When Astrid Ethridge died, only a handful of nieces and nephews survived her. They asked few questions, assuming that she died of natural causes, given her age and frail, birdlike frame. Most hadn’t seen her in years. The ones who maintained contact had done their best to overlook the insults and jabs that their aunt slung unmercifully in their direction, over the phone or in person. They agreed it was a blessing she hadn’t suffered or lingered.
Ruthie Owens had gotten the first call a little after 7 a.m. as she dressed for work.
“I’m trying to locate the family of Astrid Ethridge,” a man’s voice said.
“I’m her niece. Actually, great-niece.”
“Would you consider yourself Mrs. Ethridge’s next-of-kin?”
“I’m not the only one, but I guess there’s no one closer. Who is this?”
“I’m Dr. Baldwin in Danville and I’m sorry to give you this news over the phone. Mrs. Ethridge died early this morning at Boyle County Hospital.”
“What happened?” Ruthie said. “Was she sick?” She felt a rush of guilt for not checking on Astrid. She hadn’t seen or talked to her for nearly three months.
“She died in childbirth,” he said.
“Could you repeat that?” Ruthie said. “My phone must have cut out.”
The doctor cleared his throat.
“Before Mrs. Ethridge died, she gave birth to a small but otherwise healthy baby boy.”
Ruthie was speechless. “Are you still there, Ms. Owens?”
“This must be some sort of joke. My great-aunt is 92 years old.”
“I assure you, I’m as shocked as you are. I’ve practiced medicine for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Ruthie didn’t know what to think.
“I’m on my way,” she said. She hoped it wasn’t too late to get a sub for her kindergarten class at Lone Oak Elementary.
Must be some mistake, she thought, as she pulled on her clothes. Yet the voice on the other end had spoken with authority, the way doctors speak. Ruthie had never heard of a Dr. Baldwin. She only knew Dr. Mullins, the elderly doctor who had cared for Aunt Astrid for the past 30 years or so. She’d met him at Astrid’s annual checkups. For the last few years, Ruthie had volunteered to take her aunt to those appointments rather than let her drive the old lame Cadillac in the garage. Astrid claimed that the last mechanic who worked on the car had defrauded her by sticking a screwdriver into the tires. The tires were so old they had dry rotted and wouldn’t hold air, but nobody could tell her anything. After a long teaching career at a New England boarding school, Astrid didn’t appreciate challenges to her authority.
Ruthie phoned the news to her husband, Joe, already at his desk in the principal’s office. During school hours, he was her boss.
“Call me if you need me,” he said. “You did everything you could to help her, but that was an impossible task.”
“I feel bad that I didn’t know she’d gotten sick,” Ruthie said.
She started to tell Joe what the doctor said about a baby, but decided not to. It sounded so foolish. Suspecting the whole thing was a prank, she would see for herself if the baby actually existed. Maybe she had imagined the entire conversation with the doctor; it seemed so unreal. Perhaps she dreamed it. Her dreams were often so vivid that she woke up mad at Joe for something he hadn’t even done.
Ruthie then called both of her sisters to tell them of Astrid’s death. She didn’t mention the baby. She worried that if she told them now, they’d think she had lost her mind or overdosed on her old prescription of clomiphene, the fertility drug she had taken for three years while trying to get pregnant. As it boosted her chances at ovulation, its hormonal effects had caused nausea, weight gain, bloating, mood swings, and a physical and mental wobbliness that wearied her of the entire topic of conception. She adopted the motto “it is what it is” when questioned about her pregnancy status each month by friends, family, and strangers in the waiting room at the fertility clinic.
“Would you mind calling the rest of the family? I need to get to the hospital,” she told her sister Virginia, who was already at her downtown law office.
“Sorry you have to do this by yourself, but I guess no good deed goes unpunished,” Virginia said. “You’re one of the few who could stand being around her.”
For years, most of them avoided contact with their great-aunt. When Astrid’s name appeared on caller ID, the call was ignored or the ringer silenced. A few had continued to visit in hopes of securing an inheritance from the childless old woman. Lately, some of the cousins, especially those with young children, suggested Astrid should no longer be invited to family events. Just too unpleasant, they said.
