You stand in front of the glass of the nursery, staring at them. All the little ones, safely wrapped in pink or blue, little tags on their clear plastic bassinets proclaiming their name and height and weight. Their moms are sleeping, eating, resting, and the nurses have taken charge of them.
You've dreamed of this day for the past 8 months, ever since she told you. She had been hesitant, simply pushing the paper at you and staring at her feet, her lower lip pulled between her teeth. She had been scared, worried, and hopelessly excited.
And you'd been elated. Thrilled. You were going to be a father, and that frightened you. But you had her, and somehow you knew that the three of you could do it. Could be a family.
You took the baby home, carefully buckled in the pink car seat Allison had picked out. Everything was pink, and you kept your mouth shut when socks with ruffles showed up, but put your foot down at the little Velcro bows. You bought her a baby jersey with "C. House" embroidered on it and Allison took the hint. Tiny jeans with tinier snaps appeared in the baby's dresser drawer.
You delighted in everything she did. And everything she didn't do.
When she was four months old and barely holding her head up, you knew something wasn't right. But she curled her fingers around your pinkie, and she smiled at you and you didn't want to be the one to say it.
When she was fourteen months old, she rolled over.
When she was eighteen months old, she was diagnosed.
Allison cried. You sat there, eyes dry, staring at the wall, your daughter cradled in your arms. You asked about treatment, and you got a stack of pamphlets.
You'd never imagined anything like this when you'd pictured your future.
After Stacy, you were going to die alone.
After Allison, you were going to have a life.
After Caroline, you saw ballet recitals and track meets and swimming competition. You saw school plays, band concerts, you saw tiny baby steps and giggles and a tiny child with dark brown hair and icy blue eyes.
After Dr. Matthews, you saw physical therapy and wheelchairs and braces for tiny legs.
She went to therapy three times a week. Allison took a leave of absence and her temporary replacement was worthless.
When her leg braces came for her on her second birthday, Allison took her shopping. She bought tights and knee socks in every color imaginable and threw away the ugly socks that came with the braces.
You hated that you couldn't get down on the floor with your daughter. You sat on the couch, angry at yourself as you watched Allison on her hands and knees, coaxing Caroline's weak limbs into a crawling position and moving her forward, one knee at a time.
When Caroline was two years and six months, she sat up on her own. Allison screamed and you don't think you've ever moved so fast in your life. By the time you reached the living room, she'd already gotten it on video tape and Caroline hadn't moved, was sitting up, grinning lopsidedly at you.
On Caroline's fourth birthday, you snuck into her room before she woke up. You ran your hand over her baby soft hair, and you kissed her forehead. When she opened her eyes, she said "Hi," and your heart stopped.
Allison entered Caroline in an assistance program when Caroline began kindergarten, and now four days week you open your home to college students studying varying levels of child-related majors. For the first week, Allison banished you to the hospital, but you promised to keep your mouth shut around the students and you came to welcome their help and you smiled when you saw Caroline light up when they walked through the door.
Andrea is a psychology major and she giggles with Caroline as she works on picture identification. For two hours, every Monday night, you hear her patient voice coming from Caroline's room. "This is a dog, this is a cat. Give me dog," she says, and praises Caroline when she matches.
Michelle is a physical therapy major, and she delights in everything Caroline does. For two hours on Tuesday you hear her musical voice, "Move your knee, sweetheart," and applause when Caroline does.
Aubry is majoring in speech pathology and comes Wednesdays after school. Caroline says "Hi" eagerly, but is hesitant to make other sounds. Aubry spends two hours making vowel sounds at your daughter, and praises Caroline even when there is silence.
Laura is a special education major and she tells Caroline she is perfect just the way she is. She comes on Thursdays and shows your tiny daughter how to operate the motorized wheelchair, and teaches her to hold her sippy cup.
On Fridays, you and Allison curl up with Caroline and watch a movie and eat ice cream. You like Fridays because you never imagined four college students traipsing around your house when you pictured your life, and you like having your wife and your daughter all to yourself.
When Caroline enters middle school, you drive her every morning because the bus picks her up first and drops her off last and you don't want her to sit alone. As you walk into the school with her one morning, pushing her wheelchair, you hear a mumbled "retard" from another student and your cane slips and the child trips.
You realize then that you've been sheltered, and that you've sheltered Caroline from those who would hurt her. She doesn't talk, but it doesn't mean she doesn't understand and you see the hurt in her eyes. You kiss her forehead (she's 11 now, don't embarrass her in front of her peers) and you mumble that she's beautiful and perfect and you wouldn't want any other child for your daughter.
And you mean it. Because dance recitals and track meets don't compare to the nights you have with Caroline, carefully balanced next to you on the piano bench, gently tapping piano keys and laughing with you.
You don't see the braces, or the wheelchair, or the awkward way she grips her oversized pencil as her teacher guides her hand across the page. You see your daughter – her eyes that are the same color as yours, and her hair the same color as Allison's, and the way she smiles when she looks at you.
When Caroline graduates high school, her best friend Chelsea pushes her across the stage and helps Caroline take her diploma. Allison is crying and clapping and trying to take a picture all at once and you carefully wipe her tears away before you wipe your own cheeks.
When you'd pictured your future you'd been wrong, and you're okay with that. The child you had imagined going to Medical school, graduating with honors, and taking your place doesn't compare to the child you got, because Caroline is so much more than an imagined future.