How Many Hours are in a Lifetime?

The day began as normally as it could when you have a child home from school with a fever. My son, Brett, was six years old and in the first grade. Since this was the third day of his illness and the fever didn’t seem to be breaking, I called his pediatrician’s office and scheduled an appointment for 1:30 that afternoon.

With no energy or appetite, he lay lethargically across my bed while I plugged a rented copy of Babe into the VCR and hit Play. I propped some pillows against the headboard and hauled myself up onto the bed to watch with him. He nestled in beside me, curled his arm across my protruding abdomen, and gave my belly and the baby inside, a few gentle pats.

* * *

The baby had kept me awake until well after midnight with his usual antics. He would be a night-owl I was sure.

I already knew that he loved music. Every time I turned the radio on, he’d wake up and listen. Once, when my husband—a classical pianist—was performing a recital, he woke up and then barely moved throughout the concert. I could tell he was awake because I could feel his small hand, nestled low in my womb, moving ever so slightly every few moments. Perhaps he was already conducting in there.

Oh, and he hated seat belts. I would snap it closed and he would start rolling. Not that I blamed him. It went right across his head, which I’m sure didn’t feel too nice. He paid me back for this apparent cruelty by kicking every rib he could reach several times for good measure, pummeling my bladder with his small hands, and rolling from one side to another as he tried to find a comfortable position in his cramped space.

* * *

I was awake and getting Brett ready to leave for the doctor’s office when I realized that I hadn’t felt the baby move for a little while. He always slept in, often not waking up until around lunchtime, but even while he slept he moved and his twitches, hiccups, and other little motions reassured me that all was well in there. Then I remembered that often babies slept very deeply—storing up energy—just before labor began. I made a mental list of the last-minute items I would have to add to my suitcase before we left for the hospital.

I snapped the seatbelt across him and he didn’t move. I tried to turn on the radio, but it only worked sporadically so I couldn’t. For a few minutes I considered asking the pediatrician to listen for the heartbeat when he finished examining Brett.   But I dismissed it as my overactive imagination running away with me.

Brett had a virus. His ears weren’t infected and his chest was clear. The pediatrician told us to wait-it-out and we left to pick up my nine-year-old daughter, Valerie, from school.

We had a couple of errands to run before dinner, so I told the kids to stay in the car as I ran inside our home for a moment. Before I walked out of the house again, I quickly lay down on the couch and gently shook my belly to try to get some response out of him.

I waddled back out to the van. My brain was now in “automatic” mode as I drove to my husband’s office to pick up a check that he wanted me to deposit before the bank closed. I really wasn’t very aware of my surroundings; I was distracted and distant. I wanted to get home as quickly as possible so that I could try again to wake up the baby.

“What’s wrong?” My husband, Jay, asked as he scanned my face.

“I haven’t felt the baby move for a while, not even when I used the seatbelt.” He knew how unusual that was.

“Okay, well, go home, call the doctor and see what they say. I’m sure everything’s fine, but call them. And then call me and tell me what they say.”

“They’ll probably think I’m overreacting.”

“That’s why they’re there, to help you when you need it. Call them.”

“Okay, I will.”

I deposited the check before returning home. When I got home, I went to my bed and lay flat on my back so that I could really move the baby around. When that didn’t get a response, I called the doctor’s office.

The nurse reassured me that it was probably just the baby sleeping deeply. She gave me two options. The first was that I could drink some orange juice, eat something, and see if the baby responded within an hour. But by then their office would be closed and I would need to go to the hospital if I needed further help. The second was that I could come in now and they would strap the monitors on me so I could see the baby’s heartbeat and relax. I chose the second option and called Jay to tell him. I was surprised when he told me to come pick him up because I knew he would have to cancel a few of his college students’ piano lessons. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted.

When he got in the van, I told him that I hadn’t been able to turn the radio on. He fiddled with it and got it going. Classical music floated around us. The children were unusually quiet in the back seat.

We arrived at the doctor’s office around 4:30. The office was preparing to close for the day; there weren’t many people around. Valerie and Brett sat down at a Lego table and began to play with the toys. The nurse assured us that they would watch over them for the few minutes we’d be in the room.

She led us back and I struggled to lie down on the narrow bed. I was so big that I had to have assistance to lie down and to sit back up again. My CNM (Certified Nurse/Midwife) came in and greeted us. Her manner was reassuring and calm, but also ready to get down to business and go home.

I pulled my shirt up exposing my mountain of a belly and flinched as she squirted some cold gel on my taut skin and moved a small, black Doppler device over it. At this stage of pregnancy, it was usually extremely easy to find the heartbeat. We heard the steady beating of a working heart and I was instantly relieved. I looked at her, but she hadn’t relaxed.

“Is that the baby’s heartbeat?” I asked.

