Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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“Is everything going to be all right?” my husband, Paul, asks as we climb into bed and turn out the light. This is an old bedtime ritual of ours, and it used to be I had all the answers. I used to say: “Everything is all right. Everything’s fine.” And if he was particularly anxious (who wouldn’t be anxious, bearing responsibility for all the monuments in all the parks in New York City?) I was always ready with more: “We have two wonderful, funny boys, and we live in a good building in the West Village, the best neighborhood in the world. We can afford to go to the movies as often as we like. We love our work, even if some days the bastards get you down.”
But tonight, in late September 2001, Paul’s question hangs heavy in the air. So many things hang in this acrid, dust-filled air that seeps in around our locked windows. I don’t know what to tell him. I wish he would yank the covers off my side of the bed so I could yank them back until we’ve untucked the whole bed and can bicker about whose turn it is to get up and tuck it all back in. Then we could trade playful insults the way we usually do. Afterward, I’d find that bone I like on the side of his naked hip, that lean, planed spot so unlike any part of me, and I’d run my fingers along it saying, “Hmm, I like this part here.”
“Is everything going to be all right?” he asks again, but with a panicky edge this time, because I have failed to chase away his demons. I haven’t even tried.
We lie for a moment on the lavender sheets, on our separate sides of the bed, and I realize that he’s crying. He cries silently, shaking, the same way he laughs.
“Sweetie,” I say, “calm down.” I lay a hand on his forehead the way my father used to do to me every night, tiptoeing up to my room after he thought I was asleep. But my husband pushes my hand away, as if it were just one more weight pressing down on him.
I turn on the light, one of a pair of Noguchi lamps that were a present from his parents on our first anniversary, the paper anniversary. Now we’ve passed pottery and tin and steel — durable goods befitting a solid marriage — and are coming up on our ivory anniversary: a marriage like elephant tusks.
When I don’t say anything, Paul props himself on his elbow and turns to me, his dark eyes expectant and ridiculously wide.
“I can see what you looked like when you were a little boy,” I tell him, because this is what I do see, suddenly. “In your little red jacket.”
“With the baseball thingies on the sleeves,” he says in a boy’s voice, willing to play along for the moment.
“Appliqués.” I tell him about his knobbly knees and his marble machines, but he’s gone rigid. I’ve lost him.
“What if it had happened on Monday instead of Tuesday?” he asks. On Monday morning he was inspecting monuments in Battery Park. At 8:45 he rode his bike up lower West Street. Later that day he called me from the office, all excited because they’d just finished the bike path linking the Village to downtown.
I sigh, knowing I will have to remind him of the long odds, a job he usually does for me, because statistics and probabilities are not my forte. But before I can speak, he’s off and running again:
“What if you and the boys were having your teeth cleaned?”
Our dentist’s office is a block from the site, right next to the crowds keeping vigil at Saint Paul’s Chapel. We’d been there the previous week. They called the following Thursday to say they were closed indefinitely.
“What if you were shopping for shoes at Century 21?” he says, referring to the discount department store across the street from the site. “You’re always shopping for shoes at Century 21.”
This one stops me. “I’m flattered. I didn’t think you’d noticed.”
“It’s not funny,” he says. He’s quiet for a minute, but I can feel more questions forming in him. “Any day now the proposals are going to start flooding in,” he says. “And what am I supposed to tell the families, Brooke? That it’s too soon to think about memorials, because who knows what might happen next?”
“Look,” I say. I sit up and take his head in my hands and look into his giant eyes: all that exposed worry. “Glen and Danny are fast asleep in the loft. Wolfie and all the Beanies are standing guard, same as always.” I grab his hand and plunk it on my shoulder. “This shoulder is not going anywhere.” I put his hand on my rounded hip. “This hip is not going anywhere.” As I make him pat our flat old futon that’s not going anywhere, I picture our familiar stains under the sheet: a spot of faded menstrual blood, a border of old semen that might have contained the seeds of the girls we never had, the amniotic fluid that protected our baby boys in my womb. I understand suddenly what people mean when they say, “Water is life.”
A phrase bubbles up inside me. I don’t know where it’s come from, but it sounds strong and repeatable, and true enough for me tonight, a new bedtime ritual for a new world. “We will prevail,” I say.
