The Cuddle Initiate

To finish out this crazy busy and fun week of stories, here’s one I hope will give a little tug at your heartstrings. I mean, how could it not? Look at this precious photo Emilie sent me as inspiration ❤

The Cuddle Initiate
Photo Credit: Emilie Beßler

I also feel like I should clarify something– my lovely husband David told me he thought I was choosing which order I wanted to write the stories in based on which photos grabbed my imagination the most. False! I am writing these stories in the order the photos were sent to me, so please never think I am skipping over your photo because another one caught my attention more 🙂

Also, my goal was to write a story a day for the first week, which I almost did. Due to taking a beach trip this weekend, this last story got delayed a day. Moving into next week, I’ll be putting stories out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As always, keep on sending your photos my way!

Here’s ‘The Cuddle Initiate’:

~~ Patience Reid sifted through the newest batch of documents that had been brought to her, rolling her eyes when she ran across another one of Dr. Bromston’s articles. ‘Future Improvements in Hospital Management’. How boring.

The assistant over in records needed yet another talking to. No matter how many times Patience told her the articles were not worth keeping in the archives, the young woman never failed to slip one into the stacks of files she brought over. She was in love with the cleft-chinned Dr. Bromston and thought anything with his name on it was worth keeping.

“What a look!” Exeter Central Hospital’s records manager, Betty Cook, walked into the office she shared with Patience.

“Found another Bromston article.”

“Again? Sorry. Amy’s obsessed with him.”

“No kidding.” Patience dropped the article in the trash. “I’m an archivist, not a member of her Bromston fan club. Why she thinks any of his stuff is worth considering for long-term retention is beyond me. So annoying. Yet another prime example of why I can’t stand people.”

Betty dropped a pile of stuff on her desk and gave a pouty face.

“Not even me?” she asked.

“You’re not people. You’re Betty. Big difference.”

“You know, maybe if you actually spent time around humans, gave them a chance, you’d find out they’re not so bad.”

“Thanks, but I prefer the company of old papers. They don’t talk back.”

“Don’t let the stakeholders hear you say that. Aren’t they doing one of those archive tours tomorrow?”

Patience groaned and laid her forehead against her desk. Yes, the stakeholders were coming by for an archive tour. They did the tours about once a year, and it was the black mark on the calendar. Small talk and hobnobbing had never been easy for her, which was why an event based solely around both was like gold-gilded torture.

When she raised her head again, she saw Betty pulling off her excess jewelry and storing the pieces in her purse.

“You’re going to the NICU?” she asked the older woman.

“Best part of the day.”

“Yeah, because being spit up on, pooped on, and having your eardrums burst by a wailing baby is the epitome of euphoria.”

“Their preciousness far outweighs their messiness. Plus, those babies need all the love they can get. You should give it a try. Maybe you’ll even find yourself coming to appreciate the little darlings.”

“Pass.”

Betty sighed and shook her head as she moved to the office door. She put her hand on the knob, then paused and turned toward Patience.

“What if I make you a deal,” she said.

“A deal?”

“I’ll take over the stakeholders archive tour tomorrow—“

“Betty! That would be amazing!”

“Hold on now. You have to do something in return.”

“Anything!”

“Become a Baby Cuddle Volunteer for two months.”

Patience felt her heart sink. So close. She had been so close to handing off the stakeholders.

“You ask too much,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Seriously. It’s sitting in a chair, holding a baby. No words. No having to impress anyone.”

“Two weeks.”

“Six weeks.”

“Four.”

Betty contemplated the final offer for a moment, then nodded and said, “Deal. I’ll tell the charge nurse that you’ll come up around 5:30.” She pointed a finger at Patience. “I’m holding you to this. No going up once, letting me take the stakeholders, and then never going back again.”

“I’m hurt you would even think I could do such a thing.”

“Mmm hmm.” Betty gave her a knowing look before she left the office.

As the day pushed forward, the small hand on the clock moving ever downwards, Patience felt the full weight of what she had agreed to settle in her gut. Why in the world would she agree to cuddle babies? She was terrified of babies. The ones born on time were fragile enough, but preemies? What if she broke one just by touching it? What if the baby cried, and there was no one around to explain what was wrong with the little thing? Worst of all, what if something went medically wrong with a baby while it was in her arms?

When she stepped off the elevator into the NICU, the anxiety had gotten so bad that she thought she was going to throw up. Her eyes scanned for the nearest restroom, just in case, even as her feet carried her through sheer force of will to the nurse’s station.

