Sometimes a prompt can take us to very unexpected places, particularly if there are very specific instructions within the prompt.
I recently revisited something I wrote at one of our weekend retreats in February, 2012. I probably have not read this in at least six years and I was so surprised at the powerful emotions conveyed in the very short story. As a matter of fact, I was surprised that I had written it! But I do remember choosing the interesting photograph and also the exact place I sat when I wrote the story. And I remember that when Carol told us the time was up, I had to excuse myself and go to another room to let the story continue. That’s exactly how it was! The story wrote itself. Below is a summary of the prompt, followed by the story (I have inserted a number indicating each change of instructions from the prompt).
I chose to call the story FAMILY TIES.
1. Using a photo-art, create a scene, a sense of place.
2. Put two characters in and write from Character One’s point of view. NO DIALOGUE
3. Switch to Character Two’s POV (NO DIRECT DIALOGUE).
4. Write dialogue between these characters.
5. Give one character a flashback.
6. Write anything to close the scene.
### 1 ####
This stately old house just outside Atlanta, Georgia had been in the family for generations; always a reflection of the time and culture as it aged beautifully in place. Originally constructed in the late 1800s just after the Union troops had burned their way through the South, the house is elegant and strong, reflecting the resilience and character of the people who built it and their descendants who have maintained ownership for nearly 150 years.
The current occupants are the Carter family. Ben is an environmental lawyer working for the state. His great-great grandfather was also named Ben and would be proud that the tradition of social responsibility and strength of character continues through this soft-spoken young man.
Ben’s wife, Dolly, has adapted well to the southern life. Born in New York City, Dolly is active in human services and stays busy in her career and current occupation as a lawyer for the ACLU.
When Ben and Dolly moved into the house just after their marriage in 1996, the façade of the house had not been updated since the early 1960s. To make the house reflect more of their sense of style and interest in art—which had brought them together in the first place during a Young Lawyers Association meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early ‘90s— they added an additional living space. This new space is totally open to the outside world, connecting them to nature and consistent with their honesty and integrity.
Ben and Dolly have assured the continuation of the Carter family for at least another generation and have been great parents to fourteen-year-old son, Sanders, and eleven-year-old daughter, Gabby. Most people would describe them as a typical family in many ways, whose lives are busy with active participation in school, community, church, and professional organizations.
But things are seldom as they seem. As Dolly describes it, Life is so unfair.
### 2 ###
“I grew up with the idea if you work hard, get a good education, live responsibly and always do the right thing, you would likely be successful and live contentedly.
But this day is one of the saddest and most difficult anyone could have. I look around at all my blessings—a great husband, smart kids who are loving and kind, a satisfying career, and many interesting friends.
Gabby is my soul mate really. She and I have had a special bond—established even before she was born. A difficult pregnancy with unknown causes but lots of procedures, tests, ultrasounds —and sleepless nights—worrying that we might never enjoy the adventurous life this little growing baby would surely bring with her.
But after five months of bed rest and careful monitoring by outstanding physicians, our sweet Gabrielle Margaret Carter arrived with no adverse effects from the problematic incubation and has continued to be healthy and vibrant.
But she has always been a little ‘different.’ I sensed it from the beginning. She has always seemed to have a sixth, even seventh, sense about people and about things going on around her. Because of this, she has spent a lot of energy helping her friends and being an ample shoulder to lean on. In our frequent family conversations, she has always offered up a wise perspective and a unique point of view. I wish I had the right words to say now.”
### 3 #####
“My mother has always been my best friend and I’m so proud she is such a neat person. My friends can’t believe the stories we tell each other. My mom has such a great imagination! She’s funny, too. I love when she comes into my room at night and we lie on the bed, ‘comparing notes’ as she calls it. Sometimes we start laughing at some silly little thing and before you know it we are falling on the floor holding our sides and gasping for breath!
But lately she seems very troubled and sad. I’ll have to help her now, and we’ll figure out something.”
### 4 ####
D: “Gabby, I have already talked to Dad and Sanders about this and I wanted them here with me as I have some news for you. Do you remember the times last week when I had several doctor’s appointments.”
