Sarah returned to my apartment one night, five years ago, covered in twigs and smelling like beer. Malia, the baby conceived in the park and named after the president’s daughter, was an accident. Though Sarah and Mark remained together, a baby was never in their immediate plans. Malia probably wouldn’t exist at all if I hadn’t found the appointment for Planned Parenthood on Sarah’s calendar. I wasn’t snooping, just changing the sheets on her bed, several weeks after the night in the park, when I found the datebook open. A doctor’s appointment was circled in red.
I cornered Sarah over breakfast the next morning. I put a cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal in front of her, then sat down across the table. “Why are you seeing a doctor?”
She wasn’t coy and she didn’t ask how I knew. “I’m having an abortion,” she said.
I wondered if the open datebook had been intentional. I wasn’t anti-abortion, but it only took me one sleepless night to discover something I never knew about myself before. My husband Charlie had recently passed and my mother died a year before that. Both before their time. Our small family was diminishing. So soon after both of their deaths, I couldn’t bear to lose someone else. It seemed cruel and unnecessary. I told Sarah.
“God, Mom. You sound like one of those people waving a sign outside Planned Parenthood.” She put her cereal bowl in the sink and walked out of the kitchen.
I followed her down the hallway back to her room. “Hardly.”
“I’m not ready to have a child. My body. My choice. Remember teaching me all of that?” She grabbed some clothes off a chair and headed back down the hallway to shower.
“Twenty-one is not that young,” I said.
She shut the bathroom door.
When she came out, smelling of lilacs, her damp hair leaving a wet spot on her shirt, I was still waiting. “What if you change your mind? I mean once you do it, you can’t go back.”
“Can’t you even say the word? The abortion, you mean? I won’t,” she interrupted me. “Who knows if Mark and I will even stay together?”
“What if you have the baby and then decide?” I asked. “Would you consider that possibility?”
“You want me to go through nine months of pregnancy, just to give it away? Talk about cruel and unnecessary.”
“It’s not an ‘it,’ Sarah. It’s a baby.”
“Are we really having this conversation? What I do is none of your fucking business, Mom. Don’t you think this is hard enough already? You have no right to pressure me like this.” She walked around me. Out of my apartment. Probably right into Mark’s arms.
Of course, she was right.
Several days later, Sarah returned to the apartment. She arrived late one afternoon and went to her room and shut the door. She didn’t emerge for several hours. After dinner, she walked into the living room, where I was watching Law and Order. She held a brown bag and two wine glasses from the kitchen cabinet. She set this all down in front of me. She sat down beside me, then tugged on the afghan so that it could cover her too. She rested her head on my shoulder and snuggled against me just like she did when she was a little girl. I could see she had been crying.
“Open the bottle,” she said.
I saw it was champagne. “Are we celebrating?”
“I don’t know, are we?”
“You tell me. You brought the wine.”
“I’ll do it,” she whispered into my shoulder. I passed her the bottle. “No, I mean I’ll have the baby.”
I wanted to believe it was because she wanted the baby too. But I was afraid to ask.
“Well, then none of this for you,” I said, putting the bottle back in the bag.
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. See, I’m going to be a lousy mother.”
I held her in my arms. I was confident that when Sarah met her infant she would never want to let go.
But I was wrong.
Seven months later, I entered Sarah’s hospital room the morning after Malia was born. The delivery was easy and she was one of those fortunate moms who timed it to get a good night’s sleep. Both of them were pink and rosy. Sunlight streamed in through the blinds. The white roses Mark had brought her bloomed beside her bed. Sarah held her swaddled infant in her arms, but wasn’t swayed.
“Your granddaughter,” she said holding out the baby and presenting her to me as soon as I sat down beside her bed.
I held Malia in my arms. “She’s beautiful,” I said.
“She’s perfect. She’ll make some family very happy.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
She shook her head. “Mom, did you really think that when I saw her I would change my mind?”
“Of course, I did. Otherwise, I don’t understand why you went through with it.”
“What you said. I thought about it and if there’s even a little bit of Dad or Grandma living in her, it would be a shame to lose it. I’m happy that she’s in the world. But I can’t raise her. That’s someone else’s job.”
