From what I understand, it took only six and a half seconds for my first son, Zachary, to fall from the bedroom window of our third story apartment to the ground below. This fact has always provided me with a mild level of comfort. Seeing that I was fifteen minutes from my home when the accident occurred, its brief duration allows me solace in knowing that I could not have prevented it. He could have fallen hundreds, maybe thousands, of times in the time it would’ve taken for me to come and catch him. There were several unusual things surrounding my son’s accident. The first concerns my wife, Clara. Clara was home when the accident took place (I, regretfully, had decided to work late that evening). One might wonder, as I’m sure the thought has recently crossed your mind, how a four year old could fall out of a window while his mother was at home. Wasn’t Clara watching him? The short answer is ‘no.’ Clara had found Zachary playing with an electrical outlet earlier in the day. She had subsequently purchased a number of plastic plugs to insert in the various open outlets in the apartment. At the time of the accident, Clara was busy safe-proofing our living quarters by plugging her little plastic life-savers into each of the apartments alluring electrical outlets, telling herself that she was keeping our sweet young son safe.
Of course, he wasn’t safe, though there was no reason for Clara to know that. The strange thing about what happened to Zachary is that he didn’t just fall out of the window – he opened the window as well. For a four year old to open a locked window is nearly impossible. The manual dexterity, while simple for us, is something beyond most children’s capabilities. However, this is what my son did. He unlocked our bedroom window, slid it open, and jumped.
Because of this, as incredible as it may be, the idea of suicide enters the picture. The many counselors Clara and I would see repeated to us that a four year old does not have a good enough grasp of death to willingly commit suicide with a full understanding of what he’s doing. It is highly doubtful that Zachary would be discontent with his existence and choose to end it. Still, it is impossible to completely rule suicide out, since we will never know what was going through Zachary’s head. Perhaps if he were older, he would’ve left a note.
In secret, I believe Clara always wished Zach had merely toppled out of the window. My lovely wife, in her heart, felt an unstoppable sadness from the idea that her child had wanted to end his own life. One time Clara looked at me and, in a soft voice, quietly asked, “Do you think he did it because he couldn’t play with the outlets any more? I was only trying to protect him. I never thought about what playing with the outlets might’ve meant to him.”
In the years that followed, Clara and I carried on in a way that would mirror many couples in grief. We quickly moved out of the apartment. We kept all of Zachary’s things, all of his toys and clothing, and created something of a memorial to him in the den of our new home. As a couple, we talked a lot less and our physical relationship deteriorated. Clara often spent hours thinking, remembering. She would tell me about what she remembered of Zach. She would describe his laugh, his smile. She would tell me that he had her eyes and, like hers, his ears stuck out a little too much. I would do the same. I would tell her about how Zachary loved the idea of flying, and would spend hours in the backyard running around, his arms straight out, waiting for take off. I would imitate the way he walked, kind of an assured drunken stagger. Our reminiscing sometimes resulted in tears, sometimes silence. It always maintained the undertone that what we were talking about was gone. Our son was dead, and we would have to talk about all the joy and happiness he brought us to keep from forgetting it.
Clara, inevitably, fell into a long, deep depression. The world became bleak to her, and she would look at everything, from a television program to a lovely sunrise, with the same sad expression on her face. Clara cried plenty in those days. She hated to be comforted in those times, and I can clearly remember sitting in the other room, hearing her sobbing.
“I want my son back,” I would hear her saying.
My grief was far narrower. I viewed my son’s death as a tragedy in and of itself. The world did not loose its light. Like Clara, I wanted my son back. Unlike Clara, his absence did not darken the world he left.
Three years passed between the time Zachary died and the time Clara finally looked at me and said, “I want to have a baby.” I had waited for her to say that for a long time. The counselors had anticipated it too, and spoke to us about how the new child could not be seen as a replacement for Zach. We spent many sessions rehashing this. Our child would have to be treated as an individual living outside of the cloud Zach had left. Clara and I agreed that we understood. We agreed that we would love the new child with all the love that rested in our hearts, waiting to be given out. The new child would not be filling a void or, as the counselors feared, be kept under lock and key to prevent a second unlucky accident from happening.
And so Clara and I took to the bedroom. In the next few weeks, we made love at least fifty times more than we had in the previous three years put together. All of this pleasurable work finally amounted to something on, in a bizarre coincidence, Zachary’s birth date, when Clara emerged from our tiny bathroom to tell me that she was pregnant. I threw my arms around her. We laughed and shouted in delight.
“I can’t believe it, Alan,” Clara stammered. “Another child. I’m so happy.”
Our happiness did not falter for the duration of the pregnancy. Everything went smoothly and easily. Clara carried her child with a radiance unequalled by any soon-to-be mother. There was a glow about her that was simply amazing.