This must be a joke, Ruthie thought as she brushed her hair and put on lipstick. A 92-year-old woman having a baby was…well, impossible. It sounded like a parable from the Bible or some ancient mythology. The kind of story that little children believed when they heard it in Sunday school, but later doubted as they became teenagers. Ruthie shook her head. Even if it could happen, even if it could be true, why would God choose someone as hateful as Astrid for a role in an act of divine intervention?
By all accounts, Astrid was unlikeable. Ugly, not in appearance, but to her core. Even her kindest neighbors dreaded seeing her unsteady approach at their front doors. She came only when she needed something, like a ride to the bank, her gutters cleaned, or the pilot light on her stove checked. If she didn’t need anything, she treated them as inferiors. The old woman had outlived five siblings and three husbands. Some people surmised that two of the three husbands died just to get out of their misery.
Ruthie collected her coat and purse, grabbed her sack lunch from the refrigerator, and headed to the nearly-new small SUV parked in the garage. They chose it because they wanted a car big enough to haul cargo and people, but they felt silly buying a mini-van. It would have made their pregnancy watch even more obvious. To everyone.
For years, Ruthie had wanted a baby more than anything. Each month she watched for signs, the ones she lived for: like her body temperature, telling her when an egg was moving, making its journey toward possible conception. On those days, she grabbed Joe as soon as he walked in the door. A few weeks later, she waited and longed for other signs—tenderness in her breasts, a sensation deep inside telling her that something had caught hold. She prayed to God, and at times she was convinced she could feel it happening. But each month, her dreams were flushed away.
Right before her last birthday, Ruthie had accepted that she probably wouldn’t ever get pregnant. She told herself it was okay. She and Joe talked about adoption, but they hadn’t made any decisions. They would’ve made good parents, she knew. She loved Joe. They had a strong marriage that could survive the disappointment. She loved her teaching job. She was close to her sisters’ kids, all conceived without much fanfare. It was what it was.
She navigated the maze of streets and cul-de-sacs in Town Branch subdivision where they had built their new three-bedroom house a few years ago. Lexington’s south end, filled with young families living in dream homes on the outskirts of town, was jammed this time of day with people heading to work and school. Long lines of cars, waiting to drop off kids, parked along the curb in front of the nearby elementary. Ruthie wondered if anyone rode school buses anymore.
After she passed the county line, her twenty-mile drive to Danville traversed a barren landscape. The old road was lined with ancient stone walls that encircled forlorn homeplaces and decrepit outbuildings, no longer producing crops or livestock. The new four-lane on the other side of the county had fallowed this stretch of road. Fields orange with broom sedge were sprinkled with ragged-bark cedars, and patches of snow remained from last weekend’s light dusting. She passed an abandoned fruit stand and a gas station with prices posted, dating its demise.
Ruthie’s thoughts returned to the baby. It sounded ridiculous. Perhaps a confused teenage mother panicked and abandoned a baby near the bed where Astrid lay dying. Otherwise, this story was big. Virgin birth was one thing—at least the Virgin Mary had been of childbearing age. Aunt Astrid was ninety-two, for Pete’s sake. No way her biological clock was still ticking. At 38, Ruthie herself was consumed with the quiet, steady ticking of her own body parts. In the ticking, she thought she heard a whisper: “Not this time. Not this time. Maybe next time.” She had grown sick of its tease.
Her thoughts moved to Astrid. For a long time, Ruthie cared for her aunt out of some sense of moral obligation, due either to her belief in a higher power or at least her loyalty to her family. Even as unlikeable as Astrid was, Ruthie told herself, family was family. Some had to be taken care of. Ruthie felt sorry for her aunt, alone, with no one to care for her and no one to love her. Please, God, don’t let me end up like Astrid.