After seeing Malia, I couldn’t just let her go. I even thought I detected the bow of Charlie’s lips, the dimple on my mother’s cheek, though I knew Malia was too young for familiar characteristics to appear.
I looked down at the baby cradled in my arms. “It could be my job,” I said.
Sarah looked up from her magazine she was skimming. “What?”
“I’ll take care of her.”
“Mom, that’s crazy,” Sarah said. “She’s a baby. You’re old. Babies are a lot of work.”
“I’m not that old.” I waited. “She’s family just as much as you are. I can’t give her away.”
“You really want to do this?” Sarah asked. “You can’t do it for me. That would just be more guilt. You can only do if you want to raise another child.”
I realized that I did. “You can see her whenever you want.”
It seemed like the perfect solution. I volunteered at Habitat and for the Wildlife Fund, but mostly I missed Charlie. My small apartment felt large and empty with him gone. My life felt drab and lonely. There were no more unexpected texts from Charlie as he hurried through the city. No more Charlie sharing Bloody Mary’s and pepperoni on a Sunday morning as we read the New York Times. No Charlie there to praise the frozen chicken potpie I served for dinner. I missed holding hands in bed and watching TV. That was the hardest part. That cold, empty space beside me that never got warm. Malia could keep that warm.
I imagined replacing those times I missed with Charlie with long walks through the park with Malia. I pictured myself pushing her in her pram, a lacquered navy blue, with hand-painted fleur-de-lis, and big spoked wheels, the very one I wanted for Sarah, but couldn’t afford when she was young. I changed delivery on the crib and rocker from Sarah’s apartment to my own. I ordered cases of diapers and disposable bottles pre-filled with formula from Amazon. I cleaned out Charlie’s study, a task I avoided until then. I filled trash bags, barely registering the contents, books, papers, and memorabilia from lectures and meetings, and carried them to the dumpster downstairs. I stood at the doorway of the empty room. I imagined it yellow like the sun with puffy blue clouds on the ceiling and a border of floating butterflies.
Acting only on impulse and desire, I brought Malia home.
Sarah saw Malia maybe once or twice a month, and as she promised, she left the raising of her daughter up to me. One night, my intercom rang long after Malia was bathed and fed. She was about three at the time. The weather had just turned chilly and she was wearing footed pajamas for the first time that year. For Malia, who couldn’t remember being two, it was her first time ever and she was fascinated by the mysterious loss of her toes. I rose from the couch where I was reading her The Cat in the Hat and answered the buzzer.
“Pizza party!” Sarah announced from the lobby.
“Mommy, Daddy.” Malia brightened at the sound of her mother’s voice.
“Why don’t you ever call first?” I started to say. I found their spontaneity intrusive, and disruptive to our routine, but Malia was their daughter and I wasn’t about to discourage contact, however infrequent and inconsiderate. I excused their youthful behavior, at the same time realizing that their choice not to keep the child displayed an uncharacteristic moment of maturity on both their parts.
“Come on up,” I said instead.
Sarah used her key to open the door and before she could even put the big box down, Malia was trying to jump into her arms.
“I have ice cream too,” she said, putting the pizza on the table and hitching Malia to her hip as she walked over to the freezer.
I laid out the big plaid blanket Charlie and I used to take to the beach and we had a pizza picnic on the living room floor. We stayed there long after Malia should have been in bed, eating pizza, the grown-ups making moustaches with the crusts because it was always fun to make her laugh.
I looked at her, covered with pizza and chocolate sauce, and as happy as she could be. “I think someone needs another bath,” I said.
“Another one?” Malia fluttered her eyelashes at me. “Do I have to?”
“I’ll do it,” Sarah said. Malia was on her feet in seconds.
I cleaned up from the impromptu party while Sarah bathed her daughter. After reading her a story and putting her to bed, she returned to the kitchen. We sat at the table and I poured each of us another glass of wine.
“She’s always so happy to see you.”
“Mark and I are getting a bigger apartment.”
“That’s great, honey,” I said.
“It’s time I took some more responsibility.”
I felt my palms go sweaty. I didn’t want to hear what she said next. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You have a lot of responsibility. You’ve got your job. And now this bigger place.”
