These are the first words I’ve written since J. fell down the stairs, unless you count lists. I have lists in my pockets, lists tacked to the bulletin board above my desk. Small lists on Post-its ruffle like feathers against walls and bureaus. Chunky baby food, milk, Cheerios. Diaper Genie refills. Huggies overnight diapers. This is what I do now. I cross things off lists. The more items I cross off, the better I can breathe.
J. was just seven weeks old when we moved from Manhattan across the river to Brooklyn. We bought an old four-story brick townhouse with a dogwood out front. A green-painted front door with glass panels led into a foyer with a pale pink chandelier dangling overhead. An antique cherry banister curved in one fluid line up two steep flights of stairs. The staircase itself was polished, with creaky, uneven steps.
My husband and I looked at a lot of places before we decided to live in Brooklyn. Manhattan was out of the question—we needed four bedrooms—so we explored Montclair, South Orange, Hastings-on-Hudson. We considered the country. Litchfield, Sag Harbor. During a trip to Seattle, on a sunny day when we could see the mountains, we thought about moving out west. We kept reminding ourselves that we’re writers, and writers can work from anywhere. But Brooklyn won us over—so close to our friends, to everything we knew. And then, after a parade of realtors showed us dozens of narrow dark Victorians, we fell in love with the brick house. The night after I first walked through the house, it filled my dreams. I was in my eighth month of pregnancy, and my dreams had become colorful, baroque. I floated through each room, focusing on the wide-planked orange pine floors, the intricate, crumbling moldings.
We ran out of money shortly after J. was born. It was my fault. I was giddy, on a postnatal, hormonal high. I was a mother! I wanted everything to be just right for my little family. The parlor needed an armoire for Michael’s record collection. The baby’s nursery had navy-blue curtains hanging to the floor and a hand-loomed rag rug. We had thousands of books, so we found a carpenter to build in shelves. And as long as he was already there, we had him install library lights, extra electrical outlets. You never know when you’ll need them. I pored over “shelter magazines”: House & Garden, Metropolitan Home. I looked at photographs of other people’s shelters. A shelter with a small Mondrian above the mantel. A shelter with an eighteenth-century writing desk in a child’s room. We relined the fireplaces, built closets, installed an alarm system, and before I knew it, we were broke.
Eighteen steps lead from our front hall to the second floor, to J.’s nursery and our bedroom. They are steep and creaky. Along the curve of the wall, near the top of the staircase, there is an indentation in the wall shaped like a tablet, like half of the Ten Commandments. I am told it’s called a coffin.
Things don’t go wrong all at once. There are small things—invisible things—that constantly go wrong. Wires fray inside a wall. A van speeds through a yellow light. Someone leaves a Q-Tip in the baby’s crib. These small things almost always just scatter and disappear. Big wind comes along, and—poof!—they’re gone. But once in a while, they start sticking to each other. If this happens, you find yourself with a big thing on your hands.
Whenever we’re on an airplane taxiing down the runway, I ask Michael to explain this to me. He calls it Plane Crash Theory. I know he wonders why I need to hear it again and again. But I do. His theory is simple, scientific: in order for a commercial airliner to crash, many things have to go wrong in sequence. Many unlikely things. No single event causes an accident. It is the sheer coincidental accrual and velocity of these failures that sends two hundred people plummeting into the ocean. This makes Michael feel better. He finds comfort in these odds as he settles into his seat and cracks open a newspaper as the jet takes off. Me, I think it’s as likely as not that I’ll be on that particular plane.
Michael and I have always lived hand to mouth, though from the outside it doesn’t look that way. We occasionally get a big check, then go months—sometimes years—without any money to speak of coming in. We bought the house with the expectation that a big check was on its way from Hollywood. It was a done deal. What we didn’t realize was that done deal, in the language of Hollywood, does not, in fact, signify a deal that is done. The producers are on vacation in Hawaii. Larry (who’s Larry?) is on the golf course and can’t be reached.
Here are the things we didn’t do when we moved to Brooklyn, because the check didn’t come. I still have the list tacked to the refrigerator: fireplace screens, seed garden, repair roof hatch, basement beam. Last on the list was runner for staircase.
