Two courses of chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, cataract surgery, a broken arm, needles in her arms, her thighs, her hips, her belly, and her spine…
All of that, and this was the worst pain of Claire’s life.
She awoke with the sensation that her belly was on fire. It was so strong that, at first, it dominated all of her thoughts. Her mind felt cloudy, and only when she could get a grip on the pain and focus did she remember where she was and why.
It all came back to her in a stunning typhoon: the labor, the C-section, the birth of her babies. Two girls. One had come out crying; the other had not. She remembered the first baby’s cry vividly. But that was all she knew. She hadn’t seen either baby, and her memory went dark with the birth of the second.
What had happened?? Where were they?? Where was Nick?
She looked around and began to panic when she found herself in a hospital room all alone, no one in sight. She needed answers, and she needed pain meds. Fumbling for the nurse call button that she knew must be somewhere nearby, she found that her arm felt like concrete, so heavy she could barely lift it. Frustration quickly accompanied her franticness, and tears started.
She hated crying, but she was helpless to stop the rush of tears, driven by the raging hormones and frenzied emotions of giving birth and not knowing where her babies were.
she lay there crying, she wasn’t sure, but suddenly, her mother was there by
her bedside, holding her hand, rubbing her shoulder, whispering the soothing
words only a mother could offer. “Shh,
sweetie, it’ll be alright,” she murmured.
“What’s the matter, baby? Are you
Claire nodded, but when she opened her mouth, all that came out was, “Where are my babies?”
“They’re both in the NICU. No one has let us see them yet, but we talked to your nurse, and she said they’re both doing alright. Let me hit your call button, and we’ll get someone in here to talk to you.”
“I can’t even move, I’m so tired,” mumbled Claire. “And it hurts…”
“I know. I know, honey. Your body’s been through a lot.”
“What happened?” she asked. “I don’t remember much after the babies came out.”
“The nurse said there was some bleeding. The C-section took longer than they expected, and they had to knock you out. But it’s okay now. They got everything under control, and your brother and Nick both donated blood.”
“Nick did?” The thought made her smile. “He was with me through the whole thing. He’s amazing…”
Her mother smiled too. “He cares a lot about you. He’s still here.”
“Uh-huh. I’m sure he’d like to come in and see you when you’re up for it.”
Claire nodded. “I just want to see the twins,” she said.
“I know, honey.”
“Have you talked to Jamie?”
“Your dad did. He knows that he has two daughters and that you’re okay, but as soon as you’re feeling better, you should call him. He’d rather hear from you.”
“I will… in awhile.” She was just so tired right now.
Footsteps in the room attracted her attention, and she moved her head so that she could see who was coming in. It was her nurse, Aidyn, who smiled gently. “How are you feeling, Claire?” she asked.
“Honestly, awful,” mumbled Claire. “Can I have some pain meds?”
“Of course.” Aidyn injected her IV line with something and then said, reassuringly, “It’s normal to feel some pain after a C-section; people seem to forget it’s a major abdominal surgery. But we’ll get you up and moving later on today, and you’ll be on the road to recovery.”
Getting up and moving was the last thing Claire felt like doing at the moment, but she couldn’t help but ask, “When can I see my babies? I still haven’t seen them yet. I need to see them… and name them…”
“I know.” Aidyn patted her hand gently. “It’s complicated in your situation because we can’t bring the girls to you. Right now they’re in incubators in the NICU, and they need to stay there. They’re both on ventilators to help their breathing, which is very normal for preemies this young, but because of that, we can’t move them. You’ll have to go to them.”
“Can I go then?” She didn’t have a clue how she’d get there, seeing as she could barely lift her hand, let alone haul her body out of bed. But the urge in her was so strong, she didn’t care. Somehow, she would get there. Her stubborn streak had flared, and she was determined.
“Your body really needs time to rest and heal itself right now. Try and get some sleep, and I promise I’ll take you to the NICU first thing in the morning.”
“No, please,” Claire begged. “I won’t be able to sleep until I see them, not unless you knock me out again, and I don’t want you to do that. I need to see my babies. Please.”
