Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's Not About Him - Prologue and Chapter 1

It's Not About Him

Sheaf House (September 1, 2009)


Ever have a decision to make that was so awful you wished it would go away? I did. But I couldn’t ignore the problem. It had a time limit. So not making a decision was still making one.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. But I learned some things from my experience. For one, I found out there are plenty of people willing to give advice, most of which is not at all helpful.

The thing is not many people understand how hard it is to make a decision when no matter how you choose someone gets hurt. I’m not talking about easy stuff like what you want to order at a restaurant. I’m talking about dishing up someone’s future. Deciding who will take care of the most precious gift you have ever received.

Honestly, I was so out of it I don’t remember much about the night my life was forever changed. Yet I still had the consequences to deal with. And I had to grow up fast.

Jeff, God bless him, tried to help me. But he made it harder for me, because it’s not about him, or my dad, or what anyone else thinks is best. It’s my child’s future that had to be considered, not just what I wanted.

The pain caused by making this decision was excruciating. But it taught me that my pain doesn’t have to define me, nor does a mistake. I am not what I did.

In the end, what matters most is love, because only love will get you through the most impossible situations. And while that doesn’t make everything better, it does make sense of something that makes no sense.

In the end, all I had was God. But He was enough.

Chapter 1

Susie Ziglar groaned and she leaned against her grocery cart until the nagging pain eased. She exhaled and then sipped from her cup. The ache in her back seemed to be getting worse. She needed to hurry up and finish her grocery shopping so she could sit and rest a minute. Pressing her hand into her lower spine, she set her drink down and straightened, then arched her back.

“My back is killing me.”

Jeff Rhodes, her constant companion and best friend for the past six months, eyed her with brows raised. “You think it’s time?”

Susie grimaced. “How should I know? I’ve never been through this before.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Oh, man. What if it is?”

“I doubt it. I’m not due for two more weeks. Anyway, my back has been aching like this for days. I can hardly sleep!” She sighed as the ache eased even more. A kick told her the baby didn’t like the squeezing sensation any more than she did.

They resumed shopping and Jeff steered her down another aisle. She was suddenly surrounded by baby products—with pictures of babies on boxes and diapers. Before she could take her next breath, her eyes flooded with tears. Her muscles tensed as she turned and pushed her cart down the aisle, her head bowed.

“I didn’t realize . . . ” Jeff sounded contrite as he tried to keep up.

She sped around the corner and marched away from him so he wouldn’t see her cry.

What she had to go through was hard enough, but did she need to be reminded of it everywhere she went? What did women do when they had miscarriages? She couldn’t imagine.

Her chest tightened and a tear slid down her cheek. Angrily she brushed it away. Pregnancy hadn’t been so bad. She never even got sick, at least not after the first few months. Oh, how she would miss the little person who’d been inside her for so long.

“I’m sorry, Snooze. I should’ve paid better attention.”

“Don’t worry about it. Besides, I can’t stop it once it—Ooof!” Her shirt suddenly jumped, as if someone punched from the inside, then floated down like a mini-parachute.

Jeff’s gaze fixed on her belly, and his mouth pulled into a sly grin. He spoke to her tummy in a funny voice. “Is my little girl doing jumping jacks again?” He patted her stomach as if expecting a response.

She moved his hand away. “Don’t.”

How she wished Jeff wouldn’t refer to the baby as if he knew it was a girl. When she had the ultrasound, she’d told the doctor she didn’t want to know the sex of the baby as the Passels wanted it to be a surprise.

The more Jeff talked about her child with such delight, the more she questioned her decision. But she couldn’t go back no matter what he said to try to change her mind.

Jeff rubbed his hand across his lips, and a faraway look appeared in his eyes.

She stopped pushing the cart. “What?”

He shook his head as if he was trying to snap out of whatever had pulled his thoughts away from her. “Nothing. Let’s get this done. What else do you need? Cheese? Bread?”

Releasing an exasperated sigh, Susie insisted. “Don’t give me that. You look worried again. I’m not stupid.”

Jeff’s attention settled on her eyes, and his voice lowered. “I know. I just can’t help wondering . . . Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?”

She squinted at him, ignoring the stabbing pain his question caused. “Of course I’m sure. I want this couple to adopt my baby. I can’t see myself raising a child alone.”