J.! He was perfect, with a burly little body. Late at night, while Brooklyn slept, he burrowed into my soft belly as he nursed, and I watched him with bewilderment and joy. Where had he come from? He seemed to have inherited a temperament that didn’t exist in either my husband’s family or my own. From a grumpy, depressed bunch of people comes this smiling boy. In the darkness of his nursery, I stared out the window at the glowing red face of a clock tower in the distance, and thought obsessive thoughts of all the things I had read about in the baby books. He could choke on a button, or the eye of a stuffed animal. He could suffocate in his own crib sheet. He could strangle himself with the cord of his purple elephant pull toy.
This is what I do with happiness. Kayn aynhoreh, my grandmother used to say, repeating this magical Yiddish phrase to ward off evil. Kayn aynhoreh. I need to think of the worst-case scenario. If I think about it hard enough, it won’t happen.
There is a cage in our basement. I’ve never gone down there. The stairs are dark and rickety; the third step from the top is loose. The cage is made of rotting wood poles and chicken wire. It was built earlier in the house’s history, a less affluent time. Maybe it was once a rooming house. When we moved in, Michael found an axe propped in a corner of the basement. He’s not in the least spooked by it. This is one of the reasons I married him. He’s been using the axe to tear the cage down. Sometimes, I hear the crash of metal, and he emerges, covered with dust.
We come from money, my husband and I. Not huge family fortunes, but from first- and second-generation Jewish parents who made good, who have more than one house and drive the cars they swore they would never drive (those Nazi-mobiles) and take first-class round-the-world trips. Parents who wish we had become doctors or lawyers instead of writers. I’m saying this because we could have put our pride aside and asked. We could have said, Mom, Dad, we’re low on cash. We need a couple of thousand. The staircase is slippery. We should do something about it. Put up a runner.
We settled into the new house over the long, hot summer. I rarely left. I was captivated by J. and spent hours doing nothing but singing the Winnie-the-Pooh song to him. Saturdays, we had a routine: we walked with J. in his stroller to a farmer’s market at Grand Army Plaza; I circled the market buying goat cheese, banana muffins, grape juice, while Michael and J. played in the shade. It was the first time in my adult life I had a full refrigerator. I kept the grapes in a Provençal bowl we had brought back from our honeymoon.
One day during that summer, Michael and I were driving through the city, heading home after visiting friends who had just given birth to a premature baby. Michael turned right from 34th onto Broadway, and drove straight into a swarm of police officers. They had set up a trap and were pulling cars over for making an apparently illegal turn. Michael, usually a calm guy, lost his temper. He screeched to the curb, and got out of the car. Maybe it was sleep deprivation, or the heat, or visiting a three-and-a-half-pound baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. I saw him waving his hands at the traffic cop, who didn’t meet his eye, shrugged, and began to write a ticket. Michael opened the car door, grabbed a camera we happened to have handy, and began snapping photos. The corner of 34th with no sign. The traffic cop himself. He got back in the car. “I’m going to fight this,” he said. I wondered if he’d bother, or just forget about it.
That coffin, that empty space, bothered me. Broke as we were, I decided that something belonged there. But what? Fresh flowers? An empty vase? I gave it a lot of thought. Then, I bought an arrangement of dried sprigs of herbs, baby roses, big bulbous things that I didn’t know the name of that drooped from the edges of a cracked white urn. I placed it in the coffin, and it filled the space nicely, with some of the dried arrangement pushing out into the stairwell in a burst of color. A bit precarious, perhaps, but hell, it looked so good that way. I could picture it in one of those shelter magazines.
September. Back-to-school time for me. Leaving for my teaching job in the city was impossible. I would walk down the front steps of the house while Michael and J. waved bye-bye from the door. I could barely breathe, but I didn’t say anything. Just waved at them, blew kisses at J., and wondered if I would ever see them again.
On the subway, I would hang on to the pole and stare out the smudged window at the graffiti on the tunnel walls. I thought of J., of Michael, of anything safe and good, anything to pull me back, but thinking of them only made it worse. I was underground, with no way out. Moving farther away from them by the minute. Was this what having a family meant?
Of course, J. needed a babysitter. We interviewed fourteen women for the job. Who do you trust? We talked to cousins, sisters, best friends of babysitters of friends, and friends of friends. Finally we chose Marsha. She was young and pretty, with a Louise Brooks bob and big brown eyes. She was so gentle, so sweet, that her eyes seemed to be constantly brimming with tears. She had a little girl of her own. She pulled a photo from her wallet; I liked how proud she was of her child. Marsha would never be one of those babysitters I saw in the park, talking to her friends with her back turned to my baby.