He is still shaking, and every few breaths a noisy sob escapes, like an infant’s. I try to wrap myself around him, to protect him, but I’m not nearly big enough. I nest my bent legs with his. I snake an arm under him so I can get around both his broad shoulders at the same time. He makes himself smaller. He’s warm and very heavy.
“How do you know these things?” he asks.
“Go to sleep. Just go to sleep.” Holding him, I call upon the sturdy peasant and merchant stock of my forebears, in their muddy shtetls and dark tenements. Like them, I can make do with little, and if a little is too much, I can pare down further. I don’t require foreign oil. I have some rudimentary medical knowledge. I have dry beans and kasha in the pantry, and fabric scraps and clever hands for patching holes. I can do a hundred sit-ups. I can take care of us.
Paul and I grope for sleep, but can’t find it. We roll in unison onto our left sides, and when that doesn’t help, we roll onto our right. Eventually Paul’s breathing relaxes. I have chased away his demons for the night, and he has fallen asleep, leaving me alone with mine. My demons are a little like the eggs remaining in my ovaries: the same old batch I started out with, growing old and rigid and stale in a place I can’t get at, deep inside me. I wish I could tear away the tissue and wring the demons’ necks. I wish that someone would put a cool hand on my forehead and silence their torments. Somewhere in the wall, a mouse scratches, and I imagine it’s packing up to move to Irvington or Montclair, like all my city friends. I don’t want to be left behind. I have never been any good at being alone.
When sleep finally takes me, I dream my dreaded post-9/11 dream. My unconscious has seen fit to send me not to the fires of Ground Zero, but back to school. (How the unconscious loves a school setting, the way the movies love courtrooms: so full of exposure and failure!) For the past two weeks my dreams have catapulted me back to my huge high school. I pace its dim cinderblock halls, unable to find my class. I am the age I am now, forty-three, but I’m also sixteen, and I’m desperate to hide the fact that I live alone and friendless in a rooming house, the kind where the kitchen sink wears a gingham skirt like an impoverished old lady. Then I hear someone’s toddler crying, “Mommy, Mommy,” and the word drowns in mucus between coughs and sobs. I wonder, with some annoyance, what such a small child is doing in a rooming house and why its mother doesn’t comfort it. “Mommy,” it cries with increasing insistence.
When I wake, I must reconstruct my life, because, as it turns out, I do have one: I have work and family and attachments galore, and a husband snoring symphonically beside me. I have a nine-year-old named Glen and a six-year-old named Danny, and I know, with a mother’s intuition, that the six-year-old, whose calls have awakened me, is about to throw up. Danny is a world-class vomiter.
The clock radio says 2:32 a.m. Paul’s snoring reaches a crescendo. I grope in the closet, find my chenille robe, and grab the wastebasket just as I hear the plumbing of Danny’s small system back up and release itself. When I get up the ladder to the boys’ hot little loft, he is crying and coughing and lying in stringy orange vomit. Whatever cosmic force runs this life of mine must have a sense of humor, because although my sleep may be ruined, the night is no longer lonely: I am needed, therefore I am.
“I feel horrible,” he says, a little accusingly, ready to catalog his complaints now that I, the absorber of all woes, have appeared.
“Oh, my poor sweetie,” I say, reaching for his forehead. He retches again, missing the basket by an inch. The vomit is thinner now. This means one of two things: it’s nearing completion, or he’ll soon be heaving up bile.
I run down the ladder again for the stash of old cloth diapers and a wet sponge.
“Looks like you caught some germs,” I say when I return. I do a laying-on of hands, rolling my fingertips under his ears where his lymph nodes live; not for nothing am I a doctor’s daughter. “Mmm, lots of tapioca in there.” I put my cool hand on his forehead, and then I start to clean up the mess.
I’m back in the corridor of a dream when I hear our bedroom door push open. Danny stands at the foot of our bed in the semidarkness. I think, Danny has come to save me, though I can’t remember from what. But when he opens his mouth to tell me what he needs, he emits a sharp, eerie sound, a sound that hurts to listen to. Danny has the croup.
