Authors: Kristen Ethridge
Was that God answering her earlier prayer for strength for them all tonight?
Had He really heard her over the howls of the wind and the cries all across the town? Was He really there?
* * *
Gloria ran up the stairs as fast as she could. Rigo stayed behind to tie the boat to the banister inside the foyer and move everything back from the small entryway so the vessel wouldn’t flop into it and cause more damage. Gloria wasn’t sure it mattered. Everything on the first floor of Tía Inez’s house was going to be a total loss, anyway. At the rate Hurricane Hope was growing, Gloria wondered if even the ceiling down there would be safe.
She wondered if any of them would be safe. Or would this be the time the house that made it through the Great Storm of 1910 met its match?
Entering the bedroom, Gloria found Tanna lying on the bed, propped up with some pillows. The room had a warm glow from the candles Inez had lit earlier, and the soft light brought Gloria’s blood pressure down several notches. It wasn’t the birthing center by a long stretch, but as long as there were no complications, everything should work out. She didn’t need to let the panic and
s take over. That wouldn’t do anyone any good.
Inez had apparently woken up. She sat next to the laboring mother, holding her hand.
, breathe.” The calm in the older woman’s voice contrasted sharply with the chaos Gloria had just witnessed below and could still hear from outside.
Inez looked up at Gloria and smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve done this six times before.”
Rigo’s voice came from the doorway. “Six times? I thought you only had five kids, Tía.”
She smiled. “Five kids. Six hurricanes, nephew.” Stroking Tanna’s hand rhythmically, she continued. “Birth and hurricanes are a lot alike. They’re intense and sometimes unpredictable. But they only last for a few hours, and after it’s over, the sun comes out again.”
Tanna moaned and rolled a bit from side to side.
“But you’re so calm, Inez. You even took a nap! I couldn’t sleep if my life depended upon it.” Gloria wished she could have looked out a window, but everything was boarded up.
“Go ahead. Hold my hand. It’s okay.” Inez rubbed Tanna’s back while the young woman grunted through a contraction, a sheen of perspiration bubbling up just below the line of thick, dark hair at the top of her forehead. “Well, it’s what Jesus did. It’s never a bad thing to follow his example.”
“‘Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters,’ hmm, Tía?” Rigo sang the line of the children’s song but stayed put in the doorway, clearly wanting to be near the light and the company, without coming too close to the action.
“Rodrigo Vasquez.” Inez’s calm voice was replaced with a snap of reprimand for her nephew’s mocking tone. “One of these days, you’ll learn. Every Sunday morning I go to church, and there’s a reason why. I didn’t make it to this age all on my own. And neither will you.”
Gloria would never admit to Rigo’s aunt—or her own family, for that matter—but lately, she found herself more aligned with doubt than the confident faith she saw mirrored around her. She’d known Inez for years. The older woman, as far as Gloria could tell, lived a fairly uneventful life. She always saw her at church and on the occasional trip to the grocery store, and she knew that Inez spent a lot of time with the ladies of the women’s Bible study group Gloria’s own mother attended. A lot of tamale making, knitting and chatting over slices of flan.
If she lived Inez’s life, it would probably bore her to sleep. Even in the midst of a hurricane.
But thankfully, a midwife’s life was far from dull. Babies were never predictable about when they were going to be born. Sometimes they decided to stay and bake for days after their due dates. Sometimes they decided to come in the middle of the night. Sometimes babies decided to come one right after the other and make their midwife sleep deprived.
And sometimes, they decided to come in the middle of a natural disaster.
“Rigo, would you mind stepping out for a minute? I need to check Tanna. I think we’re getting close.”
She turned to her patient. “Unless there’s an emergency, Tanna, I’m going to follow your lead. You do what’s most comfortable for you and I’ll let nature take its course.” As she bent over and did a quick check of Tanna’s progress, Gloria laughed a little.
“Hmm?” Tanna shifted her weight as Gloria stepped back from the bed.