One morning, when the train pulled into the station, I stood on the platform, paralyzed, watching as the doors opened, the rush-hour crowd pushed its way in, and the doors slid shut again. This had never happened to me before. I climbed back upstairs and stood on the street. I wondered if I should just walk the two blocks home. Call in sick. Give up for the rest of the semester. It was too hard. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. An off-duty cab was approaching, and, impulsively, I flagged it. The driver stopped for me. As we rolled down Flatbush, we got to talking. He said his name was Tony. He came from Nigeria. He lived nearby, and was on his way into the city to begin his shift. By the time he dropped me off at school, he had given me his number. I told him I’d call him the following week to pick me up on his way in. Maybe that would make it easier.
On her first morning working for us, Marsha put too much detergent in the wash while she was doing the baby’s laundry. The water flooded my office and dripped through the old floorboards to my bedroom closet below. As we frantically mopped up the mess, I tried to comfort her. I told her it was just an accident. Nothing was ruined. It could have happened to anybody.
That afternoon, Marsha and I pushed J. in his stroller to the park. I wanted to give her my guided tour of the neighborhood. The health food store, the pizza place, the Key Food. It was a warm day, just past Halloween, and the playground was full of moms and kids and babysitters. I lowered J. into the baby swing, and he laughed and laughed as I pushed him. He has the most unusual laugh I’ve ever heard in a baby. It’s like he cracks himself up. Everything was funny that day. The leaves falling off the trees were funny. The little girl with her orange plastic pumpkin was funny. Mommy making her silly faces was very, very funny. He was wearing a Red Sox baseball cap and a blue denim jacket. Already, at six months old, he wanted to go higher and higher.
On the morning of Marsha’s second day, we take a family nap together before she arrives. J. falls asleep between us, his little mouth open, his eyelashes blond and long. We hold hands across his sleeping body.
It is a teaching day. I dress in black cargo pants, a black turtleneck sweater, black boots. Tony will pick me up at nine o’clock. I feel pretty pleased with myself at this arrangement. Marsha arrives a few minutes late. Michael is going to catch a ride into the city with me; today is his court date to fight that traffic ticket, and he seems strangely energized by it. J. is in his high chair, being fed strained plums. I take the dog out for a quick walk, rounding the corner by the bodega. A truck honks. You look beautiful! the driver yells. I’m in such a good mood—I’ve figured out my life!—that I yell back, Thanks!
We cross the Brooklyn Bridge, and for once I feel at peace on my way to school. Michael is in the back of the taxi next to me. Tony is an excellent driver. And Marsha is at home with J., feeding him strained plums in his safe, ergonomically designed high chair. It’s a perfect day. The city is a jagged, sparkling cliff along the East River and I notice things I don’t notice on the D train when it crosses the bridge. The small boats, the abandoned Brooklyn Navy Yard, the faint outline of the Statue of Liberty off to the left in the distance. I feel, for a moment, lucky.
We drop Michael off somewhere near the courthouse. He gets out of the taxi, a manila envelope containing proof of his innocence—photos of the corner of 34th and Broadway—in his hand. He has graying hair and a mostly gray goatee, and he’s put on some weight since the baby was born. He’s wearing his usual blue jeans, black T-shirt, green army jacket. We pull away from the corner, and, as I always do, I turn and watch as he walks away. In our marriage, I am the one who turns around and watches. He is the one who walks deliberately, in the direction of wherever it is he’s going.
This is the first morning since J. was born that we have both been out of the house at the same time.
As I speed farther and farther away from my neat and well-appointed house (the bookshelves, the sheer white bathroom curtains, the ficus thriving in the south-facing window, the dried flowers bursting forth from the coffin in the stairwell), up the West Side Highway past terrain more familiar to me than my Brooklyn neighborhood, where even the silence and the birds chirping and the car alarms in the middle of the night still feel strange and new, I close my eyes.
When my cell phone rings, it surprises me. It rings from deep inside my briefcase, which is a bag I use only once a week, when I teach. I unsnap the briefcase and pull the phone out from its own special little pocket inside. I’m thinking, It’s Michael. He’s forgotten something. We are speeding towards the 79th Street boat basin. The traffic is light. I flip the phone open.
Even when I hear the screams on the other end of the phone, I don’t get it. Marsha is screaming, J. is screaming. There’s static on the line, I can barely hear anything but the screaming, and I’m thinking, We just left twenty minutes ago. Nothing terrible could happen in twenty minutes. Her voice is shaking so hard all I can hear is, I fell, and stairs, and He hit his head, and I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
I notice that Tony has wordlessly turned off the West Side Highway and is heading downtown, back towards Brooklyn, pedal to the floor. I tell Marsha to call 911. She’s crying so hard, hyperventilating, that I have to keep my voice gentle, ask, Can you do that? Can you do that for me? I tell her I will call her back in three minutes.
