Story: Apocalypse Christmas

(I was asked to write a special piece for the Christmas program at Joy Mennonite Church in December 2012)

“Karen, I’m headed back to my pile of charts.  Can you make sure a note gets left for the cleaners about the floor in room 3.  Thanks.”  The doctor headed to her office where only the faintest smudge of orange-gold through the window could attest to the crisp, bright day that was now passing.  Sighing at the large stack of paperwork left to be completed before the last full working day before Christmas could be considered over, she knew that tiny glimmer of daylight would be long gone when she finally walked out the door.

“So, the world didn’t end today I guess!”  The round smiling face of the nurse Karen popped in the door frame.  “Day’s not over yet, at least not in South America.” Dr Rose shot back with a smile, making Karen laugh and sigh.  “I guess that’s true.  I sure had trouble writing the date all day though.  My brain just didn’t want to keep 12/21/12 straight.  If you see something in there dated wrong, please correct it for me.  Well, if you don’t mind, I was thinking of locking up now and finishing the day’s totals first thing on Monday, since it will probably be a slow half-day.”

“No problem.” said the doctor, already back bending over her work, pausing only to call down the hall as the nurse scurried away. “Hope the Christmas concert goes great!”

Soon enough minutes had passed that the doctor was sure she must have long had the dark building to herself, when the sudden sound of a door opening and shutting and the fluorescent hall lights buzzing into a glaring brightness outside of the office door, brought her immediately to her feet with a quickened pulse.

“Karen?”  she called hesitantly, reaching for her phone.  Just because everyone in town knew the little free mission clinic kept no cash or narcotics didn’t mean some desperate person might not think something of value could be found there after dark.  She had the number for the local police almost dialed when she heard a reassuring voice call back, “It’s me, Dr Rose, everything’s OK, but you better come quick though.”

Trotting up the hall, following the lights, she rounded the corner to the front lobby, and saw the good nurse kneeling next to a snow-covered figure hunched in one of the padded chairs.   It was a dark haired girl, dressed in a far-too-thin woolen coat whose rough surface held snowflakes clinging in moist clumps and whose buttons could never have closed over the girl’s bulging pregnant belly.  By her side was a anxious looking teen, not nearly old enough to be called a man, dressed in nothing warmer than a sweater.  Neither of them could have been far past sixteen.  The doctor could sum the general story up in the beads of sweat on the girl’s forehead and the white knuckles gripping the nurse’s hand.

The nurse started chattering in a low but cheerful voice.  “I had locked up the front door and gone to my desk to make notes on a couple things that I didn’t want to forget on Monday, when I remembered I hadn’t checked the specimen deposit box.  You know the last time it snowed the box iced shut and the driver couldn’t get specimen’s out. So I went out the front to make sure today’s blood had been picked up, when I found these two out in the parking lot.  No car.  Looks like they walked a ways to get here.”

“Contracciones?” the doctor asked no one in particular. “Sí, sí, para one hour,” answered the young man hesitantly.

As the girl’s knuckles began to soften and relax, everyone in the room seemed less tense as well.  “Me llamo Doctora Rosa. Let’s see if we can move you to an exam room so I can check you out.  Examinarse?”

The girl spoke not a word, throughout, but the young man sought her eyes before every word he said as if mutely asking her permission before answering any questions. In a series of questions and answers back and forth in broken English and Spanish on both sides, the story slowly expanded from the bare facts to a bigger picture.  No matter the language, patients from all backgrounds just had a tendency to tell Doctora Rosa more than they really intended.

Juan Martín and Maria were from a village near the Rio Conchos, north and east of Chihuahua, Mexico.  Life had been hard in this impoverished area increasingly under the control of the Sinaloa Federation, whose clashes with the Juarez cartel for power and influence were taking lives on a daily basis. These two saw no peace in the future for their homeland, and when they had found out about the baby, they knew their future was now only nine months away.  They couldn’t stay.  Under cover of darkness, they had set out with hope of finding their way to Lincoln, Nebraska, where his cousin had a room and a job for him.  Juan never mentioned the crossing, but he did say that after arriving in the states they had been delayed some months in the far south working as day laborers saving all their pennies, and though the statements were vague and clipped, it seems that they may have barely escaped arrest more than once.  A week ago, they finally scraped together enough to buy parts to make a clunker car Juan had earned in exchange for work actually run.  It was missing a window, but it had gotten them as far as this northern Colorado town, when it had finally died at a rest stop.  The only prenatal care Maria had to speak of was a time in early summer, before the baby even started showing, when they had worked for a wise elderly woman, they called “Senora Betty,” who had known immediately that Maria was pregnant and had said the baby would likely be born before the year came to an end and had given them a few gifts and advice.  It seemed like she was the only person along their way who had been excited about their baby.

Under the gentle care of Karen, who replaced a cold coat with warm blankets and soft pillows and filled both their hands with warm instant cocoa and left over cookies, the contractions began to subside.  Dr Rose explained that this was probably an early false labor brought on by cold and stress, but Maria was already dilated some and the baby was good size, head down, probably due any day now.

