First published here

Annabel stood in the spare room, cluttered with boxes and assorted junk, and struggled for inspiration to help transform the mess into a snuggly nursery. She absent-mindedly stroked her burgeoning baby bump. The monotone of CNN was white noise in the background. Until the key words blared clearly: Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, Afghanistan; shooting; Afghan police trainees fire on Americans; two Marine instructors dead; others wounded; names withheld pending notification.

Annabel found herself in the living room, seated on the coffee table, fixated on the news. That’s where Josh is. That’s his assignment. He – and others from here – are instructors. CNN said that, upon being handed a loaded weapon as part of the training exercise, an Afghan police trainee turned the weapon on the Marines, wounding several, killing two.

Annabel thought that she was grateful to be on-base at Twentynine Palms. All the affected spouses would be on or near the base, and they could support one another. She knew she had frightened sisters. She knew that it wouldn’t be Josh, but she was immobile in front of the television for more than an hour when the knock came at the door. It was Pamela, red-eyes brimming with tears.

“Come in here and stop that, Pammy. If you cry, I’ll have to. It’s too early to cry.”

The young women hugged, and Annabel brewed tea. The phone rang and Annabel startled.

“They don’t give bad news over the phone. They come to the door,” said Pamela.

Josh’s mother who lived in Memphis was the first to call. She tried not to sound terrified and hoped that Annabel had more information than TV news. Of course she didn’t. Spouses from around the base began calling each other, trading rumors, offering support, telling pretty lies. The CO’s wife sent out a message inviting the spouses to her home for coffee and camaraderie.

Annabel and Pamela appreciated the invitation, but declined. There was no news forthcoming.

“We need to go to the supermarket,” announced Annabel.

“You want to buy groceries?”

“Yes. We’re going to need to take casseroles to a couple of homes tomorrow. We should get them ready now. It’ll keep us busy.”

Annabel was only twenty, but she’d been a Marine wife for two years and a good Baptist for all her life before that. Casseroles were always in order.

Later, when two dishes were in the oven, Pamela made sandwiches for them. The phone calls had stopped.

“I can’t go home,” said Pamela as darkness settled over the base. They heard taps being sounded as the base flag was lowered.

“What if . . . well, what if your neighbors need to know where you are?” asked Annabel.

“I left a note on the door with your address. And really, everybody here knows everything anyway. They’ll know I’m with you. Annie, the television and newspapers get these things faster than the Casualty Officers can make contact. No one’s going to come looking for us yet.”

“No one’s looking for us, period. I feel it. Tomorrow we’ll know the awful news and we’ll comfort our sisters. Breaks my achin’ heart, but we’ll stand tall for them,” said Annabel.

The girls curled up together in Annabel’s bed, but slept restlessly listening for the terrible knock at the door. They woke up earlier than they wanted and surfed all the news channels while they ate a skimpy breakfast. Annabel took her prenatal vitamins while tea brewed.

“For God’s sake. Don’t they know they’re torturing us? You know they have the names now and they know where the spouses are. Damn them!” Pamela threw the remains of her breakfast in the trash.

“No one’s going to make any announcements for a while,” she said. “They’re not through tormenting us. I’m going home, clean up and come back. Is that okay, Annie? Will you be all right? Will you be all right too, little baby?” She leaned down and whispered to the baby bump, gently stroking Annabel’s belly.

“Go home, Pammy. It could well be tomorrow before we know anything. But I sure want you back for hand-holding. Don’t you suppose that the others are buddied up, too?”

“I know they are. You do worry about everyone, don’t you? I’ll be back soon, really soon.”

Before getting in the shower, Annabel turned up the TV loudly so that the television noise and rushing water would drown out any knock at the door. She was sure it wouldn’t be her door, but she dearly wanted Pamela to return.

Smelling of peach-scented soap, Annabel dug through her snack stash. She’d not anticipated how hungry she’d stay during pregnancy, but she indulged every yearning. Dried fruit sounded good right now. But she dropped the plastic bag when the knock came at the door. She froze, but quickly relaxed, saying to herself, “Annie-the-bell, you are such a dumbass. It’s just Pamela coming back. I should really give her a key.”

So Annabel was smiling when she opened the door and saw the two Marines in dress uniforms. She screamed NO and tried to slam the door shut. The enlisted Marine shoved her leather pump between the door and the jamb before it closed. The corporal stepped back for the officer to lead them into the living room. Annabel backed away from them, trembling, wailing, occasionally articulating words – No. Go away.

The two Marines gently guided her to the sofa. “Who shall I call to be with you, Mrs. Gardener?” With no response, the officer sent the corporal out of the unit. “Go knock on doors. Find out who her friends are. Get someone here.”