I try to think. The world shrinks around me. I call J.’s pediatrician. I can practically see her office from where I am right now, in the back of Tony’s car. We haven’t switched to a local pediatrician, believing irrationally in Manhattan doctors over Brooklyn doctors. While I’m on hold, I try to catch my breath, because I can’t think clearly, and my heart is going to explode, I’m going to have a heart attack right here in the back of a taxi, and that won’t do anybody any good, will it?
Kids hit their heads all the time, J.’s doctor tells me in a professional, soothing tone, like she’s talking someone off a ledge. Tell the babysitter to put some ice on it. Is he crying? Well, that’s a good thing. It’s when they’re not crying that you worry.
I call Michael’s cell phone. He’s at a diner, just about to go into the courthouse. And I say there’s been an accident, that it’s going to be okay, but that it appears that Marsha has slipped and fallen down the stairs while holding J., and EMS is coming, and I’m on my way home. Michael is halfway out the diner door before I’ve finished the first sentence, and is sprinting in his green army jacket to the subway. And I am somewhere on lower Broadway. Tony is weaving in and out of traffic.
The stairs. There are eighteen. Have I mentioned eighteen? Maybe she fell near the bottom. If she fell near the bottom, on the last few steps, and landed on the small rug in the foyer, that wouldn’t be so bad. What part of his head? Babies have soft spots. All I can think about as we pass the Tower Records building and make a few quick turns and speed down the Bowery is, Please, not the curve at the top of the stairs, the place where it would be most likely to fall, the place where the steps are narrow and the dried flowers make the passage even narrower, and it’s a long, long way down. Please, not that.
He was screaming. Screaming is good. Screaming is the best thing. That’s what you want to hear. Big, loud, shrieking sounds.
I call my home, and a stranger answers the phone. A strange man. A strange police sergeant man. He asks me who I am. I say I am the mother. How’s my baby? He says, Ma’am, your baby has quite a bump on his head. I melt for this man, I want to collapse into his big, blue chest. His voice is not shaking, he is calm, he is imparting information to me, information I need. Quite a bump. We can deal with quite a bump.
I call the school. I won’t be able to teach my class. Baby fell down stairs. Baby fell down stairs trumps all. Trumps viruses and flus and the dog ate my student’s homework. I call back the doctor. They’re taking him to the hospital, I tell her. She seems annoyed. After all, she’s certain that I’m a hysterical mother, that this is only a minor bump. And it occurs to me, not for the first time, that this doctor is younger than I am. When I was in second grade, she was in kindergarten. What is she doing, taking care of my son?
I grew up in a home where prayer was where you turned in moments like these. But I have never been in a moment like this, and I do not know how to pray.
I catch Tony’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and then notice for the first time a yellow plastic taxi, dangling there. It looks like it’s flying, floating against the pale blue sky. I keep staring at the cheerful taxi, imbuing it with supernatural powers. Nothing bad will happen if I just don’t take my eyes off the taxi and keep repeating Please God over and over again.
We pull up to the emergency room of a hospital somewhere in downtown Brooklyn. All I have in my wallet is a twenty, and the meter is much more than that, but I hand Tony the twenty with an apology, and he turns around and looks at me like the father of four children that he is. He says, I’m not leaving until you come out and tell me about the baby.
There were eight of us, friends and acquaintances, who were pregnant at the same time with our first babies. Something about the age thirty-six. Thirty-six means, Get serious. Thirty-six, at least in New York City, means that you’re still young enough to do it, with any luck, without fertility doctors and injections and in vitro and all the stuff of middle-aged motherhood. Thirty-six is still normal. And so I would think, sometimes, about my pregnant friends, and then I would think about statistics. Most of us would be fine: a little morning sickness, indigestion, varicose veins. Half of us would end up with C-sections. One or two would have some serious complications during pregnancy: gestational diabetes, preeclampsia. The sort of thing our mothers didn’t even know about but that we, with our shelves of pregnancy books, our middle-of-the-night online surfing, know only too well. I would think about the odds. Then, the woman whose due date was just before mine developed severely high blood pressure during her birth, and she very nearly died. I felt, in a completely unscientific way, that she had taken the fall for all of us.
