We're not dead! I know an update has been a LONG time coming - my co-author and I are in university and college respectively, so life is quite busy - but it is finally here and the wait was (hopefully .) worth it! Thank you so much for your patience, and enjoy this update!
It was getting late into the night as I made my way over. I knew he might be asleep, but it was the only place I could realistically go.
"What are you doing here? Without your wife, at that?" my father asked when he opened his front door. I couldn't decide if he was more annoyed or concerned about my showing up at his doorstep. However, contrary to what I had previously thought, he was still properly dressed and wide awake; I thought I had even seen Uncle Nadir inside.
I hung my head in shame before replying: "Lara kicked me out."
"What? Your wife, who is nine months pregnant, kicked you out?" He looked almost nervous, though I couldn't tell if it was out of concern for me or Lara. "She can barely walk, Gustave."
"Yes, but she can hit me with a hairbrush," I explained as I rubbed the back of my head where a bruise had undoubtedly begun to form.
"She hit you with a hairbrush? As in, a light tap? On the arm?" Clearly, he did not understand the power of my wife's backhanded swing.
"More of a smack on the back of the head with the handle."
He let out a small chuckle at the mental image he was probably getting before asking a question that would inevitably give him an even more entertaining answer: "What on earth did you do?"
"Apparently I breathe too loud."
"You...you what? Do you mean you snore too loud?" His confusion matched my own but I heard a laugh from inside that confirmed that Uncle Nadir was, in fact, visiting and probably already had thought of a list of ways to make fun of me.
"You'd think, but no." I was too tired to even try and put things delicately. "I was just laying on the couch, existing, and the next thing I knew, I had a lump developing on the back of my head."
"Right. Well, you can wait here until you deem it safe to come back home," he said. He tried to stifle a laugh, that much I knew, but he let me in and tried to hide it with his look of confusion.
"So you finally hit the point where your breathing is too loud, hm?" Uncle Nadir finally piped in once I entered the living room. "Are you officially sleeping on the couch at this point?"
I flexed my back and heard about half a dozen cracking sounds. "My spinal cord answers that question for me," I said.
"Ah, I see. Why did she kick you out of bed? Was it the breathing, or were you stealing the blankets?" Uncle asked.
"I think you mean that I was using a singular blanket so I didn't freeze," I shot back.
"Oh, so she revoked the blanket privileges and refused to sleep close to you because you breathe too loud and you make her overheat. I recall that point." Somehow, he knew exactly what had happened without ever having set foot through my front door.
Papa had been watching our exchange and seemed to be developing more questions than answers. He finally put his hands up in surrender and said, "I'm just going to let you do the parenting in this moment because I have no idea how any of this is supposed to make sense."
"It doesn't, really. Hormonal, pregnant women don't make much sense, but God help the poor soul who tells her such a thing." Uncle Nadir looked at me with warning in his eyes telling me exactly what I should never do. "So yes, Erik, just let me play the father here and keep your opinions to yourself before Gustave listens to you and goes home to get Lara more upset."
"Oh, I'm not going back until either that phone rings or she comes through that door. I'm choosing to live in fear," I said as I leaned back into my spot on the couch. "I think I am actually more afraid of her right now than I was of my commanding officer."
"Good decision," he said in a very point-blank manner. "Trust me, though, you'll be back at home in about twenty minutes when she gets here and is an emotional mess because she misses you. I know that all too well." He seemed to be remembering things that I could only imagine had to do with his first wife; it looked like he was enjoying it instead of being upset by it, so I saw no reason not to press on.
"You really think so? She seemed pretty annoyed," I remarked.
I was actually quite surprised to hear him let out a small laugh at that and Papa seemed to be just as surprised as me when he heard it. Normally, when Uncle Nadir spoke about that time in his life, he was so drawn back and closed off. I suppose because it was a memory of a better time that made it easier for him to talk about.
"Believe me, Gustave, I know. Rookheya did the exact same thing to me; she got mad at me for something trivial - chewing too loud or something of that nature - but then ended up coming to the palace to get me because she missed me and I had left without saying goodbye. It is one extreme to the next in a matter of moments."
"This is insane. Thank god this is almost over," I said as I put my face in my hands with a sigh.
"Oh, you're cute if you think it ends when she gives birth." I immediately looked back up at that with a feeling of horror rising in my chest.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Gustave, if you believe the hormones and mood swings just go away when she has the baby, you are very wrong." With that simple statement, the bubble of hope I had been trying to protect got shot by a dart. "The hormones just change once the baby is born; she's still going to be emotional and moody once your little one arrives."
I had known the answer I was bound to receive, yet had still wanted it to be something different. "I'm just going to live in constant fear for the rest of my life, aren't I?"
"Indeed you are. You'll be allowed back in the bed, though, which is always nice," Nadir said with a nod.
I tried to lighten my own spirits with a laugh before trying to make a joke: "Such a world exists?"
"In which you're allowed back in bed?" Both my father and uncle were laughing but Nadir was the only one who validated my question: "Yes, it does. Eventually, she'll miss getting to cuddle up to you and she'll complain that she's cold without you, so she'll bring you back."