Annabel cried so violently that the officer called for a base doctor. Pamela arrived, wept softly and held Annabel in her arms.

“I’ll call her mother-in-law. I know she’ll come quickly.”

The officer handed Pamela an information sheet with guidelines and telephone numbers.

“When she can, we’ll help with transport of the Lance Corporal to the burial location and with the other aspects of the funeral. There’s assistance available for her.”

“Thank you. I’ll go over this when she’s ready. I need to ask — — where do you go next? My last name is Worthington. Am I your other stop?”

“No ma’am. You’re not on our list.”

They left and Pamela felt guilty relief. Her best friend was sinking into a nearly catatonic state of denial. She grieved for Annabel and Josh, but sent up praises that it wasn’t Tony. She disliked herself for that.

Pamela bore the weight of sharing the news with Josh’s mother. His mother exclaimed her sorrow, but restrained herself, asking about Annabel and what she might need. Pamela stayed with Annie until Paulette Gardener, Josh’s mother, arrived the next day. Pamela, afraid to leave Annabel, had another friend gather up Paulette at the airport and bring her to the apartment. Pamela and Paulette exchanged information in whispery tones while Annabel existed only as a shadow. Paulette remembered Annabel’s sparkly, turquoise eyes which now appeared deep indigo.

Paulette took over care for Annabel and tried to engage her in the decisions that must be made to return Josh to Memphis for a proper funeral and burial. The base doctor was cautious in prescribing medication for Annabel due to the pregnancy. With the help of Pamela and on-base sisters, they packed up the young Gardener’s possessions and transported them from California to Memphis. Paulette made a comfortable room for Annabel. James, her husband, did his best to welcome Annabel and his forthcoming grandchild, but he buckled in his own sorrow.

There would be a time when Annabel would be grateful for all that Paulette did, but that time hadn’t yet come.

Annabel didn’t remember much of the funeral. There were flowers everywhere. Kind words were spoken. At the cemetery, someone handed her a folded flag that she pressed to her heart. There was a mournful tune from distant trumpets. There was a gunfire salute that was a disturbing reminder of Josh being gunned down.

There was no discussion about the permanence of Annabel’s move into the Gardener’s midtown home. She had no close family and was clearly in need of tending. Though Paulette loved her sweet daughter-in-law, she confessed only to herself that it was Josh’s baby she desperately wanted in the home. She took Annabel to the best OB/GYN in Memphis and cleared out a small junk room near Annabel’s for conversion to a nursery. She tempted Annabel with splurge shopping at Babies R Us, but Annie declined. “Too soon,” she would say. Paulette fretted over barely touched plates that she removed from Annabel’s place at meals. She heard Annabel pacing in her room at night.

For her part, Annabel was aware in some part of her consciousness that Paulette was extending extraordinary care and love to her. She was vaguely aware that she should be grateful. Problem was that she hadn’t the energy to care. When she sat at the breakfast room table, looking out the bay window to a back yard splotched with garish floral colors, all she saw were the piles of flowers encircling Josh’s grave.

Paulette ignored Annabel’s ambivalence and marshaled her to obstetrician’s appointments. In ordinary times, Annabel would have liked Dr. Gooding, a round, middle-aged woman who simultaneously exuded skill and sweetness.

“Oh, Annabel, I know you’re still grieving, dear, but you need to start taking better care of yourself and that little one growing inside you,” said the doctor. “What can I do to help you do that?”

“Yes, dear, it’s not just you that you’re hurting,” said Paulette. “I know you want the baby to be healthy, don’t you?”

“The baby!” said Annabel. “The baby’s father is a ghost, and I’m already dead. Can’t you tell? You two have no idea.”

There wasn’t much to say after that. Paulette took Annabel home and continued to gently encourage healthy habits. Annabel continued to pace at night.

A week or so later, Annabel was in her refuge, the shower. No one bothered her there. No one tried to make her eat or sleep or buy baby stuff. She liked the water as hot as possible. It was the only time she felt anything. She’d stepped away from the water to slather herself with the expensive, aromatic soap that Paulette provided. Using her hands, she soaped her body, her belly, arms and breasts with the heavenly soap. That’s when she felt it. In her left breast. She pressed on it, kneaded it, felt it from all angles. Shit.

She imagined the lump as the pit of a peach. That’s what it felt like. It didn’t frighten her or sicken her. It only assured Annabel that she was, in fact, a dead woman.

It took another week for Annabel to tell Paulette about the lump.

She wasn’t sure why she bothered except maybe to subtly torment Paulette with the possibility of losing the baby she so desired.