A few months back, on a bright fall Sunday afternoon, Ruthie went to check on Astrid. It turned out to be her last visit. Since Astrid didn’t drive and she wouldn’t hire help, Ruthie never knew if there was food in the house. Each time she visited, she took a supply of staples: grocery bags filled with fresh fruit, skim milk and plain shredded wheat. The groceries had to be low fat, low sodium and low calorie or Astrid would throw them out. She considered herself an authority on nutrition. Weight gain was yet another sign of inferiority.
“Come in. Take a seat on the sofa,” Astrid said, steering her into the living room. “Let me turn on a few lights.”
Drapes and shades were closed, blocking the light of the sun. The house was silent, with no music or sound of voices, live or from a television. The furnishings hadn’t changed since Ruthie used to come as a child with her parents on their obligatory visits. A gold brocade sofa, nearly as long as the old Cadillac, sat on avocado green sculpted carpet. A familiar silk floral arrangement, at least thirty years old and dusty, sat on a marble-topped table. On one wall of the adjoining dining room was a wallpaper mural, an autumnal scene of what looked like a small New England town, any inherent quaintness lost in its unnaturally bright shades of orange, red and gold.
The only change to the rooms was the amount of clutter on every available surface, including the dining room table. Astrid couldn’t bear to part with anything. Treasured family pieces—a mantel clock and a gold-framed photograph of Ruthie’s great-grandmother—were stacked next to plastic grocery bags filled with empty, rinsed milk cartons and years of LL Bean catalogs. At some point Astrid transformed from curator of family memorabilia to hoarder. She closed herself off in the spacious house, alone, a shuttered museum to herself.
Despite the clutter, Astrid herself looked well-groomed and stronger than when Ruthie last saw her. She wore an attractive beige sweater with a triple-row pearl necklace. Her hair color, Frivolous Fawn, hadn’t changed in years. No gray roots showed. Ruthie saw a hint of how Astrid might have looked as a younger woman.
She sat down on the sofa next to Ruthie and inspected her over reading glasses. She passed her hand along Ruthie’s back, a movement something like an affectionate pat, but the fingers hesitated, lingering along where Ruthie’s bra strap hooked. Ruthie felt the fingers as they measured the small amount of back fat that bulged against the strap.
“Have you put on weight?” Astrid said.
“A little. It’s a side effect of the fertility drugs.” Ruthie knew her face looked round and puffy and her body felt thick and full while she was on the drugs. She didn’t like the way she felt or looked, but she tried not to think about it. If she got pregnant, it was worth it.
“Don’t let it get out of hand. No husband wants that.”
Ruthie felt her cheeks get warm. The old woman had a gift for ferreting out sensitive spots.
“Joe and I want a baby. We’re doing everything we can to have one. I’m not worried if I gain some weight, and Joe isn’t either.”
“You’ve just waited too long to get pregnant,” Astrid said. “You’re probably too old.”
Ruthie’s eyes filled with tears.
“We only waited until we had a nice house and Joe became principal,” she said. “We didn’t mean to wait too long.”
Astrid’s expression changed as she stared at Ruthie. Her face softened; for a moment, the scowl lines between her eyebrows disappeared.
“There’s never a perfect time,” Astrid said, looking around the room and focusing on an oil painting of her first husband. His face appeared young and healthy, but he had died at 34 of a massive heart attack. A congenital defect they never knew he had.
“The doctor says the odds are pretty good,” Ruthie said. “It could still happen.”
Astrid’s voice snapped back to her usual sharpness. “It’s no use. You’re just like me. God didn’t want us to have children.”
Ruthie didn’t know which part of the conversation stung more: that God was actively involved in denying her a baby or that she might actually be like Astrid. Even though they shared common genes, Ruthie never wanted to be like her. Cruel. Selfish. Alone. But she wondered if her aunt was right. Was it too late for a baby? Was she a younger version of Astrid? Both thoughts hobbled Ruthie.
When she returned home and described the conversation to Joe, he hugged her and suggested she not go back.
“She’s mean. And she’s wrong. Why subject yourself to it?” he said. She took his advice. She hadn’t been to Astrid’s house in months.
She pondered that last conversation, though, for weeks. She cried when she thought that her failure to get pregnant was an act of God’s punishment, not a matter of physiology. Why would God punish her? What had she done to deserve it? If Astrid was right, God had already decided and nothing would change God’s will. That was when she quit taking the hormones, telling herself it was hopeless to intervene.
