With her short blond hair, gym-hard body and emphatic way of speaking, 39-year-old Sherry Dougherty brings to mind the pretty-pretty girl who proves herself by being a tomboy. But Sherry's tough exterior is piecrust-thin, and, on this hot June day, it's threatening to crack.
Fighting tears, she paces in the kitchen of her Riderwood home, dialing portrait photographers, looking for one, just one, who might have an opening. All she wants is a no-frills, blue sky-in-the-background staged shot, the kind advertised in every Sunday circular, and suddenly it seems like the Holy Grail. Everyone is booked.
"I need a drink," she mock-wails between calls to Sears and J.C. Penney and Olan Mills. "Where's the gin?"
Her daughter, Shannon, and Shannon's friend, Meredith, watch Sherry carefully. They have been in the car with Sherry much of the day, and they know she's at the breaking point. Even 3-year-old Colin, Shannon's little brother, understands this is a good time to be good.
It's silly to cry, Sherry thinks, blinking back tears. Silly to cry about this, she means. Ten years ago, she would have prayed for such a normal, trivial problem. It's just a photograph, a surprise that probably won't even be a surprise when all is said and done.
Still - she had planned it so perfectly, had played it so cool with the other mothers. I just want to borrow Meredith for a night, she had told the always-quizzical Sandee Mahr down in Severna Park. Sandee doesn't like giving up Meredith, even for a night.
What's so odd about asking R.J. to spend the night with Shannon and Meredith? she had asked Susie Rose in Damascus. Susie did not, as one might expect, find anything curious about a slumber party consisting of two girls and one boy. But when Sherry asked that R.J. bring a white top, Susie's cop instincts kicked in, and she also peppered Sherry with questions.
Sherry feels as if she's been planning this all year, this damn surprise, so simple yet so complicated. She began talking about it in the winter, but spring break came and went without an opportunity. Suddenly it was AprilMayJune, and now June is almost over. But, finally, she had a plan, a plan only a shade less ambitious than Hannibal's march over the Alps.
All she had to do was load Shannon and Colin into the car and zoom down to Anne Arundel County to pick up Meredith. Zoom over to Highway 97 and pick up R.J. Zoom to J.C. Penney.
It fell apart on the second zoom. Sherry had assumed 97 referred to the interstate to Annapolis. But in Montgomery County, where the Roses live, 97 means Georgia Avenue.
So R.J. had waited on his 97, while Sherry had searched for the meeting place on I-97, making increasingly frantic calls from her car phone. By the time the mix-up was resolved, the J.C Penney appointment was history.
The thing is - it's always like this. Three families, three different counties, three dramatically different households. Just getting together for dinner is a logistical challenge. But they roll with it. They're flexible. They have Christmas in January. And they won't celebrate the children's spring birthdays until the Fourth of July, their first mutual vacation in 10 years of knowing one another.
Why do they keep doing it? Why, after a decade, do three families whose only common bond is the worst thing that ever happened to them, refuse to let one another go? They've all asked that question at some point.
And, although it's hard to remember now, there was a time when Sherry didn't see any reason to make an effort. What's the point, she had wondered when Sandee invited her to Meredith's first birthday party. Who are you to me? Susie was asking the same questions.
But they went, each planning to duck out early. They ended up in the corner together, giggling at the overwhelming perfection of Sandee's house. Every detail was just-so, down to the dainty lace gloves draped with artful carelessness on a low hall table, a string of pearls on top of the gloves.
You have a 1-year-old, they wanted to tell her. The days of white lace gloves are over. But they didn't know Sandee well enough yet to say such things to her face.
Before the party ended, they lined up the three babies for what would prove to be the first of many group shots. Bald Meredith, chunky R.J., skinny Shannon. They didn't look that different from any other trio of babies.
Underweight, of course, but off oxygen. And no more monitors. The monitors - those had been the worst, little gremlins following them home from the hospital, reminding everyone of how vulnerable they still were. For the longest time, all three mothers had heart palpitations in McDonald's, because the buzzer on the french fryer sounded just like the alarm on the monitor. It was all part of being a preemie mom.
Which was all they had in common. Or so they would have told you at the time.