“How long have you known?” Paulette asked.

“I don’t know. It’s probably nothing.”

“I’ll take care of this,” said Paulette.

A few telephone calls put her in touch with the UT Women’s Health Clinic. She pressed the critical nature of the problem and managed an appointment for Annabel only two days later.

They were assured that the lead apron over her belly would protect the baby from the mammogram. No such problem with the subsequent sonogram. Annabel did what she was told and expressed no interest. The doctor, a breast specialist and surgeon, reviewed the results and told Paulette and Annabel that, for safety, a needle biopsy of the lump should be performed – quickly. They were back the next day. Annabel gazed at the ceiling as the needle withdrew cells from the peach pit.

Of course Paulette fretted during the days they waited for results. James, as usual, was unable to comfort anyone including himself. Annabel was oblivious. The call came. The breast doctor wanted them back for a conversation. The message couldn’t have been more transparent. You don’t go into the office for good news.

The office visit was the next day. Paulette choked and began crying at the word malignant. The doctor gently put forth the conundrum. If Annabel were not pregnant, surgery, chemo and radiation would be in order. Those things, however, would seriously, if not fatally, harm the baby.

“You’re too far along to terminate the pregnancy,” she said. “That makes for very difficult choices for you. I know what we need to do for your health, but I’m afraid that you must decide which way we proceed. I’m sorry.”

Paulette looked at Annabel with desperation. Annabel thought it odd that the baby took this moment to be so active in her belly.

“I’ll have to think about it,” said Annabel.

“Call me. Call your OB when you decide. We shouldn’t wait too long to determine our course of action,” said the doctor.

Annabel felt Paulette’s intrusive hovering for the rest of the day. She escaped to her room as quickly as possible after leaving an untouched plate at dinner.

When Annabel had paced as long as her energy allowed, she went to bed and dreamed of Josh. He wore those old jeans that bared one knee. And that was the tee-shirt she’d tried twice to throw away before he was deployed. Both times, he’d dug it out of the trash and triumphantly laughed at her. In the dream, he was in a room with glass block walls that permitted a rosey glow from somewhere unknown. Josh sat in a rosewood rocker and held a bundle, swaddled in a white blanket. He smiled when he saw Annabel, rose and walked to her. He kissed her cheek tenderly, whispered in her ear and handed her the bundle – a beautiful, tiny baby.

When Annabel sat at the breakfast table the next morning and looked at the back yard, she saw the colorful blooms of Paulette’s plentiful rose bushes. She accepted an ample breakfast and helped clean up the kitchen. Paulette saw the peace that had settled over Annabel and was relieved when the girl wanted to see the OB. The conversation proved difficult, however.

Annabel told the OB that she wouldn’t have any treatment for the cancer.

“We’re going to take care of this baby, then we’ll see,” she said. You’re twenty-six weeks now, Annabel. Forty weeks is optimum for the baby, but we can do a cesarean section at thirty-seven weeks. The baby will be fine, and that’s what I recommend. I’ll contact the breast surgeon. We’ll take the baby a little early and then get you into care.”

Annabel was transformed with her new mission. She ate. She took walks for exercise. She tried to sleep. Paulette exulted. Annabel visited the base, her home.

Pamela sat with her at the Twentynine Palms coffee shop. “Are you really okay? Should I go back with you?”

“I’m better than I’ve ever been,” said Annabel.

At thirty-two weeks, Annabel and Paulette sat in the OB’s treatment room. After checking the baby’s heartbeat, the doctor pushed back the paper gown. Paulette bit her lip when she saw the swollen, discolored breast.

“I want to move up the C-sec to thirty-four weeks. We can handle this for the baby and then we can move you forward as quickly as possible,” said the doctor.

“Too soon,” said Annabel. “We’ll wait for thirty-seven weeks.

That’s the earliest I’m comfortable with.”

Paulette saw Annabel shrink in the next weeks. Her color diminished. Her energy dissipated. Annabel tired, weakened, but maintained the beautiful serenity that cloaked her.

They showed up early for the delivery date. Annabel was thin. Dark circles rounded her eyes. Paulette and James kissed her as she was sent off to delivery. Annabel was relaxed as the screen was set up between her and her belly. She accepted the spinal anesthetic and noted those working around her, and then the precious sound of her baby’s cry. She could only smile and look into the surrounding fog for Josh’s approval. He stood in the dark corner and smiled at her.

Annabel’s head was clear by the time Paulette and James stood next to her bed as she held the newborn.

“She’s so very beautiful,” said Paulette. “Do you have a name?”

“Yes. She’s Esperanza. It means hope.”

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