“I was just thinking,” Gloria said. “I’m perfectly comfortable letting Mother Nature take her course with your birth, but to the core of my being, I wish she’d quit taking her course with this storm outside. I just want it to be over. The good news is you’ve progressed more quickly than I expected you to, so Mother Nature will be through with you shortly, in all likelihood. You can push whenever you feel ready, Tanna. I won’t hold you back.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Tanna breathed low and slow through a contraction, then looked up when it passed. “I guess I don’t get my water birth, after all?”
Tanna had wanted to use the deep-water birth tub at the birthing center since her first appointment. “I’m afraid not in that way. We’re surrounded by a totally different type of water, but as for us, Inez filled the upstairs bathtub earlier today and it’s only for drinking and emergencies.”
“Peace.” Inez wiped Tanna’s head with a wet washcloth. “Breathe deeply and think of peace.”
The next contraction started. Tanna bore down, gripping Inez’s bony hand, but Rigo’s aunt never flinched. Gloria was amazed at her strength and her demeanor. She wondered if she could bring Inez to attend all her births.
Tanna made instinctive reaching motions with her hand. The birthing waves were taking over, bringing her closer to motherhood.
Rigo stood just outside the doorway, and Gloria called to him. “Rigo. Grab her hand. She needs something to push against.”
The man, who’d stared down criminals in the line of fire and who’d already saved grown adults and children alike from the clutches of near drowning tonight, hesitated. In addition to being a certified peace officer, she knew he had to be a certified EMT for his job at the beach. Surely he’d had some training for this. Gloria looked up from where she’d been focusing, monitoring the baby’s progress. “Go on. She needs you. Just stand back by her head. You’re not going to see anything from there.”
Gloria hastily threw a towel over Tanna’s knees and belly to preserve her modesty. Rigo stood by the headboard and looked toward the doorway, but reached out his hand and provided more than enough support to give Tanna the leverage she needed.
She’d prayed for strength for everyone earlier tonight, and this was the second time she was seeing it in action. Tanna’s focus amazed Gloria, even as the world ran out of control and the wind battered the house, causing it to sway gently on the pilings. She’d attended more than a thousand births in her career, and thought she’d worked in every kind of condition possible—highly advanced labor-and-delivery suites, standing by in cesarian sections, working the past two years at an independent out-of-hospital birthing center at the edge of Provident Medical Center’s footprint. She’d even been present for a few planned home births.
But until today, she’d never supervised a birth in a candlelit room with not even the most basic of equipment or running water—she’d never been crazy enough to rationally consider such a thing. Tanna, the young nineteen-year-old who, nine months ago, Gloria had initially judged as a good candidate to ask middelivery for a transfer to a hospital to get an epidural, was showing strength through adversity tonight.
With one last forceful push and a punctuating explosion of breath, another refugee from the hurricane’s fury shot into the world. Gloria picked up another towel from her box of supplies with one hand as she held the little squealing baby with the other.
It was a triumphant moment, made all the more incredible not just because of the amazing nature of birth, but because of how amazing it was to have this birth in the middle of this particular storm.
The hurricane may have been merely named Hope, but as Gloria lifted the mewling baby and handed it to the euphoric, exhausted mother on the bed, she knew she was holding in her arms literal hope in the form of brand-new life.
“Congratulations, Tanna. It’s a boy! And a strong one, too. Do you want to cut the cord?”
Tanna shook her head, unable to tear her gaze from the tiny stranger that she already knew so well. “No. I couldn’t have done this without you and Rigo. I’d be alone in that awful apartment if you hadn’t come to check on me, and who knows what would have happened if Rigo wasn’t there to protect us.”
Gloria met Rigo’s eyes and felt something chip at the heavy cement that had poured in her heart hours before when he walked back into her life. Tanna saw Rigo as a hero. And maybe she was right.
She handed Rigo the scissors she’d found in a downstairs drawer upon their arrival. She’d sanitized them in some boiling water before they’d lost all the utilities. They were just common household scissors, but they’d have to do. She had one plastic cord clamp in her box of tools but couldn’t find another at the bottom of the box with the dim half-light. Instead, she tied a length of twine tightly, using it as a makeshift clamp. “Do you want to do the honors?”