She just hadn’t told Joe yet.
Astrid’s assessment that the two were alike was even more unsettling. Ruthie was terrified by the possibility. She asked her sisters.
“Don’t be silly,” Jan said. “You’re nothing like her.”
Ruthie wasn’t so sure. She knew that her sisters were nothing like Astrid. Virginia was a lawyer and Jan was a dental hygienist. They hadn’t chosen teaching as a profession. Her sisters had gotten pregnant without effort. They lived in houses teeming with children, friends and pets. In many ways, Jan and Virginia were alike, but Ruthie had always felt different from them—quieter, more private, and now, filled with more doubt than she ever suspected of her sisters.
As she got closer to Danville, Ruthie noticed a lighted sign warning of ice on the high bridge that crossed the Kentucky River. She slowed to avoid any slick patches. She glimpsed the gorge’s limestone walls, from which hung giant icicles that grew in areas blocked from the sun’s light and warmth by an adjacent hilltop. One side of the river’s walls remained in perpetual shadow, allowing the ice to survive until spring; the side that received sunlight was dotted with plants and shrubs that managed to germinate and cling to the inhospitable rock ledges.
Once in town, she made her way into the parking lot of the hospital, an old-fashioned downtown hulk of red brick, with the regular placement of large windows that suggested it was a hospital or courthouse or other public building. She found a parking spot and headed to the front door. The lobby smelled like spray disinfectant. A man worked a large buffer across the terrazzo floors.
“I’m here to see Dr. Baldwin. Can you page him for me?” Ruthie said to the receptionist at the front desk. The neatly dressed woman wore a ribbon badge that read Corrine W. 20 Years of Volunteer Service.
“I’m not allowed to page doctors, but I’ll call up to labor-and-delivery to see if he’s still in the hospital,” Corrine said.
“Labor-and-delivery?” Ruthie said.
“Yes, second floor. That’s where he works,” Corrine said as she picked up the phone and dialed.
Maybe it’s not a prank, Ruthie thought. The receptionist hung up.
“Dr. Baldwin is waiting for you in Room 314,” she said. “Take the first set of elevators.”
On the third floor, Ruthie stopped at the nurses’ station and asked for directions to Room 314. Instantly, the chatter stopped. A young nurse stood up and quietly said, “I’ll take you there.” She motioned for Ruthie to follow down the hall. Ruthie saw room after room filled with very sick, very old people. The doors were propped open, allowing no privacy. This was not the floor where new life came into the world. This was the floor where they ushered out the old, the sick, the dying.
The nurse stopped at 314, opened the door but stayed in the hall. A sign placed on the door read Do Not Enter. Ruthie wondered if the room was quarantined, like in the old days with tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. She walked in, and the nurse pulled the door shut.
The room was darkened. The florescent ceiling lights were off; natural light streamed through the large window. A man sat near the window, a patient file in his lap.
“Ms. Owens?” the man said as he stood to greet her. Ruthie nodded and shook his hand.
“I’m Dr. Baldwin. Have a seat,” he said, motioning to one of two orange leatherette chairs. His white coat was embroidered with a dark red script—Dr. Daniel Baldwin OB/GYN. He looked tired, yet seemed anxious to talk.
Ruthie sat down, in clear view of her aunt’s body, lying in a hospital bed that had been cranked to flatness. Astrid looked tiny and frail, pale and white. Shrouded in the stiff, bleached hospital linens, silenced and still, the body bore little resemblance to the living Astrid. Ruthie had never seen her look peaceful, but her body looked almost angelic, her white hair smoothed along her small head, her skin just a few shades deeper. So much had changed about her, Ruthie thought, not just the fact that she was dead. What had gone on in this room? What had gone on inside this body?
“Ms. Owens, I’m not sure where to begin. First, I’m sorry about your aunt’s death but I want to assure you that I’ve tried to maintain privacy on what has happened here. That’s why the sign’s on the door.”
