Oct 5, 2015 by

I met Mary’s son Jonah in the thick of summer on the front porch of that old house she grew up in, the one we had transformed into a million things as little girls—boat, castle, ballroom. At two Jonah was just learning to walk and his movements seemed disjointed and electronic. Mary stepped into the house to make some tea for us.

I sat on the stone steps watching. Jonah walked over to the stairs and hung onto the railing across from me. A sparrow landed beside him and he squealed, startling the bird who flitted into the nearby maple tree. Jonah smiled, swinging a small foot, the little red booty with blue laces, brown corduroy overalls, his red curls dancing in the afternoon sun. Then he suddenly jumped, arms outstretched like the wings of the bird and somehow time slowed and stretched. There he is, careening off the porch headed straight for the blue slate sidewalk below.

I notice the crimson poppies and their transparent petals shimmy with the breeze. The bees heavy with pollen are disappearing into the hollyhocks and I think about this child and his absence all in this moment, waiting for my body to heed the command Move. Move. Why wasn’t I sitting closer, holding his hand? What if I, too, believed he could fly? What cruel God creates such a beautiful boy with no instincts?

I dive across the stairs and somehow catch him by the wrist. His body swings in an arc and he grazes the steps, not too hard, but just so that his little mouth hits the edge of one mean stone stair before I am beneath him, his cherubic face in my hands and then my cheek to his cheek. His lip is split but no teeth are broken and he is okay.

This is when the veil lifts. Our wide panicked eyes meet and we exchange a million unspoken words about life and death and gratitude. How close we always are to letting go of the railing even when we know we should not. How being here and being not here actually occupy the same space and there is a calm in knowing that, just for a moment, death is so close, all the time, breathing down our necks—No, holding us. Just like this, we agree. Cheek to cheek, waiting. My hope is aged, bruise-colored, white with desperation, marbled with fear. The child seems to say, “No. Hope is like this. Yellow. Luminous.”

His eyes flicker and we return. And then he wails the wail of all wails and his mother is there instantly. I try to explain but she cannot hear me. She just rocks and rocks her son calmly, humming, saying shhhhhhhhhhhhh into his perfect little ear.

Mary carries Jonah inside, gets some ice and the abandoned tea. They emerge, triumphant. He is laughing around a cold ice cube, so big in his small mouth.

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