It felt so strange to be standing over a baby, sharing in a cord-cutting ceremony with Rigo. All those foolish teenage dreams and plans she’d once had for the future popped in her mind like kernels of corn.
“Sure. Wow.” Rigo took the scissors, and with one steady press, snipped the baby’s last physical tie with Tanna. Rigo stared at the little infant as though he was seeing one for the first time. “I’ve never done that before.”
“Not even with any of your training?” Gloria took the baby and towel-dried him. His hair stuck up in ten different directions.
“No. I don’t think I’ve really done much past treating things like puncture wounds and doing CPR and chest compressions. That’s most of what you see on the street and on the beach. Not a lot of babies being born in the sand dunes.”
He intently watched every move Gloria made. “What are you doing with that? That’s my sock.”
His curiosity was so intense it made Gloria chuckle, a welcome feeling. This day needed some comic relief. It was now almost one in the morning. Today had been too long and too life-changing.
“I don’t have a hat. An old tube sock seemed like the next best thing to keep his head warm. Is this one of your favorites?”
Rigo shook his head. “Not anymore.”
Inez slid off the bed and walked out to the hallway. “I’ll find something for her to eat in that box I packed. There’s some peanut butter and a bottle of coconut water. We need to keep her strength up and the coconut water is full of electrolytes.”
Gloria finished bundling the baby tightly in a blanket. It seemed to have once had Winnie the Pooh scenes all over it, and had probably belonged to one of Inez’s children or grandchildren. Now it was soft and faded from wear and love. The baby settled and made a smacking sound.
“Here, Rigo, hold him while I check Tanna quickly.” Rigo held his arms out. “Not like that. He won’t bite. He doesn’t have teeth. Haven’t you ever held a baby before?”
“Well, no. Not really.” Rigo’s eyebrows raised slightly in a position that seemed to say,
What did you expect?
without uttering a single word.
“Bend your arms. Here, like mine. You need to cradle him. He’s completely floppy. You have to support his head.”
Gingerly, she laid the baby in Rigo’s arms. It felt strangely powerful.
In just a few minutes, all the stages of labor were completely finished, and Gloria wanted to give Tanna the chance to rest and cuddle with her baby.
Gloria tried to keep the visual of Rigo holding the baby from being burned in her mind. Tanna wasn’t the only one who needed rest. So did Gloria’s swirling mind.
“Rigo, you can hand the little man back to his mama. Tanna, why don’t you start to try and feed him? I’m sure he’ll appreciate the comfort and it’s important to start a good nursing relationship early.”
Inez came back in, peanut butter jar in one hand, a sleeve of crackers in the other and a bottle of coconut water tucked under an arm. This had undoubtedly been the most unconventional birth Gloria had ever attended, but she wasn’t sure she could have asked for a better crew to share it with.
“I’ll help her with that, Gloria, while you clean up. I’ve got some experience with this.” Inez placed the food on the bedside table and got Tanna set up with pillows tucked securely behind her. “You can hand the baby to me, Rigo.”
Slowly, Rigo moved toward his aunt.
“Something wrong?” Gloria looked up and caught Inez studying her nephew’s face. It was as blank as the wall behind the bed.
He continued to stare at the baby, almost tracing the little smacking lips with his gaze.
“No,” he said quietly and flicked a split-second glance at Gloria. “Not at all.” He laid the baby in Tanna’s open arms. She cuddled the little bundle tightly against her chest.
Rigo backed up and headed toward the door, then turned back to the bed. “Tanna, do you have a name for him?”
The baby squirmed, drinking in his mother’s scent.
“No, not really.” She tore her gaze away from the tiny face in her arms for just a second. “Gloria, earlier when we were at your house, what did you say your baby’s name was?”
Sadness pierced Gloria’s heart. She needed that strength she’d prayed for. And she needed it now.
“Mateo,” she said, her tongue stumbling over every syllable. “His name was Mateo.”
A smile crossed Tanna’s face. “I like it. Mateo Rodrigo, for you both.”
White-hot shock pierced her heart. Tanna didn’t know their history. She just thought she was doing them a great honor.