Aidyn must have been used to the power of maternal instinct, because it didn’t take much protesting to get her to agree. “Alright,” she relented, “we can wheel your bed into the NICU for a few minutes, if you’re feeling up to it.”
“Please, yes. I’m up for it.” She was starting to feel better already, less groggy and in less pain, although she did have the loopy sensation of floating one got from heavy pain medication. But the determination to see her babies was keeping her coherent and focused.
“All right. Let me find an orderly to help me move the bed, and we’ll go to NICU,” Aidyn promised.
When she left, Claire’s mother squeezed her hand and smiled. Claire returned the smile. She was about to ask her mother if she’d come with her to the NICU, but then she thought of someone else, the person who had been with her the entire night, by her side through it all. Nick. After all of that, if she couldn’t have the twins’ father with her, she wanted it to be Nick.
“Do you think maybe Nick could go with me this first time?” she asked hesitantly. “It’s just, he came this far… so if he’s still here and he wants to, maybe-”
“Of course, honey. I don’t know what the rules are, but I can find out for you. Let me see if I can catch your nurse; I’ll be right back.”
She, too, left momentarily, and Claire was once again alone. But this time, it wasn’t so bad. In just a few minutes, she was going to see her children for the first time. That thought was the one hope she had to hold onto, the one thing that kept her strong.
Nick felt drained, both physically and emotionally. The emotional rollercoaster of ending up Claire’s birth coach, coupled with blood loss and the mere fact that it was one in the morning, had left him exhausted, but he didn’t want to go home just yet. Claire’s nurse had said that she would be okay, and her mother was in with her now, but he felt obligated to stay and see for himself.
It was selfish and wrong, being that he was dating Laureen, but a part of him was secretly pleased with the role he’d been thrust into that night. The role that should have been taken by Jamie. He knew he shouldn’t, but Nick sort of enjoyed the fact that Jamie had not been able to make it to Tampa in time. It served him right for being absent all the other times Claire had needed him.
That was why Nick was determined to stay, at least for a little longer. With two premature babies in the neonatal ward and no husband around, Claire was going to need all the support she could get, and Nick would be there to offer his to her.
He was still in the waiting room, visiting with Kris, Kyle, and Amber, when Claire’s mother Carrie came back in.
“How is she?” Kris immediately asked, taking the question from Nick’s lips.
“As well as can be expected, I suppose,” replied Carrie. “She was crying when I came in. She’s in pain and frustrated that she hasn’t seen her own children yet, so they’re going to wheel her bed to the NICU for a few minutes.” Her blue eyes traveling from her husband to Nick, she added, “Nick, she asked if you would be up for going with her to see the twins.”
“Me?” Nick asked in surprise. Despite all his thoughts about being a support to her, he’d figured now that her family was here, they would be the first to see the babies, their own blood. But Claire was asking for him?
He was extra glad he had stayed. “Sure I’ll go,” he answered quickly and stood.
Carrie started to point him in the direction of Claire’s room, then realized he already knew. It was the same room she’d been in before the births, and he walked there slowly, his gait lagging from the tiredness that had crept deep into his bones. His stump felt sore from all the pacing he’d done in the hall and stiff from all the sitting, and he couldn’t wait to get home and take his leg off, maybe even soak in a hot bath.
He quickly took his thoughts off of his bed and bath when he reached Claire’s door, focusing them on her instead. Peeking into the room, he found that Aidyn was already there, along with a man in light blue scrubs. They were already starting to wheel Claire’s bed across the floor, and so Nick stood back, waiting for them to come out.
When the bed emerged from the room, Nick looked Claire over from toe to head. She appeared unusually fragile, lying in the bed, several blankets covering her body, but not covering the tubes and lines that ran out of her arms and… other places. Her skin was pale, even for her, no rosyness in her cheeks. She looked weary, and he could tell the anesthesia had taken a lot out of her.
But then she saw him, and she smiled, and instantly, he felt reassured. There was her smile, the one he knew so well, the one that had kept both of them going through the hard times.
He smiled back and took her hand through the raised rails of the rolling bed. “How ya doin?” he asked. “You look more lucid than I ever was after surgery.”