J. is on a tiny bed in a tiny curtained-off area in a tiny ER, and he is not crying. He is not shrieking. His eyes are closed, and he is just lying there. Why isn’t anybody doing anything? Marsha is sitting on a plastic chair by the window, a tissue pressed to her nose. Her eyes are red, and she looks like her life is over. Two police officers are standing near the door. Sit down, Mommy, one of the nurses tells me.
I pick up my baby. He is unconscious. But he was screaming just a little while ago! Screaming is good. What happened? I don’t want to shake him. Shaking is bad, I know. I clutch him to my chest, feel his breath, whisper in his ear, “Mommy’s here. It’s going to be all right. Mommy’s here.” His eyes flutter open slightly, and he lets out a pathetic little whimper. “Look at me,” I command him, my six-month-old whose entire vocabulary consists of “Ga.”
Michael rushes in. His face is white, his eyes are huge. He hugs me and J. together, he turns to the doctor, a Pakistani named Noah, and asks what’s going on. “We’ve ordered a CT scan,” says the doctor. “Does your baby have any allergies?”
While J. is sedated and taken in for his CT scan, two men in suits approach me. They introduce themselves as police detectives. They are lumbering, uncomfortable. Ma’am? Can we just ask you a few questions? Your babysitter. How long has she worked for you? Two days, I say. They exchange a glance. Ma’am? You don’t think . . . well, you don’t think she did anything.
Our pediatrician calls the Brooklyn hospital. She wants J. transferred to the Upper East Side hospital where she works, the hospital with the best neonatal intensive care unit in the city. Suddenly, she is no longer calling this a minor bump. She is no longer sounding annoyed. She says she’s sending an ambulance, a team.
I don’t want to hurt Dr. Noah’s feelings. I don’t want him to think that we believe his hospital to be inferior to the Manhattan hospital where we are about to transfer our baby. Our pediatrician wants to see him, I shrug apologetically, marveling at my own ability, even in a moment like this, to be polite at all costs. It’s my nature. I have a nice surface. Dinner party, emergency room, it really makes no difference. Can I get you something to drink? You look tired. Here, put your feet up.
Marsha gets up from her plastic chair by the window where she has been interrogated by two detectives from the 77th Precinct and walks towards me. Her whole face has crumbled, and she looks like a completely different woman. Not young. Not pretty. Her arms are outstretched, and I realize that she wants me to hug her. And so I do. I wrap my arms around this trembling woman who fell down the stairs, who doesn’t know how it happened, who was wearing socks on the slippery, slippery wood. Who let go of my baby so that he tumbled by himself from the sixteenth or seventeenth step down who knows how many steps before she grabbed onto his arm and caught him. Are you okay? I ask her.
Tony waits outside. At least an hour has gone by, and he’s sitting there in his taxi, meter turned off.
This is how they transport a baby in the back of an ambulance: I lie on a stretcher, and they tie me down. Then they hand me J., bundled up in the pajamas he was wearing this morning. Blue pajamas the color of the sky, printed with clouds shaped like white sheep. I cradle him in my arms, his head resting against my breast. His hair is tangled, his upper lip is rubbed raw from crying. The bump is getting bigger. The team—a driver, a paramedic, a nurse, and a doctor—lifts us into the back of the ambulance. I watch through the window as we are driven away from the Brooklyn hospital, siren going, through the congested streets of downtown Brooklyn, over the bridge once more, and up the East River Drive. The doctor, a lanky, dark-haired woman with a big diamond on her finger, keeps checking J.’s vitals, while I keep myself sane by asking her where she went to medical school, how long she’s been out, what she wants to specialize in.
I don’t want to be a writer anymore. I want to be her.
Hellooooo! coos the pediatrician as she parts the curtain in the ICU. Her face is scrunched into her practiced, good-with-babies grin. Let’s see that bump. Oooh, that’s a nasty bump. J. is in a hospital crib, and I have lowered the rail and crawled in there with him. If I tuck myself into the fetal position, it’s not such a bad fit. The pediatrician opens her wallet and passes around a photo of her own six-month-old daughter. The nurses coo, then hand me the photo. She’s not a cute baby, not cute at all, and she’s sitting up against one of those department-store backdrops of lollipops and balloons. I keep looking at the doctor, J.’s doctor, wishing I were the kind of person who would say, Excuse me, but what the fuck are you thinking?