“Can I help you?” asked a woman in purple scrubs, black circles under her tired eyes.

“I’m Patience Reid. I’m supposed to be starting as a Baby Cuddle Volunteer today.”

“Oh, yeah. I was told you were coming. I’ll get you set up.” She stood and moved out from behind the desk. “My name’s Courtney. I’m one of the neonatal nurse practitioners. We really appreciate you coming up to help. We lost a couple of volunteers this month, so the babies haven’t been getting the same amount of cuddles they used to.”

She led the way down the hall, past a number of different rooms, the sounds of beeping machines and softly speaking voices emanating from them.

“The baby you’ll be holding today is named Cora. She’s two weeks old right now, but was born at 30 weeks gestation weighing two pounds, nine ounces.”

“Is that really early?” When Courtney gave her a surprised look, she said, “Sorry, I don’t have much experience around babies.”

“Normal gestation is 40 weeks, so yeah, that’s really early.”

As they entered a room about halfway down the hall, Patience saw what looked like a metal cart with a metal-barred container on top. A crib, but unlike any she had seen in a normal home nursery. In the crib was a tiny baby, swaddled in a pure white blanket.

Patience’s heart pounded a little harder in her chest, and she fought back a new wave of nausea.

There was another volunteer in the room holding a baby, a woman who looked to be in her sixties. The woman smiled encouragingly at Patience.

“Cora had respiratory distress syndrome when she was born,” explained Courtney. “It means she was missing something called sufacant. Sufacant is what helps fill the lungs with air and keeps the air sacs from deflating. She’s pretty much recovered from that now. We’re monitoring some other minor issues, but she’s been maintaining her temperature outside of an incubator, and her vitals are getting stronger every day. Please,” she motioned to a glider in the corner, “have a seat, and I’ll bring her over.”

“Over?”

“Volunteers have to be completely seated when they hold a baby. A nurse will always be the one handing off and then taking back the baby from you.” Courtney paused. “Are you ok? You look… scared.”

“What if I break her?” Patience practically whispered.

Courtney gave a small smile and said, “You won’t, I promise. We’ve never had a volunteer break a baby before.”

Patience gave a weak nod and then took a seat in the padded glider. She watched as the nurse gingerly scooped up the tiny baby and walked toward her.

“Hold out your arms,” Courtney said.

When Patience complied, she lowered Cora and waited until the new cuddle volunteer had a firm hold on the baby before releasing her grasp and stepping away.

“Now what do I do?” asked Patience, a tremor in her voice as she tried to figure out how best to hold the tiny bundle. She’d never before been so aware of how awkward arms were.

“Just hold her. Talk to her if you want. Sing to her. Hold her close, and let her share your warmth. Let her hear your heartbeat. These cuddle times are very important. They relieve the baby’s stress, aid in healing, and promote healthy growth. What you’re doing is very important. If you need anything, press this.” She pointed to a red button on the wall that was in easy reach. “We’ll come running. Cora’s primary nurse for this shift is Ann. Ann will stop by every now and then to make sure things are ok.”

“Ok.”

“You good?”

“Define good.”

Courtney laughed and said, “I told you, you won’t break Cora. She’s a little fighter.”

After Courtney left the room, Patience stiffly studied the little girl in her arms, her eyes tracing over the IV in Cora’s arm. The small tube sticking out of her left nostril. The veins visible beneath the surface of the skin. How could such a small thing endure so much?

The baby’s eyes had briefly opened when she had first been laid in Patience’s arms, but she had fallen back to sleep again within seconds of being handed off.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” asked the other woman.

Patience looked back down at the little body in her arms and had to nod. An unconventional kind of beauty, but a beauty nonetheless.

For the first five minutes, she was terrified to even breathe in case it disturbed Cora, but gradually she could feel some of the tension melt away from her body, especially when the baby stayed peaceably asleep. Cora woke once or twice, even giving a little cry, but both times she’d settled back into sleep. By the time Courtney came back to the room about an hour later, Patience felt more relaxed than she had in a long, long time. She couldn’t remember the last time she had so much contact with another human, but it felt good. Natural. Right.

“You didn’t break her?” Courtney asked.

“Not yet.”

“Told you. I can take her back now.”

“Already?”

“It’s been an hour. That’s a typical cuddle volunteer shift. It’s also time for us to feed her. If you hang onto her much longer, you’ll get to see the hungry, angry side of Cora.”

“Take her, take her.”