She took my wrist and her lips moved as she counted. “No, that’s yours.”

All I could think was, “This can’t be happening to me.” She moved the Doppler again and again as she tried to find what she was looking for. After a few moments she said she was going to try something else and brought out the more sophisticated portable monitors that they strap on you during labor. These were so sensitive that they could also record the pressure from the contractions. She belted them across my abdomen and turned the machine on. Nothing. She rearranged them a couple of times. Still nothing.

Next, she told me that she was going to get an ultrasound machine and left the room.

My eyes sought Jay’s. His brows were furrowed over his eyes, which were intent on my face. He squeezed the hand that he’d been holding since we arrived.

The CNM backed into the room pulling a cart with the ultrasound machine on it. She turned it on, and I didn’t notice immediately, but she had the screen turned to her instead of me as it usually was every other time we’d used it. She picked up a different device and started working it across my belly.

After a few moments she turned to me. “I’m not as experienced at using this machine as the OB/GYN’s are. I’m going to go find one of them to help us.”

She returned with an obstetrician who knew exactly what she was doing.   She studied the screen briefly and then turned the monitor screen to me. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but it’s not good news.” She pointed to a spot on the monitor. “Here’s the baby’s heart. It’s not beating and it’s dilated.”

As I think back on those words that were spoken to me on April 15, 1996, they are concise and terribly easy to understand. But at that moment I struggled to make sense of them. “You mean my baby’s dead?” I asked. My eyes were locked on hers. Her face reflected a cautious sympathy.

“Yes.”

With that single word, a very specific part of my soul—the part that contained all my hopes and dreams for this baby—began to die a slow, excruciating death.

Small revelations broke through my sorrow. I stifled the sobs long enough to choke out a question for my husband. “You mean, now I have to go through labor for nothing?” It was a nonsensical question, but I panicked as I considered the hours of labor ahead of me.

His voice was rough with grief, stress, and most of all worry for me, as he answered, “Yes.”

With a great deal of effort I pulled myself together. We had to talk with my doctor and find out how to proceed. She gave us two options to consider. Since I was nine months along, they could give me medications that would start my labor, or I could go home and wait for my body to go into labor on its own. I needed time to think, so we left. As we drove home, we talked about names; we didn’t want to use the ones we’d already picked. We hadn’t wanted to know the sex of the baby—I liked that reward after the laboring was over—so we needed to allow for both possibilities. We decided if the baby was a girl we would name her Elizabeth Joy, and if he was a boy, Stephen Lewis.

We arrived at home and Jay started making the phone calls to relatives and friends. Each time he explained what was happening, it was like another slash to my heart. And I realized, as I listened to him tell people over and over again, that I didn’t want to wait for labor to begin. I needed to get it over with. I called the doctor and told her what I’d decided.

We walked into the hospital around 7:00 p.m. At 10:45 they induced labor and at 1:39 a.m. on Tuesday, April 16th, Stephen Lewis Hershberger was born.

Stephen weighed exactly seven pounds and was twenty-one inches long. He was beautiful with reddish brown hair, long fingers that were shaped like mine, full cheeks like his brother’s, and the little ball at the tip of his nose that resembled his Papa’s. But his lips and the beds of his fingernails were a deep red and his skin was a dusky gray instead of pink. And he was too still. Stillborn.

We knew after his birth what had happened. While he was still very small, a knot had formed in the umbilical cord, and on April 15th it had pulled tight, cutting off his oxygen. So I held him and told him how sorry I was that I hadn’t been able to keep him alive. Guilt was added to the sorrow. I felt that, as his mother, I should’ve instinctively known something was wrong in time to save him.

We took pictures of him. I tried to memorize every little wrinkle in his hands and feet, the shape of his ears, and fingers, and toes. How do you cram a lifetime of loving into a few hours?

The nurse gave me a peach quilted bag. It contained a little yellow sleeper, a blue flannel blanket, a tiny stuffed giraffe that some church ladies had sewn, some booklets on dealing with the death of a child, and a typed note offering their sympathies.

I gave Stephen his first and only bath, dressed him in the yellow sleeper and wrapped him in the blanket. Afterward, the nurse offered to take some pictures of him in the hospital bassinet, with the little stuffed giraffe. She took some great pictures, and one of them—my favorite—is framed on my bedside table.

Through the minutes and hours I held him, our pending separation hung over me like a suspended tidal wave. I knew it was coming and I knew I couldn’t do anything to hold it off forever.

At around 5:30 a.m., I told Jay that I knew it was time for me to give him up. He buzzed the nurse and told her. I held Stephen’s hand, stroked his face, and kissed his tiny head once more before she carried him away. When she walked out of the room with him, the tidal wave surged in, burying me.