“Your aunt came into the hospital because she was feeling faint. She called 911 from her home late last night.”
“I had no idea,” Ruthie said. “I would have been here if I’d known.”
“We contacted you as soon as possible. Your name and number were the only ones we found in her purse.”
Ruthie was sorry that her aunt had died alone.
“She was conscious when EMS workers arrived at her house. She told them that she had a lot of pain in her lower abdomen, and that she was short of breath. She also seemed somewhat delusional.”
“Really? She’s always had a sharp mind.”
“She told them that a woman had been at her house caring for her for the past few weeks. Apparently the woman’s a nurse, but she told your aunt to call 911 because there was nothing more she could do,” Dr. Baldwin said.
“A woman helping her? I have no idea who that could be,” Ruthie said. The family had tried for years to convince Astrid to get help or move out of that big house. She wouldn’t hear of it.
“She described the woman as having dark skin. Not in those exact words,” the doctor said. He hesitated for a moment, as though he didn’t want to tell the rest. “All night she called out racial epithets, telling me to get the dark-skinned woman out of the room.”
Ruthie frowned. She knew the word Dr. Baldwin was avoiding. The n-word. Her aunt had started using it again. Astrid hadn’t always used it. She was an educated woman, a teacher at one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country, back in the day when some of the Kennedy and Rockefeller boys went there. During her years in New England, Astrid had erased her Kentucky drawl and any vestige of open racial prejudice. After she retired, she moved to Danville, where she was respected for a career spent educating America’s brightest young minds. She had a fine reputation. But recently, she had moments when she seemed to transport back to when she was a young woman, living in the small town where she grew up near the Tennessee border, where generations of her family had relied on the word to maintain order.
Ruthie and her cousins had a hint that something might be wrong with Astrid when she cussed them at last year’s Fourth of July picnic, even her favorite nephew, the Methodist preacher. She called them all whores and bastards. Astrid had never kept her opinions to herself, but the change was in her choice of words. She’d never tolerated profanity or vulgarity in her classroom or home, but lately, she had taunted them at family gatherings by cursing and even using the n-word. In front of the youngest children, too. Protests seemed to egg her on, so she said them more frequently and threw in additional slurs about Catholics and Jews. Ruthie wondered if a form of dementia could make her elderly aunt revert to bigotry, expressed with a lilting southern accent. For the past few years, the family had witnessed the unfiltered, private ugliness of Astrid, after a lifetime of seeing the polished public version.
Without realizing it, Ruthie swiped her tongue across her front teeth and remembered a taste from childhood. She—and her sisters—learned that speaking the n-word and other bad words was not tolerated by their parents. Some of the kids at school said it on the playground, but Ruthie learned that such talk was cause for a mouth-washing with a bitter, highly perfumed soap that their mother kept for such occasions. A small motel soap bar fit directly into their child mouths, scraped across their baby teeth and left a waxy residue to remind them of their ugly talk for the rest of the day. Ruthie never forgot that taste. And she never said the word.
“I’m sorry that she spoke like that to one of your nurses,” Ruthie said.
“You need to know that none of us saw the dark-skinned woman she spoke of. Plus, your aunt was talking directly to this woman when she came into the emergency room. She called her Gabriella.”
“I’ve never heard of her.”
Ruthie wondered if Aunt Astrid had been delirious. Maybe it was a dream that seemed real, Ruthie thought. Like her own.
The doctor said that he’d delivered a baby earlier in the evening and was preparing to leave the hospital when he noticed how crowded the emergency room entrance was. Multiple ambulances. A wreck out on the main road. Lots of injuries. The staff was overwhelmed. The head of the emergency room, a friend since med school, asked him if he could stick around and help.
“Your aunt arrived in yet another ambulance, writhing in pain and holding her swollen lower abdomen. A nurse—a redhead I’d never seen before—met the paramedics as they rolled her in. The EMS suspected a large pelvic tumor. Her vitals were strong, though. The nurse said there were no more beds in the emergency room but that she’d find another room for her.”
He had followed the nurse down the hall, then up the elevator to this room.