The thing about preemies, Sherry would say later, is the baby pictures are so ugly. They look like aliens, with their skinny bodies and veiny heads. The thing about preemies, Susie would say later, is how much you miss. No Lamaze classes, no baby shower, no chance to prepare the nursery. The thing about preemies, Sandee would say later, is you never really feel safe again. You know things, things you'd prefer to not know.
Perhaps there are just three kinds of people in the world: lucky people, unlucky people and lucky people who can't forget how )) close they came to becoming unlucky.
Those in the last group never again take anything for granted.
Sandee can pinpoint, on videotape, the exact moment she realized Sherry Dougherty was someone she needed to keep in her life.
"It was Meredith's homecoming," she begins to explain, "and I had hired a videographer ... "
"Of course you had," Susie puts in.
Sandee shoots her friends a sideways glance, but she's used to this gentle teasing by now.
Besides, the fact is that she hired not only a videographer to record Meredith's homecoming, she also had a chauffeured limousine and a champagne party.
"I hired a videographer," she begins again, "and there were Sherry and Shannon on the tape."
Sherry had made a little congratulatory speech to the camera as Meredith made her grand exit from the hospital. Seeing it, Sandee thought: "We are closer than we even know."
They are sitting around the kitchen table in Sherry's kitchen, drinks and dinner in front of them, husbands tending to the children when screams from the basement rec room become too shrill.
To themselves, the women are extraordinarily different. Why, they don't even drink the same wine. "What's going on, Miss Merlot?" Sandee drawls when she calls Sherry. Sandee, in turn, is Miss Chardonnay, and Susie's Miss Zinfandel.
"I'm the hardnose," says Sherry, the only stay-at-home mom in the group, although she often bakes desserts for husband Bill's pub.
"I'm the social gatherer, I want to bring everyone together," says Sandee, who is the perfectionist, a clinical psychologist who now specializes in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. She is also the only single parent in the group.
"I have a role, I just don't know how to define it," says Susie, quiet but wry, a park ranger for the Department of Natural Resources. One of her son's earliest baby photos shows him cradled in his mother's arms, her Smith and Wesson .38 in her holster. She's ambitious and serious about her work, the kind of woman who takes a training manual on a beach vacation.
Yet the women are alike. They are the same age, born within two months of one another. They are middle-class and white. They are attractive, the kind of women who care about their appearance without being crazed on the subject.
But in a world where so much is circumscribed by geography, chances are they'd never know each other, much less be friends, if their children hadn't ended up in Johns Hopkins Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in the spring of 1988.
Of the three, Sandee was perhaps the least surprised to find herself there. After all, she had been bound for the NICU, as it's called, just nine months earlier. Her first daughter, Ashley, had been born at 24 weeks in June 1987, in a delivery so nightmarish that Sandee's husband, Doug, fainted. Ashley lived only a few hours.
Now here Sandee was on March 25, 1988, the baby inside her only 25 weeks old. Just one week older than Ashley. Girls have an edge in the hierarchy of survival rates among preemies. But how could a mere seven days make the difference between life and death?
If I can't do this, I will never have another chance, Sandee thought. But the doctor took her hand and said, "We're going to have this baby." She decided to believe him. What choice did she have?
Meredith came into the world 101 days early, weighing 1 pound, 8 ounces. She would not leave the hospital until the day before her actual due date - July 4 - and it sometimes seemed that Sandee was in the hospital for every minute of those 100 days. She had to go to work, of course, and sometimes she stopped at home for a shower. But otherwise, she was there, in the rocker next to her daughter's Isolette, covertly studying the families around her.
For NICU is a subculture, with its own protocol and jargon. Progress is measured in grams. Nurses are goddesses. Families become familiar, but seldom intimate. It's not a rivalry, exactly, but there is the unspoken reality that some here are winners, other losers. Another baby's progress makes a mother fear for her own. Another family's tragedy is a reminder of how fragile these little lives are.
"You could never talk," Sherry remembers, "because that would personalize it."
Fathers study the charts, eager for information that will help them quantify their babies' progress. Mothers study the babies. Both parents silently note who goes to the "Pasture" - where babies graduate as they become stronger. That's a good place. They watch as others enter "the Room," an ominously bland conference room. That's where families are taken when the news is bad.