"But she has literally all the blankets!" I exclaimed.
"Yes, but none of them are comparable to the warmth that you give her when you hold her. Or so Rookheya told me. I'm only speaking from the one reference I have." I realized then that Uncle had never just casually said her name before; I think that might have been the third time I had ever even heard her name in my entire life.
My father just raised his hands in surrender, fully acknowledging that he had no idea what he was doing.
"This is exhausting," he declared.
"You didn't have to deal with it, so shut up. You escaped." My Uncle's comment earned a laugh from me and him, but a slightly pained expression from Papa simultaneously.
"That doesn't make this any less exhausting," he said, clearly trying to brush off the fact that he was uncomfortable, but I knew better; he often mentioned that he would have given anything to have been there when Mother was pregnant with me, so it was painfully obvious that the comment had hurt. He told me how much he wished he had been there for me to see all the little things when I was growing up and made me swear that I would be there when they happened with my own child. Nevertheless, I knew he felt out of place since he had no advice to give.
Uncle decided to keep the joke going in an attempt to cheer him up; I had no doubt that if I was able to see his distress, Uncle Nadir would see it plain as day.
"Then leave. You don't have to sit here and listen," he retorted.
"But this is funny," Papa said with a strained laugh.
"So stop complaining, for Allah's sake," Uncle said with over-dramatic exasperation.
"It's not complaining. It's acknowledging the facts," Papa replied.
The two of them were going to start going at it and I was too tired to be entertained by it, so I tried to bring the conversation back to its original topic: "Can we circle back to the fact that I just got kicked out of my own home by my wife?"
"Gustave, relax," Uncle said, still obviously amused by the whole scenario. "I'm sure she'll be here soon and everything will be fine. She'll probably be upset with you, but just go along with it, hug her if she cries, and all will be well."
"Someone should really write this down in a handbook or something," I proposed.
"If someone could truly figure out how that works, then I'm sure they would," Uncle said, seemingly taking a more serious tone all of a sudden. "Every pregnancy is different, though; it is almost impossible to define how it will go for each woman. There can be similarities sometimes but there are a lot of external factors."
"What would that book even be called?" Papa piped in as he clearly was thinking out loud.
"What did I say about the amount of authority you have on this subject, Erik?" Uncle asked, trying to get the jokes going again.
With a sigh, my father replied: "That I don't have any, I know, I know."
"Then what do you need to do, Erik?" Uncle prompted.
"Stop talking." It came out as a mumble from Papa's mouth and I barely caught what he said. For once, he was the one mumbling and couldn't heckle me about it.
Uncle tried to liven things with dramatics once more as he exclaimed: "He can be taught, ladies and gentlemen." He stood up with his arms in the air then as if there was truly an audience that had witnessed a miracle.
Papa was laughing, and not like before, it was more of a genuine laugh at how foolish his friend was behaving. "Alright, alright. Stop talking to me and give my son advice."
"Yes, please," I begged.
"I have given you my advice. You are going to be fine. You just need to take the moods in stride, that's all I can say," Uncle explained before coming up with one last addition on the spot: "At this point, she is always right. Just remember that."
"I know I'm not supposed to interject but this is simply an add on to that comment," Papa said with the look on his face as if he had just had a breakthrough. "Her being right lasts a lot longer than just her being pregnant, and that rule goes for every woman in your life. Why do you think I'm deathly afraid of Maddie?"
I shrugged, an answer immediately coming to mind: "Because she's small and terrifying."
"Well, that's valid, but that's also because if I try to correct her, she might just kill me," Papa replied. That made us all laugh, but deep down, we had the understanding that it was completely true; if there was one thing on earth that Maddie hated, it was being corrected on a subject where she felt she had authority.
"That point is acceptable, Erik, given how valid it is. Just never tell her that she's wrong, especially not where the pregnancy or the baby is concerned. Mother knows best, Gustave," Uncle Nadir said with a nod.
I thought about it for a moment, and when taking that comment at face value, my first thought was the fact that it was my child too, but going deeper, I realized that for much of its infancy, the baby was going to depend on Lara and there was nothing I could do to change that. My time would come later on and I would have to be patient.
"I'll take it into consideration," I replied.
"Smart decision. Now make yourself a cup of tea and just wait. Your wife will be here soon enough, I'm sure," Uncle said.
"I'm slightly afraid of that moment," I admitted with a sigh.
"Don't be," Uncle said, trying to soothe the ball of anxiety that was building in my chest. "She won't be upset; she'll probably be more teary-eyed and emotional than anything. Just relax."
I appreciated the fact that he was trying but it didn't really have an impact. "I've resolved to just live in a state of anxiety. To be fair, that's nothing new compared to the previous years of my life."
"That's fair. Well, go ahead, stay anxious. We'll see how it goes when she gets here."
After about twenty minutes of the three of us spending time together and talking, there was a knock at the door. Both my father and uncle looked at me, clearly expecting me to get up and answer the door. However, instead of getting up, I looked back at them and blurted out, "I don't want to open it."
