Crib Death by Nancy Springer



Maybe we should get one of those alarms that goes off if he stops breathing,'' she said, holding her baby boy in her arms. She stood in the holy shrine of the house, the nursery, just home from the hospital and afraid to put the newborn in the crib.

''You've been reading too many magazine articles,'' he said, the newly-proved-man, the father-of-a-son, her husband. ''Did the doctor say anything about crib death?''

''No. He said the little package looks fine.''

''Then what are you worrying about?'' He put his arm around her. There was something so tender and tired about her. especially since she had given birth, that he felt protective of her. First baby, first house, first love. They were old-fashioned enough to believe they would be married forever.

She did not know how to tell him about the awareness she carried, the new sense of mortality, pulling her shoulders down with more than the wight of the infant in her arms. She only said in a wondering way, ''It could happeb you know. Bad things can happen any time.''

''Right. The roof could fall in.'' His embrace tightened on her, joggling her gently; he wanted her for himself. ''Put the little critter down and let's go sit.''

She did, she put the infant down in the crib, between the padded bumpers protecting his head from the hard slats, on the bunny-print sheet, where he stirred and wailed and then settled into sleep again, making a warm, compact peach-fuzz-and -terrycloth bundle of himself, not much bigger than a bread loaf. But instead of leaving the room, the young woman stood staring at him.

She said ''I'm going to get one of those alarms.''

''No,don't'' He knew how he'd hated itas a child, that his mother was always hovering. Don't touch the dog, you'll get germs. Don't take off your jacket, you'll get fall. . . . He had sworn that his children would be raised to be joyous and free, to run barefoot and romp with mongrel puppies, to climb high and not be fused at.

He said, ''I thouht we agreed we're not going to make a neurotic out of this kid.''

''It wont make him a neurotic. He won't even know about it.''

''That doesn't matter. It's the idea. You know what I mean.'' He took her hand, tugging at her. ''You've got to let him grow up--natural.'' He struggled for words. ''Like a--like a bird learning to fly.''

It was fine thought. She nodded and came with him. But she came back a few moments later and checked to make sure the baby was breathing.

When the baby cried that night, she was awake within a heartbeat and on her feet. The newborn's faint, kittenish wail buzzed through her like an electric shock, as effective as any conceivable alarm. She went and fed him at the breast almost before he could wail again, warming him in her arms but herself cold, sitting in the rocking chair in her thin nightgown. In the morning, talking with her husband, she learned that he had not heard the baby cry, though he slept beside her in the same bed.

He said, ''Wake me up, next time. I'll go get him for you, and you can feed him in the bed and stay warm.''

But when she tried to do so, the next night, the man was so slow to wake that she could not stand it. The sound of the crying baby rang theough her like the phone bell of hell, jangling every nerve. She jumped up and ran to pick up the infant herself, and fed him in the rocking chair again, strangely disturbed. Like a raw nerve awareness throbbed in her of how helpless the baby was, how utterly he depended on her, how utterly helpless were all babies everywhere.

And. . . . in the silence, between the crying,death stalked. Crib death, the killer cat on padded paws, soundlessly taking infants as they slept.

Motherhood laid her open like a honeyed wound. She felt herself listening even in her dreams, not for a baby's cry but for a silent alarm. In her dreams she made a connection between herself and the sleeping of babies as surely as if electric wires ran to her heart. She willed herself to hear the threat of intruding, silent death as surely as she would hear a baby's wail.

The man, the protector, slept lumpishly. She, only she, felt the mortal peril.

Day after day, night by passing night, she willed herself to hear soundless danger. Her husband felt the change in her. In the warm marriage bed, even in their lovemaking, she was not entirely with him; she was listening for something he could not hear. In the night she went to the baby when he heard nothing. ''Let him cry a minute or two,'' he complained. ''Maybe he'll go back to sleep. It's time he started sleeping through.'' All day every day baby busied her; he wanted her to himself again, if only of the nights.

The baby grew quicly, changed quickly, a butterfly creature. He stopped wailing for food at night and began waking at dawn instead, cooing rather than crying. He rattled the crib rails and made small babbling noises. His father nick named him The Gugs, for the noises. The baby took after the man, who was happy in the morning, one of those people who annoyed others with his cheeriness before breakfast.

The man hoped his wife would sleep deeply through the nights now that her baby no longer cried for her in the dark. But she did not. Even though the baby no longer woke her, he still felt her listening. Sleeping, she lay rigid with listening, though he did not know for what. It baffled and annoyed him, this unspoken aloofness of hers, this sense that motherhood had given her a mission apart from him. As if having a baby around the house had not turned his life crazy enough. . . .

His life went truly insane with a scream in the night.

The woman screamed in her sleep, awoke panting and screaming; the screams roused her husband to a groggy awareness. He blinked, struggling up to see what was wrong. She had turned on the light, she was sitting on the edge of the bed and jabbing at the pushbuttons on the phone. In his nursery across the hallway, The Gugs was silent. Stumbling only slightly, the father went over there, examined the small, fleecy-warm, softly breathing body in the dim white glow of the lambie-shaped night light. The Gugs was sleeping. Nothing wrong there.

