Joel crawled in bed, wrapped his arms around me, and nuzzled my neck. “Hey, baby.”
"What time is it?"
"Late. Go back so sleep."
"I wasn’t asleep."
I rolled onto my back and looked up into his eyes, mostly visible just from the light of the moon drifting in through the window.
"Why are you so late?"
"Oh you know, the session ran long and toward the end Teddy was inspired and wrote an entire new song. It was great but it just extended the night. Why are you still awake?"
I leaned over and turned on the lamp then reached for the pregnancy test results. I watched his eyes until they registered what the report from the doctor said.
I smiled and nodded.
"Oh my god! Sara!"
He kissed me and wrapped his arms around me and I was as happy as I’d ever been. We’d been trying for over a year to get pregnant and it had finally happened. I’d had a feeling several weeks earlier but didn’t want to get my hopes up because I’d had the feeling many times in the past. I’d taken numerous home tests but disposed of them without telling Joel just in case they were false like so many others. When my period didn’t arrive on time I got a little more excited and made the appointment with the doctor. That had all happened before too but there just seemed to be something different and when she gave me the results I actually hugged her and kissed her cheek.
"Does this say you’re six weeks along?" I nodded. "Why didn’t you say anything before now?"
"I just wanted to be sure after all the other false hopes. You didn’t need any extra stress, nor did I, so I gave it a little more time."
"I love you so much and I can’t wait to raise this baby with you."
"I love you, too."
We kissed a little more then fell asleep in the happy bliss of our newly forming family.
We decided against telling anyone else, even our parents, until the crucial third month had passed but it was hard to contain our happiness and we both ended up telling our closest friends. Shortly after, we told our parents and before long everyone knew.
We made it through the first trimester without any problems, other than a few horrible days of morning sickness, which I learned is actually all-day sickness. I spent most of my spare time outside of the office turning one of our spare rooms into the nursery and Joel continued working his magic in the studio. A lot of the musicians he produced stopped in to congratulate me, and every day I got a little more excited.
It was somewhere around the eighth month when I started to feel contractions. I knew it was too early but also knew there were different types of false labor and tried not to be concerned about it. When they continued for a couple of days Joel drove me to the hospital then drove me right back home after they told me it was nothing to be concerned about. This happened four times and I was sure that when the actual labor started the hospital was going to treat me like the boy who cried wolf but when the real contractions started a couple of weeks later they were vastly different than what I’d been feeling. The problem was, Joel wasn’t home.
He’d popped in from the studio about half an hour earlier to let me know he was headed to lunch and that he’d be back in a couple of hours. I wasn’t worried and knew I could call or text him if anything happened.
Johnny Kenton was recording that day and as soon as I waddled into the studio he realized what was going on and took control. He seemed too young to know anything about pregnancy or birth but I could tell it wasn’t his first time dealing with it.
I called and texted Joel as Johnny drove to the hospital but he wasn’t responding and once we arrived my labor was pretty far along and they took my phone and jewelry and handed them to Johnny.
"I’ll keep trying him and I’ll be out here if you need anything."
He smiled and winked and they wheeled me through the doors. It never occurred to me that Joel wouldn’t be there, that he wouldn’t be holding my hand as I pushed our baby into the world, but the further along I went, the less likely it became and eventually, our daughter was born.
They told me she was healthy but also told me they thought I needed to stay in the hospital for observation for a few nights. It didn’t seem normal but I was too exhausted to argue. I just kept asking for Joel and no one would tell me anything. Once I was in my own room, cuddling with my beautiful baby girl, Johnny came in and I could tell something wasn’t right.
"Where is he?"
He shook his head and actually started to cry.
"He’s gone, Sara."
Through his sobs he told me there was a car accident and he’d died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. A hospital staff member came in while he was talking and took over telling me what happened.
I remember holding my daughter close and crying harder than I’d ever cried before. I remember Johnny reaching for my hand and holding on tight. I remember the world around me fading away as whatever they put in my IV started to take effect.
It had been three weeks since I’d brought baby Elena home and Johnny had been there the whole time. I didn’t ask him to stay but was more than happy he had. I had no family, and Joel was estranged from his so I’d never even met them. I had friends and they’d been in and out but Johnny had just stayed.
As it turned out, he didn’t have a family to speak of either. He’d been in a series of foster homes after his mom had abandoned him at a young age and when he realized he had a gift for music sometime in high school he put all his energy there and never looked back. He knew his mom was still out there somewhere, as she’d tried to contact him when his career started to grow, but he had no interest in reconnecting and I really couldn’t blame him.