I didn’t think I could survive. I didn’t know if I wanted to anymore. It was hard to breathe. Jay held me, rocking me gently. I asked him to read to me from the Psalms again. They had calmed me down while we were waiting for Stephen to be born. I fell asleep to his soft voice reading the poems that David had written all those centuries ago.

Jay was my rock through the storm. He couldn’t keep the rain away, but he shared his strength so we could get through it. I needed him more than I ever had in our thirteen years of marriage. And while I gratefully acknowledge this, I also have to confess that at times he made me really mad. Like when he insisted on talking about the funeral while we waited for labor to

begin. I was holding onto a delusional hope that maybe they were wrong, or maybe this was just a nightmare. But he kept asking me what hymns I wanted, what scripture verses. It made me want to lash out at him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because I knew that he was trying to help me.

I found out later that day, that Jay and I both had a feeling something was going to happen to me during labor. It had crossed our minds that I might die. We hadn’t said anything about it; neither of us wanted to scare the other. But since I was still alive, it was a reason to feel just a little bit of relief during this oppressive time.

The days ahead were torturous. I didn’t know how to handle the grief. I cried so long and so hard that my diaphragm felt bruised. It hurt even more to breathe. One morning, while I was still in the hospital, I walked into the bathroom and when I looked into the mirror I was shocked. The face that was staring back at me didn’t look like mine anymore. The pain in her eyes—my eyes—made me wince. I tried not to look in mirrors after that.

When I was released from the hospital, we drove straight to Herberger’s to pick out the clothes that Stephen would be buried in. From there we went to the funeral home to drop off the clothes and plan the funeral. We had to pick out the programs, decide the order of the funeral, and then—as if all of that weren’t enough to deal with—we had to pick out his casket.

I wanted to tell them to stop, to give me some time to think about it, but we couldn’t. The funeral was in less than forty-eight hours. So I picked the small, white, steel casket to bury my son in, and when I found out that the casket I was standing beside was going to be the casket he was buried in, I kissed my fingers and placed the kiss on the pillow that his head would rest upon.

Friday morning, April 19, 1996, was the day of his funeral. Family and close friends met us at the funeral home to view Stephen for the last time. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it ahead of time, but I vividly recall the moment after everyone else had left the room, when I realized that in a few minutes I was going to have to say goodbye to my son for the last time.

We were truly out of time. I knelt beside his casket and told him again how much I loved him and that I would always love him. Jay helped me up, and slowly walked me from the room.

It was a cold, blustery day with the high only in the thirties; quite a shock after having several days of temperatures in the seventies. After the funeral, a handful of family and close friends stood with us beside Stephen’s casket at the gravesite. We stood, huddled in our heavy coats, shivering against the bone-chilling wind. Three young men stood on the other side of a copse of trees, leaning on shovels and speaking quietly together. Their services would be required again after we left.

“Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” The pastor said, sprinkling dirt on shiny white metal.

Jay placed his hand on top of the casket. I placed a kiss.

* * *

On Saturday and Sunday our home was a study in opposites: tears and laughter, loud children and quiet adults, hellos and goodbyes. The first time I laughed, I was surprised by how good it felt. This realization was instantaneously followed by guilt. What kind of a mother was I?

My milk had come in the morning of the funeral. My breasts were so full that every time someone hugged me, pain lanced through my chest and into my back. I didn’t have breasts anymore—I had boulders.

I alternated between Advil and Tylenol every two hours to try to mute the pain I was enduring from more and more milk being stored in already full milk ducts. I stuffed my bra with ice packs that had to be exchanged about every thirty minutes. Hormones don’t understand stillbirth.

* * *

After our relatives left to return to their homes in other states, I had to learn to deal with my new reality. Valerie and Brett went back to school and so did Jay. I was left at home, alone. Before Stephen’s death, I had been looking forward to those hours when the older kids would be at school and I could have a few uninterrupted hours with the new baby. Now I dreaded the silence. I knew what I was missing—what I should have been doing. And as the permanence of death settled into my mind, I got angrier. I’d been unsuccessfully fighting the growing anger since the day of his birth.

As the days dragged by, I drew away from Jay. I didn’t want him to know how I felt. How I was mad at God and questioning Him. And, because he was able to go to work every day, he seemed to be getting over this tragedy so much quicker than I was. That also made me mad.

I still tried to be a good mom for Valerie and Brett.   I did most of my crying when they were at school, but I couldn’t help but cry occasionally around them, too. We talked about Stephen whenever they wanted, but they were also handling his death well. I understood that, even though they’d seen and touched their younger brother, he’d never been a part of their lives. They had other concerns.

* * *

“Mom, if I died like Stephen, would you cry as much for me?” Brett asked, standing in front of me, staring up at my tear-streaked face. I was sitting in the kitchen, listening as Jay informed others about the death of our baby. I looked him straight in the eyes as the agony of just the thought of losing Brett or Valerie pierced through my hazy brain. I silently prayed, Please God, not them, too.