"Fine, then I'll open it," Uncle Nadir said as he got up and made his way to the front door.
Papa then gave me a look of complete disapproval. "You are a coward. You know that, don't you?" he said to me.
"I may be a coward, but I survive," I replied. He returned my affirmation with a look that told me that if I didn't get up on my own accord, he was going to pull me from my chair. To avoid that, I got up and made it to the front door just as my wife was waddling her way through the threshold.
"Why did you leave without saying goodbye?" she asked. She looked so sad that I couldn't even be upset anymore. Uncle Nadir gave me a look that clearly said that he knew he was right, but instead of giving him that satisfaction I simply brought Lara into a hug as best I could with her stomach between us.
I didn't even have time to apologize before she continued: "I would have been here sooner but I couldn't get my shoes on because I can't see my feet. Not to mention that my feet are swollen on top of that, so they hardly fit in my shoes."
"It's alright, love. I'm right here," I tried to reassure her.
She then let me go and gave me a push on the chest, pointing an accusing finger at me. "No, it's not alright because I'm three times the person I used to be. None of my dresses fit me anymore, Gustave. I've never been this big in my life. I blame you for this," she retorted.
"Yes, I am to blame." I agreed with her, at least that accusation seemed to make a bit more sense to me and made it easier for me to do so. Uncle looked at me then with a nod that said he was pleased that I'd taken his advice.
"I am through with being pregnant. I just want to have this baby and be done with it," Lara said with a sigh. Little did she know how tired I was of the whole experience as well, but that was one of those thoughts that I had to make sure didn't escape my mind for fear of not being allowed back into my home.
"I can't wait to meet the baby too, dear. You're almost there," I said softly.
A look of shock followed by a smile made its way across her face as she put her hand down over her belly. "Our baby wants to meet you too. They're trying to say hello," she explained.
I knelt down and put my hands on either side of her stomach, then began talking to it in hopes of accomplishing two separate goals; the first being to cheer her up, and the second being the fact that I truly did hope that the baby could hear me: "Hello to you too, little one. I can't wait to meet you, and neither can your mother."
At least one of my goals was accomplished considering that I felt her hands ruffle through my hair and when I looked up, I saw a smile on her face that I wanted to stay there forever.
"I'm sorry I hit you with my hairbrush," she said and I could tell that she truly felt bad about it.
"It's okay. I'll be okay, the bump will go away," I said with a laugh, trying to make it seem like it was more entertaining than anything else which, in a way, it was.
"You didn't deserve that," she replied.
"You were upset, it's fine." I could tell that, by that point, she was truly feeling guilty and I didn't want that. "I know you're beyond uncomfortable, you're allowed to do things like that."
"Thank you. I know I'm not the best to deal with at times," she admitted.
Getting to my feet, I kissed her and put my hand on her stomach before saying, "I'd do it all again for you, love."
I was shaken awake rather violently at about four in the morning by Lara, who had finally let me come back into our bed. I thought initially that she was going to send me back to the couch because of my breathing, but I was greeted with something entirely different when I lifted my head; her breathing was staggered and she was scrunching her face as though she was in a great deal of pain. She was still shaking my arm as I sat up, but it wasn't until I was able to see her properly that I realized exactly what was happening.
"Lara, darling, is this what I think it is?" I inquired. I knew it was a stupid question that could have ended with me getting hit, but I needed to ask nonetheless.
"The baby is coming, Gustave," she said with a slightly remarkable level of sarcasm and annoyance given the state she was in.
Almost immediately, my heart both stopped and reset itself. I was officially going to be a father. My first thought before anything else was to make sure that Lara was alright before it was time to call the midwife; she had given us a whole list of instructions of what needed to happen before she was called.
"Lara, I am going to go and run you a bath. Unless, of course, you want me here until this is done," I said.
Without really giving me an answer, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly. The midwife had told me that she was going to be going through a lot of pain during the contractions and that she may take some of it out on me. I had been expecting shouting and something along those lines, not for her to almost break my hand, but she held on like that until her breathing went back to normal and she finally released it.
"That bath sounds like a wonderful idea," she said, sounding rather breathless.
I left to go and run it for her, shaking my hand out in order to make sure it was still functional; I could have sworn I felt a pop somewhere. Once the bath was ready, so was Lara; the midwife had asked that she be at least partially dressed for the bath, so she was simply in her nightgown when she stepped into the tub.
She was shaking slightly as I was helping her in, I noticed. "Are you alright?" I asked. "You're shaking."
"I'm fine," Lara replied quietly.
"No, you aren't. Your eyes are doing that thing they do when you're nervous," I said.
She looked both surprised and confused at my remark. "What thing?"
"When you are nervous, your eyes dart all over the place as if you're trying to notice and analyze every little detail."
"You know, sometimes it's annoying that you can read me like a-" she began, only to be cut off by what I could only assume was another contraction, during which she grabbed the sides of the bathtub instead of my hand and held on for dear life. I could tell that she wanted to cry out, but for some reason, she wasn't allowing herself to.
