Christmas was coming early for us this year. With Ryke scheduled to be on the road on Christmas Day, we’d moved up the celebration to a few days before the official holiday.
This tradition had become dear to me. Every year we hosted Luke and Dell, their sons Kyler and Karson; Niko and Sadie and Orion and Samara and their kids Sarah, Porter and Liliana. Since Niko had been traded to another team and Orion was coaching, we were only able to get everyone together a few times a year anymore.
My own children were racing around our house, excited about seeing everyone. Ryke was right there with them, carrying AJ around on his shoulders.
And me? Well, I was trying to maneuver my thirty-seven weeks pregnant belly around the kitchen island without knocking off any of the food on it.
Despite our plans to conceive our children so they’d be born in the off season, we managed to get pregnant by very happy accident every time.
We had three kids now: Melody, AJ and another son, Patrick. I was eager to find out if our fourth child would be a boy or a girl. I’d know in less than a month.
“You need help, babe?” Ryke asked me, pausing in the doorway between the dining room and kitchen. AJ’s head had barely cleared it when Ryke ducked to walk through.
“If you could just not give anyone a concussion until after dinner, that would be great,” I said, smiling.
“What about Luke?” Ryke approached the island and I put a cube of cheddar cheese in his open mouth. “Last time he had a concussion he told me he was born without one nut. Funniest shit I’ve ever heard.”
“I was delusional,” Luke said defensively from the other side of the room. “You know damn well I’ve got both nuts.”
“You think I stare at your ballsack?” Ryke fired back.
AJ giggled and met my gaze, mouthing the word ‘ballsack’.
“I know you do,” Luke said, grinning. “You’ve got sack envy. Mine’s a lot prettier than yours.”
“Alright, then,” I cut in. “Ryke, if you could cut the turkey, that would be good.”
He lifted AJ off his shoulders and approached me, wrapping his arms around me from behind. I leaned back against him and closed my eyes.
“Is your back still bothering you?” he murmured in my ear.
“Mmm,” I answered. He knew that meant ‘yes’ when I was tired.
“Go lay down and let me finish this.”
I couldn’t help laughing and turning to give him a skeptical look. He scowled defensively.
“What? I can figure it out,” he said, kissing my temple.
“Ryke, I can—” A sharp pain low in by belly made me stop talking and lean against my hands on the kitchen island.
“Whoa,” Ryke said softly, supporting me with an arm around my lower belly. “Easy, Kate. Let’s get you to a chair.”
I shook my head furiously, exhaling as the pain started to let up. “Give me a second.”
“Contraction?” Dell asked, concern etched on her face.
“Probably just a false one. You know how those happen,” I said.
She nodded, walking over to us. “But still. Fourth pregnancy…thirty-seven weeks. I think you should go get checked.”
“I’ve got all this food cooking, though,” I countered. “Maybe after—”
Another pain hit, and Ryke moved slightly behind me, picking me up. I cringed and buried my face in the crook of his neck.
“Mommy,” my youngest Patrick said, reaching his chubby little arms up toward me.
“Mommy’s okay, baby,” Samara said, smoothing his hair.
“Are you having the baby now?” AJ asked, grinning.
“No,” Ryke said. “She’s having the baby at the maternity suite like we planned.”
“Lay her down on the floor,” Dell said.
I looked up at saw that she was scrubbing her hands at the kitchen sink. Dell was an athletic trainer, but I knew she was capable of figuring out whether I was in labor. And right now, I welcomed her help.
“I’m not putting her on the floor,” Ryke said, heading for the couch.
“How much do you like that couch?” Dell asked him.
“The floor. I want the floor,” I said to my husband.
He laid me down tenderly, staying beside me and smoothing the hair away from my face.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his eyes locked on mine.
I nodded and forced a smile. I hadn’t planned on having Dell’s head between my legs today. Or ever.
“Luke, you stay in here with me,” I heard Dell say. “Everyone else needs to go upstairs for playtime. I’m just going to check Kate out and see if she needs to go see her doctor, okay? Everything’s fine.”
“The turkey,” I cried, gritting my teeth as another contraction hit. “And the…aaaahhhh.” I stopped to pant for a few seconds. “The sweet potato casserole. It needs—”
“Niko, go take care of the food,” Ryke said. He kissed my forehead and I felt his worry.
Everyone was quiet as they walked upstairs, Samara promising the kids fun and games once they got up there. Once Dell heard a door close behind them, she sat down by my feet.
“I’m going to take off your pants and cover you with a blanket, Kate,” she said gently. “Keep breathing and stay calm, okay?”
Calm? I was anything but calm. I was scared and completely unprepared for this. I put on a brave face and nodded as Luke brought over a red and green throw from the back of the sofa.
“You need to move, man,” Ryke said to Luke, his voice tense. “I don’t want you seeing my wife’s vagina.”
I laughed, despite the onset of another contraction. Dell had already pulled my pants and underwear down past my knees. “It’s a little late for that.”