Opportunities for bad news abound. Even when these babies survive, the laundry list of potential problems includes blindness, lung problems, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, learning disabilities and cerebral palsy. Meredith was misdiagnosed with kidney failure at one point. A mistake, but it probably shaved a few months off Sandee's life as she rocked in the rocker, wrote letters to her baby, and watched the world around her.
She became aware of Sherry first, the mother of twins born on May 8, three months early. Sandee saw her come and go, saw her husband, Bill, come in at 2 a.m., after closing time at his pub on Chase Street. And she knew, without anyone telling her, that they had lost one of their babies. She grieved for them, silently.
Sandee couldn't know all the details. She didn't know that
Sherry, whose body almost seems to hum with good health, had been admitted to the hospital with pre-eclampsia, a rare condition in which blood pressure rises until the pregnant woman is at risk for a stroke. Sherry didn't even know she was carrying twins until she was admitted to Maryland General after what was to have been a routine doctor's exam.
This unexpected good news of two babies was quickly overshadowed by Sherry's critical condition. She was hospitalized at Hopkins, where her blood pressure kept climbing, and her kidneys started to fail. Inside her, the babies were fine, but Sherry was dying, and there came a moment when Bill told the doctors that if he had to choose, he would choose Sherry. It's not something a wife forgets overhearing.
The girls were delivered at 27 weeks. Kelly and Shannon weighed, respectively, 2 pounds, 4 ounces and 2 pounds, 3 ounces. Kelly was stronger, larger, her vital signs were better. Yet it was Kelly who caught pneumonia.
"I think she knew that she was dying," Sherry says of her daughter. "She looked over to me, and her eyes were wide open."
Five days after the twins' birth, doctors sent Sherry home, advising her to relax. She hadn't been home 15 minutes when she was summoned back to the hospital to say goodbye.
Two days before Kelly died, a new baby had entered the NICU, B.B. Rose, son of Susie and Eugene. B.B. stood for Baby Boy, because his arrival was so sudden that his stunned parents didn't have a name for him for the first three days.
R.J., short for Richard Joseph as he was christened eventually, was in an Isolette just two behind Shannon's. Again, the families were all aware of one another, and they sneaked glances at one another's charts, noticed how Sandee had decorated her daughter's Isolette. Meredith, too small for baby clothes, had a wardrobe of Cabbage Patch doll clothes.
Born at 28 weeks, R.J. was, by NICU standards, a giant - 3 pounds, 12 ounces. His birth may have been a shade less dramatic than Meredith's and Shannon's, but it was harrowing enough for his parents.
Susie had two scares before she was ordered on bed rest at Hopkins. The first had come on her job as a park ranger. She was chasing a poaching suspect, gun drawn, when she began bleeding.
A doctor assured her she hadn't lost her child. Several weeks later, while raking leaves, she experienced the same bleeding sensation, only stronger. The baby, then 27 weeks old, had a 70 percent survival rate.
R.J. made it another week. Sherry and Sandee confess now it made them almost angry to see this relatively enormous baby in the NICU. What they didn't know was that he was one of the sickest infants.
But Sandee had an inkling something was wrong the day she heard Susie's usually quiet voice rip across the NICU. "Don't sugarcoat it," she had screamed. "Just tell me what's going on."
Susie and Eugene were hustled into the Room. R.J. had suffered a massive hemorrhage, a 3 on a scale of 1 to 4, and a lung had collapsed. His parents still remember, almost word-for-word, the doctor's prognosis. "He might be able to walk and talk. He might play sports, but he won't be the first draft pick."
Yet for all the visits to the Room, for all the grams gained and lost, the doctors' worst-case scenarios for the three children never played out. The early drama of their lives proved to be a harbinger for ... nothing.
On July 3, Meredith went home in her limousine. R.J. was released on July 5. Shannon on July 10.
They went home with monitors and oxygen, but they went home. The war was over, they had crawled out of the foxhole, presumably never to see each other again.
Or so it seemed, until Sandee watched Sherry and Shannon on Meredith's homecoming videotape, and recalled Susie's voice slicing through the studied quiet of the NICU. She said to herself, for reasons even she can't explain: I can't let these women go.
St. Patrick's Day
It is St. Patrick's Day, and the three families have decided to rendezvous at Dougherty's Pub, the bar that Sherry's husband, Bill, owns.
