I knew that my child was different from the moment those final bursts of pain were swept aside with the sweet relief of a finished labour. “Take a break,” the nurse told me as the baby’s crying began, “there’s more to come, but the worst of it is over. Well done, you.”
They were wiping her down, placing her in a tray. Had they already cut the cord? I’d missed it. I wiped sweat from my face with a shaking hand. “Can I see her?” my voice cracked.
“Not just yet,” the nurse said in a calm, reassuring voice. The doctor had already left. “Let’s get her cleaned off and checked.” Then, she started poking and prodding my abdomen and I felt more warmth and wetness as blood gushed between my legs.
“Is she healthy?” I asked through gritted teeth, trying to distract myself from the ache, numbed as it was by the medication I’d demanded.
“Everything is normal so far,” the nurse said, slightly crooked teeth poking through her parted, dark-skinned lips. “We just need to run some standard tests.” Normal. Normal was good.
She was crying as they took her from the room. That was also a good sign. I let my head fall back into the synthetic hospital pillows and allowed the pain and exhaustion to wash over my instinctual maternal concern.
It was just me and the nurse now.
But soon, it would be just me and her. That tiny thing that had kicked painfully against my ribs and pushed into my spine, would finally be here. My baby daughter. No husband. No father. “An unusual choice,” my mother called it, with her typical skeptical eyebrow.
“In-vitro,” I told her and my father as we sat in their green room. It was a small, extended porch area in their house with glass walls and a slanted glass ceiling. There was nothing actually green in the room. My mother couldn’t keep an aloe vera plant alive, much less a whole room of potted plants. Perhaps that’s why she was surprised by my choice.
The glass in the green room was always spotted with tree-falling’s and dust, something that would have sent any reasonable person to the store to buy window treatment tools. Or at the very least hire some kid with a squeegee and a bucket.
I sighed. I’d already explained it to my sister, Kimberly (believing, rightfully, that she would be more sympathetic), and to my best friend Pria.
“I’m thirty-seven,” I explained to them. “I don’t have a lot more time if I want to have one of my own.” I pressed my hand gently to my lower abdomen.
I’d been so focused on my career as a Professor of Economics at the University of Lethbridge that I’d never found the time or even had the inclination to date. It wasn’t that I wasn’t attracted to people. I just couldn’t grasp the idea that I’d be handing over fifty percent of everything to another person, when half of those relationships ended in expensive mortgages, arguments, heartbreak, and lawyers. Example A: my sister Kimberly. She was two years older than me, and it took her exactly three years and two months before her marriage crumbled into divorce.
Her husband cheated on her. That’s it. She wasn’t ‘wife’ enough for him, and he dumped her for no fewer than five younger, more attractive alternatives. She’d suspected the betrayal by the second, and realized it by the third, but it still took five for her to finally call it quits.
“It’s not right,” my father said hesitantly, in that quiet voice he always used. He gave his wife a sidelong glance.
She nodded. “There should be a father in the picture. It’s not right for a kid to have only one parent. What about when they start asking questions? I wish you’d talked to us before going through with it… How much did it cost?”
Every parent imagines their child is unique to other children. My child is so smart. My child is so cute. Look how tall he is! Look how beautiful she is! Look, look, watch, see. “I took a picture”; “let me show you”; “I read an article that says they don’t usually learn this skill for another few months…”
But, my daughter was different. I’d known it since the beginning stages of the pregnancy, when I first saw her little black and blue outline on the monitor and had the conversation with the doctor. I was expectant for her arrival for a long time.
“Here she is,” another nurse, this one blonde and young, and probably still in her practicum. Her voice trilled too sweetly.
“Is she okay?” I hated weakness normally, but given the circumstances, I couldn’t help but beg for any scrap of affirmation I could get.
Was there hesitation before the nurse looked at me? “Certainly! Perfectly as expected!” and handed the small pink bundle over to me.
A toque had been placed on her head, with a little knot at the top. I took her in the crook of my arm. I hadn’t held a baby in so many years, yet here… this one was mine. The sob came as I pushed my index finger between her tiny, curled ones. She held tightly to it. That’s when I knew: my child is the smartest, the cutest. My daughter. Perfect.
I held her to me. The two of us were the only people in the world in that moment. We shared our warmth, and the sound of our breaths and heartbeats and the buzz of fluorescent lighting overhead.
She was exactly what this economics professor had been looking for, as if perfection were quantifiable.
My parents visited the next day and held their granddaughter for the first time. “What are you going to name her?” My mother asked, ever the pragmatist. If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have noticed the way she braced herself before holding my girl.
“Well,” I said wearily. I hadn’t gotten much sleep between trying to breastfeed, and the mix of pain medication and fear when they took my daughter into a separate room so I could sleep. (Sleep? Without her beside me? How can I know she’s okay if she’s not here? How often do you check that they’re breathing?) I was exhausted. “I like the name Annabelle,” I said, “or Rachael. I also like Brittany…”
“Rachael,” her mother said immediately. “A biblical name,” she pressed her red nose to the baby’s. “It suits her perfectly.”
“Mom,” I said quickly, “don’t put your face to hers. Dad, did you use the hand sanitizer…?”