“Brett, if you died, I would cry even more,” I answered honestly. He gave me a timid, relieved smile and nodded his head. I opened my arms. “Come here, bud.” The smile grew as he walked toward me and reached his short arms as far around my bulging belly as he could. I enveloped him in my arms and laid my cheek against his hair. “I love you, son.”

“I love you too, Mom.” His arms began to loosen; he patted my side a few times. I quickly kissed the top of his head before I released him. He ran off to play.

His question became a talisman against the thoughts of giving up—wishing for death. I couldn’t leave them motherless.

Valerie, a few days after the funeral, told me she’d seen Stephen the night before. I said, “In a dream?” I was immediately jealous. I wanted to see him again—even if it was only in a dream.

“I’m not sure. Is Stephen an angel now? Is he wearing white?”

“I don’t know exactly how it works. Maybe that’s a question for your dad. Why? Was Stephen wearing white when you saw him?”

“I think I woke up last night, or I dreamed I woke up, and Stephen was floating in the doorway of my room. He just looked at me; he looked so sweet. When I blinked, he was gone. I really miss him, Mom.”

* * *

Two weeks after Stephen’s death, Jay got a phone call from one of his co-workers whose wife had just had their second child, a daughter. I was very glad that their baby was okay, but my arms were so empty. I started to cry while he was still on the phone and left the room. After he hung up, he came to find me. I was furious. In my mind, I’d been singled out by God. How could He love me and put me through this?

Jay could only tell I was very upset at first. My anger was manifesting itself through torrential tears. He tried to hug me—I pushed him away. He tried to get me to talk to him—I clamped my lips closed and shook my head every time he asked me a question. He sat quietly beside me on the couch, watching my leg swing back and forth in agitation. He finally let out a long sigh. “Cindy, I love you and I want to help you. But I can’t if you won’t talk to me. Please don’t shut me out.”

There had been many times in our marriage when I would recall the vows I had made on our wedding day. It had been easy to repeat after the minister, “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part,” because I couldn’t imagine a time where they would be hard to fulfill.   I had thought I loved him so much. Now, as I sat beside this man who was trying to show me how much he loved me, I was reminded of them again. I had to make a decision. Was I going to continue to shut him out and slowly kill our marriage? Statistically, I had read that something like seventy-five percent of marriages fail after the death of a child. I could see why. Or was I going to let him in and let him help me?

“I’m not sure you really want to know what I’m thinking right now. You’ll know what a bad Christian I really am. And He’ll know, too.”

“Cindy, doesn’t God already know your thoughts? Will He be surprised at anything you tell me? And, honey, He’s big enough to take whatever you have to say. Just get it out.”

So I did. And Jay wasn’t surprised or angry or hurt or appalled. He just listened, and asked questions. I couldn’t answer one of them yet: “Can we trust God?”

My mom called and I told her, too. She also asked me a question: “Is your anger hurting God?”

Mom’s was easier to answer. I knew that my anger wasn’t hurting God, it was hurting me. If I didn’t want to become one of those bitter people who can’t get over the bad things that happen, then I was going to have to let my anger go. But how? I set that question aside.

Can I trust God? Do I still believe? It didn’t take all that long for me to have my answer. Yes, I do believe. Yes, I can trust Him.

That day was the turning point. I realized that God loved Stephen even more than I did, and His Son had died once, too. He could understand my grief. I gave Him my pain, my anger, and my bitterness. It came down to a matter of my will against His.

“Thy will be done,” I finally prayed, and He gave me peace.

It’s been fourteen years since Stephen’s short life changed mine. I now have empathy toward other people’s suffering that I never had before. And, when a friend of mine had a stillborn son a few years after Stephen, I walked through the pain with her.

Every April 16th, if you were to visit his small plot in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in South Moorhead, you would find a rose lying across his footstone, and a small gift that reminded me of him. One year it was an angel, another it was a whirligig that I could picture him blowing on, yet another it was a bouncing butterfly on a pole because he would have been at the age where he would have been chasing them.

And in the summer, geraniums bloom continuously on top of his grave.

Metamorphosis of a Reluctant Caterpillar

Today is the 19th birthday of my son, Stephen Lewis Hershberger. But there will be no party, no cake, no candles, no singing. We’ve never even sang the Happy Birthday song to him. Because he was stillborn at 38 weeks gestation.

I’ll post his story separately so that anyone who’d like to read it may do so, but this post is about the journey since that day.

This morning I woke up and my first thought was “It was over by now. The metamorphosis was complete.” But then I corrected that thought. Because it wasn’t. Not quite.