As Courtney lifted the baby out of Patience’s arms she asked, “Will we see you back here again?”

“I promised a month.”

“You promised?”

“Long story. I should be back around the same time tomorrow.”

The next morning, Betty tried to act cool and uninterested in how her office mate’s first cuddling session went, but as soon as they were seated with food in the hospital’s cafeteria, she pounced.

“Well, how did it go?” she demanded.

Patience shrugged, trying to keep under wraps the grin that threatened to show. Last night, when she had gotten back to her apartment, she had felt good. Relaxed. Useful even. She had even begun to wonder if maybe she did like people more than she thought. Until her neighbors got into their weekly arguing match, and Mr. Shields started yelling down the hall after his escaped dog. Even with those lovely reminders of humanity’s annoying tendencies, Patience had to acknowledge she was looking forward to seeing Cora again.

“It was ok,” Patience finally answered, opening her calendar on her phone. She placed a finger on the red bar that marked the stakeholder’s tour and held it up for Betty to see.

“I know, I know. You have begun keeping your end of the bargain. I’ll keep mine. Honestly, Patience, I am glad you agreed to this little exchange. I’ve been worried about you lately.”

“Why?”

“As far as I can tell, the only people you have in your life are me and, well, me. Even then, it’s forced because you’re stuck with me every day. Humans need each other. They need interaction.”

“I’m doing just fine on my own.”

“Getting by and thriving are two different things.”

Patience poked around at her salad, the good mood she had all morning beginning to evaporate.

“I’m sorry,” said Betty. “I’m not trying to bring you down. I’m saying that I’m excited by this chance you have to be lifted up.”

The dreary mood Patience had kept since lunch stayed with her until she was back in Cora’s room that evening, the small bundle being laid in her arms. Once the baby was in her arms, though, everything felt light again.

Over the first week, Patience found herself growing more and more attached to Cora. It was impossible not to. The little baby was perfectly precious. Soon, Patience found herself celebrating the small milestones the nurses shared that Cora was reaching.  Eventually, though, she realized something was missing.

“Where’re Cora’s parents?” Patience asked one day while waiting for the primary nurse, Ann, to finish checking over the baby.

“Dad’s out of the picture. Mom only stops by occasionally.” Ann placed a stethoscope to the baby’s chest and gave a nod as she listened. She straightened and said, “You’ll understand that I can’t share the details with you.”

“Of course.”

Patience couldn’t imagine being a mother who only stopped by to see her baby on occasion. No matter how busy life got, how many jobs had to be worked, how far the commute was, whatever, she’d make sure she was there at least once a day. The fact that Cora had so little contact with her own mother made Patience even more determined to make sure the baby got as much love as possible.

Betty had already told her she didn’t expect Patience to volunteer on the weekend, especially since so many other volunteers were free to come in those days. Patience had intended to take advantage of those two days off, but found herself pacing in her apartment when Saturday afternoon rolled around. There was stuff she could do. A book that needed to be finished, groceries that needed to be bought. All she could think about, though, was the little girl in Exeter Central’s NICU.

After two hours of pacing, she finally gave in and drove the twenty minutes to the hospital. When she got to the nurse’s station to ask about Cora, she was told the baby had not been visited by a volunteer that day.

“What about her mother?” Patience asked.

“She’s not been around in over a week.”

Patience’s heart broke at that.

“Can I hold her?” she asked.

“Sure. I’ll hand her to you.”

As she held Cora that afternoon, Patience felt anger toward the girl’s mother. How irresponsible could the woman be to have a baby that was sick enough to be in the hospital, yet make no effort to see her regularly?

“If I see her,” she told Cora softly, “I’ll talk to her for you. I’ll make sure she knows you need her around, ok?”

The same older woman who had been there the first time Patience had held Cora gave her a sad look.

“I hope Cora isn’t abandoned,” she said.

“Abandoned? What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen it happen before. Twice. Mothers who had their babies, then left them behind. Just went on with their lives and never looked back again.”

“What happens to the babies after that?”

“They go to the state. End up in the system. Very sad.”

With a knot in her stomach, Patience hugged Cora a little closer, hoping that no such fate awaited the baby girl.

“What should I do?” Patience bemoaned to Betty later that day as they were heading back to their office after lunch. “I can’t let Cora go into the system!”

“There’s not much you can do,” said Betty sadly. “You can’t make her mom care for her. You can only be responsible for your own actions. That means showing Cora all the love you can, which is what you’re doing.”

“I need to do more than that, though. Maybe I can talk to her mom.”