Once it was done, I checked my watch and mentally marked the time in between the two contractions, noting that they still weren't far enough apart to warrant calling the midwife to take over.
"It is going to be alright, love. You are doing great," I said in an attempt to reassure her, but the look in her eyes was enough to tell me that she wasn't fully hearing me. "What are you thinking about?"
"I'm scared," was all she said and she didn't even look at me when she said it; she just stared at the bathroom wall.
"Scared of what? Talk to me," I prompted her.
Her breath was staggering again, but I didn't think it was a contraction that time. "I don't know if I am going to survive this," she said, her words hitting me like a ton of bricks.
"Don't think about that," I said. We were both trying to avoid the inevitable reality of the fact that we were both afraid of her dying; that much was obvious.
"It's impossible not to. After everything we went through to get here, I can't help but wonder if it was a sign."
"A sign of what?"
"That I am not meant to be a mother," she said quietly.
I wasn't sure what to say. I couldn't imagine life without her, let alone raising our child, but I knew that, in that moment, I needed to be there for her and try to calm her down as much as possible to make the entire process easier for us both.
"Lara, I am terrified too; don't think that I am not. I don't know what I'd do without you, but we can't think like that right now. What matters now is remaining calm until it is time to call the midwife and she can help you through this," I said.
"You're right. I know you're right. What would I do with-" she started, only to be cut off by a contraction yet again. They had progressed so quickly; I was surprised to find that we were already at the interval in which the midwife was supposed to be called.
I stayed with her until it was over. I knew I didn't have much time left with her until after the baby was born. The midwife had made it very clear that I could wait outside the room but could not come in; she and her assistant needed their space, apparently.
A few hours had passed and Lara's contractions hadn't progressed; the midwife's assistant came out every so often to keep me updated, which was something I greatly appreciated. Once it was a more reasonable hour, I called both of our parents to tell them what was happening. I was able to get a hold of Papa almost immediately, but with Lara's parents, however, I had to go through the rounds of about three butlers and maids before I was able to actually get a hold of Philippe. They had both wanted to come over immediately, but I had assured them that it seemed we had plenty of time, seeing as Lara had somewhat plateaued.
About another two hours after calling them, having been sitting outside the room we had set up for the baby on a chair from the kitchen table, I was getting both nervous and restless; a combination of emotions that didn't look particularly good on me. I knew I wasn't going to make it through the entire ordeal without someone to make sure that I did not implode.
When Papa arrived, I was both grateful and worried at the fact that he also brought Uncle Nadir along with Aunt Adele. Of course they deserved to be there; Uncle Nadir especially, considering he and Papa practically raised me together. Though I had to admit that I was worried, considering everything that he had been through on the topic of childbirth; I wouldn't want him to have to relive those memories from the sounds of Lara echoing through the house.
"Thank you for coming so quickly," I told them as I sprinted down the stairs. "I think things have finally started progressing after being at a stalemate for the longest time."
"Of course we came. You didn't think you were going to go through a day like today without being surrounded by family, did you?" Adele asked as she gave me a tight hug. She then turned and gave a knowing look to Nadir and Papa and I caught on quickly; she was figuring out my heartbeat. A sneaky move; I was both offended and impressed at the same time.
"Gustave, I promise that things are going to be alright," Papa began.
"No matter what happens today," Uncle Nadir finished.
It seemed that it was almost a cue; Lara let out another cry, so I instinctively checked my watch and saw that she was down another minute between contractions. I was about to run back upstairs when I felt a hand grab my arm and pull me out onto the porch. Given the strength of the pull, I had initially thought it was either Papa or Uncle, but I was impressed with the fact that it had actually been Adele.
None of that mattered though; I needed to get back up to my wife. My heart was pounding in my ears and I needed to get back outside that door in case she needed me. I was about to go back running, but I hadn't noticed that Adele hadn't let go of my arm yet, so instead of me getting halfway up the stairs, I stayed in my spot and felt a pop near my shoulder blade.
"We cannot know what is going to happen," Papa said as he grabbed both my shoulders to keep me from running back into the house. "One thing we do know, though, is that your wife needs you to be strong enough for the two of you right now."
I swear that I had heard home, though in the moment, it mostly sounded like a jumble of words. I needed to get back to Lara and know what was happening.
"Yes, Papa. I'm alright, Papa. Now I need you to let me inside," I said as I made an attempt to shake free from his grasp but he responded by tightening his grip until I let out a small cry of pain. I knew that he had done it intentionally to make sure I was focusing, but unfortunately, I already had my focus set elsewhere.
"I will let you in if you promise me that you're going to be okay. You passing out while you're upstairs with Lara will not be good for anyone," he said.
I was finally able to shake free properly when he realized that holding me wasn't going to help anything, but my father was no idiot; he merely gave Nadir a look, and the next thing I knew, he was standing in between me and the door. "You're being ridiculous, Papa. I need to go back in."