That morning, nineteen years ago, was the most brutal day of my entire existence. I’d had to say goodbye to my newly born, stillborn son. And he was so beautiful. Perfect in every way. As I held him, bathed him, kissed his lovely, peaceful face, I marveled at his perfection. And I asked God why. Why would he go through all the trouble of making him so well, knitting him together in my womb so breathtakingly, and then take him away from me? It didn’t make sense. I held his hands, studied the way his fingers lay draped over mine, and pictured the way he should’ve been grasping them instead. I kissed his eyelids and wished with all my heart that I could see his eyes flutter open at the gesture. Could picture him stretching and yawning and squirming in my arms. Smacking his little lips as he anticipated his next meal. He was my third baby. I could picture it all very easily.

He was born at 1:39 a.m. on April 16, 1996. By 5:30 that morning I knew it was time to let him go. His body had grown cold, even though I held him close. So I told Jay to call the nurse to come get him, my heart ripping to shreds at the thought of the separation. And then I kissed him and handed him over. As I watched the nurse leave with him I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I didn’t know how to really let go of him. This baby who was still as much a part of me as if the umbilical cord were still attached. All I could do was ride out the waves of desperation and overwhelming grief. Let the sobs and the tears break free once more. And then the numbness took over for a bit. I calmed down. I asked Jay to read the Psalms to me again, letting the soothing words wash over me. Understanding David’s pain better than I ever had before. Eventually I fell asleep for a short time but you can never sleep for long in a hospital. It was about 7 a.m. when a nurse came in to take my blood pressure and do all those normal things that they do for new mothers.

And the very reluctant caterpillar I was, started seeing things very differently. Jay turned on the television where I listened to a reporter say that a woman famous for pushing the envelopes of decency had just announced her pregnancy. I was furious. She would be allowed to have a baby and I wouldn’t? Pride reared its ugly head. I was sure I would’ve raised my son much better than she could raise a child.

Stephen was born on a Tuesday morning. I was dismissed from the hospital on Wednesday. After stopping at a department store to purchase clothes, a blanket, and a stuffed lamb to bury Stephen with, we headed to the funeral home and there I was overwhelmed with decisions we had to make for the funeral service. Jay and I had talked about hymns, special music, what Scriptures we wanted read, etc, while I was in the hospital. But I wasn’t prepared to pick out the guest book, funeral bulletins, thank you notes, and worst of all, the casket to bury him in. I wasn’t numb enough to get through it without tears.

We couldn’t see Stephen until Thursday so we went home. What should’ve been a welcoming time was horribly empty. My husband, a college professor, had students with recitals coming up. He tried to spend as much time at home with me as he could, but he had to help them prepare. My daughter and son were at school. Those quiet moments I’d been looking forward to as time alone with the new baby, now scared me. Then the friends and relatives started arriving. I was rescued from the aloneness. Besides, I told myself, at least I’d weathered the worst of it, hadn’t I? It had to get better from here.

Thursday arrived and I was able to see Stephen again. He looked better than I thought he would and I was relieved. Our son and daughter got to meet him for the first time. I wanted to hold him so one of the funeral directors picked him up and placed him in my arms. It was the closest I’d felt to normal for two days. I was almost happy for a moment. I could see him again. Touch him again. But it still wasn’t right. He was still too still. I don’t know how long we stayed with him that day. It was both too long and too short. I tried to memorize every hair on his head, every crease in his fingers. More relatives were arriving. We had to go home but I only wanted to stay there with him. We left and I looked forward to seeing him again the next day.

Friday morning was very busy. The funeral was at 2. We all had to be completely ready before we left but we got there plenty early since many of the relatives hadn’t seen Stephen yet. I stood nearby, my eyes constantly returning to him lying so still in his tiny casket, and wished I could hold him again. So many flowers and plants. So many dear friends and family. So many tears. But I was holding it together, for the most part. And then people started to leave. It hit me then. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it earlier. But all of a sudden I realized that this was the last goodbye. When I walked out, I would never see him again here on earth. I panicked. My husband was beside me. Only God knows what I experienced during those final moments. And every mother who has had to bury her child. It’s indescribable. Jay had to guide me out of the door.

And that was the final moment of metamorphosis for me. I, the reluctant caterpillar, changed that day. I entered the chrysalis and would never be the same again.

I tried to explain it to one of Jay’s cousins who couldn’t come to the funeral but called to talk with me. I told her that everything had changed for me. But she disagreed with me. She told me that time would heal me and I was still the same. She was correct in saying that time would heal me, but I could never go back to being a caterpillar again.

Change was slow. Diversions were few. I couldn’t watch the news because my buffer for dealing with tragedies was gone and I couldn’t concentrate well enough to watch movies. The Weather Channel seemed like a safe bet but the Michelin commercials, with the sweet baby riding in the tires, brought back the pain. I couldn’t watch anything for months.