This party proves to be something of a bum deal for Bill, who ends up wearing two hats - boss and kid wrangler - while everyone else gets to wear silly cardboard hats and watch the Maryland Terrapins game. But the fathers, Bill and Eugene, understand that these gatherings are as much for the mothers as they are for the children.
Sherry and Susie tease Sandee about her just-so perfectionism, which motherhood hasn't dented. Sandee and Susie mock-scream at Sherry when she mixes up their names. Susie is teased about the fact that both her children's due dates were exactly nine months from her husband's birthday.
The children need a beat longer to find their groove. Shannon is quiet, but poised, her smile almost secretive. Meredith, the oldest by two months, takes the longest to warm up, but once she feels at home, she shouts and laughs as loud as anyone.
R.J. is more like the three women: He bounds in, a happy-go-lucky kid who has never met a stranger, so outgoing that you wish there were a way to bottle essence of R.J. and hand it out to the pathologically shy.
The children are conscious that they share a unique bond, a life-and-death story that happens to star themselves. But it's simply not as real to them as it is to their mothers. ("They measured my head?" asks R.J., when he overhears a portion of the oft-told story. "Coooooool!")
At first, the children were the point. The families went to the annual NICU reunions. Sherry had a party for their third birthdays. They made play dates. But, at some point, the mothers' relationship took over, deepening until it became the primary reason for their get-togethers.
"I've never had a friendship like this," Sherry says. "It's not convenient. It's actually inconvenient."
They joke about men and fingernail polish and their children.
They joke that R.J. will take Meredith and Shannon to their proms if they don't have boyfriends of their own in high school.
They joke that Susie will have to have another baby for Sandee, divorced for five years, so they can all have two. But there's a little throb of pain beneath that joke, for it touches on hurtful memories for all three.
It reminds Susie that she has never had a "normal" pregnancy. R.J.'s little brother, Matthew, was a preemie, too, born in June 1993. "I felt as if, 'I just didn't do it right,' " she says ruefully.
It reminds Sherry she had a tubal ligation, after giving birth to Colin, Shannon's baby brother. The pregnancy with Colin was textbook perfect, trouble-free. But there had been another pregnancy in-between, another set of twins. It ended in a miscarriage. Three lost children is three too many.
And their old joke reminds Sandee that it's doubtful she can ever provide Meredith with a sibling, even if she marries again. She's never had a problem getting pregnant, but her body can't hold onto the babies she conceives.
"This is not my beautiful house," Sandee feels compelled to explain to visitors to her neat-as-a-pin townhouse.
It is dinner time, and she has fixed penne in a vodka sauce, a dish she learned from Eugene. Meredith is doing her homework on a new computer, diligently tracking the planets in their orbits. Sandee is rocking in an old-fashioned rocker, much as she once rocked by Meredith's Isolette. Their old dog is snoozing on the living room rug. It certainly looks like Sandee's house - sparkling clean, with feminine touches everywhere.
What Sandee means is that she once had a different beautiful house, her dream house. She and Doug had to sell it as part of their divorce settlement. The days of white lace gloves are over, but not for the reasons Sherry and Susie once envisioned.
The breakup of their marriage was the friendship's major test. They had been three couples, neatly matched, and everyone was fond of Doug Edmunds. But, in the fall of 1992, when the three women met alone for the first time, the marriage was faltering.
This secret ate away at Sandee. Here she was, a therapist responsible for fixing others' marriages. She felt ashamed and weak. She couldn't bear to tell anyone what was happening.
Much to her surprise, she confided in Sherry and Susie over lunch that day. She could almost sense the gears of the friendship shifting. "I told my secret, and they told their secrets, which are still secrets, I suppose," she recalls. "When you tell your first secrets, there's an intimacy that's created. It changes everything."
Doug is still part of Meredith's life - she has both parents' surnames - but not part of the group. The adults are circumspect about him, and about the details surrounding the divorce. ("I cried for Meredith when I heard that they were getting divorced," Sherry says.)
Sandee says, somewhat cryptically, "I made it clear to them there was a choice, that there was a right and a wrong side here, and I expected them to be on the right side."