"I'm not being ridiculous. I know you, Gustave. You practically passed out just now, you're as white as a ghost, and you could hardly take a proper breath. I want to make sure you're okay first."
"And I said I was. Now please move." I had to admit that I was getting quite annoyed, which was giving way to me being very short with him.
"Stop this nonsense. You are not okay, now stop acting like it." He was being firm with me in a way that he only ever was when it was very important. I suppose he was just as annoyed with me as I was with him. It was annoying at times how similar we truly were. "You will stay here until you can breathe like a normal human being, not one who has just finished running a marathon."
"I just don't want to leave her alone. I want to get back to her in case something is wrong. I can't afford to be out here if that's the case." My mind was running a mile a minute with all the possibilities of what could be happening inside during the time it took for our conversation to happen and none of them were helping my apparent state.
I was receiving no sympathy, though; Papa simply folded his arms and said, "Well, then you had better get yourself under control."
I knew my father well enough to know that he wasn't going to move an inch on his stance; the only way I was going to get back to Lara was if I got my breathing under control. I tried to think of things that calmed me down and the only thing that came to my mind was her smile; her laughter; the way her eyes looked like they were always trying to solve a never-ending puzzle. She never failed to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
Once I was breathing normally, I looked to Papa and said, "Okay, Papa. I'm okay now, really. I promise."
Before responding, he looked at both Adele and Nadir and they all shared a knowing expression. With that, Uncle Nadir moved out of the way and Papa finally spoke again: "Alright. Now go."
That was all I needed to hear.
As I watched my son run up the stairs like a schoolboy late to class, I couldn't help but let out a deep sigh while we walked back into the house. "If he survives this ordeal without a heart attack, I will be truly amazed," I pointed out.
"On that, we can agree. I am simply glad he stopped hyperventilating," Adele said as she took off her shoes.
"I wouldn't let him come back inside until he did," I explained as I thought back to his expression at the ultimatum I had given to him. "He's stubborn as the day is long."
It was at that moment that I expected a remark from Nadir. I had practically set it up perfectly for him. Though, to my surprise, there was nothing; he simply finished taking off his shoes and went to go sit in the living room without so much as a word. That was all the evidence I needed to know that something was most definitely wrong. I knew him and, given the situation, I knew exactly what was the matter, though I didn't think I was the person he needed at the moment. So instead of trying to face this problem with him myself I leaned over to Adele and said, "I think he needs you."
"Yes, I'm beginning to think so as well." With that, she walked over to her husband and sat down with him, then took his hand before asking him: "Nadir, are you alright, love?"
The fact that he was a terrible liar truly came to light when he quietly uttered the word, "Yes." I seriously didn't believe that even Gustave would have taken that seriously in his younger years.
"I know you aren't. What's running through your mind?" Adele asked him as she turned his face towards hers.
"A lot of really bad memories," he admitted.
"Like what? Darling, I can't help you if I don't know what you're thinking about. And you know I want to help you."
"The last time I was sitting in a room waiting for this miracle to happen, it was one of the best and worst days of my life all wrapped into one." With his reply came the confirmation I needed to put together the fact that I had been right about his feelings on the entire situation.
Adele put her head on his shoulder in an attempt to comfort him before responding: "Rookheya. Of course. I'm sorry, I should have remembered."
"It's not your fault. Don't apologize." He squeezed her hand a little tighter, I noticed, his action evident by his white knuckles.
"It's alright, Nadir. You are going to be fine and so is everyone else. Lara included. Everything is going to be okay, you don't need to worry," I knew that she was trying very hard to make sure that he wasn't focusing on the possibility that we were all aware of but there are some things that you simply cannot ignore.
"I know it's irrational for me to be worried. It's not my baby and it's not my wife. It's just a lot of memories being stirred up by this whole situation." I couldn't blame him for being involuntarily reminiscent; the circumstances were rather similar. "I don't know what I'd do if Gustave has to go through what I did. He doesn't deserve that type of pain."
"If it came to it - which it won't - he would have plenty of support, you know that. It's not going to end that way, though, and you'll be able to hold their baby and see Lara very soon, okay?" Adele said. She was making excellent points, but they all seemed to be leaning on the hypothetical, and I knew that Nadir was thinking the exact same thing. "But I'm sorry you're thinking of those events, love; I know how difficult it was."
Nadir just sighed with a sense of defeat and put his face in his hands. "I just don't know if I could be there for him in the way he'd need me," he said quietly.
I knew it broke Adele's heart to hear that, but it did the same to my own as well. I knew how important it had been for him to get the opportunity to raise Gustave with me and to be there for him whenever and however he could. The prospect of him not being able to help had to have been terrifying for him.
"You would be, Nadir. You always have been, and in a situation like that, you would be the best person to support him out of the three of us," I said. I simply couldn't stay silent any longer; he needed to know that I was there for him too.
He lifted his head to look back at me and ask a question that I, surprisingly, already had an answer for: "I barely knew what I was doing. How am I supposed to help him?"