He heard his wife moan in the bedroom and went back to her. She was listening to the buzzing signal in the receiver, her face damp and grey with fear. ''C'mon,'' she whispered. Then the click, the muted voice, and she shouted, ''Check the baby! Don't ask questions, just do it! Go check the baby right away!''

She waited a moment, looking breathless, and then softly replaced the receiver in the cradle. Her face had gone slack, but she was shaking so hard that she shook the bed.

''They hung up,'' she said, staring straight ahead. ''I don't know if the baby's all right.''

Having just chaceked The Gugs, he did not understand. ''Who hung up?''

She did not answer. Or perhaps she thouht she was answering when she said, ''The baby had its head caught between the crib rails. It was choking itself.''

Bewildered, the man went back to bed and took refuge in sleep. When he awoke in the morning he treated his memory of the night much as he would a disturbing dream, pushing it away as far as he could, to a shadowy distance where it skullked, worrying at the underbelly of his mind.

Within a few nights his wife's shriek woke him again. More alert this time, he listened to the frantic chittering of the phone. Ten, eleven numbers. Long distance. He didn't think it had been long distance before. Different people this time. He did not get up to look into the crib, because he could hear a faint yowl of protest from nursery, quickly subsiding into sleepy murmuring sounds.The mother's scream had disturbed The Gugs.

And she was moaning as before, and desperate, and crying into the phone as before, ''Check the baby! Right now!'' A brief pause. ''Never mind who I am! Check the baby!'' She hung up hard, tears in her eyes. ''Idiots!'' she said to her bare feet on the floor.

Her husband looked at her quivering back and said, ''Who?''

''I don't know. I don't know if the baby's all right.''

''The baby's fine!''

''Their baby.''

He couldn't push it away any longer.

''You called up somebody you don't know in the middle of the night and told them to check their baby?''

She said, ''It was strangling in one of those elastic crib mobiles they had strung too low. Morons!''

Her tone, passionate yet matter-of-fact, made him feel cold. She really believed what she was saying. She thought she knew--

''How do you know?''

''I saw.''

''What do you mean, you saw?''

''I--'' For the first time, her voice faltered. ''I saw! In my sleep!''

''You dreamed it, you mean.''

She shouted at him, ''I saw! I saw the baby with its face all swollen and the cord around its neck. . . . '' Her voice broke. He slid over and sat next to her, put one arm around her, and she sobbed against his shoulder. ''Probably dead already before they got there,'' she mumbled.

''It was just a dream,'' he told her gently.

''It was not!'' She pulled back from him, glaring, her tears gone. ''I saw, I tell you! I knew the number to call.''

''Whatever,'' he said, because he did not like what he was thinking: that she was losing it, going off the deep end, over the edge, soft in the head, call it all the wry old names: crazy. He did not like to think it, but he had to because he knew the things she thought were happening didn't happen. He knew that better than anything. There was a difference between dreams and what was real. He knew that; if he didn't know that he would be crazy too. He went back to bed and felt cold, even under the covers. He did not touch his wife again, nor did he sleep. He suspected she was not sleeping either, but they didn't talk until morning, when the gurgling and babbling of their baby signaled them that it was time to get up. Then they carefully acted as if what happened in the night had not happened.

She tried to be funny and cheerful and loving around him, then and n the days that followed. She smiled a great deal, she made a point of doing things for him and fixing his favorite foods. Though he said nothing, she could see in his eyes what he thought and feared, that she was going ''mental.'' She clipped money-saving coupons, hoping he would notice she was a good wife. Knowing he was thinking doubtful thoughts about her made her bright and lively with terror. She could scarcely bear the fear that he would leave her. Before the coming of the baby she had lived to be with him; she had no personhood except that of his wife, mother of his child. She needed him nearly as much as her baby needed her.

Each night when she went to bed she felt dread that the alarm in her mind would awaken her again. She was not accustomed to having anything matter to her but her husband. She wanted only to please him. He was her life. Or had been, until recently.

Yet, when once again she awoke shrieking in the night, she reached for the phone and punched the numbers and sat waiting in agony for the answer at the other end, all before she looked at him.

Somewhere, in a distant, unseen house, a phone ringing, a man or woman reaching grumpily to answer it, a baby . . . . dying . . . .

''Crib death,'' she whispered between clenched teeth.

''Put that down!'' the man om the other side pf the bed ordered- - or begged.

Staring tautly at the wall, ounting the ring signals- - too many!- - she did not answer him. He got to his feet, came around the bed and tried to take the receiver away from her. She pushed his hand away with surprising strength. ''No, wait!'' she shouted, and then she was crying her alarm to the sleepy woman on the other end of the line, and hearing the peevish wail of her own baby, awakened by her yell, and hearing- -

''They're doping CPR,'' she reported tensely to her husband. ''They're going to call the ambulance.'' There was a click as the line went dead at her ear, and limply she set the receiver down.

