Janet Sheridan: The gift of a child

Every Christmas, I think about the gift of babies and remember the birth of my brother.

At the age of nine on a worn-out day in February, I heard a car approaching and ran to the kitchen window. The barren branches of cottonwood trees streaked shadows across dirty snow; and a pale sun fled behind West Mountain as Mom stepped from Mrs. Gunderson’s car.

She slammed the resistant car door behind her—launching our resident crows into an orbit of admonishment—and walked along our sidewalk of frozen mud, her face as worn-out as the day.

Entering the house, Mom glanced at me—my scattered paper dolls, their newly cut-out costumes, and her forbidden sewing scissors. She took a poker to the coals in the stove and remained silent.

Made uneasy by her silence, I wondered about its cause — was it her visit to the doctor in town, riding with cranky Mrs. Gunderson, or my use of her scissors?

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I’m going to have a baby.”

“Don’t you like babies?”

I could understand if she didn’t. When Barbara was born, I hadn’t liked her one bit — she upset our routines and hogged everyone’s attention.

“Oh, Janet, I’ve loved all my babies. But I’m old. And tired.”

My mom had delivered news, a vocabulary lesson, and a confidence. I forgot all three before dinner.

Then, a few months later I rushed to the side of Edith Cooper as my family entered the foyer of our church. She had a new bicycle that I wanted to ride, so she’d recently become my best friend.

“Oh, your mother’s pregnant,” she remarked, looking at Mom’s new outfit.

“What’s that mean?” I asked — a broken record.

“That she’s having a baby. My mother’s too old to have another baby. She said at her age, it’d kill her.”

My insides shriveled.

My mom nearly died a few years before, giving birth to a sister who didn’t survive. Now I feared she’d die with this baby, followed by the rest of us, one by one, from heartbreak.

I lived with anxiety for months. I remember crouching on my bed, forehead pressed against window glass, hoping headlights, visible across the fields, would turn toward our house. Dad and Mom had gone to Salt Lake City, they promised they’d be home by dinner.

I’d choked down the bottled tomatoes and toast Carolyn fed us in Mom’s absence, then curled in a ball on the couch, struggling with the worry that had grown along with Mom’s tummy.

When Carolyn decreed bedtime, I obeyed without question.

Now I held my breath, watched the headlights, and promised I’d do my chores without whining and change the baby’s diapers without puking if Mom made it home safely.

The car passed by; I cried; Carolyn ridiculed: “Bawl baby, stupid bawl baby.”

In October, I again stood sentry by a window. The evening before Dad had taken Mom to the hospital. Grandma either believed my lie about an upset stomach or understood the fear clouding my eyes. When the others ran for the school bus, I stayed home.

I tracked our car as it stopped beneath the cottonwoods. Dad stepped out, then stopped, and gazed for a long time toward heaven.

I ran from the house. Panic squeezed my voice tiny: “Dad?”

“Hey, Janet. Your mom and I named your new brother Blaine. They’ll be home Friday. Did you and Grandma hear the crows protesting the owl in that tree? See him?"

Two days later, I experienced a rush of love when Mom let me hold my brother, bundled in white flannel, small fists waving at nothing, smelling new. As I smiled up at Mom, my last worry vanished. I could see that she, too, loved this baby.

That was my first experience with the joy and peace that fills hearts around the world on Christmas, exultation over the birth of a babe.

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