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We walk silently, hand in hand, down the familiar gravel path. The crisp air bites at our exposed faces. A passerby might be disconcerted by our silence, expecting confrontation, but we need no words. We know each other so vividly that a slight acceleration of breathing or a squeeze of the hand tells the other person a thousand words. Jasper squeezes my hand and I smile. A silent, “I love you”, in our eyes. We reach our destination; a small dilapidated bench under an ancient willow tree. Its long braches strain from their own weight as it sways in the cool breeze. It whispers to the other trees as we sit on the bench. The whining complaints of the bench’s legs send a gray squirrel running for the nearest tree. We remain silent for a few more seconds, watching the grass play in the cool breeze, and the multi-colored leaves swirl into an Eddie beside us. Now, Jasper is ready to talk. He turns to me and takes both of my hand into his.
“I’ve been assigned to fight in Iraq”, he says with tentative pride.
A single tear slides down my face and I nod. I knew this was coming. “You’ll do what you have to do, and I’ll wait.” That is all that is said between us. I know that he can feel the tension shoot through my body like the bullets that will fly over his head, and I don’t try to hide it. I wish that there was some way I could keep him home. Some way I could keep him safe, but I know that I can’t. I have to let him go. I have to let him “do his duty”. I get up to walk away, sensing an end to our conversation if not our life together, when he pulls me back. I can see in his eyes now that there is something more; something even more serious than what he has just told me. “What’s wrong, love?” I ask with concern.
“Nothing is wrong, Alice. I just want to tell you something else, but I’m not sure how to say it.”
“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to”, I am very concerned now. There has never been anything that Jasper couldn’t say before.
“No, I need to say this, Alice. When I come home, I…I want to come home to, well, a wife.”
I stare at him, shocked. Is he proposing? “Is this for real?” I ask him, dumbfounded.
“Yes Alice. I want you to be my wife.”
I sit back on the bench and put my head in my hands, rocking slightly form side to side. I am in utter shock. “I don’t know Jasper. I couldn’t handle losing the love of my life, let alone my…husband.” The word falls flat in my mouth. Am I truly questioning the possibility of achieving my only dream?
“You won’t lose me, Alice. I’ll always be here with you. Every moment I’m over there, I’ll be thinking of you. I need to have someone to come home to. Please Alice? Marry me?”
A dam breaks in me and my tears flow freely. I love him more than anything, but can I handle the pain of watching my husband go to war and possibly going to his funeral? I hold his hands in mine and kiss his thick, calloused fingers. I feel as though I’m standing on a cliff, and he’s asking me to jump. I look back at the safety of the path down to civilization, turn from it, and run as fast as I can towards the edge, and jump. “Yes. I will marry you, Jasper. But promise me that you will come home to me.”
He smiles the most victorious smile I’ve ever seen. “Of course! I promise.” He pulls me into a kiss. This is the first time I kiss my Fiancé. I know that his promise is sincere, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve just agreed to buy a package of cheese due to expire in two days.
We hold hands and walk back down the path that will forever be part of our history. He is jovial and full of spirit as he walks. His pace is light and quick. He kicks a rotting pile of leaves like a schoolboy. My mood is not so bright. I have just stepped into a lion’s cage with no protection. My pace is slow and cumbersome. He has to pull me along. I kick a stone in frustration, and watch as it skids to a halt in the road. All of its momentum is gone.
The wedding comes and goes. It was a wonderful, traditional, and very emotional ceremony. I still can’t get over the feeling I get when he calls me his wife. It is so surreal to me. Just last year I was stuck concentrating on my schoolwork at college, and now I’m moving into my first apartment with my new husband. This is all too fast, and yet at the same time I am thrilled. My biggest dream has come true. I am married to Jasper, the love of my life, and I couldn’t be happier. Then I remember that in just two short months he will be leaving for Iraq.
We sit together on our small, rescue mission sofa watching the news. My head rests on his chest and I listen to the slow even breaths of my husband. I try to forget the fact that he’s leaving tomorrow, but it doesn’t work. I’m jumping out of my skin with nervousness. Should I tell him my condition before he leaves? “Jasper?” I whisper, and chicken out.
“Hmm?” Oops. He was sleeping.
“I’m going to miss you.”
“I know, love. I’m going to miss you too. More than you could ever imagine, but I’ll come home soon enough. Please don’t worry about me. Is there something else you wanted to tell me?” Why does he always know everything I’m hiding?
“Oh, no. I’m just nervous about you being in Iraq with bullets flying over your head and everything. Nothing important…” I roll my eyes and try to push the tears back into my eyes.
“Alice, look at me. I will be careful. Please don’t make this harder than it already is.”