One day, jealous of my husband’s escapes to the office, I asked if I could go with him and surf the internet. We didn’t own a computer at that time and I needed to know I wasn’t the only person going through this constant grief. He agreed and I spent the afternoon on the SIDS Network page reading stories of other stillbirths and infant deaths. As strange as it sounds, reading other mothers’ stories helped. It was a step toward accepting the inevitable. Stephen was gone. I had to go on without him.

It took time. A lot of time. Spring had always been my favorite season of the year but it would be six years before I felt even an inkling of joy at spring’s arrival.

The new butterfly took a long time emerging.

I am a new creature now. Time has healed me, but grief trumps time over and over again. Because I will always miss Stephen. He is, and will always be, my son. How can I be whole when he is always missing?

I am like a butterfly and on my wings are the initials of my son. They are scars of a painful metamorphosis. They are also a beautiful part of me.

Chapter Eleven

The next morning Stella walked into Ellie’s room around ten a.m. “Morning, Stella. How are you feeling?”

Stella’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m scared. What if the whole pregnancy is like this? How am I supposed to work when I have no energy and I can’t keep food down?”

Ellie patted her bed and Stella sat down next to her. “Maybe you should go see a doctor.” She rubbed her friend’s back gently.

“I called and they said the next available appointment is in two weeks. I could be dead of starvation by then.”

“Let’s drive in and you can go to Urgent Care. There has to be something they can give you to help.”

“You can’t drive. And I’m so shaky I’m not sure I should try either.”

Ellie’s father cleared his throat from the hallway. “I wasn’t sneaking up on you ladies, but I was just coming to tell Rosie that I have to run some errands and to see if you two wanted to come along. If you need to be dropped off at the clinic I can do that.”

Stella’s face brightened. “That would be wonderful. If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all. I’ll go bring the truck around.”

“That’s so nice of him.” Stella turned to Ellie. “Is Rosie your middle name?”

“It’s actually Rose, but he’s called me Rosie for as long as I can remember. It’s so old-fashioned sounding, but I love it.” She smiled and shrugged. “Although Elanor is also old-fashioned so I guess they go together.”

“It’s classy sounding. So much better than Stella. Do you know how many times someone’s asked me if I’ve gotten my groove back yet?” Stella rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go brush my teeth. I’ll meet you downstairs.” She left the room and Ellie grabbed Misty to put her outside.

Ellie watched her father pull up with a dog crate latched in the bed of the truck. She arched her brows and pointed to the crate.

“I need another working dog, sweetie. We’ll always miss old Murphy, but I need the help with the heifers.”

Ellie nodded, feeling ridiculous for questioning him. Of course he needed the help. Murphy wasn’t just a dog; he had been an important part of the cattle operation. “Of course you do, Dad. I’m sorry. Are we meeting Randy in town?”

“Yep. At Ace’s. And the dog we’re getting is a great-grandson of Murphy’s. Good stock.”

Ellie was actually looking forward to seeing him. Wait. “Dog? Didn’t you mean to say ‘pup’?”

“Nope. This late in the summer the pups are all sold. I got lucky though. They bought a new stud last year so they were glad to make a deal on this dog. He’s been the stud for the past five years and they retired him. Randy’s been putting him through a refresher course on herding.” The squeak of the storm door opening and closing announced that Stella had arrived. “And now honey, you know we aren’t mad at you or anything, but the next time you decide to take the dog with you, please let us know a little beforehand. I could have had another dog ready before you took Murphy with you the day of the accident.”

“Ready to go,” Stella announced as she stopped beside the pickup. “I’ll get in back.” She reached for the door handle but Ellie grabbed it first.

“No, no. You take front. The seats are more comfortable and it’ll be less bouncy.”

Stella paled. “Bouncy? Ugh. I’ll take you up on your offer. I don’t think I could take bouncy right now.

Ellie climbed into the back seat of the extended cab truck. Stella hauled herself up into the front seat. They chatted about something, but Ellie didn’t pay attention. What did he mean about taking Murphy the day of the accident? Her memories were fuzzy about that day and many of the days following the wreck, but Ellie had gone to an antique show down in Branson that weekend and had been on her way back to her apartment when it happened. Did she go to the farm and just couldn’t remember?

Her father dropped Stella off at the clinic and Ellie moved into the front seat. “Dad, you said something about me taking Murphy from the farm?’

“Yeah, but it’s okay honey. Don’t worry about it.”

“Thanks Dad, but did you see me at the farm that day?”

He kept his eyes on the road, but his bushy eyebrows twitched the way they always did whenever he was worried.

“Dad, there are gaps in my memories from that day, so I’m just wondering when I would have picked Murphy up.”