“You need to find a warm place tonight to rest,” she urged them, explaining that if the contractions came back they should time them and when they were less than two minutes apart for more than an hour they should go to the hospital.  At which they both locked eyes with each other and then dropped their heads. “You know the hospital won’t refuse treatment even if you can’t pay,” the doctor mentioned casually. Juan Martín’s eyes, however, were full of suspicion, clearly speaking of his wariness to be involved with any sort of authorities.  “Mañana, I will work to make the car go.  We will be safe with our familia.”  The determination in his face made it suddenly seem much older, and touched the doctor’s heart. “Well, in that case, please take my cell phone number, if you have any problems while you are in town, you could call me directly.”

As they gathered up to go, Karen supplied them both with better coats from the lost-and-found box and made plans for them to return tomorrow for a recheck and to spend an hour doing prenatal teaching.  As Doctor Rose stood staring at the desk still full of paperwork but also with a clock blaring an incredibly late time, Karen’s face appeared again, “Poor things, eh?  Babies having babies.  I’m glad we checked her out; I just hope it doesn’t make us both late to church.  I just want to let you know I’m going to drop them off at that cheap motor inn near where their car is so that they don’t have to walk.  They should be able to get a room there for the night.” The doctor nodded. “OK, thanks for telling me.  Be safe, Karen.  I think I’m walking out now too.  There’s no way I can finish this all and make it home in time to get my little angels ready.”

A few hours later, after a hasty supper and a rush to the church, the doctor was still mindful enough of the day’s last encounter to keep an eye out for her colleague.  As soon as she walked into the concert, she was relieved to see Karen safe and well in the choir.  Most of the town seemed to have turned out for the celebration, and the church was overheated and overcrowded enough to make an escape into the frosty night feel good after the long cookie and cider after-party was finally over.

“I’m so proud of you girls! Stop right here. I want to get a quick picture of you all in your angel wings in the snow.  The lights on the church are making you shine like real angels!”  A couple of takes were required to get just the right shot of the squirmy little ones, then off came the wings and on went the coats to the sound of whiny complaints.  “No, you can’t fit in your car seat with angel wings on, they’d get squished!”  When suddenly the cell phone rang.

“This is Dr Rose.” “How close are the contractions?”  “Well, I really doubt the baby is coming this quickly, lets go over the things that could be bringing the contractions…..is Maria warm, has she been resting, how much fluids has she drank so far uh.. quantos liquidos.   I see.  Have you thought more about going to the hospital.  Yes, I can hear what you mean, I understand how that could be scary for you.”

As she talked, the doctor’s hands were plugging in safety straps and her eyes were on the two little girls faces.  “Mommy, is it a baby!  A baby gonna be borned tonight?!” shouted the youngest one.  The older girl’s face lit up as well as she took the cue to proudly recite her line from the concert., “And you will find the baby wrapped in swabbling clothes and lying in a manger!” The littlest giggled with glee, “Mommy gets to help born the baby Jesus!” and they both broke into a jumbled up chorus of Glorias.

The doctor suddenly found tears in her eyes and a glance to her husband let her know that all was well.  “Juan, are you at the Motor Inn? Oh, well tell me the address where you are staying.  Ok, I’ll be there to check on Maria in just a few minutes.”  She turned to her husband, “Thanks, babe.  It shouldn’t take long, just a scared couple of teen parents.  I see Officer Mitchell’s patrol car here in front, he must be on duty.  I’ll ask if he can drive me over, that way you can take the girls straight home and you’ll know I’ll be safe.”

A few minutes later they were cruising along in the patrol car. “Are you sure you got everything you need, Doc?”  “Well, I’ve got the emergency bag I keep in my car which has gloves. I’m sure you’ve got emergency supplies too. I really think gloves are all I actually will need.  This is most likely just a quick check for reassurance sake.  It’s her first baby, and her contractions faded quickly this evening.  It would be a miracle for her if she was ready to deliver this quickly.  You remember what first labor is like, right?”

“You better believe it.  My Marcy was so glad you were there to help her out.  Twenty five hours of labor, I still don’t know how women do it?” the ruddy faced young officer smiled and shook his head.  “How is little Billy doing these days? I haven’t seen him since his last check-up.”  The smile got even wider, “Oh he’ll be walking any day now!  He’s outgrown his first carseat and is going through clothes sizes like crazy… Say, I thought that address you read was a bit fishy.  Are you sure you got the number right?”

They were both staring at the sign for Save-a-Lot Storage when they saw a figure struggling up the block through the thick snow.  “That’s him!  Wait here and let me talk to him” said Dr Rose, jumping out of the car. “Hello! Juan!  It’s Doctora Rosa,” She said cheerfully as she trudged up to him.  “Look, I brought my friend, Officer Mitchell, with me to help drive me, just in case there was any kind of emergency.  I don’t want you to worry.  He’s not here to ask you any questions or get involved, he’s just here to give me a ride.”