The tears fight back and win because I’m trying to hide the fact that there is something really huge that I need to tell him. He sees me crying and his face gets worried. Great. Now I have to tell him. “There is something that I need to tell you, but I don’t think I know how you’ll react.”
“Please tell me what’s going on, Alice. I want to help you.”
“Well, I am…pregnant.”
A series of emotions fly across his face. Shock, anger, fear, happiness, hope.
He takes a long breath and looks at me affectionately. “That’s wonderful, Alice! I’m going to be a father? This is amazing!”
I sigh with relief. I don’t know why I thought he would take it badly. I suppose I’m just still stuck in my high school years when if you got pregnant you were shunned by society. I am a married woman now. I have the right to be pregnant.
“This is so exciting Alice! When did you find out?”
“I went to the doctor yesterday while you were at work. I had a hunch that I might be because I’ve been really sick to my stomach the past few days, but only in the morning.”
“This is so wonderful! Did you tell your parents yet?”
“No. I actually didn’t even think of that. I was worried about telling you.”
“Well would you mind if I called your mom? I want to tell someone”
“Sure go ahead. But tell her that I’m sleeping I don’t want to deal with the onslaught of questions right now.”
He rushes off to the phone like a little kid, and I lay back on the couch, relaxing finally. I breathe a sigh of relief, and close my eyes. For the first time in months I tell myself that everything is going to be okay.
“This has to be a dream”, I say to myself. I am sitting on the couch still but the room looks different. There is a crib and baby toys everywhere. From the crib I hear a faint crying. I get up to see what it is. I peek over the side and see the most beautiful baby girl I’ve ever seen. Somehow I know that she is mine. I pick her up and she stops crying. I want to show Jasper how beautiful she is. Where is he? “Jasper?” I yell. Only my echo responds. “Jasper?” I run frantically looking for him. I look at the clock. Ten-thirty at night. He should be home by now. Where is he? “Jasper? Jasper? Jasper?” I spin around in circles looking for him. I run all over the apartment becoming more and more frightened. When I run into our bedroom I stop dead. Jasper is lying there in our bed, but he is not the Jasper I know. He is pale, cold, and bruised. A small, red hole peeks out from underneath is hairline. “NO!” I scream. I try to run towards my husband’s body but someone is holding me back.
I open my eyes and sit bolt upright on the couch. Jasper is there holding my shoulders. I am crying hysterically. “What a horrible dream!” I sob into his chest. He holds me and rocks me back and forth.
“Shh…it’s okay honey. It was only a dream. I’m here.”
“But you were…DEAD!” a new wave of sobs chokes me.
“I’m right here honey it’s alright. Calm down or you’ll make yourself sick.”
I take a deep breath and look up at him. His face is like a ray of sunshine. I make sure that he is really there, breathing, alive.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks me.
“Not right now. I can’t right now. Maybe later.”
“You are so beautiful when you sleep. Your mouth smiles even in sleep.”
I don’t ever want to tell him. What if it comes true? I can’t take that risk. He leaves tomorrow. I want this to be a happy last night. Last. I tremble at the sound of that final word.
“I’m okay now. It was just a bad nightmare. Do you want to go to bed now?”
“Sure hon.” He gives me an appraising look to make sure that I’m telling the truth. He’s not satisfied but he doesn’t press the issue. I love him for that.
The next morning we wake up early. He has to be at the military base by seven. I make him a nice breakfast. This will probably be the last good meal he’ll have in a while. We sit there silently over our pancakes and sausage, relishing the moment. I stare at his face trying to memorize every detail, every cell even. When he finishes we do the dishes slowly. Neither one of us wants to say goodbye so we prolong everything we do. When the time finally comes for me to drive him to the base, I am ready. Not ready to say goodbye, but ready to leave him for a while. We drive in silence. We need no words. He holds my hand as he drives and squeezes it every so often. Each squeeze is an, “I’ll miss you, and I love you.”
When we reach the base I get out of the car to switch spots with him. He gets out too and catches me as I walk by. He pulls me into a passionate kiss and looks at me.
“I needed one for the road.” He says, explaining the kiss that needs no explanation. “God forbid I should die, I will be reborn in a small piece of Renee.”
“Who’s Renee?” I ask confused.
“Our daughter.” He puts his hand on my stomach, lightly rubbing the small bump that is forming above my pelvis. He kisses me again and walks away never looking back. He is strong. I have faith that he will come home.
It has been eight months since Jasper left for Iraq and I have only received a total of nine phone calls, and twelve letters. I miss him terribly. This small apartment is cold and bleak without his warm personality in it. I really need him now. It’s hard for me to do anything by myself what with being the size of an elephant and everything. I received news the other day that Jasper’s Company will be coming home in two more months. That means that he won’t be here for the birth of his daughter. Oh great. I have had the same dream every night for three weeks now. Each time the feeling of loss and burden gets worse and worse. I pray to god that they aren’t prophetic dreams.
