Dani Shapiro

Plane Crash Theory

Published in Ploughshares Spring 2001


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 short 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 rare 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 muf­fin 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 give 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 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 step-down 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.

Kayn ayn­horeh.

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.

Kayn ayn­horeh.

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.