“I’ve told you a hundred times. You don’t have to—”

“That’s not reality, Jeff,” she snapped. “I don’t have any way to care for this baby. The last thing this innocent child needs is a struggling single mother when there are two wonderful people who can raise my baby in the love and security of a Christian home.”

A flash of memory from the night of the party zipped through her mind. But as usual, she didn’t see any faces. Everything was one huge blur.

She closed her eyes and sighed, hating the painful reality of her situation. “I can’t even collect child support since I’ll never know who the baby’s father is.”

“I know. But won’t you at least consider my offer?”

Susie chewed her lip and avoided looking into his hazel eyes. “I love you…as a friend. But we can never be more than that. It would ruin everything.”

His hand touched her shoulder, and he gently squeezed. “But, I still think—”

She tossed a box of cookies in the cart and shrugged him off. “I refuse to be a charity case. I won’t marry you just so you can help me raise another man’s child. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us. Marriage is forever. Why can’t you see that?”

“I know what you’re saying, but it doesn’t seem right. I’m glad I wasn’t aborted, but I still wonder if my real parents are out there somewhere wishing they could find me.”

“Which is why I’m doing an open adoption. I’ll know who they are, and my child will know me.” She grimaced as another ache started in her lower back.

He pushed back her long bangs and tucked them behind her ear. “But Susie—”

“No! We’ve discussed this—” She cast her gaze down, trying to ignore the warm sensation his touch had created. Tears threatened to unleash, but she shook them off. He couldn’t see her weakness, because then he would try even harder to wear her down.

“I can’t help wondering if my real parents would have done a better job, you know? Especially since my dad never seemed to like me.”

She peered up and caught the wistful look on his face, then darted her gaze away. Raising this child would not heal his pain. “But this isn’t about you. I can’t fix what your parents did wrong. Neither can you.”

“Just think about it. Please.”

Something in his rough tone made her glance up. Tears stung her eyes as she glimpsed the intense pain in his. How she wished she could heal his heart, his past.

“Please, Susie.” His voice was so quiet she almost didn’t hear him.

She had to be strong. “Listen. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I’m signing my baby over to them, and you can’t change my mind. My child will always know who I am. It won’t be anything like your experience—I’m sure of it.”

“Suz.” He tipped up her chin and brushed her cheek with his thumb.

She stepped back, swallowing hard. The gesture was too intimate for mere friendship. And he’d been touching her a lot lately. His tenderness stirred feelings she was determined to snub. She couldn’t be attracted to him. That would ruin everything.

“But nothing.” Pressing her lips with determination, she added, “Because I care I won’t let you throw your life away.”

“Who says I’ll be throwing it away? I’m a big boy. I can make my own decisions.”

She turned her face away, pained by what she was about to say. “You know you don’t love me like that.”

“I could…” His voice was soft, gentle.

Frustration made her want to scream. Didn’t he realize how hard he was making it for her? How could she convince him to stop?

“Look at me!” she shouted, pointing at her stomach, and earning them a glare from another shopper. Anger…she needed to feel anger to stay in control. “I’m a beached whale.”

“No, you’re not.” His gaze softened, and he offered a tender smile.

She could feel her chin quivering. A knot lodged in her throat. Why did he have to be so sweet, so wonderful now that she’d made up her mind?

“Cut it out. And stop looking at me that way. We’re just friends, and that’s all we’re ever going to be.” If only her heart would listen…

“I don’t know why we—”

She clenched her fists, resisting the urge to shove the cart away and flee. “Because I don’t want that kind of relationship with anybody! I just want to get through this pregnancy and get on with my life. Please stop trying to change my mind.”

Before she could stop him, he cupped her face, forcing her to meet his gaze. “Just think about it.”

Here stomach fluttered in response to his touch. She glanced at his lips and jerked her chin away. Her insistence was not working, so she heaved a loud sigh. She did not want to talk about this kind of stuff in the middle of the grocery store.

“I love you.” Peeking up for a moment, she added, “just not that way.”

Closing her eyes, she pondered the irony of her statement. It wasn’t that long ago that Dan kept telling her the same thing, and she refused to listen. She’d been so angry with Annie, but that was in the past. How much her life had changed in such a short time. There was no going back to the way things had been, and for that she was thankful.