Gloria prayed for the second time today. For the second time in the past two years.
Oh, please, God, don’t let me fall.
s the immediacy of the birth wore off, Rigo had time to notice the demeanor of everyone around him. There wasn’t really much else to do besides sit and wait. The baby was peaceful. Tanna was euphoric, brushing the baby’s downy hair with the tips of her fingers, over and over again. Tía Inez was in her element, delivering advice and suggestions.
Gloria seemed reflective, quietly tidying things up as best she could, keeping the makeshift birthing center comfortable by relighting the candles when they burned low and writing down details of the birth.
As he’d watched Gloria at work earlier, he’d found himself unable to take his eyes off her. He’d pursued his career in law enforcement and rescue because he liked the thrill, the chase. The constant of never knowing what would come next—and the adrenaline buzz that came along with it.
Gloria was different, though. She had directed Tanna’s birth without lights, without equipment, without conveniences, in a manner that connected strongly to birthing women throughout the ages before hospitals and delivery rooms. In spite of the uncertainty, he never saw fear when Gloria was in that room. She had to have been scared by the hurricane—he knew he was—but even so, he only saw the actions of a woman who was uniquely called to do that very career. Not because she chose it. Because it chose her.
The stubbornness he used to chide her for. The single-minded focus he used to try and break through his teasing. The drive to accomplish exactly the path set in front of her. It was all still there, more than a decade later.
So, too, were the things he’d been attracted to as a teenager. The soft glow that caused her topaz eyes to glitter when she got truly excited about something. The fierce protectiveness that took complete care of and responsibility for anyone in her inner circle. And the petite frame that made her look like a tiny, sweet package, like a
dulce de leche
candy you could tuck in your pocket and carry with you. Looking at Gloria, people might first disregard her—until they later learned they did so at their own peril.
He’d figured she’d changed over the years, like everyone did, although he hadn’t been close enough in a long time to know for sure.
But now back, face-to-face with the woman who appeared in all of his best memories—and at the center of his worst—Rigo saw nothing had changed.
She was a truly unique mixture of dewdrop soft and hurricane fierce.
The wind seemed to be slowing outside. Rigo left the room and sat at the top of Inez’s staircase, watching the water level bob and shake around the steps below. Swarms of bugs floated on top in little clumps. He checked his watch. It was 2:00 a.m.
Rigo’s ears noticed a change outside. He clicked the switch on the old weather radio he’d brought out of the room with him, hoping it would spring to life and confirm what he thought was about to happen.
“The National Weather Service is reporting that the eye of Hurricane Hope will make landfall soon. Citizens of Port Provident are still encouraged to exercise extreme caution during this time.”
Rigo shut off the radio. He’d heard exactly what he needed to hear.
“Gloria,” he shouted. “Gather up what you need. Everyone needs to put on their sturdiest shoes, quickly. The eye of the storm is almost here. While it’s calm, we’re going to move as fast as we can and take Tanna and the baby to the command center at the Grand Provident Hotel. It’s the safest place on the island for them. For all of us.”
From the bedroom, he heard his aunt’s steady voice. “I told you He’d calm the storm.”
Rigo didn’t want to point out that every hurricane had an eye. It would have been disrespectful to suggest such a thing out loud. Besides, he didn’t have any time to waste.
Wading through the chest-deep water in the front of the house, Rigo tried not to think about the possibility of rats or snakes taking refuge in the living room. He’d already seen the bugs, small armies that had hitched themselves together to float in baseball-sized groups. That was enough. He reached blindly below the surface of the water, trying to grab the doorknobs to the double doors and force them open. The water level was the same outside as inside. Dormer windows and the angles and points of roofs were all that he could see on the smaller one-story craftsman-style homes and cottages. Everything looked like children’s toys in a very dirty bathtub.
“Is everyone ready? We’ve got to go.”
At the top of the stairs, Rigo could make out three dim shadows. Inez stood in front, with Gloria providing a steadying hand behind the older woman’s elbow. “Tanna, stay here. I’ll come back to help you and the baby,” Gloria said.