Her husband stood staring at her as if something had just scuttled out from under the baseboard of her mind. ''You're crazy,'' he said, not responding to the rising plaint of the baby in the next room.

She started to cry. He sat down next to her. ''I didn't mean it like that.'' he said ''I- -I'm just scared they'll take you away. You can't go calling people like you do. They'll come looking for you.''

''But- -but you heard,'' she offered.

''There really was a baby- -''

''I don't care!'' he shouted before she could say what scared him worst. ''I can't live like this! Hon, you've got to quit''

She looked straight at him with the tears running down her face. ''I can't just let them die,'' she whispered.

''I tell you, I can't take it! The way she talked panicked him, and his mind, sinking into quicksand madness, grabbed for solid ground, pulled itself out onto an ultimatum ''You've got to choose,'' he said grimly, ''between them and me.''

And he went and lay down again, leaving her to go quiet the baby's crying and her own.

In the morning they went silently about the business of dressing and eating and tending The Gugs. The man gave his wife the routine peck, Dagwood-style, and disappeared into the outer world, going to work. The woman began a frenzy of housework, as if clean floors could somehow make things right. Gong to the store, later that day, she purchased numerous newspapers along with amnoia. She spent the evening silently searching them as her husband just as silently ignored her searching. It seemed to her that if she could only find a news item about a baby saved from crib death by an unaccountable phone call in the night, she would somehow be proved, made right, justified, instead of being all wrong . . . . There was nothing of babies, alive or otherwise, in any of the newspapers. And in spite of her searching, she knew gut-deep that a news story would not have made any difference. No more difference than a clean floor made.

She had been given a choice. What her husband had said---she knew he meant it. Better than he knew himself, she knew that. She had babied him too long for him to change.

She went to bed, her marriage bed, in terror, not yet knowing how she would choose.

No soundless threat of infant death woke her that night, or the next, or the next. She awoke full of nervous energy each morning and made omelettes and hash browns and other good things for breakfast. The man, an optimistic person by nature, grew hopefuş that the crisis had passed, and talked kindly with her over the hot food, and kissed her with more than routine feeling when he left for work and again when he came home to a good dinner. In the evenings, in front of the TV, he put his arm around her, and she pressed close to his side. The closeness seemed to help her, a little, with the aching struggle going on inside her.

In the dark of the fourth night, at that cat-stalking-quiet, pulseless time after midnight when traffic had stopped on the residential streets and paperboys were not yet making their rounds, the woman woke sobbing and lay on her back in the bed, staring up into darkness as the tears ran down her temples and into the fine, permüfrizzed hair in front of her ears. She did not move except to sob. Her husband slept soundly, as always, and her weeping did not awaken him, and after a while she wept herself back to sleep.

The man awoke in the morning, refreshed as always from his sound slumber, to a room awash in dawn light and dawn hush and the peace that passeth understanding. He stretched and yawned loudly to awaken his wife, and smiled for no good reason, and glanced over at her. But she turned her face away from him.

''It happened again,'' she said.

''What?'' He propped himself up on an elbow to loook at her. ''I didn't hear anything.''

''You wouldn't,'' she said.

''I did before.''

''It wasn't like that. There wasn't a number to call. I didn't do anything.'' She started to cry, silently, like someone who has mourned for a long time, like a war victim, as if she was already worn out with crying. The tears ran, but her face did not move.

''A baby died,'' she said to the bedsheets. ''I just lay here and let it die.''

The man put his hand on her shoulder and shook her, eagerly, excitedly. ''No, no, Honey, don't you see? It's starting to go away. You did fine! What you did was good!'' His chest heaved with relief.

''Wow. For a while there I was afraid we were going to have to send you to the hospital or something.'' He leaned over and kissed her on the side of her face, near her weeping eye, and she lay and accepted the kiss, and felt it warm her, and knew her husband would not leave her, and felt her own deep relief. She had chosen. She could not risk losing him. Nothing worse than that could happen to her. . . .

Silence. Dawn-golden silence. The morning lay, a vast hand of benediction, hushed and holy on them both.

The man glanced at the beside clock, and his smile lit his face like sunrise. ''All right!'' he said. ''Nearly seven o'clock, and no noises from The Gugs yet! The little guy sure is sleeping late today.''


Author Nancy Springer and her dog

Author: Nancy Springer

Legal Name: Springer, Nancy Connor

Birthplace: Montclair, New Jersey,

USA Birthdate: 5 July 1948

Official Page: www.nancyspringer.com

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Little Bio From Wikipedia:

Nancy Connor Springer (born 1948 in Montclair, New Jersey) is an American author of fantasy, young adult literature, mystery, and science fiction.[1] Her novel Larque on the Wing won the Tiptree Award.[2] She also received the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America[3] for her novels Toughing It and Looking for Jamie Bridger, in addition to receiving the Carolyn W. Field award for I am Mordred. A prolific author, she has written more than fifty books over a career that has spanned nearly four decades.

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