It was a subtle warning sign to her that something was different this time when Juan Martín didn’t even blink an eye.  “Vamos! Hurry!” was all he said as he led the way into the rows of storage units to a small one somewhere in the middle where he yanked open the heavy sliding door.

On a makeshift pallet on the floor of the half-empty metal-walled square was poor Maria, still quiet, but in obvious distress.  The doctor was on the floor by her side in an instant feeling the strength of the contractions through the girl’s thread-bare but still clean shirt when the Officer’s car came rolling up through the snow.

“Sorry Doc, it took me a bit to find the emergency key that Old Marcus has us keep so we could check on any trouble here at night.  Whoa,” he said as he sized up the situation. “I thought you said they were gonna be staying at the motor inn, you gonna tell me there literally was no room in the inn?!”

“I’d rather think it was a matter of no money for the room.  We’ll sort it all out in a minute, right now I need you to bring me my bag, I left it in the seat.”  From there it was a matter of only moments for gloves to go on and the whole situation laid bare.  “Wow, she’s really progressed,” the doctor said with eyes towards the Officer in slight dismay.  “Her water has broke and she’s fully dilated; the head is nearly crowing with this contraction.”

“Uhh…What does that mean?” was the shocked reply. “It means this baby is coming now. I need all the emergency supplies from your car including a flashlight,” said the doctor calmly.  “Well, maybe that won’t be necessary.  I’ll just call dispatch for an ambulance first.  They could be here in less than five minutes and they’d have all their supplies ready,” he turned in purpose to go. “Wait, Bill, wait!” said the doctor struggling to her feet. “Look at them.  They can’t afford an ambulance.  They can’t even afford a $39 hotel room.”  He turned back, “Well you can’t just deliver a baby in a storage locker when there’s a perfectly good hospital right here in town!  It’s just too risky.”  The doctor stepped close, her voice firm but pleading, “These two can’t afford a hospital, and most likely they weren’t born in one themselves.  Babies are born at home all the time.  Anyway, hospital could be the death of these two.  You know when the hospital finds out they are undocumented and unable to pay someone will end up whispering it in the sheriff’s ear and he just won re-election on anti-immigration.  He’s been down to the clinic board meeting complaining that we shouldn’t care for undocumented patients since we have a small grant from the county. You want to talk risky, if they get sent back to where they came from everyone will know they were able to successfully make the crossing, the cartels will target them.  They’ll be sitting ducks.”  Bill’s eyes were now on the young man, holding the girl’s head up so that it didn’t have to lay in the dingy matted blankets.  “Come on, Bill, it’s nearly Christmas.  If there’s any time we should remember that some kids could even be born in a barn and still turn out OK its at Christmas.  Just bring me everything you’ve got.”

Only a short space of time later, with a metallic emergency blanket for a bed, the little Martín baby girl made her entrance into the world the same way all babies do.  Dried and warmed and wrapped, with both parents arm’s around her, the doctor finally was able to step back and the officer shut off his bright torch.  The dim, naked bulb overhead cast a weak orange beam down on the little family, and the reflected sparkles off the shiny blankets made the threesome seem to faintly glow.

And at just that moment, the church bells down the street began to chime.  Twelve long peals rang out through the brisk night air, but the little family didn’t seem to notice.

“You know my neighbor has a little mother-in-law house in his yard empty.  He and his wife are really generous.  I’ll call and see if they’ll let the mom and baby stay for a few days, and Marcy would be glad to have someone to give Billy’s clothes and carseat to.”  The Officer lifted the heavy metal door and glanced around and chuckled. “Well, I guess those Mayan’s got it wrong.  World still seems to be here.  Nothing’s changed.”

For a moment Doctor Rose joined in his relieved laugh.  It felt good to laugh in the moonlight and relax now knowing the baby was healthy and safe, but she rather quickly sunk her voice into an almost whisper. “Maybe, maybe, but who knows, really.  What’s that song say, ‘Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end’?  For these two, this is the end of life as they knew it.  Everything will be changed for them now.  And so in a distant way, everything will be a little changed for all of us.  It’s the end of a world without this baby.  She’s here now, and the world will be different for it.  Heaven knows with the week our country has had, maybe we should regret that nothing much has happened to change the world today.  Maybe we should feel ashamed that we all waste time looking to some apocalyptic comet to change our course because we all feel too small and weak to do it ourselves”  Her voice grew stronger as she laughed at her own seriousness.  “Boy, listen to me, I must be tired now! I guess all I’m trying to say is maybe if we all don’t wake up to the world utterly changed, we shouldn’t blame it on the Mayans.”

“Maya. Te amo este nombre.”  The doctor quickly looked over to the face of the new mother to catch the first words she had heard the girl say.  Patting her baby and smiling, the girl said clear and strong, “Maya Rose Martín.”  The doctor and the Officer looked at each other in wonder, and then each smiled back, a world-changing kind of smile, and with tears in her eyes the good doctor simply said “I love this name too!”

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