonable."
Wrong choice of words. I stood up straight and was shouting at her before I even realised it myself.
"Calm down, please, Mrs. Tracy! This isn't going to help you." The doctor continued regardless.
"I can't calm down, dammit! I need him here!" I sobbed, "Oh god, where is he!" I fell forward onto the bed again and let the tears fall. Suddenly I was sobbing into the crumpled sheets and the world danced around me. "Oh god, where are you?"
"Right here, honey."
I hadn't heard the door open again, hadn't realised that he had crossed the room in a heartbeat, hadn't heard the sigh of relief from the staff and his mother. It was only as he leaned over me, his arms enveloped me and I felt the roughness of his cheek against my face that I knew he was there.
"Oh god, I'm so sorry." He whispered breathlessly.
"Where the hell have you been?" I shoved him off of me so I could stand and turned to look into his flushed face. "I called and called!" I shouted through my tears, slamming my fists into his shoulders.
"I know, I know." He groaned and stepped closer to me, placing his hands on my cheeks and kissing my forehead. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. It was that stupid thing in Washington and they made me turn my pager off." He let his lips linger on my hot face for a moment and his breath washed against my skin.
"Couldn't you have told them that you had something more important to do?"
He laughed suddenly. A gentle chuckle that trembled down the arms that slipped round my shoulders and pulled me against him. "Yeah, right. Sorry, Mr President, but today's not convenient for me."
"Yeah." I agreed and leaned back from him, suddenly noticing the dress uniform that clung to his solid shoulders.
"Hey, beautiful." He smiled down at me and stroked the fringe back from my sweaty forehead.
I returned his smile and took a deep breath, suddenly filled with renewed energy. I then remembered the other people in the room and grinned in embarrassment as I looked round at their expectant faces.
"There." The nurse nodded slightly, "Everything's going to be just fine. Now. Climb back into bed, honey."
I stepped away from him and began to clamber onto the bed when another wave of pain hit and I fell back against him.
"Okay, honey." He soothed quickly, gripping me beneath my arms and supporting me as my legs buckled beneath me. "I've got you. I'm here. You're fine. You're fine."
My fingers sunk into the thin cotton shirt that covered his forearms and I tried to stay upright but it was no use. I could hear him groaning with the effort is took to keep us both standing and he then gasped as he lost the fight and we began to tumble. Another deep, guttural push that racked my whole body and we were falling slowly.
The nurse and the doctor both scrambled to help us and decided it was safer toease us slowly to the ground. I was aware of them crouched beside us as the contraction faded and a gentle chuckle of relief ran through the room.
"Mrs. Tracy, stand up, please." The nurse ventured after a moment. "We need you on the bed."
"C'mon, honey." He urged and gripped my arms in readiness for the heave upwards.
I curled my feet beneath me and nodded in agreement but then the pain began again and I fell back against him. "Oh god! Oh god!"
"Mrs. Tracy, you have to get up now."
"I can't!" I yelled at them, my dry throat cracking as fresh tears fell.
"You must!" They insisted wearily.
"NO!" I screamed and then gasped as a sudden burning between my legs tore the breath from my body. "Oh no! Oh god – ouch!" I opened my eyes and stared at them both in horror, suddenly knowing but not being able to process the truth of the moment.
"Okay, ladies." Came a gentle chuckle behind me, "I think we're having this baby on the floor."
I closed my eyes and shook my head in disbelief. Suddenly the staff flew into action, laying sheets and towels under my raised knees and pulling equipment closer to them as they kneeled down on the floor before me.
"It's okay, beautiful. It's okay. I've got you." He tightened his grip around my chest and leaned his head down to kiss my neck. "I'm here. I've got you."
I whimpered weakly and leaned further into him, reaching up to place my hand on his face and ensure it was really him. "I'm scared."
"Oh, I know, I know. I'm here. You'll be fine. I love you."
"Tell me it'll be okay."
"It will. I promise."
"I can do this, right?" I continued through my tears. "You think I can do this?"
"I know you can."
"Really? Are you sure? Are we ready for this?"
"Go flight." He whispered in reply.
It wasn't long before none of it mattered any longer. I lay back into his embrace and listened to the smooth Southern lilt of his gentle voice. I was aware of all that was happening but somehow it just wasn't as bad any more. I listened to him telling me how much he loved me and let myself surrender to what was happening. The world swam somewhere beyond us. And twenty eight minutes after he had arrived our son was born.
The staff gave us a few moments alone after everything was cleared up and we stared at the small life that had emerged. I cradled the slightly scrawny body of our son against my chest and watched him staring in bemusement up at me.
"Oh my goodness … look at him … " He sobbed gently and the arms that enveloped me then squeezed me against him.
"He's got your chin." I smiled.
"Here's hoping he doesn't have your temper."
I made no reply. I couldn't really argue. I looked across the room to where his mother sat and watched us through wet eyes and nodded my thanks to her. She smiled and wiped her eyes before wandering from the room to find a well-earned cup of coffee.
"I'm so proud of you." He muttered contentedly and leaned his head forward to kiss my cheek.
"We did it." I agreed.
"You did it." He corrected softly. He reached out and stroked his finger across our small son's forehead.
"And you nearly missed it!" I laughed suddenly in relief. "God, Major Tracy, you do like to live close to the edge!"
He laughed softly, "And I think I got a few speeding fines to prove it!"
"Jeff …!" I groaned and shook my head, about to nag at him for his recklessness when our son then murmured and my reprimands faded into insignificance.
"Hey Scotty." Jeff took a deep breath and sighed loudly before kissing me again. "I can't believe this … you're amazing, Mrs Tracy."
"Oh, it was nothing really." I laughed, "I could easily do that another three or four times!"
"Absolutely!" Jeff enthused, "We'll have ourselves our very own shuttle crew!"
A/N: I don't own the characters here portrayed; they are humbly borowed from the wondrous imagination of Gerry and Sylvia. What I do have is the priveledge of a career that allows me to see the wonder of the events here described and the honour of witnessing the strength and courage of such amazing, inspiring people. So this is dedicated to them all. To the mums.
(The TB universe is set in the U.S. and so I saught the advice of colleagues for some of the details. Things are a little different across the pond.)