by michael Melgaard // issue 3. Vol. 1 // web exclusive
HLR Emerging Writers Fiction Contest
Three months into the pregnancy, two weeks after Rob and Julie found out it was twins, and a week before they planned to let everyone know, they were told that one of the foetuses was not viable. Julie asked the doctor what that meant, and he said the organs were not forming correctly—the baby, a girl, would not make it to term.
He went on, explaining to Rob that there was a chance the non-viable foetus’s continued development might affect the other twin—a boy, who appeared to be developing without complication. Though, he was quick to add, they still needed more tests to be sure. He said it might become necessary to terminate the non-viable foetus to protect the other—Julie’s shoulder tensed under Rob’s hand when the doctor said “terminate”—and that they would have to monitor the situation closely. He told them their pregnancy was now considered high-risk; they would need to come for a check up every week; if there was any abdominal pain, no matter how slight, they were to head straight to the emergency. He asked if they had any questions.
Julie waited until they were in the car before she said, that horrible doctor didn’t even look at me. She said she hated that he called her little baby a foetus, and that he obviously didn’t care at all about anyone’s feelings. She asked why someone like that would even become a doctor. Rob told her it was normal for them to be like that: they were trained to keep distant. Julie asked why he was defending that horrible man, and Rob said he wasn’t defending, just explaining, and then they both stopped talking for rest of the drive.
Julie went straight to the bathroom when they got home. She got in the shower, and turned her face into the water, and watched it flow between her breasts and over her still-flat belly, and thought about the two lives inside it—and how one of them was not viable. Later, Rob let himself in, and sat beside her on the edge of the tub. He put an arm over her shoulder and pulled her to him. She turned her face into his chest and said, our little girl is going to die.
They went to see the doctor every week. Julie kept quiet while he went over test results with Rob, and told them the same things about being careful and taking care of themselves. She was quiet on the rides home, and quiet all the days and nights in between. Rob didn’t know what else to do, so he ended up being quiet beside her. They went to work and watched TV and ate their meals, and sometimes Julie would talk on the phone with a friend or her mom. They tried to go shopping for baby things once, but at the store Julie said she couldn’t do it; she couldn’t not buy clothes for the girl who was still alive, but wouldn’t be. They went back home.
A week before the third trimester, a stomach pain woke Julie up in the middle of the night. Rob wanted to go to the hospital right away, but she said it was probably nothing, and they should wait and see if it happened again. She felt something under the covers and reached down to feel what it was. Her hand came up covered with blood. Rob hurried her into the car and to the hospital, where she was taken away on a gurney. A nurse led him to a waiting room and told him they would let him know as soon as they had news.
A while later, a doctor came in and told Rob the non-viable foetus had died. That had caused Julie to go into labour—her body was rejecting the dead foetus, but, in the process, was rejecting the healthy one as well. They had given her drugs to stop the labour and they could hold it off a while, but there was only so much they could do to prevent it. If their still-living baby was to have any chance of survival, it would need, at the very least, another week in the womb. More time would be better.
Rob brought some things from home—blankets and clothes and DVDs—and moved into the chair in Julie’s hospital room. He called her work and explained about the early maternity leave, and he called his work and said he might not be in for a while. That first day, they put a needle through Julie’s belly and injected the baby with steroids to help the lungs develop. She was given pills that kept her tired and nauseous all day. In the middle of the first night, she asked Rob if he thought their baby knew his sister had died. Then she said she could hold on, that she had to. Every night before she fell asleep, she would count down the days they needed to be sure the baby would be okay, saying, just six more, then five, then four.
Three days before the doctor’s deadline, she went into labour again. While the nurses pushed her bed through the hospital, she kept saying, no, it’s too soon. Please god, no. Rob caught the elbow of their doctor and asked him if it had been long enough; he told Rob they’d do everything they could.
It was a quick birth. The doctor told Rob it had gone as well as could be expected—their boy was alive, but his heartbeat was weak, and he was on a ventilator and would be for a long time. The doctor was very careful to say there was still a long road ahead of them. The baby would need surgery soon, and there would be a lot of things to overcome before they could be sure the child would survive. Then he shook Rob’s hand and offered congratulations.
Julie was recovered enough by that night to see their child. A nurse took them to the neonatal ICU—she told them it was called the miracle ward because they’d seen so many there. There were two rows of incubators. The nurse led them to the one second from the end, and said, here’s your brave little guy.
When Rob was young, he had knocked a bird’s nest out of a tree with a slingshot. The eggs cracked open on the ground, and he had watched as the half-formed chicks—purple, slimy, and barely recognizable as birds—struggled and died. His son looked like one of those birds—too small, too new. His skin was translucent, covered with yellow and purple blotches that Rob realized were organs moving under the skin. There were needles and tubes taped into the arms and stomach; a too-large ventilator came out of the baby’s mouth. It looked like it was choking him. It looked horrible.