“Eh, I’m feeling kinda loopy now… god bless the pain meds,” she joked, closing her eyes briefly. “It hurts worse than I thought it would… but I’ll be fine.”
Pursing his lips in sympathy, he rubbed the back of her hand and wished he could get rid of any pain that remained in her. He didn’t want her to hurt. She’d been through enough hurt. For once, he wished everything could just be okay.
But it wasn’t all okay. For as they left the quietness of the maternity ward and passed through a set of doors marked NICU, Nick was reminded of the trials that still awaited her.
Walking between incubator after incubator, Nick’s breath caught in his throat. The babies inside were so tiny and sick-looking, it almost broke his heart. Most of them were hooked to so many tubes and wires, it was hard to see what they looked like. They appeared almost alien, not cute and cuddly and roly-poly like the babies in Gerber ads. Their limbs were like sticks, their faces yellow and sunken, with eyes that seemed too big for their skulls, even when they were closed, as all of them were.
It was loud in this room, not with crying, as Nick had expected, but with the unsettling chorus of heart monitor blips and ventilator hisses. Even as he walked alongside Claire’s bed, being led to the twins, he heard loud beeps sound and watched nurses hurry over to the small plastic enclosures to tend to the babies inside.
Claire’s head turned in alarm when this happened, but, noticing this, Aidyn explained, “Many preemies have sleep apnea, which makes them temporarily stop breathing in their sleep. They wear monitors that alert the nurses whenever this happens, and all they have to do is go poke them a little to get the babies to start breathing again. It sounds scary, but it’s fairly common, and it usually goes away once their lungs are mature.”
“Do my babies have that?” Claire asked, worry in her voice.
“I’m not sure. It’s probably too soon to tell. But they’ll have them on the monitors for their first few nights, just in case.”
“Oh. Good,” said Claire softly.
“Here they are,” Aidyn said a moment later, as she and the orderly navigated Claire’s bed right in between two incubators. “This is your firstborn,” she introduced, resting her hand on the incubator to Claire’s right, “and this is her little sister.” The two incubators were labeled, Baby Girl A Turner and Baby Girl B Turner.
Those kids need some names, thought Nick with a wry smile. How awful, to be referred to as “Baby Girl B.”
“There’s a hole on the side of the incubators that we can open, if you’d like to reach in and touch them,” Aidyn said and took a circular piece of plastic off of each incubator, leaving a hole just big enough for a pair of hands to fit through. Then she and the orderly moved out of the way so that Claire could get her first good look at her newborn twins.
At first, Nick opted to hang back and watch, giving Claire a moment alone to admire the babies. From what he could tell, they looked similar to the other babies in the NICU, unnaturally small and lost in a jungle of tubes and wires. But even Nick could appreciate that they were still the most beautiful infants there, because they were Claire’s. They were a part of her, and even though he was not their father, he found himself drawn to the two incubators, truly believing that the creatures inside were the most incredible, miraculous things he had ever seen.
Claire must have felt the same, because she immediately started crying again. But it wasn’t a bad kind of crying; at least Nick didn’t think so. These were tears of joy that streamed down her face as she reached into Baby A’s incubator, finally releasing the jumble of emotions that had surely been building up inside of her.
She gently stroked the baby’s tiny chest, which rose and fell rapidly with the hiss of the ventilator. After a few minutes, she turned the other way and did the same to the second baby. Nick was relieved to see that the younger of the twins now looked as pink as her sister, no longer the sickly gray shade she’d been when the doctor had pulled her out in the OR. In fact, now that they were cleaned up, both babies looked much better, despite their size.
“They’re both gorgeous… aren’t they?” Claire murmured, looking up at Nick with shining eyes, her voice clogged with unshed tears.
“They sure are,” he agreed – how could he not? “Heartbreakers, both of them.”
Claire smiled. “They need names.”
“Anything you and Jamie had in mind?”