I enjoyed getting to know him as we became each others’ surrogate family and while I knew he’d leave at some point I was extremely grateful every morning when he was standing in the kitchen offering to make me breakfast.
"Sure, thanks." I sat down at the counter and he started to put the food on a plate then slid it in front of me. It smelled delicious and I smiled as I took a bite of the cheesy bacon and potato casserole. I’d learned that he had many talents and cooking was definitely one of them. "What would I do without you, Johnny?" I’d come to rely on him more than I should but he never seemed to mind.
He’d put his recording on hold, though he was searching for just the right producer to take over where Joel had left off. They were almost finished with his album but there were still some finishing touches that needed to be put on and he knew he needed just the right person to make that happen.
"Any luck with Frederick last night?"
Frederick was one of Joel’s producing friends and someone he always spoke highly of. He’d been out of the country and unreachable until the day before and Johnny was hoping he’d be able to jump into the producer’s chair.
"I talked to his partner and he hadn’t heard about Joel so I had to deliver that message first and it didn’t seem right to ask about anything else."
"I just don’t know who else to reach out to. I’ve talked to everyone I know and no one feels comfortable taking over."
"I have an idea but it might be crazy."
"I’m up for anything at this point. This album is already overdue and they’re giving me whatever time I need but I can’t wait forever."
"Well, I’m not sure if you know how Joel and I met." He shook his head. "Yeah, we never really talked much about it in public. Anyway, we met when I was producing Kylie Richardson’s first album." His eyes grew big, as most people’s did when they learned I was the producer of the Grammy-winning album.
"You’re S. L. Abraham?"
"How did I not know this?"
"Once I met Joel and started working with him it seemed clear he had more talent than I did and I guess I first fell in love with that. Everything else came quickly and we were married less than a year later. But even though I had that success I wasn’t making a lot of money and neither was he so I decided to get a real job. My degree was in PR and a friend from college offered me a job and well, the rest is history."
"Anyway, my idea…since I’m on leave from the firm, I don’t know, maybe I could dust off my producing skills and…"
"Seriously?! You’d do that for me?"
"After all you’ve done for me? Are you kidding? It’s been a while so I can’t guarantee that it will be anywhere near as good as what Joel was doing but we could give it a shot."
He practically ran around the counter and put his arms around me and kissed my cheek, careful not to squish the baby, who was asleep in her sling against me.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
Over the next few weeks we spent most of our time in the studio and I was surprised how easily it all came back to me, and how great it felt. I still cried myself to sleep most nights, as thoughts of Joel never left me, but somewhere deep inside I knew I’d survive the loss. I’d known since the beginning that I had to be there for Elena and even though she had her father’s eyes and his nose, I couldn’t help but smile when I looked in her face.
When we’d put the finishing touch on things nearly a month later and declared it ready, we sent it off and waited to hear from the label. They called us before the end of the next day and were extremely pleased and started talking about which song to release as the first single.
"I can’t thank you enough for this, Sara. What you did with this album…Joel was a master and worked his butt off in the studio but believe me when I say, you’re the one with the natural talent."
I felt my skin warm as I blushed.
"You definitely shouldn’t go back to that PR firm. You need to do this."
"This was a one-time deal, Johnny. Thank you for saying all of that but I have to think about Elena and what’s best for her. I don’t think that’s going to be a mother who sits in a studio all day and wrangles musicians."
"Wrangles? Who says wrangles?" He grinned and I couldn’t help but laugh.
"Whatever, you know what I mean."
"What if you had help? With the baby I mean?"
He was cradling Elena in his arms and I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.
"Well, I’m going to have to have help no matter what job I go back to but the thought of leaving her all day…" I reached out and played with her hand and she gripped my finger and sent chills throughout my body.
"Right. So why not work here? In the studio? You can bring her with you and I can help."
"You? What are you talking about? This album’s gonna be huge and you’re barely going to have time to take care of yourself."
"Okay, so maybe I haven’t thought this all the way through but I need a home base and well, I know you’d probably be happy to have me out of your hair, but I’d love to stay and help. This is the first time in, well, maybe ever, that I’ve felt like I have a family and honestly, I’m not sure I can bear to leave."
He slipped his finger into Elena’s hand and she looked up at him as she held on. For all intents and purposes he was the only father she’d ever known and while it was certainly unconventional, the thought of him staying actually made me feel some sort of relief inside.