Rigo stood on the bottom stair and tried to hold the small johnboat steady where it floated, tethered to the banister.
“Gloria, reach out and hold the boat. I’ll come up and lift Tía in.”
He switched places with Gloria. Even though she stood two steps up from where Rigo had been, the water came almost to her chin. But she kept a steady grip on the lip of the boat, pushing it up against a wall for steadiness. Rigo lifted Inez and slowly turned on the step, careful not to slip and fall. He sat her gently on the small platform in the front.
“Ok, Tía, can you make it to that second little bench? Just hold on tight. Crawl if you need to.”
Inez nodded her head and began to inch, crab-like, toward the back of the little craft. “I can do it.”
“Stay there, Gloria. I’ll get Tanna.” Rigo walked to the top of the stairs, water rolling down his back. He’d spent most of his life in the water, surfing and lifeguarding, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever been as thoroughly soaked as he was right now.
Carefully, he picked up the dozing bundle from Tanna’s arms. Her eyes widened with fear—not only for herself, but for her new child. “I’m going to hand him to Tía,” he said.
Step by step, he made it down the slick wooden stairs. “
, Mateo,” he whispered. “It’s okay. You’re going to be safe. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
It scared Rigo to think about the five of them floating in the small boat through what had been the streets of Port Provident, especially if the eye was narrow and closed soon. But he was even more scared to keep a newborn and its mother in a flooded, bug-infested house with half a hurricane still left to go.
As he stretched to meet Tía’s open arms with their most precious cargo, Rigo silently prayed for a wide eye that would give them the time they needed. Little Mateo was on board. Time to get Tanna.
Her feet were unsteady. Placing an arm under her knees and one under her arms, Rigo scooped her up and made his way down the stairs again. Resting her on the front platform, he tried to scoot her as far in as possible. He held her hand as she wobbled toward the seat next to Tía, then took her baby back in her arms.
Only one more passenger to get aboard and then they could leave.
“Let me help you, Gloria.” The boat started to bob once she lifted her hand off the hull.
Rigo put his hands around Gloria’s waist tightly. He remembered picking her up and swinging her around during summers at the beach. There wasn’t anything else similar to those days right now, except confirmation of his earlier train of thought.
In more ways than one, Gloria hadn’t changed a bit.
On the other hand, he sure hoped he had.
He’d been to places he wasn’t proud of and done plenty of things he’d regretted, and one day, he knew he’d need to come clean to Gloria if there was any hope of putting things right between them. But for now, he’d do the next best thing and keep her—and those who depended upon her—safe.
Gloria settled on the small bench seat next to Tanna. Rigo untied the boat from the railing, turned it around and swam behind, pushing it through the oversize frame of the turn-of-the-century door. The edges of the boat brushed the edges of the door. It barely fit, with only a feather’s width to spare.
“Everyone duck.” The women in the boat bent their heads low. Their bodies cleared the top of the door frame by just about a foot.
Tying the boat hastily to the railing of the porch, Rigo climbed up on the rail, then worked his way into the boat, untying it once he was safely inside. He sat in the back next to the trolling motor and fired it up. He was soaked to the bone with sticky, salty brackish water.
No one replied. The only affirmation was the nodding of heads. Everyone indicated they were ready, but like Rigo, he imagined none of them knew exactly what for.
The sky on the horizon line glowed teal, almost as crisp and shining as the water off the Baja Peninsula on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, where he’d once loved to surf. He’d never seen colors like that in the air before. Above him, he could see stars. A few seagulls squawked and circled overhead, likely as disoriented as he was.
“The eye of the storm. Not many people on earth can say they’ve seen this,” he said to the passengers.
Gloria looked up at the sky, her face showing amazement in the soft moonlight and turquoise glow. Tanna kept her head down, looking at baby Mateo.
They headed south toward the Grand Provident Hotel, where Rigo hoped there would be power from backup generators, some drinking water and a plan.
Inez’s hands were folded serenely in her lap. She didn’t intently stare like Gloria, nor was she avoiding the view like Tanna. She seemed calm, almost like this was an everyday occurrence for her. A gust of wind touched the back of Rigo’s soaked shirt giving him a chill, and he could see Gloria’s short hair ruffling with the breeze.