A former boyfriend from the tenth grade in high school entered the aisle where they’d huddled in the corner. She wished she could shrink and hide behind Jeff, but Mark had already seen her and headed in their direction. Once, she’d had a major crush on Mark, and they’d dated until he’d dumped her for a new girl who shared his faith.

“Hey, Susie. I didn’t know you got hitched. Congrats, girl!” He turned and offered his hand to Jeff. “Do I know you?”

Jeff received his hand and quickly let go. His neck reddened to his ears, and he directed a quick glance at Susie. “I’m Jeff . . . um, Susie’s . . . ah . . . friend.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Mark.” Her former boyfriend’s gaze strayed to her hand. “Then who’d you marry?”

Susie’s throat squeezed and she had trouble forming a response. It wasn’t the first time someone assumed she was married because she was due to give birth. Closing her eyes for a moment, she forced the words out. “I’m not.”

Mark’s gaze strayed to her protruding belly and returned to her face. “Oh. Sorry.”

She tried to sound upbeat. “Jeff and I are good friends. We go to the same church.”

Cocking his head to the side, Mark asked Jeff, “Yeah? So where do you attend?”

“First Christian. You?”

Mark straightened. “My family goes to the Ward on Fourth Ave.”

An awkward silence ensued. Susie recalled going to church a few times with Mark when they’d dated, but she’d never felt comfortable around his family. There were too many kids, and she’d been an only child. His house felt more like a circus with the constant activity and people coming and going all the time.

“Well, it’s good seeing you, Mark,” Susie said hastily. “I’ll catch you around.”

“I doubt it. I moved to Washington State. I’m just visiting my family for the week. Well, bye.” Flicking his wrist, Mark turned the corner without looking back.

Susie exhaled. She’d almost forgotten Jeff was standing next to her.


“Wow,” she said without enthusiasm. “He still looks the same.”

“Well, of course he does. It hasn’t been that long since you graduated.” His smile faded. “You like him?”

“We dated in high school.” Susie gasped. She bent over, clutching her stomach as a strong squeeze radiated through her abdomen.

Jeff stood behind her and put his arms around her waist to hold her up. “You okay?”

She felt a strange sensation, then a spike of pain. Without warning, her water broke, spilling the clear fluid all over the floor. “Oh no!”

His eyes widened. “No way. Not here—”

Heat suffused her cheeks. Of all the places to have her water break, why the grocery store? She tucked the folds of her long skirt between her knees to contain some of the amniotic fluid. How would she get to the car without making a bigger mess?

“Jeff, can you get the manager? See if he has a towel or something.”

“Sure.” Jeff darted around the corner and returned moments later with a towel. The store manager trailed behind. Jeff gave the concerned-looking man a quick wave and thanked him, then took her arm and guided her toward the door.

“Hang in there, babe. We’ll go straight to the hospital. You wait right here, and I’ll go get the car.”

“Like I’m going to take off,” she muttered.

She hardly got the words out before another pain reverberated through her. She wrapped her left arm around her abdomen and dug the fingers of her other hand into Jeff’s arm, making it impossible for him to leave. What felt like a long menstrual cramp—only more severe—stole her breath until her eyes filled with tears.

Why didn’t I sign up for those Lamaze classes? Then I’d know what to do.

“Hurry!” she grunted when the pain eased, and pushed him toward the door.

Giving her a terrified look, Jeff squeezed her hand, then darted out the door and sprinted for his car.

Susie watched him run, and a wave of loneliness washed over her. Jeff had been so good to her over the course of her pregnancy. At first, she knew it had been out of guilt because she’d been raped while passed out during one of his many parties. But the more time they spent together, the more things improved between them. Now they really enjoyed hanging out with each other. And things had been great until today.

But once she placed her baby with the Passels, she didn’t know where that would leave their relationship. She could only pray he’d still want to be friends. And that he wouldn’t be angry with her for giving her baby up for adoption. She’d promised her child to the Passels months ago, and she refused to back out on their agreement, especially when they were so hopeful and longed to adopt another child. She couldn’t break their hearts.

This life-changing decision was hard enough, but if she lost her best friend in the process, she didn’t know how she’d make it through. While loathe to admit it, deep down inside she knew she needed him. And that terrified her.