I lay there in my lonely bed, awake again after the dream. I try to roll over and as I push my bulking body over on its side I feel something pop, and something warm starts to saturate the bed sheets. “Oh no”, I say as I feel the first contraction. I slowly push myself upright and reach over for the phone beside the bed. Of course my parents are out of town this week. I dial 911 not knowing what else to do. I sit there in the dark of my bedroom while the ringing phone pierces the silence in my ear. I tell the operator what’s going on and they tell me that they’re sending an ambulance and to be patient and calm. Calm. Yeah right.
I scramble out of bed as fast as my body will allow, put on some sweat pants and stand in the foyer waiting for the call over the intercom so I can buzz the paramedics in. I do the deep breathing exercises that I had seen on TV years ago. In through the nose out through the mouth. “Where are they?” I scream at the wall. It seems like it has been hours since I called them. I decide to make the decent down the stairs and wait for them outside. It can’t be much longer. I finally make it outside onto the sidewalk in front of our building. I sit on the bench there and continue breathing as the contractions increase in frequency. In through the nose out through the mouth. Finally I see the blessed lights and hear the sirens of the ambulance. I breathe a sigh of relief and stand to walk towards them, but I’m very dizzy. I sway slightly but catch myself on the bench. “Why are they still so far away?” I ask out loud. I try to get up again to wave to them, but the dizziness comes back. I stumble and fall to the ground hitting my head on the bench hard as I come down. There was so much pain in my head that I didn’t even realize that I hadn’t landed on my stomach and the baby. The last thing I remember seeing is a pale-faced paramedic leaning over me as I close my eyes.
When I open my eyes again I wish I hadn’t. There is so much noise and commotion going on around me I just want to go back to sleep and ignore it all. I would but there is someone jabbing me in the ribs. I look over to see who it is but no one is there. It’s coming form inside of me. “The baby is…kicking me” I try to explain to them, confused.
“It’s okay, try to stay still. You hit your head pretty hard.” A man in a white coat says to me as he feels my neck and turns my head from side to side.
“But you have to make it stop! The baby has to come out!”
“I know miss. We’re working as fast as we can. Please try not to move. Your skull has a rather large fracture.”
I obey his request and lay perfectly still just letting the pain consume me rather than fighting it off with clenched muscles and screams. It feels like there is a jackhammer on my head and a steamroller on my stomach. I just want it all to stop. I can feel unconsciousness coming and I welcome it with open arms. At this point I’d rather be dead than feel this pain. Death. That sounds nice. Forever peaceful. No more pain, no more worrying. But I can’t let Jasper come home to no one. No, I have to fight. But if I just let myself go, just stop fighting completely, everything will be all better. All better. Yes, I think I’ll die now. I take a deep breath and fill my lungs to their capacity smelling every scent in the air, sensing everyone around me. I slowly exhale letting all my fears, all my stress, and all my life go out with it. I am dying. When all the air completely leaves my lungs I do not bother to take another breath. I won’t need it. I can feel my life slipping away when I hear it.
The soft cry of a baby fills my ears. This is not just any baby. I know this cry. That is my daughter, my Renee calling for me. Forget death, my baby needs me. It takes all of my strength to open my eyes but when I do I can see her. I remember to breathe again and I can feel my heart pumping blood to every part of my body. She is so beautiful. Tiny hands and feet wave in the air as the doctor cuts the umbilical cord. I reach for her but my hand does not move when I tell it to. I try to say something, anything to the doctors, but my voice makes no sound. The doctor is taking her away. “No! Bring her back!” I try to yell. Again no sound escapes my throat. What is wrong with me? Am I already dead? No I can’t be I can see everything. But then I realize.
I am not lying down anymore. I am standing behind the doctor. What? I thought I had a fractured skull! I turn slowly around. A young woman lies there on a cot. She is not moving, not even breathing. There is a small cut in her forehead right underneath her hairline. She looks familiar somehow. “I know that hair,” I think to myself. “And that nose.” I look at her features closely looking at the details and the way that her mouth looks like it’s smiling even in sleep. “Oh no…no this can’t be happening!” The woman on the cot is me. Cold, dead, and never to see my baby or my husband again. The dreams were not about Jasper. I was the one laying on bed.
Jasper had said that he would be reborn in Renee if he were to die. He is coming home alive and well. I am dead. I know what I have to do. I walk towards the door that the doctor went through with my baby, and see her in a small plastic box in the middle of the room. I concentrate on making my body small and compact. I slip into the box and lay down on Renee. I am part of her now. I don’t know if she can hear me or not but I tell her anyway, “Hello Renee. I’m your mom.”