The baby was crying.
I woke up and looked at my husband, deep in sweaty sleep in our overheated bedroom. He snored. I sighed. Then I stood up and shuffled toward the nursery.
It was January; as in all old buildings, the temperature was uneven in our apartment. The heater clanked and rattled, yet the living room stayed cold and dark. Cold and dark except for the yellow light beaming.
The light was on in the baby’s bedroom, and the ceiling fan was blowing.
Strange, I thought. Why?
Baby C. raised a dry little cry, and I picked her up from the crib. I never liked the night or darkness, but the light and the spinning fan bothered me more. I switched them both off with a slam of my hand, and walked quickly back to our room.
In our darkened bed, my husband and our two cats slept. C. was now quiet, and all I could hear was the peaceful sound of slow breathing. The light and the fan were nothing. Someone had forgotten to turn them off, and now we were all ready to go back to sleep.
I could have forgotten because those early months with the baby were strange — bleary from nightly feedings and going back to work; when sleep was never enough or at the right time; when feeding and bathing rituals were so new that I was nervous; baby gear so complicated that I was clumsy. Poor baby, I mused one afternoon, as I rocked my daughter to sleep, nodding off because it was sunny, Saturday, and quiet, and I could finally take a break.
I closed my eyes and slowed my rocking. Then I felt a cool breeze on my skin.
I looked up. The ceiling fan was spinning at top speed.
I thought back to the night when the light and the fan had been on by themselves. My grandmother had died within that same week. Perhaps that night, she had come to visit my daughter? Perhaps it was my great-aunt, who had planned to come visit the baby, but had died before she had a chance to see her. There seemed to have been other times when the light or the fan had been on, but today – this very moment – was the first time that I was awake and I knew I had not touched the fan when it turned on.
I rocked for a few minutes, wondering how to feel about this. The baby was sleeping soundly, so there was no need to be afraid. But after a few minutes, I slowly got up, took the baby, and left the room.
I told my neighbor S. about it. She’s a good listener, the kind of person who knows that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in one’s philosophy. Perhaps the baby had visiting angels.
“I remember walking down the street with the baby,” said S., “and suddenly she looked out and started laughing at someone or something that really amazed her.”
“Maybe,” I said, looking down at baby C., who was playing on the rug at our feet. “At least she doesn’t seem to be scared.”
At that moment, the baby sat up between us, looked into her room, and laughed. We both looked at her room. The ceiling fan started spinning.
“Oh my God,” said the neighbor.
We moved a few months later, to a bigger place because we were expecting a baby sister B. The apartment was bigger, but — typical of New York — placed with windows in the alley, so it had less sun upstairs, with a dark windowless downstairs.
The downstairs felt a little strange.
It had track lights and bright rugs, a TV and plenty of toys. But the downstairs light was a dim yellow to the eye. The downstairs walls were always cold, and the air was flat and odd. Upstairs was lived in, and felt welcoming. Downstairs did not welcome, and I had to force myself to go there to do laundry or to bring the children down there to play.
One day I was downstairs with the children, playing with their trainset, when the musical bouncy chair, a few feet away, turned on by itself.
I had wondered whether C.’s “angel friends,” from our last apartment, had followed us, but I don’t think so. The occasional toys turning on downstairs always seemed to happen inconveniently, spookily, without the laughter from our other, sunnier place. I couldn’t let the children see me scared, because then they would be scared, so I said nonchalantly, “C… would you like to go turn off the bouncy chair?”
Silly me. Children aren’t stupid.
“No Mommy, you do it,” C. quickly said.
I paused for a moment, and then quickly turned it off, bringing the children upstairs for the day.
Of course it was nonsense when I talked it through with my husband. Most of the time it was nonsense to me too. But if the crackle of static comes from energy in the air, what energy could be enough to ignite a switch? Tip a toy over to start it talking? Make a flipper frog lurch to a life and swim for a few seconds on the floor?
And those were strange times for us then too — a time of changing jobs, balancing life, of plunging uncertainty as we eked through 2008 and 2009. Perhaps the bruised feelings and self-loathing and fear — might that have fed the dark too?
Sometimes I wished for the “angel friends” to return.
“Did I ever tell you that your sister had special angel friends as a baby?” I asked my younger daughter one night, about to tell her the story.
“You mean like the lady who’s watching us over there, Mommy?” said little B. She pointed outside to the dark alley. I decided not to look.
And then one night.
The East River breached its banks, swelled into the street, and into our homes. It broke through ground floor windows, crumbled walls, and relentlessly filled every room and space and chamber in those lower floors where we played and fought and hid from clattering ghosts.
The dark water came and washed it all away.
It was October 29th, 2012…four years ago yesterday.
There were many things we had let go that day, some of them cherished and dear.
But some of them were things we should have thrown away long ago, mired in the plastic and plush throwaway life that we lived before we learned that you can’t take it with you after all.
The water — the dirty, brackish, silted, fetid water — ruined everything equally so that everything had to be stripped away to the bone. The rock foundation. The blank space. Any bad karma that might have built up in the drywall and the rotting planks were thrown out. And we had — we were glad — to start anew.
Freshly painted, with new things we picked ourselves, where even the girls made their own design choices — the downstairs became something we had never had before: a brand new home from scratch. And somehow that changed how it felt. We changed how it felt.
How did I know when the vibrations — good and bad and indifferent — were finally gone? Call it a feeling when I went downstairs one night and paused to look at what was a home: the comfy couch; the languid fishtank; music coming from the bedrooms; a soft lamplight glow; the smell of clean clothes. It felt lived in and welcoming. The only thing that stirred would have been one of our three cats. I paused to hear the best of thing of all.
The children were laughing.