"Today my little brother fell out of his wheelchair and dropped his fire engine."
This is what Alec writes in his first-grade composition book one spring weekend when I'm three. He writes it after Dad takes me to the Lamston's under our apartment, on York Avenue at 79th Street in New York City. It's one of my first outings in my new, shiny, green-upholstered wheelchair. Up till then much of my life experience is from the perspective of Mom's slim hip, Dad's long arms, a baby stroller or the sofa, wedged with pillows. But soon I'll be starting nursery school—at Riverside Church, the only regular nursery school in the city that will take a physically handicapped kid in 1966—so I have to get a proper wheelchair.
I like Lamston's. I've been there before. Our housekeeper / baby-nurse Inez has taken Alec and me a few times. Inez is strict. She's what I understand is called an Egro. She and other Egro baby nurses and maids meet at the Lamston's lunch counter to eat and smoke and gossip.
Today Dad says I can buy a toy at Lamston's if I'll be quiet and behave. It's not hard to choose. I want a Matchbox car. When Dad is done shopping, I remind him of his promise and he pushes me to the toy aisle. But the Matchboxes are on a high shelf. Too high for me to see well from my wheelchair. Dad undoes my seatbelt and lifts me up for a better look. He's strong and tall, and with him I feel safe and have no boundaries.
I pick a small fire engine. I don't have any in my collection, and I want one because fire engines can go anywhere. They have no boundaries.
I clutch the little hook-and-ladder in my small hand as tightly as I can.
On the walk home Dad abruptly decides on a detour. Instead of pushing me around the corner at 79th Street he makes a sharp left toward the garage under our building. "A change of scene," he says. The steep ramp down is dark and cool as we get closer. The descent begins, and I feel its pull beneath me. Dad holds tight to the handles of my wheelchair. The downward pressure intensifies. Before I know what's happening I'm tumbling out of my wheelchair onto the hard, oil-stained incline. And I keep rolling ... out of control, on my own, a rag doll without enough muscle to stop myself ... until I bump against a side wall and just lie there.
I don't remember crying. I don't remember hurting. I disappear into my brain. I remember thinking—having an acute, reflexive alertness to my surroundings and taking a kind of mental inventory of where I am and how I'm feeling. An out-of-body alertness. There is nothing else I can do. I'm too stunned to hurt or cry. I can't move anything—I never can—but I can be aware and wholly conscious, an omniscient observer. Then Dad is there, beside me, asking how I am, touching me, examining me for damage and scooping me up off the garage floor and placing me back in my chair. This time he remembers the seat belt.
He keeps asking if I'm okay. This is when I start to cry. A few heaves at first, then gushes. He rushes me upstairs, to our apartment, to Mom. I can't stop crying, though I try. I become breathless.
"There, there," says Mom, taking me into her arms. She quickly turns practical. "Stop your crying and tell me what hurts."
I can't stop bawling and haven't a chance of answering. She holds me still a moment and it feels warm and lovely. Then Mom sees a bump on my head. I mutter about my finger and try to produce my right hand. Its ring finger is swollen and rosy-purple and aching. Mom calls for ice, which Dad promptly delivers. My weeping subsides, replaced by a youch at the touch of ice to my scalp.
"You'll be fine," Mom declares.
She puts the ice to my finger and looks up at Dad with lightning bolts.
[Next installment in a day or two, whether you want it or not...]