We spent no time apart, and this continued in the delivery room, where I held Clara’s hand as our second son, Taylor, was born. The birth went perfectly. Taylor came out red and healthy. As soon as Clara was feeling well enough, we took our new boy home, bursting with excitement. We had worked together on setting a room up for him, and now we could finally complete it by adding the final piece of the puzzle: our baby.
“Do you want to hear something weird, Alan?” Clara asked. “Taylor weighed five and a half pounds when he was born.”
“What’s weird about that?” I asked.
“That’s exactly what Zachary weighed.”
We laughed. It was a goofy coincidence.
Taylor’s infancy was a good time, but soon all of the joy of having this new child was replaced with a quiet uneasiness. It was becoming rather clear that Taylor, the baby, acted just as Zachary had acted. He cried at the same times, he fed the same, he felt the same when we held him.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” Clara said. “All babies behave the same.”
We accepted that answer. Besides, having Taylor was what we had wanted so badly. That he was reminding us of our past son was more our fault than it was his.
But the similarities did not stop. In fact, they increased. As Taylor got older, he grew more and more into the template Zachary had set. He had Clara’s baby blue eyes, just as Zachary had, and his ears stuck out a little. Clara and I sat and looked at pictures of Zachary as a child, comparing them to Taylor. They were identical in every aspect.
“Well, it makes sense,” I tried to explain. “They’re both from the same gene pool.”
Explanations, however, were useless. By the time Taylor was four, it was obvious that we had parented the exact same child as the one we had previously. Taylor walked in the same manor, and ran around the backyard like an airplane just as Zach had. Their first word was the same. Physically, they were indistinguishable. There were several instances when we found Taylor toying with electrical outlets.
The counselors tried to ignore all this at first. They passed it off, though we could tell there was a bit of concern. They remarked on how similar Taylor was to Zachary. They told us that Taylor’s aptitude tests matched Zach’s, and their doctor’s tests had the same results as well. Then, inexplicably, they requested that we start seeing a different set of counselors.
We chose not to. We stayed with Taylor ourselves. We listened to every giggle, every made-up word with a slight sense of horror. We watched this little man like a ghost. We took note that the only difference was that Taylor, unlike Zach, never approached a window.
One night when Taylor was asleep, Clara turned to me and said, “It’s happened, Alan. We’ve got our child back. Zachary has come back to us.”
I nodded. It was true.
Surprises are plenty in life, and this sure was one. But another surprise was the reaction that it brought. As little as we discussed it, neither us seemed to be very happy with this. Taylor, our Zachary clone, became a dreadful presence in our home. Clara and I began avoiding him. We kept him out of sight, trying to forget about him, which was, of course, impossible. My hair would stand on end when entering the nursery. My hands would shake each time they came in contact with Taylor’s cold skin.
“I hate him,” Clara said. “I hate our son and I want him to go away.”
I agreed. Four and a half years after my second son, Taylor, was born, my wife Clara and I gave him up for adoption. When asked why we couldn’t care for our son, we talked about Zachary, and how losing the first child left us in no condition to ever raise a child again. We apologized. The state eventually took Taylor and gave him away.
The first night without Taylor, Clara cried uncontrollably. I couldn’t tell if she was happy or sad. That night, unlike the others, she let me hold her. A sense of relief came over me, brought on by Taylor’s departure and Clara allowing me to comfort her. I held her tightly.
A year or so later I arrived from work to find Clara sitting stiffly on the couch. She told me to sit down – there was something I needed to know.
“Someone from the adoption agency came by today,” she said.
I felt a fright enter my body. Could it be that my second son was coming back?
Clara continued. “Taylor’s dead. He drowned. His foster parents have been arrested for neglect. The funeral will be sometime later this week.”
“I don’t want to go,” I said. Clara agreed.
We also agreed that it was better for Taylor to be dead. This world should not have had a place for him. He didn’t belong.
In time Clara and I have grown quiet. We rarely talk, and when we do, our words are in whispers. Neither of us cries anymore. We accept all that has happened. We loved one child, and he died. We still have his toys, his pictures, all where they should be. As for Taylor, that life has long passed from our home. His name is rarely spoken. There are even times when Clara, in a manic episode, will deny that she even gave birth to him.
This is why it surprised me when Clara recently approached me and said that she would like to have another baby. She was white as a sheet, and her lips trembled as she spoke. Timidly I agreed.
Each passing night I stare into Clara’s eyes as we make love. Is there a fear there, an anxiety that he will come again? Of course. But as I look into those eyes, I often believe I can see, faintly, a new child. Yes, a different one. As I press into Clara I think I can hear him laugh. He has been there, for quite some time now, waiting for us, lost somewhere deep, deep within.