Ichabod’s Ghost by Abby Sher
A Brooklyn mom, haunted by mistakes she’s made so far, finds peace and forges ahead with love.
The first time I dropped my daughter Sonya on her head from a great height, she was approximately 8 months old. We were staying overnight at my uncle’s cabin in the backwoods of Connecticut. There was a plaque by the front door of the house that read: 1789, ICHABOD STODDARD. My cousins still swore Ichabod’s ghost visited them, flickering the lights or moving the little pie pieces during games of Trivial Pursuit. Ichabod had built the house with thick slabs of wood and wasn’t too keen on making sure the nails sat flush in the floorboards. My uncle hadn’t done much in the way of home improvement either. But I digress, and really, I can’t blame any of this on Ichabod or my Uncle Murray.
I tucked Sonya in securely next to me on the four-poster bed of Ichabod’s attic loft—a good three feet off the ground. And by “tucked in securely,” I mean nestled in a divot of the lumpy mattress. You’d think I would have put her on the side closest to the wall instead of the floor, but I wanted her to have more room, which was thoughtful/thoughtless, depending on your point of view. Either way, somewhere between Trivial Pursuit and dawn, in the inkiest black of night, I heard a crash, followed by this very distinct sound: Waaaaaaaaaah!
It took a few moments for me to swim up from unconsciousness, and then my first stroke of brilliance was, Don’t turn on the lights, that will wake her up! Duh. I groped on the floor and scooped her up, poking and petting to make sure there was no blood. Kissing her tears, chanting, “You’re okay, you’re okay,” as much to convince myself as her. The rest of the house was still silent with slumber. My husband was away on work and my cousins were busy dreaming of sugarplum Ichabod fairies. I was supposedly the one in charge here. As we both grew sleepy in the rocking chair, I wondered, Aren’t there things I should check in case of head trauma? I shouldn’t let her sleep if she has a concussion, right?
Next thing I knew, the sun was tickling us through the attic window and Sonya was babbling next to me. I checked her eyes—alert and bright, though maybe a little less trusting. “Sorry about that,” I mumbled, and she pulled down my shirt to take a drink. When we went home the next day, I relayed the story to my husband and declared it was time to stop co-sleeping.
The next time I dropped my daughter Sonya on her head from a great height, we were in upstate New York. She was 2 by then (no thanks to me) and had just overcome her fear of the water. We were visiting my father-in-law near a lake. Despite the rolling thunder, I insisted we should go in the water for a romp. The lifeguards only allowed us to dip our toes until they could clock in an hour without any signs of storm. When the “all clear” whistle blew, sandy butts ran in from all sides. It was packed, buoy-to-buoy. The perfect place to experiment with Sonya’s new aquatic skills. Or so I thought.
In my defense, I didn’t drop her so much as just let her go.
“No!” she yelped.
“You can do it. I’m right here.” I started backing away from her, arms still stretched toward her, just a few inches between us really.
“Mama!” she insisted. This was how she was supposed to learn, right? Besides, it was only about three feet deep. “You got it,” I coaxed, backing up again. Only she didn’t. She started sinking. That one sounded more like a whoosh, and then…Waaaaaaaaaah!
Another bather next to me swooped an arm out and caught her as she sputtered and coughed. I rushed back through the water, creating a tiny tsunami.
“Sorry,” I said sheepishly to the man holding my child. “Sorry,” I whispered into Sonya’s neck as she sobbed.
“I didn’t got it,” Sonya moaned. “And you left me.”
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” I said for the umpteenth time in two years. I got us wrapped up in sandy towels and handed her to my husband for safekeeping. “Mama made a mistake,” I muttered shamefully. By now the biggest question I had was who let me be a mom, and is there a way to rethink that decision?
The third time I dropped my daughter Sonya on her head from a great height was the worst. She was 3, and also a big sister by then (so much for rethinking that motherhood decision). I picked Sonya up from preschool with her friend Bella. My son, Zev, was in the stroller, Bella was holding on to the side, and Sonya was riding on my shoulders—a favorite treat of hers. Did I mention it was pouring rain and I was also trying to keep an umbrella over the three of us?
We made it across the busiest street in Brooklyn and were just outside our apartment gate. I paused to take Sonya off my shoulders so we could fit through the door. Only I didn’t say that plan out loud. I just sort of hunched forward, and she compensated by leaning back. Then I leaned back and she went back. And back. And back. Until…
The sound of a small skull hitting asphalt is beyond bone-chilling. And before she could even let out a Waaaaaaaaaah! there were several horrifying moments of her silently searching the sky.
“You’re okay, you’re okay. Shit, okay, you’re okay.” I picked Sonya up and clutched her to my chest, pushing Bella and the stroller through the doors as we all whimpered. Blessedly my husband was close by, as was Bella’s mom, and we dropped Bella off and drove to the ER within the hour. The ER staff was kind and nonjudgmental as I told the whole story, though one nurse asked me how tall I was and I’d never felt so guilty as when I had to answer, “five foot eight.”
We got to see lots of other pediatric patients with dripping wounds and TB coughs. Each hour we waited, Sonya perked up, playing with the building blocks that had obviously been sucked and chewed on by emergency-level sick kids before her. Zev was pawing at the blood pressure machines and looking for new floor tiles to lick. I will be forever grateful to a man named Dr. Octavio, who finally swooped in, asked Sonya to name all the numbers on the ceiling (a talent I didn’t know she had), looked into her eyes, checked her pulse, and then sent us home with balloon animals made out of surgical gloves.
It took me a week to stop rereading the list of concussion signs that Dr. O mentioned. And another year of talk-therapy to name all the reasons why I thought I should give up on motherhood and run away before I did permanent damage.
The one who actually calmed me down and reassured me that I wasn’t the worst mother on earth was Sonya herself.
A few weeks ago, while Zev was napping, Sonya and I had some alone time painting. She asked me to draw a rainbow for her on the edge of her paper, which I did. I’ll admit it wasn’t my best work. The lines sort of ran together and I wasn’t careful about rinsing the brushes between colors.
“What do you think?” I asked, after the final swipe of purple.
Sonya squinted at the page before answering. “It’s . . . well . . .” Then she picked up her favorite dolly from her art table and said, “Sorry, Mom, Bippy and I need to have a talk for a minute.”
She walked Bippy a few feet away and told her in a stage whisper, “I know. I know. But that’s not a nice thing to say. I think Mom’s doing a great job.”
In that moment, I wanted to laugh and cry and hold my beautiful daughter so tight with love.
Instead I bit my lip and said, “Yeah, Bippy. Sorry. But at least I’m learning.”
Abby Sher is a mother of three, writer, and performer who lives in Brooklyn. This essay is adapted and excerpted from The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman. Available from Seal Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2014.