My vision blurs and Jenny laughs. With her own tears streaming down her face she turns to me. “We have a baby girl, Stanton.”
And we laugh and cry and hold on to each other all at the same time. A few minutes later, Happy Nurse Lynn carries the pink bundle over and places her in Jenny’s arms.
“Oh my God, she’s perfect,” Jenny sighs. My awed silence must worry her, because she asks, “You’re not disappointed she’s not a boy, are you?”
“Nah . . . boys are useless . . . nothin’ but trouble. She’s . . . she’s everything I wanted.”
I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t know it would feel like this. A tiny nose, two perfect lips, long lashes, a wisp of blond hair, and hands that I can already tell are miniature versions of my own. In an instant, my world shifts and I’m at her mercy. From this moment on, there is nothing I wouldn’t do for this beautiful little creature.
I brush my fingertip against her soft cheek, and even though men aren’t supposed to coo, I do. “Hey, baby girl.”
“Y’all got a name for her?” Nurse Lynn asks.
Jenny’s smiling eyes meet mine before turning back to Nurse Lynn. “Presley. Presley Evelynn Shaw.”
Evelynn is after Jenny’s nana. We figured it might go a long way if she ever finds those shotgun shells. She’s been searching particularly hard since Jenny and I announced we weren’t getting married—yet.
Too soon Nurse Lynn takes the baby back so she can get printed and poked. I climb off the bed while Dr. Higgens busies himself between Jenn’s legs. Then he suggests, “Why don’t you go outside and give your family the good news, son? They’ve been out there waitin’ all night.”
I look to Jenny, who nods her approval. I pick up her hand and kiss the back of it. “I love you.”
She grins, weary but joyous. “I love you too.”
I walk down the hallway, through the security doors to the waiting area. There, I find a dozen of the closest people in our lives wearing varying masks of anticipation and impatience.
Before I can get a word out, my little brother, Marshall—the nonidiot one—demands, “Well? What is it?”
I crouch down eye level with him and I smile. “It . . . is a she.”
• • •
Two days later, I strapped the car seat into my pickup—checking it four times, to make sure it was in right—and I brought Jenny and Presley home.
Home to her parents’ house.
And just two months after that, I left them. Traveling twelve hundred miles away to Columbia University, New York.
One year later
She was too precious, Stanton,” Jenny laughs. “She didn’t want to touch the icing at all, didn’t like it stickin’ to her fingers, so she just planted her whole face right in the cake! And she was so mad when I took it back to cut it. I wish you could’ve seen her—this child’s got attitude that puts Nana’s to shame!” She dissolves in a fit of giggles.
Guilt rides me hard. Because I should’ve seen the way Presley tore into her first birthday cake. The way she squealed over the bows and was more fascinated by the wrapping paper than any present it covered. I should’ve been there to light the candles, to take the pictures. To be in the pictures.
But I wasn’t. Couldn’t. Because it’s finals week, so the only place I can be is here—in New York. I force a smile—trying to infuse my tone with enthusiasm. “That’s great, Jenn. Sounds like it was an awesome party. I’m glad she enjoyed it.”
Try as I might, Jenny can still tell. “Baby, stop beatin’ yourself up. I’ll email you all the pictures and the video. It’ll be like you were right here with us.”
“Yeah. Except I wasn’t.”
She sighs. “You wanna say good night to her? Sing her your song?”
In the short time I spent with our daughter after she was born, and the weeks I was able to have with her over Christmas break, we discovered that Presley has an affinity for the sound of my voice. Even over the telephone, it soothes her when she’s teething, lulls her when she’s fussy. It’s become our ritual, every night.
It’s amazing how two tiny syllables can have so much power. They warm my chest and bring the first genuine grin I’ve had on my face all day.
“Happy birthday, baby girl.”
I chuckle. “Daddy misses you, Presley. You ready for your song?” Quietly, I sing,