Liz wiped the sweat from her face as she pinned another shirt to the line. It was a miserable summer, and an especially miserable one to be pregnant. At 55, a first-time mother, the misery was even worse. Bending again to pick up a piece of damp clothing, Liz's back cramped up. She had to squat, arching her back as high as she could, to work out the pain. Usually, when the sun was warm and the day was clear, she enjoyed hanging laundry on the line behind the house. While she primarily did it to save on the electric bill, she genuinely enjoyed the repetitive motion, which became almost a prayer. Perhaps for the remainder of her pregnancy, she'd be better off using the clothes dryer.
She knew it would be pointless to ask Zeke to help. He'd been uncommunicative ever since she had told him she was pregnant. While he'd always been a soft-spoken man, now he didn't speak at all, simply grunting at her to fill his coffee, or pointing at things he wanted her to notice. At first, she'd thought he was mad at her, though why she couldn't imagine. After all, they had both wanted a baby for so long.
When they'd first married, nearly 30 years ago, they had both been excited about the idea of starting a family. Liz had joked that she would like to be Old Mother Hubbard, presiding over a house full of boisterous children. Zeke had laughed, telling her she could just call him the Old Man. The nickname had stuck, though now, at nearly 60, the name was a better fit.
Try what they might, the two just couldn't conceive. At first, Liz had been convinced that she needed to merely track her body's rhythms, and she'd bought a special thermometer, the most accurate on the market, to take her temperature when she awoke each morning. She'd written them all in pencil on the calendar, so that she could track her trends. When she'd noted a drop in the daily temperature, which indicated she might be ovulating, she'd declared it was "time to try."
When that didn't work -- and neither did home remedies such as making Zeke avoid hot showers and wear boxer shorts -- they'd finally sought help from a specialist. First, they'd endured a barrage of tests, designed to determine any problems. The news had seemed hopeful: Zeke's sperm count had been normal, and multiple tests -- including one where they injected a dyed fluid into her fallopian tubes for the doctors to view her reproductive organs via X-ray -- showed no problems with Liz's equipment. The only problem had been that Liz's cycle had always been unpredictable, and the doctors had suspected she might not always be releasing an egg.
After injecting herself with fertility drugs, designed to increase her ovulation, Liz had been dismayed when nothing happened. Each month, when her menses had begun, the red stain on her underwear had seemed like a mark of shame. The doctor had suggested IVF, in vitro fertilization, and she and Zeke had scrimped and saved enough for the expensive treatment. But after the implantation of all potentially viable embryos had resulted in further disappointment, as they failed to attach to her uterus, the couple had reluctantly faced defeat.
"Maybe it's just not meant to be," Zeke had told her, embracing her with his sinewy, strong arms while she had cried out her disappointment. In nearly three decades since that moment, they had lived a rich life together. Zeke had become a lay minister at the local church, delivering thoughts on the scriptures each week before the pastor's sermon. Liz had volunteered for the church bake sales, as well as for a food co-op which focused on local, organically grown produce.
With the money they hadn't had to spend on baby gear, school clothes and a college fund, they had bought a little farmhouse in the country, where they'd planted a large garden that had grown into a small, sustainable organic farm. They paid minimum wage to the town's teenagers, who worked hard over school vacation in the summer, planting, weeding and fertilizing. Their laughter filled the house, where Liz welcomed them for a simple lunch, primarily made up of produce they'd helped grow. In a way, she'd thought, she was Old Mother Hubbard at last.
The Lord works in mysterious ways, Liz thought. Just as she had given up hope of ever having her own children, she'd had a dream that she was going to have a baby. Shortly afterwards, she'd received that unfathomable news -- first from a pregnancy test she took to rule out menopause, and then from her doctor -- that she was pregnant. At her age, most of her friends were either parents of young adults or grandparents. They all pretended to be pleased, but she could see the worry behind their eyes. She knew that the risk of having a child with developmental problems was high, but as she'd told Zeke, "If this is what God decided for us, we're going to have to have a little faith."
Zeke's faith, however, seemed to be dampened, not buoyed, by her pregnancy. Not only was he not speaking to her, but he'd stopped giving the scriptural lessons at the church. When anybody asked him about it, he stabbed his finger at the Bible, gesturing frantically, but when pressed for an exact scriptural reference, he thumbed through the pages haphazardly before finally sighing and tossing the book aside.
By the second trimester, Liz realized he was not just being difficult but, for some reason, had become incapable of communicating. She forced him to go to his doctor, who examined him and could find no physical reason for Zeke's muteness. He suggested that perhaps he was suffering from a psychosomatic illness. Maybe it was due to the stress of having a baby so late in life, the doctor suggested.
Liz had urged Zeke to communicate in other ways, such as with the computer he used to track the farm's receipts, or with her small, portable netbook. But though he'd always been a hunt-and-peck typist, he now seemed to possess no typing skills at all: with great effort, he'd stab away at the keys, rarely producing any intelligible words before giving up.
The matter was disturbing to Liz, who was forced to live in silence, as well as to take over all practical communications for the business. Though Zeke always made a show of trying to listen to her troubles, Liz found it more rewarding to bend a friend's ear, someone who could talk back. Lately, she'd been talking to her cousin, Mary, who had become pregnant herself unexpectedly, before she and her fiance could walk down the aisle. A minor inconvenience in this modern world, to be sure.
Liz had even been forced to choose a name herself. After a heavenly dream where she felt convinced the baby's name must be John, she had told her husband of her revelation. He had said nothing and even proved incapable of pointing to either a "Yes" or a "No" she'd written on a piece of paper, in a desperate effort to gain his consent.
Another pain struck Liz, but this was less of a back ache and felt more like a cramp. Could it be a contraction? She remembered that the doctor told her that it should be a while before she would actually be ready to give birth, so she hung up the rest of the wash, taking care to look at her watch as each contraction hit, to time them.
After she finished, she calmly walked into the house and cooked dinner for herself and Zeke. As they ate some free-range bison and home-grown vegetables, she told him, "I'm having contractions. They're about seven minutes apart now. I think after dinner, we should go to the hospital." Zeke didn't have to say anything: his expression was a mix of fear and excitement.
They grabbed the bag by the door, and Zeke drove them to the county hospital, where the maternity nurses checked her in and took her vitals, and her doctor made an examination. What followed were 23 hours of cramps (finally dulled by the pain medication she agreed to take), beeping machines, sweating, pushing, and finally, the wailing of a baby. Her baby. Their baby boy. At long last.
The doctor placed the baby on Liz's chest, still attached to her via the umbilical cord. "I love you so much," she told him. "We have waited for you so long."
After Zeke, with the doctor's direction, cut the umbilical cord, a pediatric doctor, with some nurses, did some cleaning and some preliminary tests at a station near Liz's bed. "Does the baby have a name?" the doctor asked her.
Surprisingly, it was Zeke who spoke: "His name is John." A smile as broad as any she'd seen broke across his face.
This idea was gifted to me, as I was walking along and found a card for a child's biblical game, which told about the Archangel Gabriel and how he had told Zechariah about his wife, Elizabeth's, pregnancy. When Zechariah refused to believe, he was rendered mute until his son, John the Baptist, was born.
Thanks again to my husband, The Gryphon, a.k.a. toanstation, who suggested modernizing the tale.