Sweat formed on Jeff’s brow. He swiped his forehead, wishing he could calm down but knowing he wouldn’t. Not until it was over. His heart pounded like a basketball dribbled against his ribs, the force of it pushing so hard it took his breath away.

With a shaky hand, he reached for Susie. She grabbed his fingers in a death grip and squeezed as she hunched over. After the pain eased, she straightened, peering up at him with frightened eyes. She looked so young and innocent. It broke his heart to think about what she must be going through emotionally.

He smiled to assure her as he gazed into her gorgeous, light brown eyes. Warmth filled his chest, covering his heart like a cozy blanket. Maybe if she wouldn’t listen to him or believe him when he tried to tell her he cared about—no, that he loved her, then he would have to show her through his actions.

One of these days she might actually believe him, and maybe, just maybe, she’d let him into her heart. Until then, he’d work to penetrate the shell surrounding it, and melt the protective ice barrier with the heat of his unconditional love.

When Jeff set his mind to something, he didn’t give up easily. Like the day he quit drinking. Once he realized his behavior didn’t honor God, and it made Susie uncomfortable, he’d stopped cold turkey. He’d never linked his drinking with Susie’s father’s alcoholism. Not until she brought it up one night during a heated argument.

He still remembered the pain from that night five months ago, the night he thought he’d lost her friendship because he’d finally gotten up the courage and admitted his true feelings to her. She hadn’t believed him then either. She’d just rolled her eyes and told him she refused to love a man who drank booze.

That night he swore off drinking. Since then, his life had not been the same.

It’d been so much better.

“Come on, Snooze. Get in.” He opened the car door and gestured toward the seat. She poked his ribs and he jumped. “Ah!”

With a lop-sided smirk she crooned, “You know I can’t stand that nickname. Until you stop teasing me, Jiffy pop, I’m not—Ahhhhh.”

She clutched her stomach and sucked in her breath.

Jeff’s pulse pounded at the sight of pain etched on her face. Blood whooshed in his ears, and dizziness filled his head now that her contractions were closer together.

God, let her be okay. I couldn’t take it if anything happened to her.

He watched in mute fascination until her face slackened and he knew the pain had eased. Childbirth was such a mystery to him.

Susie lowered herself and tried to slide onto the seat. Covering her hair with his hand, Jeff guided her so she wouldn’t bump her head.

His heart squeezed as he gazed at her beautiful face no longer contorted with pain. He longed to touch her creamy skin with his fingers, to kiss her full pink lips and nuzzle her dimpled cheeks. If only she would agree to marry him. Then she could keep her baby, and they would be a family. Why did she have to be so stubborn?

With a defeated sigh, he shut the door and climbed into the driver’s side. He turned the key, praying silently as he drove to the hospital. Lord, bless Susie and be with her as she goes through this difficult time. Give her peace, God, whatever she decides, and help me to show her I love her even if I don’t agree with her decision.

The whimpers and moans coming from her lips as the headed to the hospital made his lungs constrict. He would do anything to help ease her pain. He reached for her hand and offered a reassuring squeeze, knowing it was inadequate. But it was all he could do given the circumstances.

Another contraction overtook her. She squeezed his hand so hard his knuckles crushed into each other. “We’re almost there, Snooze. Hang on.”

With a flick of her wrist, she slapped his bicep and grunted through the pain. “Cut it out, Jiffy pop. I mean it.”

“Ow, man, you’re good with those stingers.” He rubbed his arm. “Remind me to avoid teasing you when you’re hurting.”

He glanced over to gage her response to his teasing and he noticed tears filling her eyes. She bit her lower lip, and her shoulders shook as if she was trying to contain her grief. He felt like such a jerk. Why did he have to mention pain at a time like this!

“I didn’t mean to upset you.”

After several seconds of silence, Susie sniffed. “No, it’s okay. It’s not you.”

“Then what is it?” His gaze darted between her and the road as he closed in on the hospital and prayed no cops were lingering in hopes of catching a speeding car. He couldn’t afford another ticket. Though only twenty four, he’d already gotten his share of moving violations, and the insurance costs were getting ridiculous.

“It’s just…I miss my baby and I haven’t even done it yet.” She choked on a sob, wiping her wet eyes with the back of her hand. “Oh, Jeff… This is so hard.”