“Your aunt was quiet as we passed through the hallways and when I started to examine her, but her pain returned in a few minutes. It was rhythmic, like labor, but at her age, I never gave it a second thought. Her abdomen had the tautness of full-term pregnancy, but I kept thinking tumor. The nurse was adjusting the stirrups for a pelvic exam and when I rested my hand on her belly, I felt movement. Unquestionably, a baby.” Dr. Baldwin looked like a first-year med student as he told the story.
Ruthie remained silent. How could this be? This tiny, flattened body had just been through labor? Astrid hadn’t looked strong enough to endure childbirth any time in Ruthie’s memory. What had happened to the firm roundness the doctor had described? She remembered her sisters’ pregnancies, when their bellies moved to reveal each jab by their impatient babies, ready to be born. She also knew it took days, weeks, even months for those bellies to flatten and constrict, but Astrid’s body had already returned to fragility, its thin skin stretched across weakening bone, with no sign of lush, recent fertility.
“I didn’t know what I was dealing with,” he said. “I was working with only the one nurse. The redhead, the one with the blue eyes. She was very good, maybe a midwife. There were times when she seemed more in control of the situation than me.”
Ruthie listened as he described the birth. And the death.
“I wanted to get your aunt something for the pain but the baby was coming too quickly. I had assumed that her extreme muscle atrophy—entirely consistent with her age—would keep her from having the strength to be able to push. I was wrong. She pushed hard and almost silently, except for talking to the woman she called Gabriella until the baby was delivered.”
The baby was born at 3 a.m. Astrid died within minutes.
“She continued to talk to Gabriella, more calmly than before. She had no sign of hemorrhaging but her blood pressure and pulse slowed and weakened. She died quietly, very much like any 92-year-old who dies of natural causes.”
He looked at Ruthie and shook his head. “If I hadn’t been there, delivering this baby, I would never believe this story.”
“Where’s the baby? Is it alive?”
“He’s fine. A little small, but he’s healthy. He cried at first, like he should, then he calmed down. He looked at me like even he understands it’s a miracle.”
He paused and ran his hands through his hair. “I’m required by law to order an autopsy when there’s a death of unknown circumstances, but I’m not sure anyone could keep this quiet if the pathologist learns that this woman died in childbirth.”
There was silence. Ruthie didn’t know what to say.
“Ms. Owens, I’ve been sitting here since the delivery, trying to decide what to do,” he said. “If news of this birth leaks out, he won’t have a chance at a normal life.”
At this point Ruthie was only thinking about the baby.
“Do what you have to do, I guess,” Ruthie said. “Can I see him? Does he look…normal?”
“Perfectly normal. Apgar scores at 9. Come on, I’ll take you to the nursery on the second floor.”
They walked down a flight of stairs and through buffed tile halls. At an intersection where the halls crossed, there were nursery windows and lots of activity. Nurses in scrubs were rushing around. Plastic, rolling bassinets were being shuttled to mothers’ rooms for feedings and visits. Some were rolled back to the nursery to allow moms to sleep. Grandparents escorted young children arriving to see newborn siblings for the first time. Ruthie caught glimpses inside rooms, where new parents held tiny babies, faces aglow in the wonder of the moment.
“He’s right here,” Dr. Baldwin said, pointing to a solitary bassinet behind the glass. The baby inside wore a tiny blue sock cap and was swaddled in a light blue blanket. The sign near his feet said “Baby Boy Roe” and nothing else. No mother, no father, no details.
“I decided not to put any information on the card. For privacy reasons,” he said.
“Why, he’s beautiful,” Ruthie said. There was a tightness in her throat that wouldn’t go away with swallowing. Months ago she had dreamed of a tow-headed toddler, shrieking and laughing as he ran. Could this be him?
“He is, indeed,” Dr. Baldwin said. “Would you like to hold him?”
She nodded, unable to speak.
“You’re welcome to use the private room over here, next to the nursery. I’ll ask the nurses to bring you some scrubs to wear,” he said. “We need to watch him for the next few hours to make sure he’s okay.”
He led her through a door marked Family Room, a small cubicle attached to the nursery.
