When I was about 8 or 9, I saw a TV program in which one of the main characters fell into a coma for an episode or two. My third-grade head found the concept fascinating, and I spent more than a few after-school moments asking my mother if people in comas could hear what was going on around them. The jury was out, it seemed, on whether or not they could.
Joel and I rushed to the hospital as soon as we heard about the auto accident. Shelley, Joel's ex-wife, was sedated, not in a coma, and as I sat in her dimly room at Mesa Lutheran, I had wondered if she knew what was going on around her.
I perched myself on the light green-and-salmon striped chair at the bedside, as a nurse came in and checked Shelley's "vitals." Apparently assuming I was a relative, she listed off Shelley's injuries -- bruised spleen, hyperextension reflection or something of the neck and back, concussion, internal this or that -- and, laying her hand on my arm, assured me that Shelley was "gonna be okay." Badly banged up, but okay.
"...but that poor little girl of hers," she muttered as she walked out of the room.
-- Now why did she say that?! I thought indignantly, looking out the door after her. What if Shelley, though unconscious, can hear what's going on around her? That would be alarming for a mother to hear.
I turned back to the bed, wishing that she was hooked up to a little electronic thing with lines and beeps that could jump around to indicate that, in fact, she had heard and was alarmed (like something out of "In Search Of..."). But I didn't know if the gadgets in the room were hooked up to her, or to the TV.
I leaned toward her. "Uh, Shelley," I began, "I don't know if you can hear me, but I want you to know that Michal is going to be okay."
I looked at her face. No response.
"Um, Joel is with her now..." It suddenly dawned on me that she might not know who I am. "And, uh, this is Jessica... um, we met at Rina's...?"
Oy, I sound like a message on an answering machine, an awkward message.
"Anyway," I stammered, "she woke up a little while ago... and she asked for you right away. She's going to be fine..."
A movement caught my eye and I saw that Joel was standing in the doorway, looking at me with tenderness, and a bit of amusement. He motioned for me to come out, so I went and sat beside him on the molded plastic chairs in the hall.
"I just feel so powerless," he said, crying softly.
I murmured some meaningless, hopefully soothing syllables.
"I don't want Michal to suffer. Ever. I want to be able to protect her from every harm in the world. Is that so unreasonable?" he said, smiling, the usual impish gleam back in his eyes.
"Yes, completely," I said. "I'll tell God."
He paused before speaking again.
"What you said in there, to Shelley," he said, "that was very kind."
I nodded, thinking blankly that we should get something to eat. I didn't realize that all this was going to have a major impact on me, and on us.
Overnight and almost automatically, everything changed.
All the delays and debates over whether and when I would meet Michal seemed far distant: After her release from the hospital two days later, I went from relative stranger to picking her up at her kindergarten. Joel had juggled his schedule as much as he could, but it seemed oddly natural for me to take advantage of a reporter's flexible hours and do some car-pooling.
And I liked it.
I skipped entirely the I-want-you-to-like-me-so-hey!-why-don't-we-go-to-Haagen-Daaz-just-now phase of prospective-step-parenting, or the ambivalence about the enormous demand and responsibility she represented.
Instead, I had to try to hold my feelings for this little girl in check. She was, in fact, a very sweet and well-behaved child. I saw Joel's hand in her -- the way she always thanked me for picking her up or buying her anything. The fact that she didn't call adults by their first name. (The first week, I noticed with some amusement that she avoided calling me anything altogether. Finally, she stumbled around and said "Miss Schaeffer." That prompted Joel to ask me what I wanted her to call me if we got married. He suggested "Ima," since she called Shelley "Mom." For the meantime, we compromised on "Jessica.") But, more than that, I saw him in her -- in her intelligent eyes, in the shape of her features, in her slightly reserved manner.
The situation was a crucible: Michal and I had no getting-to-know-you phase. Already, I was crazy about her, but she remained chary. I was amazed that she wasn't full-on aggressively rude, given the natural confusion of a little girl whose mother is in the hospital and the fact that I was some sort of new presence in her father's life who suddenly appeared -- en force -- after all this trauma. Joel diplomatically described her as "guarded."
For him and me, the crucible seemed almost irrelevant: I was seeing him under intense pressure, and I couldn't have been more impressed with the way he handled it. Our lives were more and more intertwined by the day. This greater sense of connection was expressed in totally mundane things like me getting up early so I could go over to his house and pick up Michal, or him doing my grocery shopping since I worked a few Sundays to make up for getting behind during the week. Yet it felt very natural, and very good.
I wasn't sure if my adoration of Michal was a simple outgrowth of my deep feelings for Joel, or if I was just drawn to a really great little maidele (as my grandmother would have said). Anyway I somehow managed to keep from overwhelming her with my affections.
