By John Thomas Tuft

Bill walks down the hallway, his pace slow but determined. He wears his light blue scrubs, his work clothes, as he heads for the first case of another long day. Being a doctor was his childhood dream, practicing back in the same place his mother and father practiced might feel a little strange at times, but worth it. Dad developed tremors in his hands at age 62 and had to retire from being a surgeon  earlier than expected. But his indefatigable spirit kept him going as he consulted on cases and gave wet behind the ears first year residents pointers on surviving the grueling training to become doctors. Mom, a family doctor to generations had a stroke at age 75 and now lived in an assisted living facility. His parents taught him to love the people, love the patient, respect the work. Good science and a good heart would take him far in his profession, they insisted. Now they needed him in ways that tugged at his good will and sometimes tried his patience.

Missy is a charge nurse for the birthing suites. She grew up on Lemon Blend and hot dogs with popcorn. The oldest of five, she was the one left in charge while her mother worked cleaning hotel rooms. Their double wide on the other side of the tracks was always tidy, and she kept her siblings fed and clean and in some semblance of order, but the first chance she got, she was gone. Fred delivered bread to the gas station convenience store where she worked and he always made her laugh, made her feel special. They ran off and got married. Six months later he left her high and dry. She could give up or she could pick herself up and start taking nursing classes. Two of her siblings got lost in opioids and constantly begged for money. It was tough to cut them off, but she had to make something of herself. When she graduated from nursing school no one from her family was there. Missy brushed it off and settled into her career. The fact that she could not bear children herself somehow made taking care of those giving birth make a special kind of sense to her.

Danny is completing more training after finishing nursing school. His grandmother, who raised him through his teens, was a nurse back in the day when you received a special nurse’s cap as a sign of entrance into the profession. And when a doctor stepped onto the floor, every nurse had to stand up as a sign of respect and remain standing until God in a white lab coat left the floor. She raised him because when he told his parents that he was gay, his father literally turned his back and never spoke another word to him. His mother begged him to leave for the sake of “peace in the family.” Danny wishes Grandma could see him now, training to be a nurse anesthetist, smiling comfortingly to the patient as he wraps the blood pressure cuff around her arm and adjusts the heart monitor. He wants to be as reassuring as possible, so he smiles for the anxious father hovering nearby. He looks up as the doctor enters, waits for his nod, and then opens the IV to drip Pitocin into the vein.

Darla is the hospital chaplain who feels her faith leaking away like a tire with a nail in it. What the hell is the point of all this? She’s holding a small book of prayers of comfort, but it might as well be a book of Sudoku: put the numbers in the right columns in the correct order and shuffle spiritual focus until it all makes sense, but it never makes sense to her anymore. The woman on the bed, hooked up to monitors and being administered drugs to induce the most natural thing in all of creation, to deliver the body inside of her to the uncaring world. The baby will look perfect, every last feature in place, fuzzy hair, tiny hands and feet with delicate fingers and toes. But unlike Darla’s three-year-old rambunctious boy at home, this child will never draw breath. Not one. This is a stillbirth.

Clare lies on the bed, trying not to think, trying not to feel. She wants to be strong for Manny, her husband. They have been trying for so long to start a family. It was a joyous announcement. They did it, incarnated love. All the hopes and dreams, all the plans for a life together. Excited grandparents, eager to splurge their reverse inheritance. The joy of movement and growth within her. Bound to her by blood. Now each contraction is a bitter reminder of what will not be. The terrible pain of lost hope. The desperation of abandoned dreams. The dry ashes of death delivered the same manner as life itself. At long last, he is delivered. Their precious boy. With form but without life. Except for the life which surrounds him in this moment. Swaddled in all our lamentations.

Clare holds him, tenderly kisses his brow. “My child. Our son. His name will be Theodore. For he is God’s gift.” And all those gathered there whispered, “amen.”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.