"You’re serious aren’t you?" He nodded. "But what if no one else wants to work with me? What if the album really isn’t a big success and you’re just being nice and everyone’s just being nice because of Joel and…"
"Stop," he said and pulled his hand from Elena’s and put it in front of my mouth. "I know for a fact other artists already want to work with you because I’ve talked to them. I just didn’t say anything to you because I didn’t know what you were thinking. And you know this album is good and you know you have a Grammy and is it going to be hard? Of course. And is it risky? Yes. But what worth having isn’t? Come on, Sara."
"Stop being so smart."
He laughed and I smiled because I knew he was right. The nuances of producing had come back to me easily. I’d forgotten just how much I loved it and how I’d just given it all up for no real reason other than my own self-doubt. Even Joel had told me on more than one occasion that I should get back into it but I never wanted to take the spotlight from him.
"You know you want to."
"Fine, I’m in, but I’m gonna hold you to your offer of helping."
"Deal." He put his hand out and Elena gurgled as if to tell us she agreed as well.
Things moved quickly after that. Weeks turned into months and once Johnny’s album came out the time flew by even more quickly. Artists were practically knocking down the door to work with me and I had to be very careful with my time because I had to make Elena a priority and still had moments where getting out of bed was the hardest thing in the world. I could hardly believe when the anniversary of Joel’s death arrived, Elena’s first birthday. I spent the morning grieving for my husband but fully intended on focusing the rest of my day on Elena.
She was already happily engaged with Johnny when I made my way downstairs and I was happy to see her joy. He was leaving the next day for his tour and I knew I was going to miss him terribly. We’d become extremely close in the year since Joel’s death and every now and then I even thought I felt something more than just friendship. I wasn’t sure if I should have feelings for someone else so soon, or if I should ever have them, but figured it would just all work itself out.
"Happy Birthday, baby girl." I leaned in and rubbed noses with Elena and she giggled and reached her arms out to me. I pulled her from Johnny’s arms and closed my eyes as she wrapped her arms around my neck. Johnny put his hand on mine and gave it a squeeze, a silent acknowledgement of everything the day meant. I squeezed back and smiled as I opened my eyes and looked at him. Another moment passed between us that made me question what I was feeling. Elena squirmed in my arms and I let his hand go to settle her.
"Dada." She looked right at Johnny and stretched her arms out while I stood there trying to catch my breath. She’d never know the man who gave her life, but I knew I’d tell her everything about her daddy one day. The only man that had been the constant was Johnny and there was every reason why she’d think he was her dad. "Want dada."
I suddenly felt ill and handed her back to Johnny then ran upstairs and into the bathroom where I threw up through seemingly uncontrollable sobs. It wasn’t her fault; it wasn’t Johnny’s fault; it wasn’t anyone’s fault but I wanted someone to blame.
"Damn it, Joel! Why did you have to leave me?"
I dove into a full-fledged meltdown at that point and when Johnny came in over an hour later I was lying on the floor of the bathroom silently weeping. He didn’t say anything, just bent down and picked me up then carried me to the bed and sat down next to me.
"He just left me here, Johnny. Me and Elena. Why did he do that?"
"He didn’t want to leave, Sara. You know that. He loved you so much."
I nodded as I looked in his eyes and he looked like he wanted to say something more but I spoke first.
"I put her down; it’s morning nap time."
"What would I do without you, Johnny?"
"You’d do just fine." He smiled and I really wanted to believe him. "Why don’t you rest a bit and we’ll go to the zoo later?" Our plan for Elena’s birthday was a visit to the zoo, dinner and birthday cake but none of it sounded interesting at that moment. He started to stand but I reached for his hand.
"Sara…I…I don’t think it’s a good idea."
"Please, Johnny. I don’t wanna be alone."
"Sara, I just…I can’t…"
He pulled his hand from mine and started back toward the door. I was irrationally angry about it when I yelled at him.
"Fine then! Just leave like Joel did! Why don’t you just go on your tour already? Maybe I don’t need you after all!"
He didn’t say anything just pulled the door closed and left me in my misery. I rolled over and screamed and cried into the pillow that used to be Joel’s and wished the day could just be over. “This is all your fault! If you hadn’t been so busy in the studio, if you had just been here when I needed you, if you hadn’t gone and gotten yourself killed…” I went on and on and finally exhausted myself into a restless sleep.
When I woke up the anger was gone, replaced by embarrassment, which accompanied the underlying sadness that had been there since the moment I heard Joel was dead. I knew he didn’t plan on leaving me, and I knew he loved me more than anyone ever had, but that didn’t make it any easier. I knew I was doing okay without him and that I would survive. I also knew that I had to make things right with Johnny before he left on a six-month tour.