G: “Mom! Please! Do you have cancer? Are you okay? What’s going on?”
D: “No, no. I’m fine. Well at least I am fine in that I wasn’t seeing the doctors about myself. And I was also seeing hospital administrators and attorneys. Oh, what a week.”
G: “So you had a lot of appointments! And with all those different people. You are scaring me, now. I don’t get it.”
D: “I have a rather bizarre story to tell you and it will end with us having to make some very difficult decisions.”
G: “Well, if you’re not sick and you are not about to tell me that you are dying, then nothing else matters, right?”
D: “We’ll see. As you know, I had a very difficult pregnancy with you, and we were always afraid that you might not survive being born. Because of that, the night you were born we were admitted to a delivery area of the hospital whose nurses were trained in caring for at-risk babies and their mothers. It was an extremely busy night and lots of babies were born and, as happens sometimes, the nursery was short staffed. The primary point of this story is that you and another baby were switched that night. Or, more accurately, you were purposely exchanged.”
G: “I don’t understand this. How could that happen? Do you mean that I am not your baby? Well, I mean your child now? Who would do that? Where is the mother who had me? What happened to the other baby? Your baby?”
### 5 ####
God! She is asking the same questions I asked that afternoon. That dark afternoon I had been called to a meeting with the hospital administrator and her league of risk management, attorneys, and the like. And even with their explanations, I still go back to those same questions:
How could that happen? (How could Gabby NOT be my child; she is my soul mate!) And who WOULD do that? Why? Who is that OTHER mother?
And as much as I love our sweet Gabby, now I am consumed by grief at the loss—that I am suddenly, reluctantly aware of —the loss of that other baby girl. OUR baby girl. But we are so lucky to have Gabby and our lives have been so enriched and blessed by her presence. Yet I feel so very sad about the other baby, the one I knew for all the months of my pregnancy and for whom I felt such a connection.
And perhaps a part of me knew something extraordinary had happened. Ben and I have always discussed how Gabby really did seem so “different” and we attributed it to some uniqueness of her personality, perhaps reaching far back in the gene pool to bring to life some nearly extinct feature of the family.
But with all the legal ramifications of this new discovery, it is possible that we will lose our Gabby. And I can’t imagine a worse loss than that of a child we have loved and nurtured for over eleven years.
### 6 ####
So, here is the story from that night.
One of the other mothers was a fifteen-year-old girl who had not been to a doctor during her entire pregnancy. The medical staff was concerned about all the unknowns and because she was also extremely agitated and very emotional, they decided she should be in the high-risk area. This young mother-to-be had confided to the nurse caring for her that she just wanted to get this over with and leave. She was planning to give this baby up for adoption and had no intention of taking it home with her. She seemed to be street-smart, determined, and fearless. She gave birth to a healthy little girl.
The nurse working in that area on that night was seasoned and compassionate; after thirty-plus years of working in labor and delivery, she had seen it all. She was also very highly respected for her technical skills, her breadth of knowledge, and her deep love for the mothers and babies she assisted at this most critical transition in life.
Last week, the hospital received a call from the nurse who had recently retired and shortly afterward been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Whatever her motivation—facing her mortality, trying to amend past bad judgments, making right some wrong—she confessed to having exchanged these two baby girls that night in the nursery.
You see, in a spontaneous act of sorrow, sympathy, and hopefulness, she had reasoned that it made sense to give the teenager’s baby to us and spare us the trauma of loss we would have faced because our baby died.
Since the teenager was going to give her baby up anyway, why not go ahead and make one family happy with the birth of a healthy infant and let the teen mom be spared any regrets at a later point in life reflecting on where her baby was and whether she had done the right thing. She was told that her baby had died, so she would know where her baby was.
Of course this was not only unprofessional, it was an illegal act. But until last week, no one knew. And the hospital had to notify us. And they had to notify the other mother, who is now in her late twenties, attending graduate school here in Atlanta, and who is curious to meet the baby who lived, her baby.
~Dottye Law Currin, February 2012