“Move,” Ryke said to Luke in the tone he used right before they threw down over a video game.
“I’m not looking,” Luke said. “I’m right next to my own fuckin’ wife, douchebag. You think I’d check out your wife’s garage?”
“I’m gonna beat your—”
I grabbed frantically for Ryke as the pain mounted. “I don’t care. Hold on to me. It hurts.”
He slid an arm beneath my shoulder and kissed my temple again. “I’m right here, baby.”
“I need towels,” Dell said to Luke. “Call 911 and tell them we have a 37 weeks pregnant woman fully dilated in active labor.”
“WHAT?” Ryke and I cried in unison.
“I’ll need the dispatcher to give me direction by speakerphone,” Dell continued. “Hurry, Luke.”
“Niko, dial 911 for me,” Luke called into the kitchen.
Anxious tears streamed down my cheeks and I clutched Ryke’s shoulder.
“Not here,” I said, my voice breaking. “Not like this. I need my doctor and…more doctors and a hospital. What if something goes wrong?”
His brow furrowed with worry. I knew how much he hated not being able to make it all okay. But after losing my first baby during the pregnancy, I was more paranoid than other women about all the things that could go wrong.
“An ambulance is on the way, Kate,” Dell said. “This is strictly a precaution.”
“No. Ask them how to slow my labor.” I clenched my teeth as another contraction hit. “I can’t have this baby on my living room floor.”
“Yes, you can, babe,” Ryke said in my ear. “If you have to, you can. I’m here. We’ll do this together.”
I cried as the voice of a female dispatcher spoke from the speaker of a cell phone on the floor next to Dell.
“Any complications in the pregnancy?” she asked.
Dell looked at me. I shook my head miserably. “It’s been normal, but it’s high-risk because I’ve had losses before…oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit.”
“Tell me what you’re feeling,” the dispatcher said.
“I want to push,” I said, panting. “But I can’t. How can we stop this labor? Where’s the ambulance?”
“The baby’s crowning,” Dell said. “I see a head of dark hair.”
I cried frantically as Ryke held me close, his arm tight around my shoulder.
“Keep breathing,” the dispatcher said.
Try as I might, all I could do was cry.
“Kate.” Dell’s form tone made me open my clenched eyes and look at her. “Panicking is not an option. You are your baby’s lifeline. Now listen to me. Breathe. For your baby, okay? Breathe and stay calm. I will get you through this.”
Calm descended over me as I nodded. The dispatcher spoke to Dell, but I kept my focus on my friend instead of the other voice.
“You’re gonna push now,” Dell said. “Come on, Kate. You’ve got this.”
Ryke hooked an arm behind one of my knees and held it for me. Samara was on the other side, holding my leg and pressing a cold cloth to my head.
I pushed and screamed and prayed. My children were everything to me. I couldn’t lose another one. My daughter Harlow lived in my heart, but I wanted to hold this baby in my arms, hear it cry and see it grow. Since I had three other children now, I knew what I’d be missing if anything happened.
The pain existed somewhere in the back of my mind. I pushed with everything in me, desperate to get my baby out and hear its cries.
And then the pressure and hurt eased all at once. I lifted my head up and saw Dell and Luke looking down together. The dispatcher was talking and Dell turned the baby I couldn’t see.
My body shook as the air left the room. Ryke held me close, frozen as we all waited.
Finally, a short, shrill wail sounded, followed by more. I sobbed and slackened in Ryke’s arms.
“A daughter,” Dell said, her cheeks wet with tears. “You have another daughter.”
The paramedics arrived then, one of them taking over for Dell and the other taking the baby to check her out and wrap her up.
“Is she okay?” I cried, trying to get a closer look.
“She looks good,” the paramedic with silver hair said, grinning. “Just give me a minute to finish and you’ll have her in your arms.”
More blankets were thrown over my legs and our other kids crowded around, eager for a look at their new little sister. Ryke still clutched me tightly, his cheek damp as he brushed it against mine and spoke in my ear.
“I love you. You did so amazing, Kate.”
He kissed me and our eyes met for a few meaningful seconds. I loved the sense of completion I felt surrounded by him, our children and our beloved friends.
When I looked up and saw Dell, she smiled. I put my hand over my heart, hoping she could see how grateful I was for her.
“What’s her name?” Dell asked as the paramedic settled our new daughter into my arms.
I looked at Ryke. We’d discussed so many girl and boy names, but never settled on one.
“You choose,” he said. “I picked AJ and Patrick.”
I brushed a finger across my baby’s warm, rosy cheek, her perfect name coming to me.
“Hope,” I said softly. “This is Hope Adella Ryker.”
Niko walked into the room then. “Congratulations, guys. This may not be the right time, but…uh, dinner’s ready.”
I laughed, deciding this had actually been the delivery I was meant to have. I was surrounded by my family, our friends, laughter and love. And my beautiful daughter would remind me every day of the best gift I’d ever gotten. The hope Ryke and I had discovered in each other had brought us here.