“Six hours into my labor I broke into the Shedd Aquarium. There, alone in dolphin exhibit on that little underwater shelf where the trainers stand, I birthed my son. Drenched in cold saltwater, blood, and amniotic fluid and backdropped by Lake Michigan in the Moonlight, I became a mother. The dolphins joined in chorus with my son’s first cries and the power of the universe overwhelmed my soul.”
So that just popped into my head. That was my friend Stella’s birth story. She related it while we were sharing birth stories at the hospital new mom’s group four years ago. I had been life flighted for an emergency c-section, but Stella’s story stole the show.
I love Stella. Stella’s my friend, so I try to forget when she tells me something illegal she’s done. If I’m thinking of her off the radar operations now, I know I’m in trouble.
You see, I’d just gotten off the phone with Carolyn’s preschool teacher. I’d been getting suspicious about some things and the phone call made it all worse.
“It’s procedure,” Ms. Gina had said. “The doctor’s office sends the results of that test directly to us. You can always request a copy for your own files.”
“Thank you,” I’d said. “I’ll get around to it. The health department keeps track of all that for us anyway.”
Then I laughed and Ms. Gina had chuckled with me. I hung up. And I’d been sitting at the kitchen table with chills running over my skull and bile in the back of my throat until just now, when Stella’s breaking and entering stunt birth story popped into my head.
Stella Hartford, dolphin whisperer, anarchist, off the grid liver, conspiracy theorist, counter-culture revolutionary, breastfeeder until well past three of little Phoenyx, and my only connection to anything illegal, was exactly the woman I needed now.
I hit Stella’s picture in my contacts list. Wiry, pasty pale, piercings, tattoos up and down both arms.
“Amy!” Stella answered in her high, bubbly voice that doesn’t match her goth-punk look.
“Stella, I need help.”
“Oh, sure. I can watch Carolyn anytime. I’m sort of between jobs again.”
“What, again?” I ask.
I wish she’d give up on fighting ‘The Man’ and give Phoenyx a little stability. But now isn’t the time.
“Never mind,” I say. “No, I don’t need a sitter. I…I think I got Carolyn into some very big trouble.”
“You? What could you possibly have done that would get anyone into trouble? Let alone a four year old.”
I could hear the dismissive laughter in her voice. Stella insisted on being amused that my husband and I had never broken any laws—not even smoking marijuana—had normal jobs and a normal house. When she visits, she’ll do things like point at our Swiffer, chuckle and say “That’s classic!”
“I got Carolyn tested for that disease,” I said.
“The one they’ve been talking about in the news? The CDC said there’s a disease or allergy or something going around. They say it’s potentially lethal and that everyone should be tested right away if they notice anything, you know, unusual.”
“Crap. Amy, you didn’t.”
“Of course I did. They said it could be lethal. And after the pool incident, I thought I’d better check.”
“Amy. I know you’re used to operating above board and stuff. But you should have come to me if you were going to get her some blood test. They’re keeping that information, you know.”
“I know. Now. Hindsight is 20/20. I trusted her doctor, you know.”
“You can’t trust anybody with a direct line to the CDC, yo.”
“First lesson in paranoid living?” I asked. I usually laugh off Stella’s conspiracy theories. But the ‘I told you so’ ness irked me right at the moment.
“Right. You straight arrows never think of that. The government sees all, knows all, and collects data on all. But you think it’s not a problem. You’ve got nothing to hide, so you just let it all hang out.”
“I get it. Spare me the lecture and help me, Stella. It’s my daughter’s life here.”
“Okay. Sorry,” Stella said. She sounded a little chastened. “Hang up and come meet me.”
“Where?” I asked.
Stella and Phoenyx were technically homeless. They moved around because Stella’s all paranoid and off the grid. In the four years I’d known them, Stella had never hosted two playdates at the same address. She could settle down if she wanted to, and I thought it was rough on Phoenyx. But it wasn’t my business.
“The park by the place where you and I met.”
“Shhh.” Stella cut me off. “They’ll hear.”
“It’s not like they’re bugging my phone.”
“Oh yes they are. You probably didn’t pay attention when they were voting on that one. Because how could it affect you, right? You play by the rules, it doesn’t matter if they snatched your civil liberties right out from under you because you weren’t using them anyway!”