I do what needs to be done. I fumble again for the robe. (Foolishly I have hung it back up in the closet.) I let Paul sleep his demonless sleep, because he has to go to work in a few hours. I take Danny’s hand and lead him to the bathroom and shut the door. I fling open the shower curtain, plug the drain, and run the shower full force. I sit him on my lap on the toilet seat. His chest whistles with every breath. His feverish little hands feel as desiccated as an old man’s. I am dry too, from broken sleep, my eyes gelatinous. We sit together on the toilet seat and wait for steam.
Danny has had the croup many times before, but I don’t like this croup one bit. Croup is for babies with tiny, undeveloped breathing passages. Babies get croup, and then they get better, and then, a day or two later, they get really sick; croup is serious illness’s trumpet fanfare. But Danny outgrew the croup years ago. Danny is six and a half. It just so happens that I gave away his nebulizer on Friday, September 14, during the “rescue effort.” It was the one rainy day that week. I rode my bike through the rain and handed over his nebulizer and Albuterol and saline solution to the rescue workers, who did not yet know there was no one to rescue.
I hoist Danny higher on my lap. He is heavy and hot and docile. I pat him on the chest the way I used to when his chest was small and poultry-like. I’m trying to still his lungs and his constricted blood vessels. “There, there, chest,” I say. “Calm yourself back down.” I sing “Dona,” our favorite lullaby. The problem with “Dona,” a Yiddish parable about a calf being led to slaughter, is the absolute necessity of ignoring the words. I have been trying to do this — to sing “Dona” without thinking about the calf and its mournful eye, or the farmer who admonishes the calf for wanting freedom but lacking wings like the swallow — since I first learned the song on the day-camp bus when I was about Danny’s age. The trick is to get to the strange and wonderful chorus and give it your all: “How the winds are laughing, / They laugh with all their might,” I belt from my low perch on the toilet. I unlace my hands from around Danny’s taut belly, and together we do the ritual clap between “Laugh and laugh the whole day through” and “half the summer’s night.” Danny turns around and pats me on the shoulder. “There, there, Mommy,” he says.
Morning hits like a rock from a slingshot. I’ve known mornings like this before, in the time of infants, the age of adrenaline. It’s not that I haven’t slept, exactly. I remember dozing in the loft, curled between the wastebasket and Danny, my big hand trying to still the rattle in his chest. I think I may have slept before that on the toilet seat while Danny drooped on my lap, both of us hypnotized by the swirling steam and my endless rendition of “Dona.” And clearly I have slept here on the futon, where my bathrobe is still bunched up under my hip.
Maybe I am nuts, but as tired as I am, I welcome this morning. In the light, the objects of the world — the backlit yellow Venetian blinds, Paul’s green shirt slung over the chair — are so much more vivid and credible than last night’s demons. The clarity of this Wednesday morning lets me wave away the fears of the night with a more powerful truth: I am strong and can handle any obstacle thrown my way. Yes, we will prevail. Of course.
So many objects ask to be manipulated in the morning! I am grateful to the fresh bar of soap that plops from the package into my hand. As I break the glistening surface of the peanut butter with my knife, I am glad it needs me to spread it on a slice of whole-wheat bread. The fragrant black coffee wants spooning into its golden filter. I am deranged with gratitude toward my inanimate objects. I imagine someone from a less-evolved, less-organized planet watching me go about my hyperalert business, marveling at my competence. Who says exhaustion makes you vague and clumsy? My every move is a modern dance. How is it possible I felt so small and helpless during the too-long, too-short night?
“No!” yells Paul, when I go in to shake him a second time. “I’m not going anywhere. Not ever. You come back here.”
But adrenaline, my old friend from early motherhood, has come back to me, and I have taken up with her. I let myself be seduced by her charms, grab her hands for a tango, even though I know her game, the way she sticks around just long enough to see me through everyone else’s crises and then splits when I really need her.
I climb to the loft to wake the boys. Glen gets up and immediately needs to know how many times six goes into one hundred.
“Ah, little six with the bent spine,” I hear myself say, stalling. But suddenly, with my newfound morning clarity, I know the answer. “He goes in 16.6 times.”
I serve toast, scrape crusts into the trash, hand out lunches, kiss cheeks, call the school to report Danny’s absence, and all too soon find myself alone again with my sick son.