He nodded. “We weren’t home during the afternoon so we think that’s when you came out. If you would’ve told us, we definitely would’ve stayed home. Both of us feel guilty about that. We think that if we were there, you would’ve probably stayed for supper and then you wouldn’t have had that wreck.”

“Aw, Dad,” she touched his arm, “You guys shouldn’t feel that way. It was an accident, pure and simple, and I do remember wanting to get back to Misty so I probably wouldn’t have stayed.” Something occurred to her. “Wait, Dad, what time did you and Mom get home?”

“About 4:30, I think. Why?”

“Because I didn’t leave Branson until after 5. I’d lost track of time and was still browsing when the store closed.”

“But . . . Murphy?”

Ellie closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “I . . . I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know how he could’ve been with me in the car, but I have flashbacks and he’s in them. When did you notice he was missing?”

“Well, he wasn’t on the porch when we got home. He didn’t come running to the truck for a treat either. We even honked the horn in case he hadn’t heard us pull up. Nothing.”

“That’s so weird.” She looked at her father. “Could you show me where I went off the road sometime soon?”

“If you really want me to, then I guess I can.” He held up a finger. “That’s another thing. The paramedics who rescued you said a Border Collie led them to you. They described Murphy perfectly, right down to his collar. They even said he was limping on a bloody paw.”

Ellie’s eyes burned as tears filled her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered, “He’d shown it to me, too, and there was nothing I could do for him.”

“You really think he was there?”

“He looked and acted like Murphy. But I don’t remember picking him up from the farm. And Dad, I would never take him without asking you first. I knew he was a working dog.”

“Then . . .”

“I can’t explain it, Dad. I didn’t take Murphy, but he somehow turned up when I needed him.”

“That’s, I don’t know, incredible? Is that the right word?” He scratched his head.

“Yeah, I think that’s the perfect word.”

“How would he even have known where to find you?”

Ellie shrugged. “I think it was a miracle.”

“Miracle. Now that’s the perfect word.” He pulled her close for a one-armed hug and quickly released her. But not before she noticed the tears in his eyes.

* * *

Since they weren’t sure how long Stella would be at the walk-in clinic, they decided to visit their favorite bookstore in Springfield, Missouri. They parked about half a block away and were mildly surprised to see people gathered around tables in front of Spencer’s Antiquated Books as they approached.

“Do you think he’s having a sale?” Dear old Mr. Spencer had never held a sale in the thirty-five years he’d been running the bookstore. Occasionally he would discount a book to move it along, but since he dealt in hard-to-find acquisitions he tended to hold onto them until the right buyer came along. He was also known to call his repeat customers if he found something he thought they would like. Ellie’s heart sank as she read the sign posted in the store window: Inventory Liquidation and Estate Sale. “Oh no, Dad.”

Her father sighed. “He said he planned to retire at the end of the year.”

“I wonder what happened.”

“Let’s go inside.” He held the door open for Ellie to enter first.

“STOP RIGHT THERE!” A male voice bellowed. Ellie and her father jumped out of the way as a man raced out the door. “DIDN’T I JUST TELL YOU ALL THAT I HAVE CAMERAS MOUNTED OUTSIDE SO I CAN WATCH YOU? GIVE ME THAT!” The irate man, Ellie realized, was her Uncle Jim, the lawyer she wanted to speak with about Miss Ruby’s will. “I saw you start to earmark that page,” he continued, taking a book away from another man, “and I will call the police if you don’t leave this instant.” The would-be-book-defiler gave her uncle a withering look and turned on his heel to walk away. “Oh no you don’t,” her uncle muttered as he grabbed another book tucked under the retreating man’s arm. “That’s it! This sale is over for today. If you want to buy what you have in your hands, go to the register. If not, put it down and leave. Right now!”

Several people complained loudly until Jim the Lawyer turned their way, eyes blazing and hands on hips, while the rest grasped their books tighter and hurried to get in the checkout line.

Uncle Jim shook his head. “Do either of you know that man I ran off?”

Ellie glanced at her father, who shook his head. “No, we’ve never met him before.” She studied her uncle’s frown. “Do you know him, Uncle Jim?”

He nodded. “He’s a multi-millionaire.”

“No!” Ellie searched the sidewalks and nearby cars to see if he was still nearby. “Why would he try to damage, or steal for that matter, a book he could easily afford to buy?”

“He’s got a reputation for that kind of thing. He’s known for finding the cheapest way of getting what he wants and occasionally it’s landed him in trouble. Nothing that his lawyers haven’t been able to handle, so far, but I refused to be one of them and he’s not likely to forget that.”

“We’re witnesses, if you need us.” Her father put his hand on Jim’s shoulder.

“Thanks, but I’ve also got it on camera.”

“What a sleaze ball!” Ellie clamped a hand over her mouth, not intending to say that out loud, but her father and uncle just chuckled.

