Three Words

by Mike Helsher


"Honey… my water broke."

I’m floating, dreaming, I think.  Something heavy seeps into my nose, sinks down into my stomach. The words swim between my ears, come together behind my eyes—they snap open. I slide my hand over toward my wife. The sheets are damp. There's a smell of roots and early springtime in the bedroom.

“I'm having a contraction," Karen says.

I turn the bedside light on. She’s sitting up, holding her bulbous belly. Her face is twisted. But before I can freak out, she recovers, smiles wide-eyed. She’s glowing. I blink my eyes. I’m not fully awake yet.

"Can you make it to the hospital?" I ask, imagining myself delivering a baby in the car on the side of the road.

"I think so, but we should go," Karen says.

I wake up Jessie. Technically, she’s my step-daughter, but I’m the only father she knows, and she’s my only daughter. She’s four. I tell her she’s about to be a big sister. Karen gets her dressed. I pack bags, put everything in the car.

Karen calls the Portsmouth hospital. They tell her to come right in. She calls her mother to ask if she can watch Jessie. She’ll meet us at the hospital. It’s is a forty-minute drive from Barrington, an eternity that tugs on my innards like a pending hurricane.

I’m doing 75-mph in a 40-mph zone, imagining I get pulled over for speeding and then escorted by the police, sirens wailing, as they should be.

We arrive safely at the emergency room. Karen gets wheeled into the maternity ward. Jessie goes with her grandmother. An eerie calm, the eye of the storm, passes through me. I hope I can remember all the coaching I practiced in the months prior.

The last few minutes take longer than the previous four hours of labor. My coaching skills are worn out. Contractions are only minutes apart, but there’s no progress. The nurse asks Karen to try squatting. I help her into position. She arches her sweaty head over, pushes, screams, squeezes my hand so hard it hurt.

“We’re having a baby!” the nurse who had been with us all night yells over the intercom. I look down to see my son’s head crowning. It looks deformed. There’s some blood. I look away, help Karen lay on her back.

Another nurse enters the room. “The doctor is asleep downstairs, she’ll be right up,” she says. I want to murder them both.

The doctor rushes into the room a few minutes later. “Oh boy,” she says, after surveying my son’s head. “Hold on. I’m going to have to make an incision.” A nurse hands her a scalpel. I close my eyes, lean over and try to say some encouraging words to Karen. I’m crying. My hand hurts.

Another big push and… "Oh, my God!" exclaims one of the nurses, as Jakob makes his entry into the world, with a screech that rattles me to the marrow. The doctor lays him on Karen’s chest. He’s squirming, bloody, and slimy. His head seems normal. I think I might be dreaming again.

The doctor asks me to cut the umbilical cord. I’m squeamish, but I do it. She holds up the dripping placenta, gives me a lecture on the wonders of the embryonic sac.

Another nurse comes into the room. “Oh My God!” she says. Now I think he’s deformed again, because of the bug-eyed look on her face. “I’m just going to clean him up.” She wraps our son up, whisks him off to another room, where I hear gasps and shrieks.

"Is there something wrong with him?" I ask the doctor.

"Oh no," she says, “he looks fine. They’re all placing bets on his weight, is all."

While the doctor is tending to Karen, a nurse comes in and hands me a brand-new baby boy. "Nine pounds, fourteen ounces,” she says. “Everything looks good. Congratulations!"

It’s 6:30 AM, September 19, 1997. He’s ten minutes old. The sun is coming up outside, shining through the cracks in the window blinds. I pull him close to my heart. Three words well up in me in a way they never had before.

"I love you."


by Mickey Fisher


I wish I’d brought headphones with me. There’s a song I know of that I always thought I’d listen to, here at the end. Nobody plans to be half a world away at times like these, so I sat alone and waited out the night. So the chorus goes.

I sit by my dad’s bed and stitch memories together.

We were all going on a road trip; this was before my mom divorced him. I was in the area of six years old, and sitting in the back seat with Clay. My dad was the only one not in the car; he was looking for something in the house before we left, sunglasses, maybe. I leaned over the center console, plucked his Marlboro Reds from the dashboard, and placed them on top of the rest of the trash in the little plastic bag that we used for car waste. I didn’t bother hiding the cigarettes under the tissues and wrappers that were already in the trash. I figured I’d be in enough trouble as it was. He came out to the car and asked us where his cigarettes were. His voice was already half-raised. My eyes gave the answer away. I thought he’d yell at me, but instead he said, “I know they’re bad for me.” Then he took them out of the trash.

A wedge of light from the hallway fluorescents cuts into his room in the rehab center. There’s no door to block it. No doors means that nurses can flit in like moths if they have to, administering food and water and drugs. I sit outside of the light’s path, next to him. I can’t tell if he’s conscious or not. If he is, his eyes are pointing at a TV set that’s turned off for quiet hours. Who knows what he sees.

He promised a blue Mustang to my brother and me one Christmas, when we were no older than ten. He wasn’t there to promise it to our faces, but he wrote out a note in wobbly black pen on a piece of note paper. He had a friend, he explained, who was going to sell the blue Mustang to him, and then he’d give it to us. I believed that he intended to. Our mom told us not to get our hopes up, and we didn’t.

I smell a false smell of vodka. I’m cycling between holding his hand and using too much hand sanitizer. I’d never known him to like vodka; he’d preferred Budweisers. When we’d worried about the beers, we should’ve been paying more attention to the cigarettes in his shirt pocket. The machine dispensing the sanitizer growls at me as I stick my hand underneath its sensor again.

After I graduated from college, I got a call on a rainy Friday on my way in to work. My dad was sick. I became his proxy. His initial illness led to the discovery of something worse. I got him into Mass General, the best-case scenario. I’d visited him on sunny Saturdays in Boston, watched horror movies with him in his room. I’d pushed him in a wheelchair to the meeting with the specialist, who’d told my dad that if he refused treatment, he’d be dead within a year. He’d refused that treatment thirteen months ago.

I check Facebook, the hotline to Clay. My brother is stationed in England and organizing a flight home with the Red Cross. I’d sent him the rehab center’s number and was waiting for him to call their phone. He wants to speak to our dad before he passes, and I don’t want to see how high the charges will be on my own line. There are no bright red notification badges interrupting the bold blue header of the site. I close the app.

A thin blue curtain hangs between my dad and his neighbor in the room. I hear the other man breathing in his sleep. I hear the calm beeping of machines. I do not hear the ring of the phone at the reception desk. Not yet. So I sit alone and wait out the night.