His vision blurred briefly as he blinked back tears. The sound of her grief shook him. He cleared his throat and spoke, his voice low and deep. “It’s not too late to change your mind. You don’t have to sign the papers. My offer still stands.”

She shook her head vigorously and sniffed hard. “No. I’m doing this.”

Part of him admired her tenacity, and the other part wanted to shake some sense into her.

Her body tensed with another contraction. “Ahhhh! This hurts way more than I ever thought.”

Jeff pulled into a parking space near the entrance to the ER and slammed on his brakes. He leaned in front of her stomach to grasp the door handle.

She stopped him by grabbing his arm. “Wait! Please. Just be my friend. I don’t want to be mad at God for letting this happen to me. I have to see this as His way of using me to bless someone else. Otherwise, I’ll go mad from thinking about it.”

Susie looked up with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Don’t make me feel worse.”

His eyes burned and he willed himself not to cry. Her grief deepened his pain and made him feel weak when she needed his strength right now. Quashing his unresolved emotions for her sake, he covered the side of her head with his palm and stroked her silky hair, resolving to be the strength she needed. “I’ll do whatever you need. I promise.”

“Good.” She offered a weak, tremulous smile, before inhaling deeply.

He smiled and tried to show his support through his response to her.

“Can you call Dave and Diane before we go inside? I don’t want them to miss this.”

“Sure. No problem.” He resisted the urge to grasp her head and gently kiss her hair. Instead, he removed his cell phone from the clip on his belt. He flipped it open and scrolled until he found Dave’s number.

“Dave’s Corporate Consulting. How may I help you?”

“Dave? It’s me, Jeff. Listen. Susie’s in labor. She wants you guys to meet her at the hospital as soon as you can. Her contractions are pretty close together.”

“Praise God!” Dave shouted in his ear. “Honey, Susie is in labor and wants us to meet her right away.”

Jeff heard Diane’s voice in the background. “Oh…” Diane squealed. “Tell Susie we love her… and…and… we’re on our way.”

Dave chuckled into the phone. “Did you hear that? My wife is bawling her eyes out. I’m a bit choked up myself. Tell her we’ll be there as quick as we can.”

His heart pitter-pattered at the sound of their joy. Maybe Susie was right. Maybe she was doing what was best for her child and he was the one being selfish. “Will do.”

Flipping his phone closed, he returned it to his belt.

Susie clutched her stomach, taking short breaths like he’d seen a woman in a movie do when she was in labor. “I can’t wait much longer. Jeff, oh Jeff. Help me up. This hurts so bad. I feel like someone is stabbing me and squeezing my whole body! She moaned as she reached for the door handle, now sobbing.

Jeff hopped out and ran around the car to help her up. “Here.”

She grabbed on to his arm. Yanking her purse from the floor with her other hand, she slung it over her shoulder and winced.

She put one foot in front of the other, holding her stomach as she shuffled along. “What did they say? I couldn’t hear them.”

“They cried and said they loved you and they’re on their way.”

“They said that?”

“Yeah. Why does that surprise you? Lots of people love you, Susie. You’ve changed so much; it’s like you’re a different person now that you’re a Christian.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“Why do you think I started listening more in church? Your change of heart touched a lot of people. No offense, but it was like you were really mean before, and now you’re just…sweet, and loveable, and gorgeous.”

Her adorable dimples appeared in her cheeks and her wistful smile made his heart flutter. “Thanks, Jeff. You’re so kind. I just wish my dad would talk to me. Ahhhh!”

“That’s enough reminiscing, hon. We’ve gotta get you checked in. You ready?”

She bit her lower lip and nodded. A minute later she sighed as the contraction eased. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”

Her gaze locked onto his and she grew serious. “Pray for me, Jeff. This is gonna be so hard. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”

Jeff pulled her into his arms and rubbed her trembling back. His throat knotted when the baby shifted in her belly and pressed against him. The movement reminded him of what was to come. It tore at his heart when he thought about how it would be over soon. He whispered into her hair, “Of course you are, Susie. You’re the strongest girl I know. You can do this.”

Pushing away from him, she exhaled a shuddering breath. “I can do this. I can. Please, Jesus, help me do this.”

She continued praying, uttering just loud enough for Jeff to hear even through her sobbing. “I know You’ll get me through this, Jesus.”

Silently agreeing with her, Jeff added. Lord, help us both.

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