This respite from the chaos wouldn’t last much longer. They needed something stronger than just himself to get them all to the Grand Provident, but even after Inez’s words to them all earlier, he knew he couldn’t do what his heart was telling him to do. Not in front of Gloria. He didn’t know exactly why. He’d started attending the earliest services at La Iglesia de la Luz del Mundo—that service chosen specifically because he knew Gloria attended the later service, and he hadn’t wanted to cause a scene or be in her way.
“Hey, Tía, I think you’d better pray.”
“I have been all night.” She smiled a knowing smile. “Haven’t you noticed He’s been here?”
Rigo’s hand slipped a bit off the motor’s handle. He hadn’t quite thought of it that way. Mateo broke the night’s temporary stillness with a little wail, a further reminder that he had come into the world with a healthy set of lungs.
Even though he had to navigate through the help of street signs just barely poking their green metal rectangles above the waterline, the trip was relatively uneventful and took less time than Rigo had planned.
They motored up to the parking lot behind the hotel. Rigo hopped overboard and waded to a palm tree, where he tied the boat. He saw others with flashlights standing on the wall surrounding the pool area of the hotel, presumably also watching the once-in-a-lifetime experience of standing inside a hurricane’s eye wall. He waved his own flashlight in signal to the group above. Two men threw their legs over the wall and started down the side of the waterlogged hill to come help.
Maybe Tía Inez was right. Maybe—just maybe—Rigo observed, God really had been with them all night.
* * *
A few emergency doctors from Provident Medical Center had assembled a small clinic inside of one of the meeting rooms in the hotel. They quickly escorted Tanna and the baby up. One doctor insisted on checking Tía Inez out, as well. Gloria handed over her notes from the birth, relieved to have other medical professionals confirm that both baby and mother—and aunt—had checked out fine. Assured that the two women and youngest refugee would be taken care of and transported to a hospital on the mainland for observation as soon as the storm cleared, Gloria let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d even been holding.
The past several hours had all run together. All of her training had kicked in and she’d just done what she needed to do. But now the immediate danger was no longer resting squarely on her shoulders and they were safe, surrounded by local officials, police and doctors in the safest building in town and she could release that burden. Gloria tried, but she couldn’t even feel relief. All she felt was tired.
Inez reached toward Gloria from the couch she had been instructed to lie on. “Gloria, come here.”
Gloria slipped her hand into the older woman’s thin grasp. Her hand felt cold. So much time spent in wind and rain. Gloria wondered if any of them would ever be dry or warm again. Or safe. Would the memories of tonight mark them all forever?
“How are you feeling, Inez?”
“Like a drowned rat.” The older woman shuddered, making her gray hair shake. “I think I saw a few on the boat ride over here, too. Yuck. But they’re bringing me some dry clothes. That should help. I think they’re bringing some for you, too.”
Gloria wondered what kind of dry clothes they had in a hurricane command center. Probably not anything that would show up on a catwalk—in Paris, France,
Paris, Texas. “I’m glad you’re okay, Inez.”
Inez smiled. The deep lines around her face stretched out, and Gloria could see the neighborhood beauty she used to be. “You don’t have to be afraid to be around Rigo, you know.”
“I’m not afraid of him.” Gloria tried not to snap. Just because she didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary around him didn’t mean she was afraid of him.
“You’re afraid of something. You know, God doesn’t give you a spirit of fear. He gives strength to His people.”
The corner of Gloria’s mouth twisted downward. She didn’t want to talk about God and she didn’t want to speak badly about the woman’s favorite nephew, but Inez had to know the history. Everyone in the La Misión neighborhood knew the story behind Gloria and Rigo, from high school until after Felipe’s death.
She was the star of a real-life soap opera in her own backyard.
“No, really, I’m not afraid of anything.” Gloria tried to sound reassuring. She tried to end this line of conversation. Couldn’t they talk about something more palatable? Talking about the hurricane winds, which were again howling outside, wrecking even more of their hometown, seemed like an easier topic.