“Okay, look,” I sighed. “Now isn’t the time. I’m terrified.”
“Amy, they’re recording all cell calls for public safety reasons. Terrorism, you know. I mean, they’re probably not listening right now, but they’re recording everything passively in the background. If you do something even slightly screwy, they’ll listen to all your cell conversations to figure out if they need to go pick you up for a few questions. And they will want to talk to you. Or more specifically, to Carolyn.”
“Right. So bring Carolyn to the park by where you and I met. The less they know about where you go and what you do from now on, the better. And turn off your GPS. Phone and car.”
“Won’t that look suspicious?”
“No. GPS drains batteries. People turn it off all the time.”
I hung up. I looked around at our home. Pictures of Carolyn lined the walls from her birth at the hospital through her first day of preschool photo. She was beautiful, brilliant, her smile could light the whole world. And she was unusual. She should have drown. But she didn’t. She must have that disease. I wanted to help her, but I didn’t want her on a registry or in a quarantine. If anyone could help, it was Stella. I walked up the stairs to wake Carolyn.
With my groggy preschooler buckled securely in the back of the SUV, eating a yoghurt tube she was sure to get all over her clothes and the car seat, I drove to the park by the hospital. It was a minimalist park, no swings or slides. Only grass. But the nearby hospital is where I met Stella four years ago. It was a moms’ group for people who’d delivered there—or been taken there for care after a crazy stunt birth involving aquatic mammals.
I remembered the first time I saw Stella it was obvious she was not like me. She was sitting in the new mom’s circle, nursing Phoenyx and sporting lip rings, tattoos and aqua hair. And that was before she told the birth story in set in the Shedd Aquarium. Jason and me? If I’m honest, we’re sort of Yuppies and we’re sort of proud of it. Stella? She was one of the crunchy moms I’d heard about. Only with some shrapnel bits mixed in with the granola.
I didn’t think we’d get along, but then we were going around the circle of moms, sharing how we were feeling in the postpartum days. I told everyone how I felt like I’d wrecked my life. Like I could never stop worrying about Carolyn. I told the room full of new, nursing mothers how I live in constant fear of losing my daughter.
It had started when I found out I was pregnant. I thought I’d be okay once we were past the magic gestation week when miscarriage risk drops. Once we passed that hurdle, I thought I’d be okay after she was delivered. Then if she didn’t die of SIDS in her first year. Then if she didn’t choke, or drown, or die in a car accident, or or or. I realized that I wouldn’t stop worrying about her until the day I was dead and Carolyn wasn’t yet. I told them that I’d started looking forward to that day. Not that I wanted to die. Only that I wanted to flip to the end of my life—like a book—to make sure all my favorite characters make it.
When I’d finished, most of the circle looked a little shocked or looked away. Only Stella met my gaze.
“Me too,” she’d said.
And we had been friends since that day.
I shouldn’t have even been at that hospital’s mom’s group. I was supposed to deliver at the hospital closer to our home, but there were complications and I got life-flighted to the Prentice Women’s hospital downtown. My placenta had detached, but Carolyn survived. None of my obstetricians had seen anything like it in their careers.
I had started to wonder about that too, after the pool incident. I glanced in my rearview mirror at my four-year old angel. She was kicking one leg and daintily squeezing strawberry go-gurt onto her fingertips. There was something special about Carolyn.
Jason and I have a swimming pool out back. We’ve always been careful. But Stella and Phoenyx were over for a play date two weeks ago. Stella and I should have been watching more carefully, but the kids were quiet for once. We were having an uninterrupted adult conversation. Until Phoenyx came into the kitchen from outside.
He wasn’t supposed to have been outside.
“Carolyn’s not coming back up,” he’d said.
Stella and I raced outside and saw Carolyn at the bottom of the pool. I dove in. As I swam up to my precious baby I saw her cloud of white blond hair float up over her face. Her eyes were open. She smiled at me. Then she pointed to where her jelly shoe was stuck in the drain. Even at four years old she still had trouble getting those damn jelly shoes unbuckled. I pulled her foot free of the shoe and grabbed her. I kicked off the bottom and rocketed to the surface with my girl.
She didn’t take a breath at first.
“Breathe!” I screamed in her face.
Carolyn had gasped and giggled. My world could keep turning. My heart could keep beating.
