I’m at work when my cellphone rings. My son’s principal. Again.
“First, Jay’s fine, he’s not hurt,” Ms. Harris says. “But this morning he climbed up on top of his locker in the first-grade hallway and jumped off.”
“What? Oh no.” I picture my son’s small white sneakers scrambling up the metal locker door. In my mind, he leaps into the air and hangs suspended for a heartbeat before plummeting to the shiny gray floor.
“I don’t know why he would do such a thing,” the principal says, “or if it’s because of his… condition. But I’m sure you understand if he’d hurt himself or someone else, this could have been a very different phone call. I’d be calling 9-1-1 instead of you.”
“Yes, of course.” I glance at the framed family photo on my desk: Jay perched on Glen’s shoulders near the Air and Space Museum, surrounded by pink cherry blossoms. “I’m sending Jay back to class now,” the principal says. “I told him he needs to make better choices. I hope you can reinforce that message after school.”
“Yes, I’ll talk to him.” I scoop scattered paper clips into a lumpy clay bowl painted blue. The school’s complaints are ramping up. It’s a bad sign.
After school, Jay marches a horde of plastic dinosaurs across the living room floor. He’s reenacting a scene from Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous and humming.
“Ms. Harris called today,” I tell him. “She said you climbed up on top of your locker and jumped off.”
“Yeah.” Jay doesn’t look up.
“Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
It’s his usual response. It used to exasperate me, until I realized it’s true.
“That’s dangerous,” I say. “You could really hurt yourself, or your friends or teachers. Please don’t do that again. And try to think before you do things.”
“I know, Mom.”
A tall brown Tyrannosaurus Rex seizes a green Velociraptor in its jaws. Jay roars.
After dinner, Glen and I linger at our small round dining room table. A pile of permission slips, magic-marker art, and worksheets slump at my elbow.
“I think it’s time,” Glen says.
“But he’s only six.”
“The longer we wait, the harder the surgery will be.”
“Then we need to discuss it with Jay,” I say, “and ask him what he wants to do.” My voice quivers.
“We’ve been over this, Danielle. The psychologist says he’s too young to make good choices.”
I carry the dirty plates into the kitchen and twist the faucet as hot as I can stand. Glen is right. The experts at Children’s National agree: removing Jay’s wings will only get riskier and more complicated the more he grows.
Pots and pans clatter in the metal sink as I scrub. Soapy water sloshes onto the countertops and soaks my sleeves. Glen is still talking but I hear only isolated phrases: grow up; normal life; barely remember. The windowpane over the sink is dark. Tiny iridescent soap bubbles float up, up, up under the fluorescent light until they burst.
That evening, Jay splashes in the bathtub and yellow rubber ducks bob up and down. I’m helping him wash his hair. A squirt of shampoo from the colorful cartoon bottle fills the bathroom with the synthetic scent of watermelon. I see no bruises or other signs of injury from his misadventure at the school lockers today.
“Close your eyes,” I say, then lather his brown curls. I rinse, and my fingers linger on the stubby triangular bulges beneath Jay’s skin on either side of his spine. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I already feel a tiny flutter against my palm.
“Mom, what are you doing?”
“Just washing your back.”
I tiptoe into Jay’s bedroom that night, careful not to step on Legos or trip over toy helicopters. He’s sound asleep in his twin bed against the wall. I tuck him in and notice his eyes darting behind his closed lids.
Last week, when Glen and I met with the neurosurgeon, the small bones in Jay’s nascent wings were delicate white ghosts in the gray shadows of the x-ray. Dr. Ruiz sat next to a life-sized model of the human spine and faced us across a large wooden desk. Jay’s wings were still undeveloped, he said, but soon would grow, protrude, and place debilitating stress on his spine, muscles, and organs.
“But how do you know for sure?” I asked. “Only one child in a million is like Jay.” I gripped the leather arms of my chair, resisting a sudden urge to flee the office.
“I’m confident,” Dr. Ruiz said, “based on the data we have.”
“Even if Jay were to manage physically,” Glen said, “think of the social ostracism. The loneliness. The constant scrutiny. We can spare him all of that.”
I thought of feathers and flight, soaring and song. As a child, I often dreamt of flying, and I can still recall the thrill of spiraling up over buildings and treetops and turning my face to the sky. My voice sounded far away when I asked the doctor about the surgery’s long-term effects.
“If it’s done soon, only a scar,” he said, “like this.” His finger drew a letter W in the air across the x-ray of Jay’s back. An unusual scar. “But it will fade,” he said. “By the time Jay is an adult, the scar will be almost imperceptible.”
Now, watching Jay sleep, I wonder where to draw the boundary between a miracle to be celebrated and a problem to be solved.
I can’t sleep tonight so I switch on my bedside lamp and read. Glen lies asleep next to me, on his side and turned away. My fingers caress his bare back. The surgeon was right about one thing at least: in adulthood, the W-shaped scar is almost imperceptible.
DK Snyder lives in Virginia and writes by night about what hides beneath the mundane. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Shotgun Honey, Unbroken Journal, Punk Noir Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @millioncandles.
Lead image: “Wings of the fallen” (via Flickr user Garrette)