At night, friends bring bagels and lox. Chocolate bread. Cheeses, a cheese board, a knife. We have a party in J.’s room. He’s coming to, coming out of that gray place he went to. He gives everybody a weak little smile.
The phone rings. It’s Tony, checking on the baby.
The pediatric stepdown ICU is festooned with photos of its long-term patients. Birthday parties, staged plays, tired-looking nurses wearing clowns hats. In some of the rooms there are special video monitors, so that parents and children can hook up to say goodnight. I sleep curled up with J., waking every hour as a nurse comes in to lift his lids, check his pupils, take his blood pressure and pulse. Michael wanders the corridors, talking to the children. An eleven-year-old who has lived in the hospital for nearly the past year, waiting for a heart and a liver, tells him about her seven-year-old friend down the hall, who she feels sorry for, because she’s only seven, and she hasn’t had a chance to live yet.
J. has had a normal CT scan, but they decide to do an MRI as well. That’s why we’re here, with the big guns, isn’t it? My husband goes in with J., into the noisy, noisy room where we get three-dimensional color pictures of his brain. My husband is instructed to remove all metal from his body: watch, coins, belt buckle, wedding band. I put his ring on my thumb, twirling it around and around as I wait.
The MRI shows a contusion on J.’s brain, just below the nasty, nasty bump. Wait a minute. Contusion is a fancy word for bruise, right? And bruises bleed. Bruise on his brain?
We’re talking fractions, here. I was never good at math. We’re talking an infinitesimal distance between healthy baby and dead baby. That’s what we’re talking.
In the morning, we check out of the hospital. We are wheeled, J. and I, down the long white corridor. I’ve pulled a striped knit cap over his misshapen head, and he’s grinning, flirting with the nurses who wave and call out, There he goes! There goes our boy! like he’s on a float and this is a parade. The two transplant girls wave goodbye, too, in their robes and slippers. The head nurse gives him a kiss. They are all so happy, so happy to see him go.
When we pull up to our house and bring the baby inside, I feel as though I’m walking into a crime scene. The police officer left his card on the kitchen table, under that jar of strained plums with a plastic spoon still stuck inside. The kitchen tap is dripping. Yesterday’s newspaper is open to the metro news. I carry J. upstairs. The steps are so old, so creaky and uneven. And the dried flowers look like tumors, like malignant growths on an x-ray, egg-shaped and prickly. I watch J.’s eyes for any flicker of fear, but he’s focused on the ceiling.
Marsha called that night to ask how J. was doing. Michael said he was fine. He didn’t want her to worry. Then he fired her. It wasn’t easy. We felt bad about it. When she asked why, her voice gentle and resigned, the only answer—you almost killed our baby—seemed like more than could be said.
The socks, the stairs, the dried flowers, Michael’s traffic ticket, our empty bank account, the strained plums, my subway panic. It all adds up to something. Doesn’t it? It adds up to almost died.
The Hollywood check finally arrived. The first thing we did was buy a very nice runner for the staircase. It’s a pale brown the shelter magazines might call “sand” or “birch,” and there are pastel stripes running up the sides. I yanked out the brown, bulbous things that hung over the edge of the cracked white urn, and pulled out some of the roses until there was nothing pushing its way out of the coffin.
I stay pretty close to home these days. Downstairs, J. is laughing. Have I mentioned that he has the most unusual laugh? The sun is streaming through the tall parlor windows. It’s early afternoon, almost time for his nap. I can picture his sleepy eyes, the way he bangs on his plastic butterfly when he gets tired. I can’t write anyway, so I go downstairs to see him.
I rock my baby while he sucks down his bottle. The bump is gone. Sometimes, I think I can still see a bluish stain on his forehead. This is what I do, every single time I put him to sleep: I sing him three rounds of “Hush Little Baby,” four rounds of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Then I count backwards from fifty. When I get to one, I finish by saying, Thank you, God. Please keep this baby safe. Please watch over him and keep him safe. I repeat it over and over again while I rock. I can’t alter the routine, and if it’s interrupted, I have to start all over again. I imagine an invisible hand cupping my baby’s head, softening the blow by a fraction as he smashed into the corner of a stair. Whose hand? What grace?
The house is quiet. Outside, birds are chirping, pecking at the grass seeds we’ve scattered in the backyard. I’m not sure where Michael is. He’s around here somewhere. He’s always doing something practical around the house. Maybe he’s in the basement, taking down the last of the cage I have never seen.
Copyright © Dani Shapiro. Originally printed in Ploughshares Fiction, Spring 2001
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.