The graduation gown is puffed out like she swallowed a basketball. She didn’t even bother with make up, so the fact that she’s sweating isn’t a big deal. What’s the point? When your feet are swollen so much that you have to wear granny flats, and your pants are held up with an elastic band, nothing can make you feel pretty. But pretty or not, she’s here. Minutes away from crossing the stage, and weeks away from the scariest moment in her life.
The principle calls names in the background. A guy three rows up is sneaking corn chips beneath his gown. She swears she can smell them. Pregnancy nose is crazy. Corn chips would be great.
This was one of the worst years of her life. There’s no shame in admitting that now. Most of her friends treated her like being pregnant was contagious. Her boyfriend and his family might as well have put a sign up in their yard saying that she was being publicly shunned. She can’t deny things would have been way easier if she had just went through with the abortion. Why is doing the right thing so hard sometimes?
Somewhere in the crowd, her mom and dad are watching. Waiting for her row to stand, and her name to be called. They’re the only reason she made it. She knows that. Had it not been for their constant encouragement she would have given up. She’ll never forget how much grace they gave her. How many buckets of love they dumped over her head when her hormones had her raging like a spoiled brat. It makes her think about all the young girls who might be put in this same position and don’t have that kind of support at home. There’s no way.
She wipes her sweaty palms on her gown then picks at the chipped pink nail polish she forgot to remove. Didn’t really forget. It just didn’t seem all that important.
Everyone in her row stands. She uses the back of the seat in front of her to help get up. Time to take a walk.
“Hi,” he says, sliding through the door and into the room. She rises up in the stiff chair next to the bed. “I think your boy might have a guardian angel,” he says. She smiles beneath her sunken eyes. “You could use some sleep,” he adds.
“So could you,” she replies, trying to sound as if she’s in good spirits.
The operation was a success, thanks in no small part to several fortunate accidents. The kind of things that all the training in the world can’t account for. “I’m heading home now. I just wanted to come by and double check things before I leave.”
She doesn’t say anything, only nods, still smiling. He really didn’t need to come here. The chances of a serious complication now are less than a percent, but he’s here. He’s not even sure why.
He steps over to the monitor beside the bed and glances at the Bible on the chair arm beside her. There’s a small pile of wooden rosary beads and a crucifix on the worn black leather. “Considering taking up the faith?” She asks.
“Oh no,” he says laughing. “Nothing in that for me. But if it works for you then I don’t judge. Everybody needs something, and with what I do… trust me, I’ve seen it all.”
“And none of it interests you, huh?”
He shakes his head, keeping up his smile. “I believe in what I see.”
“It’s never too late to find God,” she says, earnestly. “Trust me, he’s already looking for you.”
She doesn’t mean to, but she’s pushing his buttons. And he’s just as tired as she is, maybe even more. He doesn’t have the patience for this. “Miss Johnson, let me give you some advice. Sometimes things just happen. Good, bad, life doesn’t discriminate. I don’t mean to sound insensitive. What happened to your son is terrible. Really tragic. But it’s nothing different from things I see every single day. You’re lucky. You guys came out on the other side of this ok, but if you keep trying to find some reason for it, it will drive you crazy. There’s no reason for it. Just an awful accident. Now as thankful as I am that you and your boy are going to pull through this, I’m not gonna start believing in God because of it.”
Her demeanor doesn’t change. Despite the weariness in her eyes and slumped shoulders, she stays warm. Forgiving, and kind. “Maybe the reason for all this was just so I could introduce you to Him,” she says pointing to the ceiling. “Whether you say yes or not.”
He’s got to get out of here before he gets angry. Why do Christians have to do that? Make everything about God. Doesn’t she realize how difficult she’s making this? Calmly he walks around to the other side of the bed. “Caroline, any God that would put a bullet in your son, just so he could say hello to me, is a God that I don’t ever want to meet.”
The tension is fierce, like a rubber band pulled to the point of breaking. She opens her mouth to speak.
“Momma,” her son whispers beneath the tube in his nose.
“Hey, baby.” She turns all her attention to the bed, letting the world fade into the background. Tears immediately fill her eyes.
The moment sends goose bumps over his arms. Watching how all at once her son’s weak voice consumes her, and rescues him from the conversation. Thank God. He slips quietly outside, grateful to be unnoticed, letting the door close softly behind him.
“Congratulations, baby,” her father says drawing her in for a hug. It’s an awkward dance, getting as close as her pregnant belly will allow.
She nearly drowns in his Stetson aftershave. “Thanks, Dad.” She dabs the corners of her eyes. His eyes are red and puffy too. He was seriously boohooing during the ceremony.
“Pull yourself together, Franklin,” her mother says handing him a Kleenex. She smiles. “You were beautiful, Caroline. Just beautiful.” Her smile deepens.
She’ll be sobbing for hours tonight. That’s how her mom works. She bottles it all up and lets it all out when no one’s watching. “Yeah right,” she laughs. “Now comes the hard part.” She looks down at the protruding graduation gown.
“About that,” her father chimes in after wiping his eyes. “I have a surprise for you.”
They head out to the parking lot. She didn’t have many people to say goodbye to anyway. Just a few smiles and waves from the ones brave enough to call themselves her friends. The only pregnant girl in the class, she might as well have worn a scarlet letter on her gown.
It’s sweltering in the parking lot. The air is so heavy it’s like trying to breathe through a coffee straw. Her dad takes her towards the back of the lot, away from the crowds of families and their loud congratulations.
There, in the shade of a skinny young oak tree, is the pastor. His arms are crossed over his chest. There’s an envelope in his hand, and an ear-to-ear grin on his face. He’s leaning up against a used white Jetta.
“The paint is faded, but we put new tires on it,” the pastor says as they get closer.
“This is for me?” she asks in disbelief.
“And this.” He hands her the envelope. It’s thick. She can tell there’s cash inside though she doesn’t want to open it in front of him. “Your parents told me that you were planning to leave. The church didn’t want you heading out on your own without a reliable means of transportation. As soon as you settle in somewhere, your parents are supposed to provide us with your address.”
She looks between her parents for some sort of explanation. “They set up a fund for you at the church,” her dad says, new tears forming and falling down the lines in his cheeks. “Every month, they’ll be sending you something. It might not be much, but it will help.”
“Your father was right,” the pastor adds. “When he stormed out of my office that day. The bible is pretty clear about bearing each other’s burdens.” He looks past her at her dad. “We were doing a pretty lousy job. Sorry it took so long for us to figure that out.”
“So no more stealing trucks,” her dad says and they all laugh.
She can’t keep from smiling. By the end of the day her face is going to hurt. She reaches out and takes the keys from the pastor.
It’s over. Twenty-three hours of misery. It’s felt like a year since she was able to take a breath without gagging. She’s on the verge of passing out. Starving to death. A popsicle and ice chips don’t qualify as dinner. If it weren’t for the epidural, and her parents, there’s no way she would have made it.
A baby wails in the background of all the pain and emotion. A little boy. Her little boy. “Do you want to see, Mommy? Huh? Yes, oh, yes you do,” a nurse says in that all too soothing tone. “Are you ready to hold him?” She asks.
The pain and emotions swim to the background. “Yes,” she says. She reaches out as the nurse gently places the bundle in her arms. His crying subsides and she holds him close, staring down at his wrinkled little face. She can’t keep the tears back. She doesn’t even want to imagine how ugly she is right now.
“Hey, baby,” she says when she finally can manage the words.