It was late September. Sunshine filtered through the dirty windows of the pediatric exam room. Dr. Cohen, sinewy and nasal, was perched on his rolling stool, avoiding my goldfish eyes. At the best of times, they give the impression I’m startled, that day they were wide with anxiety. Jack, my third child, was 10 days old.
“He’s very noisy,” I said, as Dr. Cohen’s stethoscope left circles on my baby’s yellow back. Looking at his notes, he told me Jack looked great and encouraged me to put him by the window in the sunlight to shake the jaundice. The simplicity of this suggestion, as if my son were a potted plant, confounded me.
When my husband, Dom, and our older sons, Max and Oliver, had come to take us home from hospital the week before, I’d noticed a rash on Max’s arms. He was five and didn’t seem bothered by the scratches. A doctor I didn’t recognize was called in. “You and the baby need to be quarantined until you get that checked. It looks like chicken pox.”
My knotted brain recalled Max being inoculated for chicken pox but I couldn’t be sure. It was too late to call the pediatrician. A crazy 24 hours ensued with tears and confusion. It turned out to be poison ivy from a preschool nature walk, but by that time I’d lost my footing and was struggling to regain it.
Dom was back at work. Left alone for a moment, Jack was mauled by his brothers with a ferocity that left me pleading. Max was developing anxieties that matched my own, except for an irrational fear of automatic flush toilets. Jack was only quiet in my arms. Oliver, who was two, felt usurped and flicked his food even though he was hungry. The fridge was empty, bottoms needed wiping, diapers needed changing, and I seemed to be botching it all with a steady stream of tears.
I nodded at the doctor slowly, not saying that I barely recognized myself, that I was sure I would be here forever, and I was scared. Sensing, perhaps, that I needed something more, he added, “After two children, the third is logarithmic.” He mistook the breath knocked out of me as a laugh. I switched him a smile, so hungry for reassurance and yet terrified that, in spite of failing math, I actually understood him.
I looked up the word logarithm. It had something to do with an exponential increase. In the dark chasm between wake and sleep, mathematical equations taunted me, pinning me down and demanding something I couldn’t give.
I’d never seen the beauty in math. I found myself back in Mrs. Scott’s classroom, her red hair clashing with her peach pantsuit, as she tapped out algebra on the blackboard. I exasperated her. We both knew it. I shrunk into my seat as she approached my desk and leaned over to help the girl next to me. Sullen, I looked down, saw the ink on my fountain pen and sensed a power shift. With one flick, the ink bloomed on her behind. My chest swelled at being the bad girl for once and getting away with it. In my sleeplessness, the remembrance of defiance and shame twisted together like a knot I couldn’t untie.
Daylight again and I swung Jack in his car seat, trying to quieten him. I was back at the pediatrician even though the jaundice was gone, Oliver should have been napping, and Max had developed a fear of the exam room’s red-eyed automatic paper dispenser. Jack’s cry picked up, piercing me, more than discomfort, it seemed like anger. Something had to be wrong.
“He’s very noisy,” I said. “Hard to settle. Could it be colic?” The word I wanted to use was “neurological,” but it felt like a betrayal. What I didn’t say was I was struggling to make sense of anything. The doctor, mildly detached, inhaled, “He’s doing fine.”
Why was it so impossible I had a healthy child? Healthy children? Why was that so hard to accept? I could not answer the questions I threw at myself. I couldn’t shake the fact that it was greedy to have had a third child.
“We’ll get through this,” my husband said. Dom is patient and funny. “They will grow up.”
It was a joke, but it hurt. Growing up required a level of nurturing that felt impossible, a level of foresight I didn’t have. In the third week, I was back at the pediatrician, dark circles under my eyes.
At dusk, Dr. Cohen called to check if I was okay. I was giving Jack a bath.
“I’m fine,” I told my husband, the gray grout around the tub blurring. “Tell him I’m fine.”
“She says she’s fine,” I heard him say.
“Get her to give me a call,” he said.
Instead, I dropped the baby. It was mid-October and Jack was just shy of three weeks old.
Searching for air, I suggested we take the kids to Ardenwood to pick pumpkins. My husband went to get the car. I’d put the baby in the car seat and snapped it to the stroller base. I’d corralled the older boys down the front stairs. I’d positioned the stroller outside on the wide top step. I’d turned to lock the door.
The stroller rolled, creeping at first and then faster. The car seat unsnapped, fell, and flipped upside down on the concrete. My hand moved to my mouth but it was someone else’s gasp I heard. A woman walking past on the sidewalk. I was split in two. One of me standing frozen on the top step, spewing hot breath into my cupped hand. The other leaping, wild, seven steps in one go to reach the car seat and turn it over, terrified at what I might see. Jack, twenty days old, was upside down – a tiny race car driver in a roll cage. The older boys stood, sensing something had just gone seriously wrong. My husband took charge, driving to the emergency room. I rubbed Jack’s forehead gently with my thumb, cloaked in shame, certain a bruise was ripening.
“Jack’s fine,” Dom reminded me after we were discharged with no signs of trauma. He made forgiveness look so easy.
I’d like to say that with three boys spanning the full stretch of elementary school, there are things I get now and math is one of them, but that’s not true. Jack’s fall still confounds me. It seems impossible he was unscathed. In all my sleeplessness during Jack’s first year I felt something was wrong, and I was right. It was me. Taunting myself with a question I was too afraid to answer: was I worried for my children or was I worried for myself? In the end, we are one, intrinsic parts of the ongoing and complicated equation of family.