“And tell her what?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure it out.”

For the rest of the week, Patience visited the NICU whenever she was free. During lunch. After work. On the weekend again. But every time she went by the nurse’s station, the info was always the same. Cora’s mother had not stopped by.

By Sunday, she was absolutely furious and ready to strangle the woman.

Halfway through her shift holding Cora, Patience looked up to see a young woman being pushed through the door in a wheelchair by a nurse. The woman was scary thin, her bones poking out through her skin, giving her more the look of a skeleton than a human. The skin was so white and translucent that the veins could be seen near the surface. Her body had a visible tremor to it as she gave a shaky smile.

“You must be Patience,” she said, barely above a whisper.

“Yes.”

“I’m Jade. Cora’s mother.”

The air seemed to get instantly thinner and hard to breathe. Patience could feel the surprise covering her face, but could do nothing to arrange her features into a more suitable expression. Jade didn’t seem to mind. Her gaze dropped to the bundle in Patience’s arms.

“Do you mind if I hold her?” she asked.

Patience couldn’t answer for a moment, so stunned by the appearance of the woman in front of her. Realizing how long it was taking to answer, she snapped her mouth closed and tried to recover herself.

“Yes, of course! Sorry. I, just…”

“Didn’t expect to see me like this.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s ok. Really.”

Courtney took the baby from Patience and handed her to her mother.

“I’ll leave now,” said Patience.

“No, please stay,” said Jade. “I’d like the chance to talk to you for a little bit.”

Jade’s face lit up when the baby was placed in her arms. She cooed to the baby in soft tones, grabbing one of the little hands and squeezing it between her own. After a few minutes of her attention being totally engrossed, she looked up at Patience and smiled.

“You don’t know how grateful I am that you’ve been spending time with Cora,” she said. “They tell me every time you come here to see her. No matter how bad my day is, I instantly feel better when I hear you’ve been by. I’m sure you have other things you could be doing, so thank you for sacrificing your time.”

“Honestly, I don’t do much. And knowing I get to see Cora at the end of the day makes it worth getting through.”

“I feel the same way,” Jade said, her eyes falling back down to her little girl. “She’s absolutely perfect.” She was quiet for a moment, her face contemplative, then she said weakly, “I was twelve weeks pregnant when I found out I had cancer. My doctors, they wanted me to terminate the pregnancy. They said my body would be under extra stress. That I needed to start chemo right away, and it would probably hurt my baby or kill her.” She shook her head. “I could never do that. Cora may have only been as big as a lime at the time, but I knew she was real. She was mine. I told those doctors they could take their recommendations and shove them.”

“So you didn’t do the chemo?”

“Nope. Told them I wasn’t doing anything even remotely risky for my child. I decided to wait until after giving birth to start any kind of aggressive treatment.”

“But then that hurt you, didn’t it?”

Profound sadness covered Jade’s face.

“It did get worse,” she said. “A lot worse. They say that’s the main reason I went into labor so early. I tried, though. I tried for her, I really did.”

“I’m sure. There’s only so much you can do, though.” Silence settled back over the room, broken only by Cora’s soft grunts.

“Where is Cora’s father?” Patience asked, knowing she was probably overstepping, but wanting to know enough that it gave her the bravery to ask.

Jade didn’t seem upset by the question.

“We had only been together five weeks when I found out I was pregnant,” she explained. “He said he wasn’t ready to be tied down, so he walked away.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s ok. Cora and I can handle ourselves without him.”

“What about your parents?”

“My dad died when I was six. Mom’s been backpacking across Europe the last year. She doesn’t know what’s going on.”

“You aren’t going to tell her?”

“I don’t know how to get in touch with her.”

“So you’re alone?”

Cora smiled and said, “My half-brother works overnights here in the hospital. He stops in to see me and Cora during the night. And I have you, now. I consider you a friend because of your care for Cora. I hope that’s ok.”

“I feel honored to be considered a friend.”

The smile fell from Jade’s face to be replaced by intense pain. She looked up at Courtney.

“Could you please hand Cora back to Patience?” she whispered.

Courtney transferred the baby and told Jade, “I’ll help you get back up to your room.”

“Thanks.” She looked at Patience. “Thanks again for showing love to my little girl. Could you… could you keep coming by as long as she’s here.”

“Of course. I couldn’t imagine doing anything different.”

Jade nodded and offered a last weak smile as she was rolled out of the room.

Patience’s phone went off an hour after she got home that evening.

“This is Patience,” she answered.