“Yeah… we did have names in mind. Good Irish names. We had a pair for girl babies and a pair for boys. But…” Claire trailed off, chewing thoughtfully on her bottom lip as she looked between the two sleeping babies and then back at Nick. “They just don’t seem right now. After the way everything happened today… last night, that is… and seeing as how they were almost born on your birthday – happy birthday, by the way-”
“Thanks,” chuckled Nick; he’d almost forgotten, again, that it was his birthday. He was surprised she had remembered, with everything she had gone through in the last six hours.
One corner of Claire’s mouth curled upward as she smiled and finished, “I want to name them after you.”
Nick blinked. “Are you kidding?? I don’t want you to do that. Besides, Jamie would kill you.”
Her smile turned impish. “Serves him right for being in Denver. You were the one here with me through everything. You were the first to lay eyes on them. I’m going to name them for you.”
He wanted to protest, but he didn’t know what to say, what argument to make. It sounded like her mind was made up. With amazing calmness and clarity, she turned toward Baby A and said, “I’m going to name her Nicole. Nicole Patrice – after Jamie’s dad, Patrick. She’ll be a Nicki for short, of course.”
Then, wincing, she carefully rolled toward the other baby. “And this is Nikayla. Like Mikayla, only with an ‘N,’” she added. “Nikayla Ryan, for my family. And we’ll call her Kayla, to avoid too much of the cutesy twin alliteration.”
“Alliteration. Words with the same starting sound,” Claire explained, then shook her head, smiling. “Sorry, I forgot you didn’t go to real school.” She winked.
“Yeah, guess my tutor missed that one. Hey, Aaron and Angel’s names both start with A.”
“Well, no offense.” Claire blushed a little. “Do I need to stick my foot in my mouth again? I’m always doing that.”
Nick grinned. “I know, and I like that about you. You’re not afraid to say anything.”
Her cheeks grew a little darker, and she looked away. “Well,” she said, “that’s not totally true. There are some things I would love to say… but I can’t.”
“Like what?” asked Nick, frowning, as he studied her carefully. “What can’t you say to me? You know you can tell me anything.”
“It’s nothing personal… I used to be able to tell you anything, but now…” She shook her head. “It’s just too complicated. Other people would get hurt.”
“Like… Jamie?” he asked, his heart starting to beat fast. What did she want to tell him??
A short nod from Claire, who was avoiding his eyes.
Suddenly, she looked up, her eyes bright and beautifully gleaming with a fresh batch of tears. “I love you, Nick. I’ve never stopped loving you, and with everything that’s gone on in the last few months, and how you’ve been there for me through it all, it’s all come back to me. How much I love you. A part of me wishes that I was married to you, instead of Jamie, and that you were their father.” She looked at one of the babies and shook her head, tears falling onto her mattress. “But it’s so wrong. Jamie’s their father, and I’m married to him, and you’re dating Laureen, and I’m hurting all of them by even thinking these things, let alone saying them out loud.”
She probably could have kept rambling for awhile, but Nick was not going to let that happen. Jumping in, he said, “Claire, stop.” She looked up, eyes red-rimmed, and he came closer, lowering one of the rails on her bed and perching gently on the edge of the mattress. Leaning forward, he reached out and lightly touched her cheek, letting his fingertips trail along her jawline. He stopped at her chin, taking it between his thumb and forefinger, and met her gaze evenly. “It’s not wrong,” he said, his voice firm and insistent. “It may seem like it, but how can it be, when it feels so right?”
Claire sniffled, eyes welling up again. “You mean-?”
“I love you, too. I never stopped either. And even though I’ve been trying to make it work with Laureen, I don’t love her. Not the way I love you. I just… I thought I couldn’t have you. But if there was a chance… then it would be you. You in a heartbeat. You and I just made sense together.”
Claire nodded rapidly, shedding tears all over the place. “We did, didn’t we? We had things right all along. I’m so sorry I screwed it all up. I’m so sorry, Nick… I ruined everything.”
Nick shook his head. “No,” he said emphatically, “it doesn’t have to be that way. We can still make things right. We can start over, start a new life together. This is our start, right here and now. You… and me… and two beautiful babies. Maybe we just had to be apart for awhile to remember how good we had it.”
She let out an audible cry and nodded. “You’re right,” she sobbed, “you’re so right. I love you… God, I love you, and I’ve been wanting to say it for so long.”