“This is for families with a preemie or a sick baby. It gives them a chance to be together without going too far from newborn intensive care,” Dr. Baldwin said. “Don’t worry. He shows no sign of complications. I’m just being cautious.”
“One more detail. Have you decided on a funeral home? We need to know where the body should be sent,” he said.
“Morefield’s, here in Danville,” she said. For years, Astrid had made it clear that she despised that tacky new funeral home built on the edge of town, wedged between the gigantic Southwest Bible Church and Wal*Mart. Astrid preferred the staid traditions and downtown location of Morefield’s.
“We’ll let them know. I’ll check back with you after you’ve seen the baby,” he said and left the room.
A suit of hospital scrubs sat on the small glass-top table. Ruthie put them on over her work clothes and tapped the hand sanitizer dispenser on the wall. She sat in the painted rocking chair and waited. The clock on the wall, with a face that advertised infant formula, ticked softly. It was 10 a.m.
Ruthie panicked. She had forgotten to remind Joe that her substitute teacher had to wait with Maggie Sparks at dismissal. Maggie’s dad was often late to pick her up. She called Joe but got his voice mail.
“Joe, I’m still in Danville. It’s been a crazy morning. There are some details I need to sort out before I can leave,” she paused, considering whether to mention the baby. She decided to wait until after she held him. Then she’d know what to do.
“Please make sure the sub knows to wait with Maggie Sparks. She gets very upset if she has to wait by herself. I’ll call you when I’m on my way home.”
As she put the phone back into her purse, a nurse opened the inner door that led directly from the nursery. She rolled in the bassinet with the baby sleeping inside. The nurse picked him up, cradled him to her chest for a moment, and looked at Ruthie as she passed the baby.
“Here’s your sweet boy,” she said. Ruthie was surprised that the nurse thought he belonged to her.
Being careful to support the baby’s head, Ruthie took him into her arms. She wanted to see him, to make sure he wasn’t freakish, like his birth. She counted his toes and fingers, felt the curvature of his head, and listened for his breaths. How could something so beautiful come from someone like Astrid? She smelled his newness, unlike anything she had smelled before. She had never before held a baby so new. She didn’t know how he had come to be in her arms, but it felt so natural.
The clock on the wall ticked as Ruthie rocked the boy. There was a light tap on the door and Dr. Baldwin walked in.
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s perfect,” Ruthie said. The doctor smiled and nodded.
“Ms. Owens, I hope you understand that, if this story gets out, he’s going to be hounded for life.”
“Won’t the privacy rules protect him?”
“Normally, yes, but this isn’t a normal event. I can’t guarantee that the news won’t get out. There won’t be an autopsy, unless you insist.” Ruthie shook her head.
“I appreciate you trying to keep it quiet. It is what it is, I suppose.”
“I want to protect him. I believe that’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m sure you do, too.”
Dr. Baldwin paced in the little room, so small that he crossed it in two or three strides.
“And, we’ve got an immediate problem. Who’s going to take this baby home? I’d hate to see him go into foster care, if he has a family,” he said.
The question surprised Ruthie. Until that moment, she had been immersed in the baby. She hadn’t considered anything beyond the walls of the tiny room. Not even Joe.
“He’s one of us. We’re Astrid’s family. We’ll do what’s right,” she said. She saw Dr. Baldwin’s eyes studying the rings on her left hand.
“Do you have children, Mrs. Owens?”
“Not yet. We’re still trying.”
He nodded, and paused before he spoke again.
“I don’t understand how this baby came into the world. Usually that’s the easiest question I get to explain to my patients,” he said. “And I don’t know why he came into the world. The only thing I know for certain is that he’s here and he deserves to be loved, just like any other new baby. No more and no less than the others.”
He opened the door, and turned back toward Ruthie. “Just think about it.”
She nodded and kept rocking. She didn’t want to think of the world outside. There would be so many questions.