That afternoon, I packed up our few belongings and changed her diaper myself for the first time as she squirmed. She was so strong already. My tough girl. I wrapped her in the soft pink and white fabric of the buttoned onesie my mother had brought. It had elephants on it. It was newborn size, but it seemed enormous. I fumbled (with a few curse words) with the buttons, before nearly tossing it aside and giving up.
“Here,” said the same nurse who’d stitched me the day before. (Did these nurses ever go home?) “Let me help.” Together, we put on the little outfit and fitted her into the car seat, and her big eyes drifted open and closed.
“Thank you,” I said, and caught a glimpse of my appearance in the mirror. My hair was greasy and the tattered scrunchie barely held it together.
“If you have any questions,” the nurse reminded me, “just give us a call. The first few nights tend to be the hardest.”
“Thank you,” I said again, lifting the heavy car seat into the crook of my arm and shuffling out of the room and into the elevator.
It was the small things, at first. When she was really young, my little Annabelle would give me a toothless smile and I felt my world melt apart. She would make the slightest sound, and I couldn’t help but look at her. Then, when I thought she couldn’t get any more perfect, that tiny monster would breathlessly scream and wail for hours during the darkest parts of the night. It didn’t matter how dry her diaper was, or how soft the fabric of her sleeper, or how perfect the temperature of the room, or how much or how little milk I fed her. She would cry, and I would cry, and we would share in a disconnected grief.
Why, I would think. A career woman, reduced to this. Other women have a spouse. I’m alone. No one could possibly know what this feels like…
But then, I would remember sitting on the floral Walmart pillow covers in my parent’s green room, and hear them say, “alone? You shouldn’t have wasted so much time on school. If only you’d gone out and found a husband.”
I would bite my lip and persevere, forever clinging to those moments of perfection.
Sometimes, when I pushed her in the stroller through the park, people would pause to look at her. “Ooh, how old?” They would gently pull aside the cover to get a better look at the baby inside. There would always be a sharp intake of breath. “Beautiful!” they would say.
Yes, she was beautiful. And perfect. And smart. And strong. And mine.
And better than everyone else’s stupid baby, part of me would think.
When she was older, and walking, my sister Kimberly came to visit. She lived in Winnipeg, so her trips westward were far and few between. She would pick Annabelle up under the arms and swing her through the air, and they would both giggle. “Auntie,” she would insist, hoping my girl would repeat the word. “Auntie!”
Annabelle would laugh and veer away when she set her down, her curly pigtails flying behind her.
Kimberly gave me a sheepish grin. “I thought maybe I could teach her,” she started to say.
“You know she can’t,” I replied. I was used to explaining.
I was applying for preschools when I encountered new words for it. They were words I hadn’t heard, and they were wrong, and judgmental, and—just plain stupid.
“She’s smart,” I assured the principal. “She’s the smartest kid I know.”
The woman gave me an understanding nod.
I felt a bitterness I hadn’t known before and bit my lip. I stormed out of the colourful room and kicked a tiny chair aside, dragging Annabelle with me, her tiny hand clutched in mine.
And then, I started to feel aches and pains I was unaccustomed to. It was a few days after my fourty-eighth birthday when I noticed them. Annabelle was ten. She stared at me with her big brown eyes as I strapped her into the back seat of the car. “Just a quick trip,” I assured my girl, smoothing down her curly blond hair. She was my world.
I was out of breath by the time we made it through the clinic doors.
“I’m sure it’s just middle age,” I joked as the doctor pressed a cold stethoscope to my back. The nurse had asked me how long since my last checkup. “When my daughter was born,” I told her.
“That was ten years ago,” the nurse scolded.
“Inhale, please,” the doctor said firmly, ignoring my jest. “And exhale.”
I saw him glance at my daughter, but he said nothing, and she watched with her big brown eyes and half-smile.
A few more tests, and a paper for bloodwork. I took Annabelle home and curled under the sheets of my double bed, my eyes shutting out the light streaming through. My head pounded behind my eyelids.
I hoped my daughter would be alright, just for an hour nap. She couldn’t use the phone, and the doors were locked. She had her books, and the television, and she could easily reach the snacks. She knew how to find the cartoons.
It was so cold in the room. We lived in a drafty house built in the eighties. It had been renovated, but the imperfections remained. I clung to the blankets and drew them into my chest until I’d formed a cocoon around me. Despite the ache in me, weariness won over and my body relaxed as I drifted off.
As I slept, I dreamed of Annabelle as a sweet bundle in my arms. I felt her hand in mine. I felt her tiny form shaking me.
It was heavy.
My sweet, perfect, smart, beautiful daughter. She didn’t need anything except me, and I her. We had each other, and that’s what mattered.
“Special,” the social worker explained, as if that were the medical prognosis. “But, with the proper care…”
“Yes,” the grandmother of the little girl said in irritation. “I know what she is.”
“…next of kin…” the social worker continued with a tck, tck as she read through the file.
“Yes, alright,” the grandmother snapped. “We’ll take Rachael home with us.”
“Says here the girl’s name is Annabelle…”
“Her middle name is Rachael. We call her by her middle name.”
“It’s a pity…” the social worker said. “A brain aneurysm, was it? And no father?” She continued to inspect the papers, her mouth opening in surprise. “It took two days for someone to check in on the girl? Her mother was there, in the other room, for two days?”
“Dead, yes.” The grandmother nodded. “We’ll take her home. Then we can talk about special care. Isn’t that right, Frank?”
An awkward silence.