“Mom, I think we’re ready.”
“Ready for what?” I asked, but I knew.
“We want Malia to come live with us. We want to keep her,” she said. “For good,” she added. “We have a room for her and everything.”
I started to cry.
“Mom, it’s a good thing. Isn’t this what you always wanted? For me to raise Malia. You should be happy.”
But I wasn’t. “You can’t just stroll in here and take her back like that,” I said.
“Mom, I appreciate all you’ve done. Really, I do. You showed me how to be a mother. God, there wouldn’t even be a Malia if it wasn’t for you,” she said. “But, she’s my kid.”
“Where have you been for three years?”
“I’ve been around.”
“I thought you didn’t want to raise her,” I said. “I thought you gave that job to me.”
“Mom, you’re her grandmother. I know how much you love her and she really loves you, but I’m her mom.”
A year ago, Mark found a new job in Santa Monica, thousands of miles from where we all lived. Though they hadn’t married, the three of them were a family by then and Sarah intended to go along. They were becoming the grown-ups Sarah predicted they would be when they were ready. When I was able to look beyond my sorrow, a part of me was very proud of her.
“Is Malia going with you?” I asked. Five now, she had been living with Mark and Sarah for almost two years, but a small bitter part of me always hoped the novelty of being a parent would wear off. Maybe Sarah would change her mind again, find Malia too difficult to pack and move, and give her back to me. But Sarah was doing a great job. She discovered that she loved being a mom.
“What a silly question. Of course, we’re taking her,” she said. “Malia’s our daughter.”
“Come and visit anytime,” she added. “There will always be room for you.”
The night before they moved away, Sarah let Malia stay with me. I made macaroni and cheese, the noodles shaped like dinosaurs, her favorite food. We stayed up late, cuddled in my bed. We watched Peter Pan and ate chocolate chip cookies not worrying about the crumbs.
“Are you excited?” I asked her.
“Mommy says our house is near the ocean. And there are swings right on the beach. And that it’s warm there every day.”
I smiled. “That sounds so nice.”
“Are you excited?” Malia asked me.
“About what, honey?”
“Moving to our new house,” she said.
“Didn’t your mommy tell you?” I was angry that Sarah had left this difficult task to me. “I’m going to live here, but you can come and stay here with me anytime. And of course, I’ll come and visit you.”
“Why aren’t you coming with us?” Malia asked me. Her eyes grew wide and began to fill with tears.
I struggled to remain composed. “I’m just going to get us some milk,” I said, “to go with the cookies.” I didn’t want her to see me cry. When I returned, Malia’s question was forgotten. A typical five-year-old, she was on to the next.
“Can I sleep with you tonight?”
“Of course.” Malia spent one last night warming the spot that Charlie had vacated.
In the morning, she woke me early, burrowing down under the covers and tickling my feet. I made some coffee, then we made pancakes, silly ones that looked like faces, with whipped cream for the hair and maraschino cherries for the eyes. I gave her a new pair of footed pajamas to take with her even though it was too warm to wear them where she was going. I took off my locket and hung it around her neck. I wanted her to think of me every day. Then it was time for her to go. Mark waited in the car with the motor running while Sarah came upstairs to get her. I didn’t have a lot of time.
“Come over here,” I said and hugged Malia tight inside my arms. She still smelled like maple syrup. I didn’t know how long I could hold on to that feeling, the warmth of her body pressed against mine, but I wanted it to last. I didn’t know when I would see them again. I gave Sarah a hug as well.
“Thank you, mom,” she whispered into my ear.
She held out her hand and Malia grasped it. They were both eager to begin their journey. I stood outside the elevator and watched the doors close. Malia became a sliver and then completely slipped from sight.
Marion Immerman’s writing career began as a copywriter on Madison Avenue. After ten years, she moved to Honolulu, Hawaii where she continued to write and produce commercials. A second move brought her to Philadelphia where she found the advertising landscape dim. Instead, she wrote countless short stories, two novels and one memoir. After taking several workshops and courses in creative writing as a non-matriculating student, she began the Masters of Fine Arts program at Rosemont College and graduated May 2017. The next step is seeing her words in print.