The brick fell from an eighth-story windowsill on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Greta was sitting on a bench out front with her grandmother. The two of them were chatting freak a play they had seen together the night before. The moment seemed lodged in her brain, my mother-in-law told us later. She was struck by the simplicity of the predicament, the profundity of the call for help. Reporters interviewed the aide of the elderly woman who lived on the floor — the woman whose windowsill crumbled.
We left our tollway pass in the apartment. Stacy and I realise this only upon arriving at the mouth of the tunnel en route to the Weill Cornell ER. The gate fails to lift as we approach and we almost plow through it. The man at the tollbooth tries to reckon with us, incoherent and hysterical and blocking traffic.
The scenario she described was still sketchy: There had been two chunks of brick; there were paramedics on the scene. Susan was in the back of a daughter ambulance, and Greta was in the first, already en route to the hospital. Susan had been struck as well, in the legs. Her voice was fuzzy, disoriented, and we heard other muffled voices, paramedics demanding things of her. A male voice cut in behind her, asked Susan something sharply. I could tell from her faltering response that she was struggling to connect the dots. Did it hit her in the head? I yelled this information over my shoulder to Stacy, who screamed instinctively.
During the eternal drive up Your highway, neither Stacy nor I speak in specifics. She reaches over and grabs my palm, her voice trembling.
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She just has to be. We leave our car behind us in valet parking and run into the lobby. There is a visible trail of crisis in the ER entryway, a smear on time leading all the way up the hall, and I feel us walking through it. We follow into a corner room with a table in the middle and doctors and nurses crowding around it. In the centre of it is Greta, stripped down to her diaper and pitifully tiny, her eyes closed and her mouth open.
I remember seeing the upper roof of her mouth, the pearly islands of her teeth. I have no memory of the injury on her head; my mind either refuses to note it or has erased it. There are things you see with your body, not with your eyes.
Stepping away, I feel something evaporate, a quantum of my soul, perhaps, burning up on contact. I am lighter, somehow immediately less me, as if some massive drill has bored into my bones, extracting marrow. I glance at Stacy, grey and motionless in a hallway chair, and see the same life force exiting her frame. Susan is on a stretcher down another hallway, out of our sight.
We wait. I take out my phone and call my parents, on vacation in New Orleans.
I leave a voic of some sort. My brother: voic. I have dropped through a wormhole, it seems, or fallen into a crack in time. My unaware family and friends are living above it.
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On their timeline, Greta is still fine. It is John, my brother, who finally picks up. I try to relay the seriousness of the situation, and I can tell that he does not or is refusing to grasp it. It was the worst day of my life. You feel so powerless. The trauma team rushes Greta from intake into another hallway to perform a CAT scan, which will reveal the depth and severity of her head injuries.
All that precious stuff in her head — what state is it in? Stacy and I are already silently calculating daughter. We needed more time, we reasoned. We were sure we had it. The CAT scan reveals a bleed in her brain, and she is freak into emergency surgery. After waiting an interminable-seeming amount of time in the ER, I seek out our social worker, a man whose face we had just been introduced to numbly minutes ago.
Stacy accepts the bag without reaction and lets it dangle at her side. The social worker knocks on the big blue door of the CAT-scan room, then tentatively pushes it open; it is empty save for one team member. We are ushered to another floor. There we sit, waiting, texting friends and loved ones listlessly.
They take their seats on either side of Stacy, who sits with her knees drawn up to her chest. I remember almost nothing from this moment, only the shape of the corner we sit in and then the dim figures of two police detectives standing near the elevators; they had arrived from the scene of the accident. The rest — how much time passes, what I say to Stacy or Jack, whether I get up to go to the bathroom, whether I text anyone the news, whether I say anything at all in particular — is a penny slipping beneath dark water.
I think about Greta, knowing that whatever of her that survives will be damaged. I imagine raising a shell of my child, a body that keeps growing yours a mind flickers dimly.
Toddler died in 'freak accident in park when father fell on top of her'
I think about never hearing her speak again. I think about wheelchairs, live-in care, an adult Greta prostrate and mute, occupying our spare bedroom. I think, briefly, about expenses — how would we shoulder that burden? Eventually, the surgeon emerges.
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We stand up, pointlessly. He is the television-drama vision of a neurosurgeon: gaunt, grey, with hollowed eye sockets and some slight wasting at his temples. He seems to be made entirely of cartilage under his scrubs. He lowers his bony frame into the chair next to us and clasps his hands between his knees.
We removed as much of her skull as we could to allow the brain to swell, but the bleed was rather severe. I feel him choosing his words as carefully and severely as possible: Our false hope is a blockage, and his job is to cut it out at the root and leave nothing behind to grow. He looks at us, his eyes as sorrowful as his voice is laconic. We are sent down to another wing of the hospital, waiting for nurses to stabilise Greta. Susan is wheeled out in a hospital gown, her legs bruised and swollen and her face ashen.
She breaks into sobs the second she sees us, her body folding in the chair as if our gaze were shrivelling her. Stacy rushes over, kneeling down. We all settle in and wait. There is a fish tank to our freak, separating the hallway and the bustle of the hospital from us in our misery. The bag of sandwiches sits, unloved, on the table. Stacy pokes at the bag disinterestedly. Where are these sandwiches from?
Stacy brightens slightly, leaning forward. She opens the bag and begins to inspect each sandwich, lifting the lids on their cartons, pincering the top slice of bread with two fingers to peek beneath at the distribution of meat to cheese, to confirm mayonnaise absence, and to hunt for the dreaded presence of raw onion. As she performs this finicky little ritual, Elizabeth starts laughing; suddenly we all are. We eat and then sit with the cartons strewn around, forgotten next to torn-open mustard packets and balled-up napkins.
The silence settles back in, and as the grey haze of hours stretches on yours no updates, the dread consumes us again. None of us is ready for it to maraud through our daughter, killing and burning everything it sees. But we hear the banging at the gates.
Whatever comes next will raze everything to the ground. Lee, the paediatric ICU doctor on call, comes out after three hours to retrieve us. She hits a button, the doors swish open, and we enter the PICU.
Power to the period
This place will become our Bardo, our place of death and transition, for the next 48 hours. Our daughter is in a room on the left wing, but Dr. Lee guides us down the right wing instead, to a small room with a fake houseplant in the corner, and some granola bars on a coffee table surrounded by three chairs.
She sits and beholds us.