“How old is he?” the woman asks coolly, nodding toward Jacob. She has oversized sunglasses and a sharp blonde bob. Although it’s 90 degrees and humid in late morning at the park, her skin is still matte with foundation.
You look down at Jacob, his oversized head, his wide blue eyes, his wavering legs, and your back clenches. You feel your forehead sweating. You want to say, Fuck off, it’s none of your business how old he is. The woman’s daughter has already clambered up the ladder (“Look at me, Mommy! I’m climbing so high look at me!”) to the tallest slide on the playground. The girl’s hair is slicked into two French braids, and she’s wearing a pink sundress with white bike shorts under it.
And another part of you wants to tell the woman, You have to understand, he was born at 26 weeks. We didn’t know if he was going to make it. You want to tell her about sitting outside the NICU with your deflating belly, in yoga pants and flip-flops and greasy hair, and peering in at all the children in their isolettes as a nurse moved from bed to bed in a dim glow. You had only been able to feel the baby moving inside you for a few weeks, and then suddenly he was in the plastic bed in a tiny diaper and knit hat, covered with wires. Jacob’s bed was close to the wall, and after the first week the nurses allowed you to tape a picture of you and David to the outside and put a Beanie Baby cat at Jacob’s feet. While looking in, you’d catch a glimpse of your reflection in the window and see a haunted woman with a gray face and hollowed eyes.
One day, you’ll put this behind you, people told you. Your mother-in-law said, Someday he’ll be a healthy boy and you’ll be able to tell people how he fought for life and made it. You wanted to believe them, but you knew they were speaking out of their own desires, their own strong wish that you and David and Jacob could be a normal family like everyone else. You loved and hated them for it. In the comings and goings of the NICU, you saw that even good parents, normal people just like everyone else, could leave the hospital without their babies. You couldn’t meet those parents’ eyes, but you saw how the nurses hugged them and spoke to them in gentle tones.
And then you brought Jacob home and thought you had made it, escaped. Thank goodness for modern medicine, right? But as the months passed and you read message boards and parenting books, uneasiness lingered. Oh, he’s fine, you worry too much, David said, and then went off to work, leaving you with a limp baby who barely cried or smiled. Different babies develop differently, said the pediatrician at every visit. Preemies just need some extra time to catch up. Until finally at the one-year visit, she frowned and wrote a referral to a specialist on her pad and said, We really need to get this checked out. And that was when you started to understand the not-knowing might continue for a long, long time.
The little girl launches herself down the slide and flies off the end, running with momentum as her feet hit the ground. Her mother grins and waves to her. And Jacob is still clutching the ladder, hitting it with one open palm and staring at it as if it didn’t occur to him that he might climb it.
“He’s three,” you say, and you can feel the tears in your eyes and hope your voice doesn’t sound too husky. You turn away.
“Are you okay?” she says.
You shake your head. It’s the question, it’s the heat, it’s the enormity of a future where other children race away from him. “I know he’s delayed,” you choke out. “He can’t help it. We’re doing the best we can.”
The woman pushes her sunglasses up on her head and you can see the beginnings of kind wrinkles around her eyes. “Oh, goodness. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. I was just making conversation.” She turns away for a moment and says, “Sarah! Stop splashing in the water fountain this instant.”
You pull a crumpled tissue out of your pocket and wipe your nose. Jacob watches Sarah as she dashes to the swings and flops on her belly, her legs and braids dangling, and she flies forward Superman-style and then lurches back.
“Look,” the woman says, “we just moved here and I don’t know anyone. You want to get out of this heat and go get coffee?”
Your arms and legs feel weak as the adrenaline drains from them. You remember the rooftop garden at the hospital where patients and families could go and sit. At the time, you were filled with grateful wonder: Someone had known you would need daisies and petunias and a view of the city skyline at sunset.
“That would be great,” you say. “Thanks.” And you swing Jacob up on your hip to go.