“I think I’d better move those tables, and one of those cameras, inside before we open again.”

“What books did he have?” Ellie cocked her head, trying to read the title off the spine of the book in her uncle’s hand. He gave it to her. “Is it worth very much?” She passed the book to her father.

“About three hundred.” Jim’s hands swept the air, indicating the book-laden tables. “None of these out here are worth much more than that. Murphy kept impeccable records of each acquisition. But I’ve got yours behind the counter, just like I promised.”

“Like you promised? When?” It had been months since Ellie had last spoken to her uncle.

“I called you last night to tell you about the sale but no one answered so I left a message. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“We didn’t get the message.” Her father turned to her. “He must have called while we were outside hunting for you, Ellie.”

“Why were you hunting for Ellie?” Uncle Jim looked alarmed.

“It’s a long story. I fell asleep under the willow tree and didn’t get home until the middle of the night.” She waved her hand dismissively. “But Mr. Spencer’s first name was Murphy?” She glanced at the name on the door. “It says ‘Rupert Spencer’ on there.”

“His middle name was Murphy and that’s what we, who were his closest friends, called him.”

“I’m sorry.” She paused. “Do you know what happened?”

“Haven’t heard yet. But I handled his business affairs and had the will so here I am.” He stroked his chin. “I’ll get back to you on Miss Ruby’s will when I’m done tonight. I haven’t forgotten you, just been swamped. It’s somehow fitting that Ruby and Murphy died the same day. They’re together again now.”

“Miss Ruby and Mr. Spencer had a past together?” Ellie’s head swam. She leaned back against the door frame.

Jim eyed her for a moment before he motioned them inside. “Come in and sit down, you two. We’ll talk after I close up the shop.”

Ellie and her father entered the small bookstore and he put an arm around her shoulder. “Are you okay, Rosie? You look a little pale.”

She smiled up at him. “I’m all right, Dad. I’m just feeling a little light-headed.”

“Do you want me to get you something? A sandwich maybe? Or a Dr. Pepper?”

“Oh, a Dr. Pepper would be awesome! Would you mind?”

“Of course not. There’s a deli right next door. Be right back, sweetie.” He kissed the top of her head and hurried away.

Ellie hobbled over to an upholstered chair and collapsed into it. Another Murphy? She remembered the old bookseller with fondness. How many times had they come to this store through the years? And he’d always waited on them with genuine interest and kindness. He’d also been extremely generous. If she had an item she was interested in, he always managed to find it. And at a very reasonable price, too. She realized with a pang that she would honestly miss him, and not just because of the books, but because of his gentility. She supposed it could have been just a persona he’d put on whenever they stopped by, but shook her head at the thought. No, she could tell when someone was being obsequious. Mr. Spencer was not one of those people.

Her father returned with a bottle of Coke. “Sorry, Rosie, but they don’t sell Dr. Pepper. Will this suffice?”

“Dad, it’s Coke with pure cane sugar. I love this stuff! So, yes, it’s perfectly sufficient.” He smiled, but still seemed a little tense. “Are you okay?

“Well,” he glanced around, “I’m not so sure we’re supposed to have that in here. I maybe shouldn’t have brought it in.”

“Oh, well I won’t open it until Uncle Jim says I can. How’s that?” He nodded. “Why don’t you pull that chair over and join me.” He did as she suggested but still couldn’t seem to relax. His hands stayed busy either smoothing imaginary wrinkles from his jeans or literally twiddling his thumbs. What was up with him? Did he think she wanted him to buy her a lot of these books? A buzzing sound interrupted her thoughts and she dug her phone out of her purse.

“It’s a text message from Stella. She’s dehydrated and they’re giving her an IV. She’ll be there at least another hour.”

“I’m glad they can help her. She doesn’t have any fat stores to use up. Morning sickness, right?”

“You’re a good guesser, Dad. She just found out.”

“Does Reid know yet?”

She shook her head. “She wants to tell him in person.” He didn’t respond, just studied her. “I’m fine, Dad. All of that is way over.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So seeing him again hasn’t changed anything?”

“Nope. He’s Stella’s problem.” She smiled so he’d know she was teasing.

“We men are problems, that’s for certain.”

“Some more than others, Dad. If I could find someone like you, I’d be thrilled.”

“Oh no. Thankfully that mold broke over fifty years ago.”

“Gosh I hope not. We need more loving, hardworking, honest, dependable, faithful men like you in the world.” He put his hands on his head and then expanded them outward, like his head was growing from all the praise. She gently knocked one of them aside. “Goof ball.”

Her uncle approached them. “Do you have time to come to my office? I’d like to lock up the shop for the day and let Mrs. McLane go home.”

Ellie looked at her father. “We have to wait for Stella anyway.” He nodded. “Okay, that’s fine, Uncle Jim. We’ll meet you there.”