I took a long shower and made myself presentable then wandered across the hall to the nursery where Elena was sleeping. I’d actually slept long enough for her to be on her second nap of the day and felt like the world’s worst mother. I gave her a kiss, careful not to wake her, then made my way to Johnny’s room and realized rather quickly that he was gone. I knew because his guitar wasn’t there and the case was always sitting against the dresser.
I took a deep breath and wandered toward the living room where I found Elsa, my nanny who was supposed to have the day off. “Did he leave?” She nodded then stood and handed me an envelope. “You can go now, Elsa. I’m okay.”
"It’s okay, Mrs. Caldwell. I was just sitting at home when Johnny called. I can stay."
I nodded and squeezed her hand. I had a feeling she knew more about what was going on then she’d ever let on. I took the envelope and walked back into Johnny’s room then sat down on the bed to read the note.
I think you were right, Sara. It was time for me to go. I’m feeling things I shouldn’t be feeling, especially not today, and the last thing I wanted to do was hurt you. You and Elena mean more to me than I can even say but I think it’s time for us to figure things out on our own. I can’t keep hiding and you shouldn’t either. You’re an amazing woman, Sara Caldwell, and I’m so lucky to know you. Thank you for everything. Johnny.
And just like that he was gone. I knew why he left but it didn’t make it hurt any less. I’d been relying on him for so much and hadn’t really figured out how to live on my own. Still, he should have given me the chance to apologize and say goodbye in person.
I followed the reviews of his tour while several of the other albums I produced started to hit the shelves. I loved the work and absolutely adored my daughter but there was definitely something missing and I knew it was Johnny. I’d reached out to call him many times but decided to respect what he’d said in the letter and give him the space he said we both needed. He didn’t reach out either and I wondered where he was going to go when the tour was over. I didn’t have to wonder long though because the tour did so well that it got extended and before I knew it an entire year had passed since he’d said goodbye.
"Happy Birthday, baby girl!" I picked Elena up and spun her around her room as she spread her arms out and giggled. I’d spent a few moments that morning thinking about Joel, just as I’d done on her last birthday, but it was different. I felt freer somehow and was definitely in a much more stable place. I missed him, of course; I always would, but we were okay without him. I couldn’t deny that I missed Johnny too and while we were fine without him too, I knew the feelings I had were real and that I’d missed out on something great. His tour had ended three months earlier and part of me thought he’d come back to us but when he didn’t I knew I had to let him go.
"What should we do today, birthday girl?"
I got her dressed, fed her some breakfast and an hour later we were wandering the zoo having a great time. We fed the animals, took a pony ride and ate far too much sugary food and by the time we were on our way home she fell sound asleep in the car. She woke up a little once we were inside and I sat down in the rocking chair and started quietly singing to get her back to sleep, something I did most evenings. I realized I was singing one of Johnny’s songs and just shook my head and tried to think of something else.
"Don’t stop." I looked up and saw him in the doorway, smiling as he leaned against the doorjamb. "It sounded great."
Elena squirmed around as I wondered if I was seeing things and as soon as she saw him she started to reach for him.
"Hey, birthday girl."
Elena had been asking for Johnny, Daddy, just about every day since he’d left. We’d moved on from Dada just a few short months after he was gone and I just kept telling her that he’d be back soon even though I wasn’t sure if he actually would be. I also knew it was too early to tell her about Joel.
I stood up as he pulled her into his arms then watched her put her hands on his cheeks and smile as though she’d just won the lottery. Maybe she had. He smiled and kissed her nose and I was so overcome with emotion that I started to walk toward the door.
"Don’t do that," he said and caught my hand as I moved by him. "Don’t run away." I looked into his eyes and saw mine reflected back. "I’ve been running for a year and it doesn’t work."
Elena had gone from pure elation back to the state she’d been in when Johnny first came in and he let my hand go to put her in her bed. I tucked the baby monitor in my pocket then stepped into the hall and waited. He pulled the door closed and smiled as he stood in front of me.
"I’ve missed you so much."
He put his hand on my cheek and I closed my eyes as I leaned against it. “Me too.”
He ran his hand through my hair then down my arm until his fingers were wrapped around mine.
"I shouldn’t have just left."
"Let’s not do that. Let’s not talk about what we shouldn’t have done, could have done differently…let’s just…"
Everything around me disappeared when his lips touched mine and I’m not sure what would have happen had Elena’s giggle on the monitor and through the door not interrupted us. We laughed and he pulled me into his arms and I knew he’d never let go for long.
"It’s good to have you home."
© Carrie M. Medders