"You lived through it, my friend, as tragic as it is. You understand that scenario and you would be able to give him some sort of guidance. But you won't have to because that is not how this is going to end today," I replied. I took that chance to get up from where I had been sitting, go over to them both and sit on the other side of Nadir in an attempt to physically show my support.
"You're not going to have to do it alone either," Adele said as she placed her hand back on his shoulder and looped her arm through his.
"No, you aren't," I added, trying to jump on her point. "Your wife and I are right here and we're going to stay here."
"I promise, I'm not going anywhere," Adele said as a final addition.
Nadir looked over towards his wife and kissed the top of her head before saying, "Please don't. I need you here right now."
"Always and forever," was her response as she interlocked their fingers.
The door opened and I could see who was coming in: Marguerite and Philippe. I concluded that Gustave must have called them at the same time he had called me, except it, naturally, took them more time to arrive. I was thankful that they hadn't seen Gustave in his previous state; I didn't believe Marguerite would have let it go as sheer anxiety as easily as we had.
"Good morning. I would advise that you two settle in - by the sounds of things, we're going to be here for a while," I said.
When I had gotten back upstairs, I had been dragged into the room by the assistant of the midwife; apparently, Lara had been asking for me. I had been in the room for about two hours after that, holding her hand as she pushed. Her screams not only tore through my eardrums but through my heart as well. I thought I had seen her in pain before, but seeing her in the midst of her labour was like nothing else.
We were in between pushes when she turned to face me, beads of sweat and tears rolling down her face as she panted through her words to say, "I can't do this, Gustave. I just can't."
"Yes, you can, love. I promise you can. Just keep your eyes on me," I said as I squeezed her hand and kissed her forehead.
"You two are lucky to have each other," said the midwife from her spot on a stool, her assistant next to her holding a towel. "Now Lara, I just need another big push from you, okay? You can do this, we're so close."
Lara kept her eyes on me just as I had suggested and she held my hand in a grip that I swore was going to destroy my hand. She let out her loudest scream yet as she pushed, but after what felt like an eternity, we were greeted with the cries of a baby rather than the cries of my wife.
"You see, you made it," the midwife said as she wrapped the baby in a towel and stood up. I could only see the little one's face but I was already completely in love. "Congratulations to you both. It's a healthy baby girl."
I looked back over at Lara just in time to see her close her eyes and go limp. My heart stopped beating as I looked at her. What I thought was happening couldn't possibly be happening.
"Lara?" I asked, but her face stayed perfectly calm as a tear from the pain rolled down her cheek.
"She put her body through something absolutely traumatizing just now and has been for hours. She's alright, just give her a few minutes," the midwife explained as she wiped down my daughter's face with a warm towel.
I stepped away from Lara at that to go and see the midwife, who was holding our baby and getting ready to cut the umbilical cord. Once that was done, she took her over to the changing table we had set up and put her into a diaper before wrapping her up in a warm blanket, then gently passing her to me.
She was so small that it almost felt like I wasn't holding anything. I couldn't help but begin crying myself; the joy of holding her in my arms for the first time was just overwhelming. I went to sit next to Lara so that we could both be there when she woke up.
Though it wasn't long before that moment of calmness ended and she began to cry. I tried to calm her down, but to no avail; no matter what I did, she just kept crying. I could feel my own heartbeat starting to race again with every passing moment. What if I could never get her to calm down? What if I had to do everything on my own? How was I meant to be a father to a baby girl when I couldn't even get her to stop crying in my arms?
The midwife must have seen me struggling, as she tried to get me to relax a bit: "You've done nothing wrong at all. She just wants to be with her mother right now, she'll be alright in a moment."
"But what can I do to try and calm her down?" I asked, desperate to be able to do something right.
"You can try to hold her to your chest and rub her back, but there isn't much to be done at the moment," she explained, probably realizing that I was willing to do just about anything. "She wants to hear her mother's heartbeat; Lara is the only person she knows as of now. Everyone else is a stranger to her, you included."
I tried to ignore the unintended sting of her remark of my baby being seeing me as a stranger. I very carefully repositioned the baby on my chest, though she wasn't making it easier given how much she was moving around. "Like this?" I asked.
"You've almost got it. You've just got to raise her a little higher so that her breathing isn't obstructed." I moved her up ever so slightly and the midwife came over and adjusted my hands until they were in the right position. Once that was handled, I began following her instructions and my daughter's crying seemed to calm down a little.
"She's going to come around to me eventually, right?" I asked.
The midwife was helping her assistant pack her supplies as she replied to me: "She will. Just give her time."
After a few moments, Lara began to stir and I let go of a breath that I had been holding the entire time she had had her eyes closed.
"Where is she?!" she asked frantically, which I assumed was caused by the fact that our daughter was still crying.
"She's right here, love, it's okay," I said as I took the baby from my chest and carefully handed her over to Lara. When she was holding her, I could not have imagined a more perfect picture.
Lara began to cry what I could only imagine were tears of joy as she looked down at our daughter's beautiful face. "Hello, my baby girl. I'm so glad to finally meet you. It's alright now, I'm here. Your mother is here, and so is your father. He loves you very much. Just like I do," she said softly.