Holding him close, she fed him from a small glass bottle of formula that had been left in the corner of the bassinet. Her mind went back to Astrid. She wondered about what had happened in her great-aunt’s life in the past few months. She thought about what had gone on in Astrid’s life for as long as she’d known her. Ruthie grappled with the mystery of how the old woman became the link between hope and fulfillment, the bridge between heaven and earth.
The clock ticked as they rocked; she ran her hand lightly over his small peach-fuzzed head. Another hour passed. A different nurse came in to check on them, but Ruthie hardly noticed. He was sleeping and she didn’t want to wake him. She was mesmerized with the baby, his breathing, the rocking, the ticking.
“Would you like for me to take him back?” the nurse whispered. Ruthie looked up, into eyes that were a color she’d not seen before, a glittering swirl of aquamarine, azure, and turquoise. The nurse’s red hair was pulled back into a ponytail, her freckled face attentive and eager, yet comforting.
“Please, let me keep him.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Yes. Just a bit longer,” Ruthie said. Her gaze returned to the baby. After a few more rocking movements, she asked, “How long can I stay here?”
There was no response. Ruthie looked around and found that the nurse was gone. She and the baby were alone again. Perhaps another shift change, she thought. She must have lost track of time. She remembered she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, the forgotten sack lunch still in her bag. How would she explain the baby to Joe? He might think she had done something drastic, like kidnap a stranger’s baby.
Another nurse came in, announcing that she had just come on duty.
“Your baby’s beautiful,” she said. “I see you’ve decided on a name.”
Ruthie started to correct her, but decided against it.
“Thank you. Well, I’m not really sure of his name yet, though.”
“I was told to go through dismissal procedures with you as soon as there’s a name on the birth certificate,” the nurse said.
“Who said it was time for us to be dismissed?” Ruthie asked.
“Well, the birth certificate application has been signed by Dr. Baldwin. I guess one of the nurses from the last shift left a note, saying everything was in order. I need to go over the self-care instructions with you and show you how to take care of his cord and schedule his PKU test. Are you going to nurse?”
The question startled Ruthie.
“Can I see the birth certificate, please?”
“Certainly,” the nurse said as she rifled through the paperwork. She pulled out a sheet and handed it to Ruthie. “Do you need a car seat? We’ll give you one, no charge, if you need it.”
Ruthie scanned the birth certificate application, signed by Dr. Dan Baldwin with the time of birth, weight and length filled in. So were all the other spaces.
Name of Infant: Ethridge Owens
Name of Mother: Ruthie Owens
She was startled to see her own name, in print, listed as his mother. This wasn’t how she had expected to become a parent. But, she thought, nothing about having a baby had gone according to plan.
She saw, stapled to the birth certificate, an envelope with her name handwritten on it.
“Would you hold him for me?” she said to the nurse, who took the baby and stood nearby.
Ruthie opened the envelope. Inside was a copy of Astrid’s death certificate, also signed by Dr. Baldwin. Under cause of death, “unspecified natural causes.” She slipped it back into the envelope and tucked it in her bag.
The nurse handed the baby back to her, then gave her paper after paper, in preparation of discharging the baby from the hospital. She was nervous. It was happening so fast, but she wasn’t stopping.
“Excuse me, but I noticed a small oversight on the application for his birth certificate. Would it be a big deal to fill in one blank?” she asked the nurse. She wouldn’t push if doing so alerted the nurse of an irregularity. She watched the young woman’s face.
“Not a problem. The doctor signed electronically. We fill in spaces all the time, like adding the baby’s name.”
“Perfect. I noticed my husband’s name was left off. Can you add it in, where it says ‘Name of Father’”?
“Oh, sure. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize we’d left it off.”
“Joseph Owens is his name. I’ll wait here while you fix it.”
“It won’t take a minute,” the nurse said, heading out the door to the nurses’ station.
Ruthie held the baby and rocked. She dreaded the questions that were sure to come from Joe, her sisters, everyone. As she bent down to kiss his head, he opened his puffy, blue-gray eyes and seemed to focus on her. They looked at each other for a long while. His hand, tightly clinched as if ready to fight, unfolded slightly as her forefinger touched his palm. He grasped it and didn’t let go. Ruthie had her answer.