Each day now for two weeks, I picked her up from school and drove her to the hospital, where Joel met us and brought her up to see her mother while I went back to my office. Shelley was mostly awake from the third day after the accident, but was in and out of rehab sessions and spent her days suspended from some weird traction contraption.
At the end of the third week, though, Joel called my cellphone while we were en-route to the hospital. I answered driving 60 mph down the middle of the Loop highway.
"I have an emergency case and I can't get out of here," his voice said out of the hands-free speakers.
"Oh," I squeaked, sneaking a peak in the rear-view mirror at Michal, who was buckled into the kid-seat we'd bought for my Volvo. She looked alarmed. She was thinking she wasn't going to get to see her mother.
"Um, I can take her up..." I said.
Michal looked relieved.
--I am sure Shelley will be just thrilled to see me, I thought.
"Er, I, uh, I think that will actually be okay," Joel said, speaking in the accentuated tones that are meant to be some sort of adult Morse Code. "More okay than you might think. It will be fine. I think."
Sure, easy for him to say. Even though I had been to the hospital every day and had spent three hours sitting by her bedside during the first few days when she was sedated or unconscious, I still hadn't exchanged two words with her.
After all, this is the woman who once gave me the dirtiest look in recorded history, when she realized I was The Jessica who was dating her ex-husband. And this is the woman who is undoubtedly wracked with guilt that she didn't force her child to sit in a child seat before the accident. And this is the woman who probably hates my guts for being able to take care of her daughter while she's laid up in the hospital.
Light came into Michal's face as we got closer to her mother's room and Michal ran the length of the corridor and leapt onto the hospital bed. All the metal bars and things hanging from the frame above the bed jangled noisily. I expected Shelley to scream out in pain (she was, after all, half-hanging from the things), but she just laughed while Michal hugged her.
I reminded myself not to be jealous. I am lucky the kid doesn't hate me, after all.
I stood in the doorway for a moment, watching, and then started to back toward one of the molded plastic chairs in the hall. I am such a chicken.
I looked up. Oh good Lord, it's the Ice Queen, speaking to me. Blinking heavily, I leaned back into her doorway.
"Uh, hi," I said, meekly. "I'm glad to see that you're feeling better..."
She looked at me for a long moment. I couldn't read the expression in her eyes. I saw Michal take her hand, and Shelley looked down at it, and then over to Michal. She turned back to me.
--Oh please don't yell at me in front of Michal, I thought.
"Um, Joel got caught with a patient, so I, uh, just brought her up..."
"I know," she said, evenly, if not warmly. "He called to tell me."
She looked at Michal and smiled before turning back to me.
"Jessica, I know everything you've done for Michal since, well, since the accident, and I just want to tell you how much I appreciate it," she said.
--Oh, wow, I thought dully.
"You know, routine is really important for kids, and, uh, I appreciate you taking such good care of her," she said.
When I repeated the story to Joel later, he was really pleased with Shelley's graciousness.
"What did you say?" he asked.
"I said that it was my pleasure, and that I really like Michal," I reported. "But between you and me -- I just wish Michal liked me a little more..."
"She will," he said confidently. "Don't worry."
By Rosh Hashana, Shelley was out of the hospital, but the intertwining remained. During the holiday, Michal slept at Shelley's, but Joel walked over to get her, and then stopped by my friends Rina and Steve's on the way to pick me up. We all walked toward the shul together. Michal and Rina's older two kids ran happily ahead of Rina and me; Joel and Steve walked behind us, pushing the baby Eli in a stroller.
--This is just too good to be true, I thought to myself, conscious of how picturesque we looked strolling down Maryland Avenue in our holiday clothes. I am Miss Judy Garland, starring in "Yuntif Parade!"
"I don't know the last time when I was actually on time!" Rina marveled once we arrived and sat down. During the services, Ari ran back and forth between us and his father; Michal followed him happily, scampering back every so often to take her father's hand.
-- "Purify our heart to serve You sincerely..."
I kept stumbling over the phrase in the prayer book, returning to it. I had walked into the crucible -- and survived.
After the silent devotion, Michal and Rina's son Ari swung back over to our side and, this time, Ari plopped himself down on the chair beside Rina. I looked up, expecting Michal to dart back to Joel in the men's section. She was looking at me. I looked back at her and, instinctively, smiled gently.
She stared for a moment longer and then, slowly, deliberately, crawled onto my lap. I sat still for a moment, and then felt her relax into me.
Immediately, my eyes sought out Joel on the other side -- he was watching.
I didn't dare exhale, and prayed that we wouldn't have to stand up for a while.
I didn't want the moment to end.