I stood up a little bit and kissed her forehead before telling her, "I told you that you could do it, love. Now she's finally here."
"We did this together. And now look. She's so perfect," Lara said as she pressed a kiss to our baby's forehead.
"She is, isn't she? Absolutely beautiful," I replied.
I could not imagine how tired Lara must have been but regardless, she began to bounce the baby a little bit in her arms and, to my surprise, what resembled a smile crossed her little face.
Lara's own smile could not have been wider when she looked up at me and said some of the happiest words I had ever heard in my life:
"We have our little girl."
It had become a rather tense situation waiting for someone to come downstairs and update us all. I had taken it upon myself to pick up a book off of one of the shelves and start reading as a way to keep my mind distracted from the obvious anxiety that came along with the situation.
After a while, the screams had stopped and we all knew what that meant, though there was an unspoken agreement that we would all wait until we were called upon before going upstairs.
It had been roughly a half-hour after the quiet began before Gustave came rushing downstairs like a madman and exclaimed to everyone, "Lara is okay, and we have a baby girl!"
We all cheered and hugged him and I could tell that we were all relieved to hear that Lara was alright more than anything else; in fact, I saw Nadir physically relax as he heard those words. Though we all wanted to see the new member of our family, we hadn't wanted to overwhelm Lara or the baby, so we agreed to let Marguerite and Philippe go up first so they could see their daughter and make sure she was alright at the same time as they met their granddaughter.
They came back down about an hour later and explained that they had to leave in order to prepare things for family that were to be staying with them. With that, however, it meant it was our turn to go and meet her.
As we walked up the stairs, I couldn't help but notice the way Nadir was holding onto Adele's hand for dear life. He knew that Lara was fine, but seeing was different than hearing and I knew that once he saw her, he would go back to normal. Regardless, though, he still sent his wife through the door first once we got up to the second floor.
"Come on. Everyone's okay," she whispered after taking a look inside. Those words resulted in an audible sigh from Nadir which nobody could blame him for. "I told you she would be," Adele added.
"I know. Just seeing that actually come true is an immense relief," Nadir replied, another quiet sigh slipping out of him.
"I know, dear, I know," she said as she took his hand once more and led us into the room.
While I went to go check on Gustave and give him another hug, Nadir went straight over to the new mother.
"How are you, Lara? How are you feeling?" he asked.
"I'm alright, Nadir, I swear. I'm just very tired," Lara explained, giving him a reassuring smile. I realized that either Gustave had told her about his uncle's state, or she could see the anxiety painted on his face. "Would you like to hold her?"
"Yes, yes of course," he replied as he sat down in the chair that was by her bedside. Lara then carefully handed the little bundle wrapped in a pink blanket over to Nadir, but it didn't seem to calm him much; his back went straight as a line and his arms were as stiff as those of an automaton as he held her to his chest.
"You know that she isn't going to break," Lara said with a laugh.
"I know. She's hardly an hour old, though. I know how delicate they are at this point," Nadir replied. He definitely came from a place of experience; he had held his own child just after his birth, so he already knew more than I did.
"I know and I appreciate your caution," Lara said, still laughing a little at how tight his posture was. "Just try to relax a little bit. My mother always said that if you're tense, the baby will be too."
"Yes, I can speak to the truth of that as well," Nadir said, and with that, he took a deep breath and relaxed himself a little bit more. It was then that Adele made her way over to her husband and looked at the baby from over his shoulder.
"Hello, little one," she said, a smile on her face.
Nadir then looked over at her, which was the first time he had taken his eyes off the baby since she had been handed to him. "She's a sweet little girl, isn't she?" he asked.
"Yes, she certainly is," Nadir affirmed, looking over to Lara, who was simply beaming as she looked at the two of them with her baby. "That's the exact word I would use to describe her."
"Now, what's her name?" I asked, knowing that we all had to be curious as to what she was to be called.
"Oh, no, no," my son started with a cocky grin on his face. "If you want to know her name, you have to hold her."
"Let me consider how badly I wish to know her name," I retorted. It wasn't that I didn't want to hold her; I was simply terrified of doing it. The last time I had held a newborn baby was when I had met Jane's son for the first time, and that was almost two years ago.
Nadir then gave me a sigh of exasperation before essentially snapping back at me: "Erik, stop being a prick and hold the baby."
"Alright, fine. I'm pushing my nerves aside, let me see her," I conceded, knowing that Lara would have gotten up and dragged me by the ear herself despite how tired she looked.
Nadir and I swapped places on the chair beside Lara and he placed her in my arms. My friend smiled as he looked down at me before making a comment that made me feel a sense of warmth flood my chest: "There's your granddaughter, my friend."
I returned his smile and then proceeded to glance over to my son who was grinning ear to ear. "I've met your conditions, my stubborn boy," I said to him, returning my gaze to the baby and not taking my eyes off of her; her soft blue eyes were wide and seemed to be exploring my face. "Now, please tell me what her name is."