“Me too,” Nick whispered, and now his own voice sounded choked with emotion. He couldn’t believe this was happening; it seemed almost like a dream. He’d been waiting so long to hear those words come out of her mouth. He’d thought he’d never hear them again.
The pent up emotion was more than either of them could take. In the spirit of doing wrong, but feeling right, he leaned closer, slipped his hand around the back of her head, and guided her face toward his. Their lips met in a moment that was truly magical, and as he kissed her deeply, Nick’s mind reeled, then went completely blank. At first he had been stunned – was he really holding her in his arms and kissing her again? But then, all thoughts left his head, and he could think only of how good her lips felt again and how wonderful she tasted, even at this hour. Kissing her was incredible, like going to a favorite place he had not been in years and years.
But he was here now, with her, and though it was adulterous, it couldn’t have felt more right. This was how it was meant to be. She and he… him and her… together.
When they slid out of the kiss, Nick’s heart was racing. He knew there was no going back now.
There were so many questions on his mind, so many things he wanted to tell her and so many things he wanted to ask and discuss, but in an instant, he was distracted from all of that, when he shifted his weight and suddenly glanced down to spot a small reddish spot on the blanket that covered Claire.
For a moment, his mind went blank again, and he just stared at the spot. But after a few seconds, he blinked, snapping out of his daze, and turned to Claire with disconcertment. “Hey… could I look under your blankets for a minute?” he asked her slowly.
Claire’s eyebrows flew up, a devilish smile playing across her lips. “Wow, you’re movin’ fast this time, buddy. I don’t think I’m quite ready for that. Besides, you don’t really want to see my nasty incision. Wait until it heals, and then we can compare scars. You’ll probably still win.”
Nick hardly smiled at the joke. “I think you might be bleeding,” he said, concerned.
“What?” She started to sit up for look, then cried out in pain and lay back again. “Ugh… not ready to do that yet.”
“Hang on… lie still for a minute.” Claire obeyed, and Nick slowly and gently peeled the two layers of blankets off of her, folding them over her chest. When his eyes returned to her lower half, they bugged out, and immediately, he felt woozy. What had been only a small spot of red on the top blanket was an enormous splotch of deep crimson on her hospital gown. She was definitely bleeding… and, from the amount of blood on her gown, it looked bad.
“Claire, baby,” he said shakily, though he was trying to keep his voice calm, “I need to go find your nurse. I’ll be right back. Don’t move.”
“Nick, wait!” she cried, as he got up from the bed. “Am I bleeding? Is it bad??”
“I’ll be back,” he promised again, and he hurried away before she could ask anymore questions. He hated to leave her, but he knew it wasn’t good to be losing that much blood from an incision, and if he didn’t find someone right away, he was worried about what might happen.
To his horror, his worries were soon validated. By the time he returned with help, they entered the NICU to find Claire already unconscious.
“Claire??” Nick called her name, grabbing her hand and squeezing it hard. The blush had left her cheeks, and they were now as pale white as they had been when he’d first seen her after the surgery. Perhaps even paler. He ran his hand across one of them, trying to wake her up. But she didn’t move. And then he was pushed away by Aidyn, who lifted up Claire’s gown to reveal bandages that were bright red and sopping with blood.
“She’s bleeding out,” the nurse said, her voice sharp with alarm. “We need to get her back to the OR right away.”
Nudging Nick back out of the way, she grabbed the end of Claire’s bed and pulled, maneuvering it quickly out of the NICU. The trip back to the OR was a blur for Nick; he just followed Aidyn as fast as he could, fighting exhaustion, willing his body to keep moving and keep up with her, and paid attention to nothing else.
When they got to the surgical suite, Dr. Valerio was already waiting for them. Someone must have paged her. There were other nurses there too, and they quickly swarmed around Claire, hooking her back up to monitors. The monitors were going haywire from the moment they were switched on; Nick didn’t understand what all the numbers and alarms meant, but he knew something had to be very wrong for her vitals to be that out of whack.
He stood in the corner of the room, ignored by the medical staff, watching and listening in terror as their panicked movements and voices.
