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The Sweetest Gift

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Nic paced around the room supported by Conrad’s arm around her waist, dragging her feet slowly more as a waddle than a walk at this point.

“Is it getting worse?” Conrad asked.

“You'll know when it does.”

She staggered to a halt and bent forward holding her swollen belly, then held a breath in her chest for a moment and exhaled only when the contraction eased. Conrad guided her towards the bed where she leaned over, folded her arms over the mattress and rested her forehead on them, her hands clenched into fists until the nails dug crescent shapes into the palms. His hand spread on her lower back and moved in circular soothing motions while she forced herself into a regular breathing pattern.

“Five minutes apart,” he murmured to himself.

She had lost track of time since Conrad’s manic drive to the hospital and space was now rapidly becoming an insubstantial concept as well.

“Tell me something funny,” she requested between calming breaths. “I need a distraction.”

He took a moment to consider, then his lips turned into a grin as he went on, “Do you know how baby chickens dance?”

Conrad paused, allowing the question to sink in, but received only silence and a raised eyebrow from her.

“Chick to chick!” he finally said.

“A chicken joke, really?” Nic stared at him blankly, pain momentarily forgotten. “You’re terrible at this.”

“I’m sorry, it’s my first time supporting my wife during labor. I promise I’ll come prepared with better jokes next time.”

“Next time? You think I’ll let you do this to me again?” She half joked.

Having a natural maternal instinct, Nic had always imagined herself having children, plural, with Conrad, though as pain lashed relentlessly over her body in regular intervals, she wondered why women went voluntarily through this more than once.

“I can be very persuasive,” he replied with a suggestive grin and this time she laughed wholeheartedly.

The moment of levity was effectively over when her teeth sunk into her lower lip. She reached out blindly, Conrad caught her hand in his and squeezed it reassuringly during another contraction.

Years of professional experience had not prepared her for this moment. No books nor classes could ever convey the enormity of strength required to give birth and even surrounded by modern medicine Nic was still afraid.

“How are you doing, Nic?” Gabbi said cheerfully as she entered the room followed by an intern and a nurse.

Preparing herself for examination, Nic climbed into bed with the help of Conrad. The underlying shame of exposing herself to a few of her colleagues rated surprisingly low on her list of current worries.

“I'm ready for the good stuff now.” Nic pleaded.

“Let me have a look.”

Upon finishing the exam, Gabbi turned to Nic with an apologetic grimace. "I'm afraid that won't be possible anymore. You're not yet fully dilated but you're further along than expected at this time, it won't be long now.”

Not long. That was an understatement they all knew quite well. Nic heard those same words countless times during rotations in the Obstetrics department, she had learned there that the last part of dilation could either stall for hours or progress rapidly with no way of telling which would be the case. Regardless, she would rather be in less pain.

With an exasperated groan, Nic rested her head on the pillow and settled down to wait.

Light rain started to fall outside the window and night had not yet dissolved into morning. Time progressed slowly it seemed, she dozed off intermittently, waking up with flashes of pain spasming through her body, making her writhe sideways towards Conrad’s supporting arms. The contractions grew progressively closer and stronger at an alarming speed and his soothing words offered little comfort amidst the grip of pain. All the while, Conrad wiped her forehead and neck with a damp cloth as beads of sweat gather all over the skin.

“It’s going to be alright, I’m right here for you.” His tone was calm, specially designed to reassure his patients, yet it was only when he fell silent that she detected his anxiety rising as well. They were both more than ready for the pregnancy phase of motherhood to end and to hold their daughter, alive and well, in their arms.

Nic sat up in bed all of a sudden with an overwhelming need to push, drowsiness was altogether forgotten. Conrad’s eyes grew large in a surge of panic he could no longer mask for her benefit.

“It's time to push, Nic.” Gabbi stated as she settled at the opposite end of the bed.

A seemingly animalistic instinct overtook Nic, her body struggled beyond the limit of strength previously known to her, tired and somehow still finding the will to keep pushing through agonizing pain.

Holding tight to her hand, Conrad breathed in and out in a steady rhythm without noticing he was mimicking her own labored breathing, the crease between his eyebrows deepened as he concentrated only on her.

“Ooh, that one hurt!” He hissed meaning the hand in which the bones Nic was currently crushing together. All eyes in the room were suddenly on him, they made him feel the full force of regret as soon as the complaint fled his lips.

“Perhaps you would like to trade places?” Nic asked through gritted teeth, her eyes nearly fulminating him on the spot.

“Not at all, but you're doing great my love,” he replied in way of apology and in return she eased her grip on his hand.

Weary past the point of exhaustion, she slacked onto the bed after another round of pushing, then griped his shirt in a tight fist and stammered another plea. “Please give me something to make this pain stop, it's too much Conrad. I can’t push anymore.”

Conrad leaned closer until his lips touched her ear. “You're the strongest person I know. I've seen you overcome pain over and over again, you can do it for our girl.”

Finding renewed strength in his words, Nic pushed harder than before. With an enormous grunt of effort, she felt as if her insides were ripped apart, followed by an almost immediate sense of relief.