"We're naming her after one of the most important women in my life," Gustave began and then looked over to his wife, who I assumed was meant to finish the statement.
"Erik, meet little Christine Destler," Lara said.
I felt my heart stop and my eyes grow as wide as saucers. I couldn't have heard them correctly; it just wasn't possible.
"Could you please repeat that?" I requested.
Gustave snickered at me before saying, "You heard what she said. I know you did."
"His hearing isn't what it used to be. You might have to repeat yourself," Nadir decided to chime in.
"Don't make me wish to use profanity in front of the baby," I snapped back without missing a beat.
"You're both exhausting," Lara said looking between the two of us, only to focus her attention on me as she asked, "Well, aren't you going to say hello to Christine?"
I felt the tears welling up in my eyes as I heard the confirmation I needed. I knew there was only one way to greet her, and so, as I looked down at her beautifully perfect little face, I whispered something I didn't think I would ever be able to say again: "Hello, my little angel."
Gustave and I shared a knowing look since we both knew that I had not called anyone that in years; I thought I had even seen tears welling up in his eyes.
After a while of me holding her, Gustave came over and asked to take her, but I held her away with a laugh as I said something that was only partially a joke: "Oh, no, no, I'm keeping her."
I had wanted the new parents to be able to get at least one night's sleep before their true parental duties began, so I offered to stay the night and told them that I would check on the baby during the night if needed. Initially, they protested on the grounds that it meant I would get no sleep, but I assured them that it was no trouble. My winning argument had been that they had both been through a lot that day - Lara especially - and they needed the sleep more than I did.
Just as predicted, Christine woke up in the middle of the night. Lara had made me promise that if I could not get her back to sleep, I would wake her. As soon as I had heard her start to cry, I had left the guest room and quietly stepped into the master bedroom, stepped over to her bassinet and picked her up - an anxiety-inducing action in itself - in order to try and get her to calm down.
I sat down on the chair in the corner of the room and held her to my chest, gently rubbing her back as I hushed her. I wasn't sure how best to calm her down, but I figured that talking to her couldn't hurt.
"Hello, Christine. It is alright, no need for tears. I am here for you," I whispered. The sound of my voice seemed to have been working, as her little cries had quieted down, so I continued: "Would you like to know who you're named after? She was your Papa's mother; she was one of the strongest people I had ever met. She had the biggest heart in such a mean world and that is what made her strong when everyone else thought it made her weak. She was beautiful too, just like you are; she had brown curly hair, just like your Papa, and the most wonderful smile. It was the kind of smile that could make anyone feel better when they were upset. She had a gorgeous voice as well, like an angel, which is what I call you. People from all around the world came to hear her sing and it made her happy because it made other people happy. That is something I cannot wait to share with you; music is a powerful thing that has the ability to bring people together and make them happy."
Christine had stopped fussing, simply cooing quietly every now and then, but she still wasn't asleep yet. I decided that perhaps walking around would help her fall back to sleep, so I carefully got up from the chair and began slowly walking around the room. She didn't seem tired though; she was simply looking over at me with her eyes wide and full of wonder. I knew in my head that she couldn't understand me but something in my heart felt that she could, so I decided to keep going.
"You know, it's my fault she isn't here to share this moment with me. Me and my big mouth. My grand plans for our life. I wanted to pluck an angel from heaven and claim her for my own. But God gets angry when you try to steal an angel, and eventually, he'll want to take her back. But before she left, she gave me your Papa - the light of my life. He became my world, my reason for waking up in the morning. And he is going to love you forever. He is a strong man who will protect you and your maman with all he has in him, just as I tried - and failed - to do with your grandmother. Your Papa is mio soldatino which means 'little soldier', so I know that you are going to be safe. Your maman is strong too," I said with a soft laugh, thinking about the number of times Lara had had to put both me and Gustave in our place. "After all, she can put up with your Papa and me. She is truly a warrior, though; your maman went through quite a lot to bring you into the world and it has only made her stronger. But I know that with their strength combined and wrapped up in your little heart, you will be strong enough to move mountains. And I will love seeing every second of it, my little angel."
She had closed her eyes again, but I knew better from the stories from my friends that that did not mean that I could put her back in the bassinet. So instead, I sat back in the chair and held her to my chest. Gustave sat up in bed a moment later, undoubtedly to check on her after a bout of late-night anxiety, but I waved him off. I knew that I had things under control and I did not want to risk her waking up as a result of another person trying to comfort her.
Though I had to admit to ulterior motive when it came to both my having offered to stay as well as shooing away her father; I simply wanted as much time with her as I could possibly get. To have this baby - my granddaughter - asleep on my chest, her round little face aglow in the light of the moon through the window, the rise and fall of her chest on top of mine and her little heart beating against my own, was a feeling of security and peace, a type of comfort and complete bliss I had felt only once before. It had been with Christine herself when I was holding her as she slept with her head on my chest while I savoured my last moments with her. I hadn't known that feeling since that night so long ago, and now to have it with the little baby that I held, so small and fragile, relying on me for protection at that moment, was one of the most perfect feelings I had ever known.