Julie said, oh my god, our poor little guy, and put a hand on the plastic shell between them. She said, look at how small his fingers are, and Rob watched the fleshy hand move from side to side, and Julie said that he was trying to wave. All Rob could say was, it’s so premature. Julie looked up at him and said, Jeremy is so premature, and of course he was. And she said this would be hard for them, but it was harder for him, and they had to be there for their little boy to give him strength. And Rob started to say something, but then he was crying, and Julie was comforting him. She told him it would be alright, and after a while Rob said that Jeremy was going to make it—he had to.
Julie asked the nurse if she could hold him. She said she was sorry: there was too much risk of infection. But she smiled and told them that in a couple of weeks little Jeremy would be allowed out, and he would be big and strong like his dad, and they could hold him and play with him all they wanted. Julie and Rob smiled back. Julie put her hand on the plastic and said goodbye and good luck, and that they loved him and would see him soon. As the nurse led them out, she said, aren’t they just the most precious things.
That night, Julie and Rob were woken and told that Jeremy needed surgery immediately. They moved into a waiting room, and a few minutes later a doctor they didn’t know came in and explained that they had done everything they could, but it had just been too soon. Rob nodded and thanked him, and said he knew they’d tried their best. Julie said if only she could have held on another couple more days, and Rob told her not to think like that—there was nothing any of them could have done differently. Then the doctor was gone, and later a nurse came into their room and asked if they’d like to see Jeremy.
They were led through the hospital together, through a room with curtains drawn around beds, and then into a smaller one. Jeremy lay in the middle of a too-large bed, a blanket covering up to his neck. The tubes and wires and ventilator were all gone. He looked, for the first time, like a baby. Julie stood back and held onto Rob, and then she bent close to the bed and pulled the blanket back before the nurse could tell her not to. There were large black stitches across his chest. She didn’t look at that, but lifted him up cupped in her two hands. She held him against her chest and kissed his forehead. Rob held her shoulders and touched the side of his child’s face.
Then Julie asked where their little girl was. The nurse hesitated and said it might be difficult, and Julie said she would like to see her, please. The nurse asked if they were sure, and when Julie only stared back, she left. She came back pushing another large bed, with an even smaller body on it. The nurse told Rob they really should leave the blanket on, and Julie crouched down beside the tiny face and reached out her hand. Rob touched her shoulder and started to say, no. But Julie just put a finger on the baby’s face. Then she pulled Rob’s hand down to do the same. She said, Isabel, can we call her Isabel? Rob said of course, it was a pretty name. Then Julie stood up and thanked the nurse.
They had a small ceremony for the twins at the hospital chapel before Julie checked out. It was just them and the priest. Rob told everyone but their closest family that Julie had miscarried and that they didn’t want any cards or anything like that. Back at home, they set about recovering. Rob went back to work; Julie did not. She asked her job to change the maternity leave to extended sick leave, and when that was up, a leave of absence. She spent days in bed or on the couch. Their family doctor prescribed anti-depressants, which she never took. Her mother visited every day, and her friends on weekends, but she didn’t like them to stay long. Rob was patient for the first few months, but things got hard as it went on: they had a few fights and then a blow-out that ended with Julie moving into her mom’s house for two weeks.
After that, it got better. They started going for walks and then into town to run errands together. They went for drives on the weekend. There were still things that set her off—babies in carriages, pregnant women—but it got so they could work through the worst days. Eventually they went out with friends, and she drank too much the first few times, and Rob had to get her home while she cried and screamed, and then that stopped too. By then it had been a year.
She started work, part-time at first. They went on a short vacation. They got past the feeling of just sticking things out and started to feel love for each other again. They were closer than before, the marriage stronger. They never talked about trying to have another kid, but when Julie got pregnant again, she simply told Rob that she was going to go through with it. It went smoothly, and a year later they were expecting another.
It still came out sometimes. Like one night when the whole family was over for dinner, and her mother-in-law asked if she was excited to have a second child. Julie said that it was her fourth, and she said it with all the force of her loss. Everyone stopped eating and looked anywhere but at her, until her mother-in-law said, yes, of course. A minute later, Julie excused herself. Rob followed her into the kitchen where she was crying over the sink and saying, they were real, I touched them, they were real. And Rob held onto her and said that he knew: he had held them too.
Michael Melgaard's short stories have appeared in the Lampeter Review, and online on the Potluck and Cleaver websites. He regularly contributes to the National Post books section, and has written for the Torontoist and the Millions. He lives in Toronto.