The baby died so quietly and quickly that no one noticed. No one was expecting it. The baby was perfectly healthy and almost a toddler, sitting up sturdily on its mother’s knee, chewing on a knobby plastic ring. Not more than three minutes before, several of the people in the room – the mother’s women friends, convened for a Sunday brunch with mimosas – had seen the baby’s face alive and gnawing at the toy. The baby had paused in its labors to smile and shriek a few times, and once to briefly nurse, after which the mother could have a mimosa and not worry about it. The baby was almost weaned and would not nurse again until bedtime.
It was one of the other women – not the mother holding the warm bundle and absently bouncing her knee – who noticed first. The baby’s face was frozen solid, so still you couldn’t believe it had ever moved or breathed at all. The woman who saw this knew at once. For a second she did not react. What do you do? You cannot tell a woman whose husband you dated in college that her baby is dead in her lap. She will think you killed it with your gaze and even if she does not she will hate you forever for noticing first. In the time of this woman’s hesitation, someone else noticed, someone closer to the mother and her quite suddenly and quite obviously dead baby. The second woman said the baby’s name. She said it as a question. Not everyone caught the tone of shock and fear in her voice but the mother did. And at the same moment the weight on her knee registered its unliveliness, the sturdy form between her hands its non-squirminess, and she knew. Like the first woman, for a second the mother did not react. The milliseconds stretched out like the dotted lines on a flat highway, ticking away beneath her. She thought of her husband. What could she tell him? He would think she had killed the baby through selfish inattention. He would ask her friends how many mimosas she’d had. A small part of her brain began spelling out excuses in a doctor’s reassuring voice. Meanwhile the milliseconds vanished one by one. The form in the distance was still far away, not quite visible but rushing closer all the time. She knew it must suddenly appear and then it would be unavoidable, blocking the road completely. A second can only last so long.
“Jesus! Don’t tell me shit like that.”
“It was just a dream.”
“It was so vivid. One of those really vivid dreams, you know? You can remember every detail.”
“I don’t know why you think it’s funny.”
“I’m not laughing! It’s normal. I read about it in that book. All pregnant women have horrifying, gruesome baby death dreams. And you keep having them after it’s born, too. Forever. My mom used to dream about my brother or me being creamed by cars or drowning or caught in a house fire, or just dropping us by accident and breaking our necks. Regularly. She probably still has them. She used to dream that she forgot to feed us for three months and didn’t remember until she noticed that we were all bony and stretched like those Unicef babies.”
“Did you have to tell me right now? I can’t eat after that.”
“No, really, I’m sorry. I guess the orange juice reminded me.”