Alexandra Owens lives in Morris County, New Jersey, with her husband, Michael, and their two daughters, Gillian, 14, and Catie, 10. Alexandra is the executive director of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA; www.asja.org).
And then you cry — a cry of distress such as I had never heard before. We can both breathe now, certainly something, certainly better than nothing. I call the ambulance and have a difficult time explaining where we lived, since the road out front has yet to be built. We have to walk out through the construction, you in your bucket-shaped car seat, still wailing. The paramedics finally come and take us away, and the questions begin immediately.
What happened? they ask. Does she cry a lot? Is this your first child? How are you feeling?
As the doctors and nurses work, it feels appropriate to be judged and found wanting. They are looking for signs of abuse in you or post-partum illness in me, trying to determine if this is an accident or something worse. Are they right? Still in shock, I think maybe they are. Am I negligent?
Clearly, I’m unfit for this job, I think. It’s wrong to trust me to take care of my own baby.
The x-rays show a crack in your skull, but at your age they’re unable to tell if it’s just a natural unfused suture. All I hear is “possible skull fracture.”
Those three seconds of the fall refuse to end, the images still circling in my memory. That night and the next and the next are exercises in fear as I listen to you breathe in the night, waiting for the signs of serious problems the doctor had told us to look for. Do you stop breathing at all? Are you hard to wake up? Did your feeding schedule change?
But you, my tiny baby, were fine. So small barely an armful, yet so sturdy you had bounced. Yes, bounced. The only mark of the fall is a minuscule scratch on your head where you hit the wall. You heal completely, and forgive me immediately, loving me with your whole being as only a baby will love her mother. All the punishment I receive comes only from within me.
And of course Daddy forgives me, too. He not only carpets the stair steps that very night, but covers me with love and unstinting support as I heal from the shock and then the pain of my own injuries. He watches over you at night, lets me cry when I have to, and never wavers from his affirmation that yes, accidents happen and, yes, this was indeed an accident.
We live in the same house and walk down those stairs multiple times each day. The memory is always there, imprinted into the wood. The Christmas pictures that year show my wrist brace, clear evidence of my carelessness. It takes a long time, but I finally come back to trusting myself to keep you safe, having learned it’s harder than it seems.
Every summer brings stories of tragedy – a hot car, an unlocked pool gate – and many are caused by parents who would gladly die instead. I understand a tiny bit of how they feel. For those three seconds I was in their shoes, thinking I had killed you. Every time I remember, I feel a gratitude beyond description — gratitude that I was mistaken, that we had averted disaster, that we were lucky.