“Patience, this is Courtney at the NICU. Jade…” She stopped and swallowed audibly. “Jade just passed away. She gave instructions right before she died that you were to be notified.”

Tears gathered in Patience’s eyes as she let the phone drop to her lap. She made it to the hospital within the hour and approached Cora’s crib. The baby’s eyes were open, and she was making cute squeaking sounds as she wiggled her little body around. New tears burning behind her eyes, Patience reached out and ran a finger down Cora’s arm.

“Poor little baby,” she cooed. “Poor, poor baby.”

Cora’s shifting eyes raised to hers and a smile covered her face. Patience knew it was a coincidence. Cora wasn’t old enough to control her own movements. But that smile, that beautiful smile, broke down whatever reserves were left around her heart, and Patience started crying in earnest.

She hadn’t heard Courtney come in, but soon the woman’s arms were around her shoulders.

“Thanks for coming,” Courtney said. “I know Jade was hoping you would.”

When Patience’s tears had dried up, she went and sat in the glider and let Courtney set Cora in her arms. Night had long since fallen, and the few lights that were on cast the room in a peaceful, warm glow. A wave of emotions rushed over her, an odd mix of grief for Cora losing her mother so young, and also love for the baby girl that had slowly been building in the mere two weeks they had been spending time together.

For the next week, Patience spent as much time as possible with the baby, even going so far as to take a personal day, which she divided over the week so she could leave early every day. At the end of the week, Cora was well enough to go home. Patience made sure she was there for that monumental day.

“Who will she be going with?” Patience asked Ann.

“Jade’s half-brother is taking her. Jade left Cora to his care in her will, and it sounds like he’s working on a full adoption.

“Good. I’m so glad to hear that. He works in the hospital, right?”

“Yeah, the ER.”

“Also good. I want to be able to ask him about Cora on occasion, if that isn’t too annoying.”

“Not annoying at all.”

Both women jumped at the new male voice that had joined their conversation. Both of them spun around.

When Ann saw who it was, she smiled and said, “Patience, this is Dr. Bromston.”

Patience didn’t need anyone to tell her. She had seen his picture often enough on his articles she threw in the trash whenever they made their way to her desk.

“Doctor.” Patience nodded her head politely.

The man studied her longer than was comfortable, and Patience scowled at him.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

Dr. Bromston shook his head as he ran a hand through his hair.

“You’re Patience Reid?” he asked.

“I am.”

“I have an odd request for you. From Jade.”

“Jade?” Patience tilted her head as she studied him, then her eyes went wide as she put the pieces together. “You’re Jade’s half-brother?”

“Yes.”

“Wow. Small world.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Me, too. Jade was a remarkable woman.” His eyes clouded with grief.

Patience gave him a moment of recovery, then asked, “What did Jade need?”

Bromston shifted uncomfortably as his eyes settled over her shoulder at a spot on the far wall.

“Cora’s coming home with me. I think she’ll have everything she needs, but Jade seemed to think that wasn’t true.” He cleared his throat. “She wanted you to stay in Cora’s life. At least for a while. Until I ‘find a woman and settle down’. Her words, not mine.”

Her heart pounding in her chest, Patience nodded quickly up and down, feeling like someone had just handed her the world.

“Yes!” she breathed out. “Yes, I would love that!”

Bromston finally met her eyes fully.

“Really?” There was an edge of relief to his voice.

“Of course! Cora is…” Patience didn’t know how to explain just how much the little girl meant to her. Cora had changed her life. Helped her break down some of the walls around her heart. Showed her just how nice it was to have another human who needed her and who, in a way, she also needed. “She’s perfect.”

“OK, great. That’s, well, good.” He pulled out a business card and handed it to her. Patience returned the gesture and Bromston studied her card. “I’ll call you later this week,” he said. “We can set up a meeting time to work out the details.”

“Sounds good.”

“You want to say goodbye to Cora? I’m taking her now.”

Patience nodded and stepped up close to Cora’s crib. Leaning down, she placed a small kiss on the girl’s forehead.

In response, Cora’s little hand came down to rest on hers.

“I’ll see you again. Very soon, little one.”

6 thoughts on “The Cuddle Initiate

  1. Oh my goodness! What a tear jerker and lovely story! I need you to finish it and have Patience and Dr. B get together 🙂 I loved it! (Especially since I have babies myself)l 🙂 )

    Like

      1. Sarah, you’re making me want to cry. Very well written. I would love volenteer like that when I get older.

        Like

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