“You left my shoe down there,” she’d said. “That was silly!”
I was sobbing mess for about an hour. Stella stayed with me. Before she went home she’d said that she’d told Phoenyx that he was very good to come get the mommies right away. But he said he didn’t. He said Carolyn had been down under the water for a while, like always. He came to get us because he was getting bored. He said she does this all the time and that Carolyn only breathes sometimes. Like a dolphin, he’d said.
The turnoff for Lake Shore Park was coming up, so I put on my blinker and merged across a lane. I got honked at, but what else is new. At least I didn’t get the finger so my kid could imitate. Once I’d found parking, I unloaded Carolyn and walked with her across the unbroken stretch of green grass. I hoped Stella would bring Phoenyx so Carolyn would at least have someone to run with.
“Hey!” I turned. There was Stella.
Phoenyx was with her, thank goodness. And Stella had brought a kickball. That could keep those two entertained for at least ten minutes. The kids took off, after the ball and Stella and I power walked to keep up with them.
“So what happened?” Stella huffed.
“Okay, so after the news report of the disease or allergy or whatever I of course got Carolyn tested right away. Only the doctor hasn’t told me the results. Usually, I get results in a day or two. But I have heard nothing for weeks. I was talking to Liz McPheeny, another mom at Carolyn’s preschool who got her son John tested a few days before Carolyn. She didn’t get her results back either. Today, I noticed that he hadn’t been at school for two days. Usually, the preschool director will email us a notice if one of the kids has been sick so we can watch for symptoms or pick up a z-pac just in case.”
“Really? They email you if there is a kid with a cold?”
“It’s precautionary,” I said, defensive.
“Your world is not my world,” Stella laughed. I decided to let it roll off this time.
“But we didn’t get an email. I even checked my spam folder. So I called Ms. Gina at the preschool and she says John doesn’t go there anymore. She wouldn’t say any more than that.”
“Wow. I wonder if his family got any warning,” Stella said.
“Apparently the doctor’s new process is to call the schools and preschools directly with the results of this test. That’s what they told me.”
“Okay,” Stella said, “So here’s the thing. They’re going to get Carolyn’s results back and she’ll have tested positive. It’s a lot of weird stuff and breathing like a porpoise falls under that weird stuff umbrella.”
“Ugh. So what do think they’ll do?” I ask.
“I’ve been reading about this syndrome or whatever and the CDC is talking quarantine and registries. But some stuff I’ve read makes me think they’re already taking people. So I think they’re going to move on you like they did on little John McPheeny. Then Carolyn won’t be at preschool the next day either.”
I looked across the playground and saw my girl kicking sitting on the kickball. She was probably pretending it was an egg. Phoenyx was getting agitated waiting for his turn. Some of the unusual symptoms I’d read about were scary. Suddenly bursting into flames that didn’t consume you. Terrifying. Holding your breath for a long time isn’t dangerous to anyone. It wasn’t fair.
“So,” Stella continued, “I’m going to call a friend to pick up your sweet, doughy hubby at work. You, and Carolyn and Jason aren’t going home tonight. Because they’ll be waiting for you as soon as Carolyn’s bloodwork pings the CDC.”
“What? We can’t leave!” I gasped.
Our lives were organized. We had schedules and bills and responsibilities. We had deadlines and appointments and recreational activities. We had retirement accounts and a mortgage.
“Your lives were never going to be normal, Amy. You just didn’t know it yet.”
“I didn’t pack anything!”
“You packed her,” Stella said, pointing at Carolyn.
“Okay,” I nod.
It was easy, that ‘okay.’ Even though I knew what came with it. The homelessness, the wandering, the instability. But I knew Jason and I were Carolyn’s real home. All our lives, my husband and I had worked in challenging and rewarding career fields for our nice home in a nice neighborhood. But it was all for Carolyn, in the end. A safe place to raise our family. And if it wasn’t safe for Carolyn anymore, we’d leave it like a hermit crab leaving its shell. No hesitation.
It was why Stella and I were friends, despite all obvious differences. We were the same in this way. Kids first. Hands down. No questions.
“It’s a new chapter in your book,” Stella said. “Still want to flip to the end?”
“More than ever,” I said.
I watched my dolphin girl run over the grass, ponytail streaming behind her as she chased after the kickball and the power of the universe overwhelmed my soul.