He is curled up in his pj’s in a corner of the sofa, Wolfie under his arm. I sit down beside him. Before I even touch him, I can read fever on his white face, his chapped upper lip, his faraway eyes.
I can’t bear to sit still. Desperate for more objects to manipulate, I come up with a plan. “I think I’ll start knitting a hat for Jinsong’s baby brother,” I tell Danny in a voice that even I can tell is too bright, a cheer-mongering voice, designed to hold back the darkness. Jinsong is Glen’s friend, a boy who arrived in his class straight from provincial China two years ago.
I pop up and dig out my knitting bag from the back of the closet, though I am breaking my cardinal rule of knitting: Never knit when you are tired. I sit back down on the sofa beside Danny and spread out my truly impressive collection of cotton yarns. I try several different color combinations before I settle on bands of apricot, raspberry, and grass green: bright summer colors. I decide I will knit this hat on my small circular needle, so it won’t have any seams and will never fray. I tell myself this is a good plan. I tell myself I’m feeling very spiritual, maybe even a little Chinese, making a hat so packed with good omens for Jinsong’s tiny brother, the first baby born in the neighborhood since 9/11.
The knitting doesn’t seem to provide enough stimulation, though, so I start talking too. “I bought all this yarn when Woolworth’s was going out of business,” I tell Danny. “It came in cellophane packages, like those bags of Tootsie Rolls that hang on a peg in the supermarket.” I tell him about the wonderful colors, dozens in each package, five reds alone. “The price kept going down till they were practically giving it away, and I went to the Woolworth’s on 14th Street and the one on 8th Street and the really big one on 34th, and I bought them all out. I think I was the only person in Manhattan who even knew the yarn was there.”
Danny moans, so I offer to make him a cup of chamomile tea, the way Mrs. Cottontail did for Peter Rabbit. Before he even responds, I leap up to boil the water. How many cups of chamomile tea have I made over the years for sick boys, and has either of them ever taken so much as a sip? I am approaching the far edge of perky and will soon fall off, but I can’t seem to stop myself.
I come back from the stove. The knitting and the talking together still aren’t enough, so I switch on public radio, the temporary AM signal because the FM antenna was on top of the World Trade Center. Lenny Lopate is interviewing Margot Livesey, the British novelist, who sounds very proper and brisk. Because I am feeling so strong and powerful this morning, I can simultaneously conduct a conversation with Danny, begin casting on the hundred stitches I’ll need for the hat, and listen to Margot Livesey talk about literature.
“Do you remember Woolworth’s?” I ask Danny. “It was this big store that was filled with great junky stuff.” I tell him how I used to walk him to the one on Union Square. “I’d carry your stroller down the steps and park you in front of the canaries, and you’d point to the yellow ones and cry, ‘Lellow!’ and to the turquoise ones and cry, ‘Boo!’ ”
Danny asks why we don’t go there anymore, and I remind him that it went out of business. I am suddenly afraid I will cry for my love of Woolworth’s. I don’t want to get started. “It’s like the dinosaurs,” I say. “It couldn’t adapt, so it died out.” But I tell him that I saved a little piece of it, and I grab a handful of yarn and, like a rich person, let it fall where it will.
Meanwhile, Lenny Lopate tells Margot Livesey that her work reminds him more of the magical realists, like Isabelle Allende, than of the Americans. This observation doesn’t seem particularly provocative, but Margot Livesey is apparently struck dumb, because she’s taking a long time to respond. I wonder if he’s offended her, and if so, is she offended by the comparison to Allende? Danny moans from queasiness.
“Answer the man, already,” I say, and Danny looks up, startled to hear me so mad at the radio. The kettle starts whistling, but I wait to hear her answer.
She doesn’t respond. The silence grows uncomfortable. “Listen, Danny,” I say. “Any second now the guy on the radio will make one of his bad jokes to cover up the awkward silence. And then I bet you anything he’ll go to the phone or a ticket giveaway.”
But I know this is not what will happen, because I know that the signal has gone dead. The kettle whistles in the kitchen, but I sit on the sofa with seven ridiculously tight stitches on my needle, my sick boy by my side, and my yarn of many colors from a long-ago summer spread out around me like an omen I can no longer decipher.