“Her pressure’s bottoming out,” said Dr. Valerio, looking at one of the monitors. “She must have hemorrhaged. Order four units of O-neg or Type A blood.”
One of the nurses left Claire’s side and started for the door, when she noticed Nick. “Are you her husband? You shouldn’t be in here right now,” she said, and, without waiting for a response for him, took him by the arm and dragged him with her, out of the room. “Wait until we get her stabilized, and then you’ll be able to see her, sir.”
“Wait, please!” Nick protested. “Can’t you at least tell me what’s going on??”
“She’s losing blood; it could be from the incision in her uterus. Dr. Valerio is going to have to open her back up again and check,” the nurse said quickly, then hurried away for the blood.
Alone in the hall, Nick watched through the windows on the doors that separated him from Claire. He couldn’t see much from his viewpoint… but when everything went wrong, he knew.
He saw the way the doctors started to scramble… and, looking at the monitors over their heads, he saw the flat line.
“No!” he cried out. “No, no, no… Claire!” He pressed his hands against the window panes, willing that line to peak again, unable to believe his eyes. This couldn’t be happening… it couldn’t!
But the line stayed flat, and after a few horrifying seconds, Nick couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t take watching from out here when he needed to be in there with her. He pushed open the door and came back in, just hoping he wouldn’t be noticed in all the commotion.
It was loud in the OR; the whine of the heart monitor was shrill, and the doctor and nurses were shouting above it. “Give her a mg of epi. Aidyn, start CPR,” said Dr. Valerio, and Nick watched, his heart sinking into the pit of his stomach, as the young nurse cupped her hands and started pushing down rapidly on Claire’s chest.
For the next five minutes – which seemed more like five hours – he watched in desperation as they did CPR, put a tube down her throat, injected her IV with different medications, and cut open her belly once more.
“Belly’s full of blood,” the doctor said in dismay, looking down into the incision she had created.
“It’s in the foley too,” added a nurse, holding up the container of urine on the side of the bed.
It sounded bad… but then the other nurse returned with several small bags of dark, rich blood, identical to the one Nick had donated, and as he watched her hang one on Claire’s IV pole, he wondered if it was his. Perhaps irrationally, he imagined his blood pumping into her veins and felt a strong sense of hope and encouragement. This would do it. This would help her. She needed blood, and with his blood flowing into her body, she would be just fine. It would help her. It had to.
But the bag of blood disappeared quickly, and when the nurse hung a second, they were still doing chest compressions.
“How long has she been down?”
They were starting to give up, realized Nick. But no, they couldn’t do that. Claire wouldn’t give up; they couldn’t give up on her. She would be okay. She was strong. She was a trooper. She was Claire; she could get through anything.
Come on, Claire… come on, he thought, almost angrily. Don’t do this to me now. You can’t do this. You can’t leave me, not when we were about to make everything right. Be strong… stay with me. Please…
Another injection into the IV.
“Is he her husband?”
Realizing he’d been noticed, Nick looked up. The nurses were looking at him, their eyes grim.
“No.” Dr. Valerio’s voice was curt. “But let him stay. Aidyn, you should go get her family.”
Nick blinked, suddenly realizing why they wanted Claire’s family. “Wait, no,” he croaked, “No, you can’t stop yet! She’s gonna come back from this; she’s gonna be okay! I know she is! She can’t die; she-”
But Aidyn had taken her hands off of Claire’s chest and come over to him. Now she put one hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Nick,” she said quietly. “She’s been without a heartbeat for too long. I’m afraid she lost too much blood. Or maybe there was a clot. We can’t know for sure right now, but… she’s not going to be able to come back from this. She’s gone.”
Nick refused to believe it; he absolutely refused. Claire had beaten leukemia; she’d survived all kinds of medical problems. She couldn’t die now, not like this.
But his denial was countered when, one by one, the monitors were shut off, and Dr. Valerio’s voice pronounced, “Time of death… 2:41.”
At that moment, Nick’s own heart may as well have stopped. No longer able to stand, his good knee buckled, his prosthesis toppled, and down he went, collapsing hard against the tiled floor in a fit of unbridled tears.