In the end, it was the husbands, Bill and Eugene, who took Sandee aside and assured her the end of her marriage would not, as it sometimes happens, be the end of their friendship, that five was as viable a number as six.
So far, they have been true to their words, even as various boyfriends have cycled in and out of Sandee's life. Sherry and Susie, no surprise, have very definite ideas about what kind of boyfriend Sandee should have. But they keep these to themselves. More or less.
There are other fissures, moments of hurt feelings, or misunderstandings. On the night of the St. Patrick's Day party, the air is electric with unspoken tensions. Sandee keeps teasing Eugene about being angry with her, for reasons that are never explained. Sherry drags Eugene off for a confidential tete-a-tete. Bill spends most of the time watching the children. But the covenant among the three families is that these tensions will pass, that the friendship is bigger than the three mothers, the three children, the two fathers. It can accommodate others as easily as it accommodated the little ones, Matthew and Colin.
(Almost) Born on the Fourth of July
It is the Fourth of July weekend. If things had worked according to plan, Meredith would have turned 10 this weekend, while R.J. and Shannon would still be a month shy of their respective birthdays.
But the pattern in this friendship is that nothing ever works quite according to plan. Even this reunion has meant complicated arrangements and itineraries, with the families arriving in shifts at a small condo on 51st Street in Ocean City.
Sandee has brought along her new boyfriend, Curtis, and his daughter, Megan. So the group has a symmetry it doesn't often have: Six grown-ups, six children, six females, six men.
They watch fireworks, sit in the sun, play in the surf. But tonight is the moment toward which they have been building all year, an early-evening birthday party on the beach. They set up a red canopy with balloons and banners, fill blankets with food, find a way to smuggle beer onto what is technically a no-alcohol beach.
The "boys" wear Hawaiian shirts, the women tropical prints, the girls grass skirts, and everyone who comes within 5 feet of them ends up wearing plastic leis. As usual, it takes a little time to get everyone together, all at once, but they are finally assembled. "Welcome to the crowd," Sherry greets Curtis and Megan.
A small pile of presents lies under the canopy. Sherry pulls out two flat rectangles, handing them to Sandee and Susie. "I know you guys know what it is," she says, "but I'm going to give it to you anyway."
The photographs Sandee and Susie unwrap were taken the day after the Highway 97 debacle. After making calls late into the evening, Sherry had finally found a mall portrait studio that could take the trio without much notice. In less than 15 minutes, the mission had been accomplished. If keeping such a secret is problematic when your co-conspirators are 10 years old, so be it. The looks on Sandee and Susie's faces make it clear that they might not be surprised, but they are touched beyond words.
Of course the frames are different - an ornate filigree one for Sandee, a country-style wooden one for Susie - but the photos are the same. Two girls and a boy, in white shirts and jeans. You would never mistake them for siblings - they are too similar in size, their features too distinctly different - but you don't have to be their mothers to see they are beautiful children, their faces radiant with good health.
Impossible now to imagine the days of monitors and head-measuring, the scary talks in the Room. Impossible to imagine, yet also impossible to forget. Isn't that the point of their friendship, never forgetting, never taking anything for granted?
"I love it," Sandee tells Meredith. "I love your hair."
"Look how you guys have grown," Susie marvels.
The sun has passed overhead and is setting on the other side of the Coastal Highway. The men stand at the surf's edge. Megan and Matthew play together. Shannon tries to fly a dragonfly kite; R.J. throws a new Frisbee. In the dusky orange glow, the light plays a strange trick, and a tiny mark on Meredith's lip is suddenly visible. Did she bump it while swimming?
"I didn't do it today, I did it 10 years ago," she says, her voice taking on the singsong rhythms of a favorite story, one that gets better with each retelling. "And see, on my foot, where I have a heart shape? That's where they put the IV in. I came home from the hospital in a limousine, and there was a party, and I was so little I had to wear Cabbage Patch Doll clothes."
She looks at Sherry and Susie, brow furrowed. "Were you there?"
"We weren't invited yet," Sherry says, winking over her head at the others, as Susie smiles.
"No, that came later," Sandee says, stroking her daughter's hair.
The three women smile at one another and, as the sun sets over the bay, a friendship that began under the worst possible circumstances slips quietly into its second decade.
Pub date: 12/27/98