Janie settles back on her chaise lounge like a cat arranging herself for a nap. She’s just slathered baby sunscreen all over her toddler, Miranda. Miranda, brown curls springing out from her head in every direction, flounces off toward her playhouse singing a nonsense song.
“I love big purple chairs!” she cries, with operatic inflection. There are no purple chairs at Janie’s house, so far as I know.
My boy, Jake, is younger. He sits in the turtle sandbox, shoveling sand into the bucket, dumping it out again, and shoveling it in again. We’re all in the fenced backyard of Janie’s split-level ranch: a huge house that wanders from the front yard, stretches a wing in each direction, and tumbles down a hill into the back.
Janie is talking about another mother we know, Lucy. “I mean, she just lets that child wander through the house eating anything, all the time.”
This isn’t really true. Lucy does have a lax snacking policy, but I’m fairly sure she’d draw the line at coffee grounds or rat poison.
Janie goes on, lowering her sunglasses onto her face and turning to gaze up toward the sun. “What kind of mother gives her kid Doritos for a snack? Would it kill her to open a box of raisins?”
Any other day, I’d jump right in with my own commentary. Instead, I fold my arms and press my elbows down over my shaking hands.
We like Lucy. She’s fun, and sweet, and always there when we need a shoulder to cry on. But since we’ve all become mothers, her slapdash way about life has taken on a new significance. For Janie and me, motherhood regimented our days in a military kind of way: naptime, snacktime, dinnertime, only go to the store after nap, not before; make sure not to feed her peanut butter before she’s two; buy the right kind of shoes to support his delicate new-walking ankles; and make sure to wean off the bottle and binkie by 12 months old.
Lucy’s daughter, Hope, still walks around with a pacifier hanging out of her mouth at almost three.
“Well, Hope seems healthy enough.” I lean forward in my patio chair, watching Jake perform his rhythmic shoveling and dumping.
Janie raises her glasses and shoots me a puzzled look. “Must be a matter of luck or some amazing genetics. Anyway, you wouldn’t notice the effects now. Wait until she weighs 300 pounds in ninth grade.”
Most of the time, Lucy’s breezy mothering seems to have little ill effect on her daughter. Hope might be a little more sticky with Popsicle, a little crankier maybe if her mother’s impulse shopping trip interrupted her nap. But usually, the most noticeable result is our postmortem of Lucy’s parenting after she’s out of earshot.
There was that one close call. As if reading my mind, Janie brings it up again for further analysis.
“Remember the thing with the grape? If she’d listened to her pediatrician she would have known to chop up the grapes. You can’t just feed a toddler like a monkey and let her eat whatever.”
It happened when Lucy was putting away the groceries. Hope had been hanging off her leg whining for dinner, so Lucy handed her a grape. Hope scarfed it down, loved it, and demanded more. So Lucy fed her another. Then a few more. She was so excited about the grapes, Hope started doing a little dance. That’s when one slipped down her windpipe and plugged it like a drain stopper.
“Thank God her neighbor was a nurse or Hope would’ve choked to death right there on her kitchen floor. But did she get any more careful? Did she pay any more attention to those kinds of things? Obviously not, she never puts sunscreen on that child.”
That child. Janie always says that when she talks about Hope. Maybe she says that about Jake when I’m not around. I doubt it, though. I follow all the rules in all the magazines and do everything my pediatrician says. I breastfed all the way through the first year even though I didn’t really want to anymore after six months or so. I made my baby food by hand, even though that meant I spent Sunday afternoons washing, chopping, boiling, blending, and freezing. Jake hit every mobility milestone right on the nose, and I’ve already bought him a potty chair and some big boy underpants.
Jake gets up and makes his careful way out of the sandbox and toddles over to the plastic slide. Miranda runs over to join him and starts chattering to him about holding on as he climbs up. Miranda wants to be a mommy, too.
Now I try sticking my hands under my thighs, but still they persist in trembling.
If this morning’s drive over had been just a little different, we wouldn’t be here. I’d have been in the hospital, weeping over Jake’s tiny body all wired up and patched together. Or maybe I’d be dead myself. Maybe I’d have jumped off the crosstown bridge because my carelessness killed my baby.
Jake was up teething much of last night, and I’m tired today. If there’s any explanation, that would be it, although that doesn’t make sense because I’m often tired in the mornings.
I hauled Jake out to the minivan and set him in the carseat and put the diaper bag on the seat. That’s when he spotted the juice cup I’d packed and started demanding it, right that second. So I gave it to him, figuring I could just get more at Janie’s house. Then I patted his head, and got in the front seat.
As I started down the road, a campaign commercial came on the radio and I looked down to jab a different button for a new radio station. When I looked up again, a bicyclist had swerved into my path. I stamped on the brakes and yelped in surprise. The cyclist was startled off his bike. I don’t think he was hurt, but to be honest I didn’t look. I’d already jammed the van in park, and was turning around in my seat to pick a screaming Jake up off the floor of the backseat. I’d forgotten to buckle him in.
In the sun filtering through Janie’s magnolia tree, I can see the red rug burn on Jake’s forehead from the floor mat. It looks like any one of a hundred random toddler bruises. Seeing it again causes a fresh wave of fear to crash over me from skull to toes.
I consider confiding in Janie about my terrible close call. How, if I’d hit the brakes driving on the thoroughfare, Jake could have gone through the windshield instead of just tumbling forward onto the floor. If a truck had rear-ended us. If someone had run a red light and hit us broadside. How I try so hard to be perfect, and do everything exactly right and yet I still made this mistake. Can we really prevent disaster? Is that even possible? I think about asking her these questions. It would feel so good to talk about it with someone who would understand.
What kind of mother drives off without buckling in her baby? I mean, how absent-minded can you be? That child could have gone through the windshield.
“Jake? Honey, are you wet?” I call across the yard, knowing full well he couldn’t possibly be, as I just changed him before we left the house. He looks up at me and seems to wonder what my problem is, but he doesn’t resist as I scoop him up. I give his dry diaper a cursory squeeze and sweep past Janie toward her sliding glass door. “I’m just going to change him,” I say, grabbing my diaper bag on the way past. She raises a hand in acknowledgment, while she sits up to check on Miranda, who’s now in the sandbox herself, singing again about that purple chair.
In the cool, humidity-balanced air of Janie’s perfect split-level, I can allow a few tears free passage down my face, and Jake lets me hold him, resting his head in the crook where my neck meets my shoulder.