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.