Giorgiana Grace, Gigi, arrived into the world with a powerful wail that echoed around the room, protesting the sudden loss of everything that was familiar until then.

They had eventually agreed on a name not so long ago, on a night when Nic anxiously paced the nursery unable to rest. Conrad had found her well past midnight on the edge of tears as she ruminated on the very small detail that her soon-to-be-born daughter remained nameless. When each said their mother's name, the decision was finally made with a great deal of relief for both.

Nic sagged back into bed panting, utterly exhausted, with wet hair clinging to her forehead but smiling anyway. The baby was lifted towards her with small arms and legs flailing in the air, a fighter from the start, and her own arms reached out instinctively. Covered in blood and fluids, the slippery and wrinkled form of her daughter rested against her chest for the first time and her cries diminished. And just like that, gravity subtly shifted and their lives were now circling around this new life.

“I can’t believe she’s finally here,” Conrad whispered beside her, his voice was thick with emotion.

It was often said that men only became fathers once their children were born, but Conrad had been every inch of one from the moment Nic showed him the positive test. At least after the initial shock had dissipated. Watching him now, happier than ever before, there was no doubt in her mind that he would continue to be a great father.

His finger brushed Gigi’s cheek gently, he too was grappling with the sudden influx of emotion no parent was ever ready to experience until they saw their baby for the first time. The pure, uncontrollable love Nic felt for both of them, unlike anything else she ever felt, went beyond the rush of hormones cursing through her veins, it welled up in her eyes and ran down her face freely.

After a thorough examination under Conrad’s intense stare, Gigi was back in her mother’s arms, clean and calmer, content to be held and adored by her parents.

It was much later when fatigue caught up to Nic after their friends left and the room became quiet again, then all at once she was pushed into the blissful detachment of sleep.

As if no time had passed at all, the mundane nature of his one-sided conversation in hushed tones lured her mind back into consciousness. Conrad sat in the armchair nearby, gently rocking the small bundle in his arms back and forth.

"You have such a wonderful mother, you know? We're both very lucky to have her. She'll sing to you and tell you funnier jokes than mine.” He paused briefly as if remembering something equally important, then added, “I can't wait for you to meet our chickens, you're going to love them.”

Gigi began whimpering, her small features frowning deeply.

“I know this new world looks big and scary to you right now, but you don't have to be afraid. I will always protect you.”

“That's a big promise, daddy,” Nic interjected drowsily.

His gaze shifted towards Nic with some effort after being mesmerized by his daughter ever since he first laid eyes on her. “Yeah, and I'm going to do everything in my power to keep it.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that you will. She has an amazing dad.”

Gigi cried louder this time, the desolating sound of an impatient hungry child.

“Hush, sweetheart, mama will feed you now,” Conrad cooed as he passed her to Nic.

Nic pulled at the collar of the hospital gown to uncover one breast, full and aching to feed her baby. Among desperate cries, Gigi only nuzzled the breast aimlessly without latching. After several attempts, and fresh tears forming in Nic’s eyes, Gigi finally started sucking avidly and making small sounds of satisfaction. Only then Nic sighed in relief.

Gigi pressed her small hand into the soft flesh of Nic's breast, her cheeks were rosy with contentment, her body was soft and nimble within the bond between mother and child. While nursing, Nic observed her daughter closely, completely unable to focus on anything else.

Despite what she said earlier, the shape of Gigi’s eyes was all Conrad. They were lovely, small ones still unaccustomed to light, surrounded by delicate blond lashes, set in a round face that did not resemble either of her parents yet, no matter what they told others. Her cheeks were high and round, and should they stay that way, she may yet look like her mother.

Nic brushed the tip of her finger along the chubby hand, the skin was still delicate and so crystalline that blood vessels could be seen below the surface. Gigi was only a few hours old and the love Nic felt for this tiny human being that barely filled her arms was already overwhelming.

Conrad had not left their side yet. He sat on the bed with Nic, one arm around her shoulders, head resting on hers while she leaned into the warmth his body provided. Deep within him, there was still a residual instinct of fear that lingered since the attack, when he nearly lost both wife and daughter. Nic sensed it in every look, every touch, in the way he held her close, rarely expressing those emotions out loud and only with the economy of words that was so characteristic of him.

Nic had thought the grim claws of that same fear would eventually disappear as soon as she held her baby, healthy and perfect in every sense, but the truth was quickly dawning on her. The fears she already had inside were now exacerbated, from this moment on her mind would automatically conjure horrific scenarios where everything could go wrong and her daughter could be injured, or worse, and their challenge as parents would be to fight that sense of catastrophism every day.

“We’re both safe now.” Nic told him quietly, reassuring his unspoken worry along with hers.

Once Gigi was fed, Nic began singing, her voice was barely a whisper though clear nonetheless. Fighting against sleep, those little eyes followed the movements of her mother's lips. The song eventually eased Gigi into deep slumber, but Nic carried on for a while longer with the sole purpose of enjoying the purest form of happiness, a peacefully sleeping baby.