THE TRAIN journey from Buffalo was almost unbearable. Every rumble of the tracks made me nauseous as it carried me home to New York City. I’d spent the journey replaying the last moments of Michael’s life over and over in my head.
I was jolted back to reality as the train’s engines slowed. The people around me gathered their belongings and stood as the train arrived at our destination. Within minutes of the doors opening, every passenger had disembarked except me. A conductor called for me to exit the train as he walked through the carriages to check for stragglers, but I didn’t move. He turned, aware I hadn’t responded to his barked order. He must have seen the sorrow on my face.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but we’ve reached Grand Central Station,” he said, more kindly. “This is our last stop, so I’m afraid I have to ask you to make your way to the terminal.”
As I reached for my bag and felt how light it was, another punch of grief hit me. Michael’s ashes were gone, left in Buffalo in the care of his mom and dad.
I made my way from the platform through the concourse of Grand Central Station. Nothing but my mind’s darkness guided me down the stairs and onto the subway platform with a determination that both frightened and calmed me. Soon this desperate feeling would be gone and I’d be free of the pain.
A small bead of summer sweat ran down my back as I bowed my head and stared at the bare subway tracks. I shifted my weight from foot to foot and felt the raised dots on the yellow line that warned of the platform’s edge. They pressed into the soles of my shoes when the ground trembled as a train on the platform behind me rushed into the station. If I’d gone to that side first, it would already be over. But out of habit, I’d headed to the platform where the Number 6 train would usually take me to the City Hall stop near my home on the Lower East Side.
From the corner of my eye, I could see the first haze of yellow light growing wider in the tunnel and realized my position on the platform was wrong. I was in the middle when I should have been closer to the end where the train would appear. If the driver saw me and applied the brakes, the train might not be going fast enough for the impact to kill me instantly. I might experience the whole thing in slow motion before the weight of the front carriage crushed me. The light vibrations on the platform became tremors. The shiver in my body turned into a violent shake as I felt the warm, stale air pushing toward me from the tunnel by the oncoming train.
Just one step, Adam. That’s all.
The ice in my knees cracked as my legs began to move. My eyes darted between the finality of the oncoming train and the safety of the exit. For a split second, I didn’t know which way my legs would carry me, but my turning foot gave away its intention. I rushed back up the stairs and into the concourse of Grand Central Station before my mind sank into darkness again.
The late afternoon daylight shone through the cathedral-style windows, illuminating and side-blinding people as they made their way out of the terminal. The brightness gave me an excuse to dip my head and look at the ground as I made my way across the hall and toward the Forty-Second Street exit, where I could hail a cab. Echoes of hundreds of conversations, raggedy wheels on old suitcases rolling across smooth tiles, spinning flaps on the constantly changing destinations board, and the general chaos of a Friday afternoon in New York’s busiest train station all blended in my ears, a steady roll of commuter thunder.
Over the years, I’d grown deaf to the din, but today something stood out. I heard crying. For a moment I thought the sobs might be my own. I walked briskly past the information kiosk in the middle of the concourse and headed for a solitary bench against the wall opposite the ticket counters. I sat and buried my head in my hands, hoping to stifle my tears and keep it together long enough to get back to the apartment. As I tried to settle myself, I heard the cry again. But it was clearer and much higher than the muffled grizzle a thirty-two-year-old man would hear in his own ears. The pitch of the cry grew higher and higher, so I looked around for toddlers or babies in strollers. But there were none—at least none close enough that I should hear so clearly. Then I realized the noise was coming from beneath me.
I stood and then crouched to look under the bench. There, wrapped in a plain white cotton towel, was a baby. It couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. Gingerly, I picked up the bundle and looked around, searching for its mother. But people carried on walking as though they hadn’t noticed. I sat and carefully lowered the baby onto my knees, continuing to scan the area for someone—anyone—who looked hysterical. Not a single person looked interested or even remotely concerned. When I looked down again, the baby had stopped crying, and its right arm had broken free of the toweling. Its tiny hand grasped at the air, desperate to catch hold of something. I held out my little finger and felt the tiny hand grip it, stronger and tighter than I would have imagined possible for a baby so young. For the first time in five weeks, a sense of calm and peace washed over me.
Of course I was shocked and somewhat panicked at finding an abandoned baby. Anyone would be. But amid those feelings, there was a moment to step outside myself, to care about and concentrate on someone with bigger problems than my own. And, however selfish it might sound, I was relieved to have a respite from my grief.
I knew the NYPD patrolled the entrance to the terminal. I didn’t want to carry the baby outside in case its mother came back, so I tried to flag people down as they passed. I managed to catch the attention of a young woman in a business suit and asked her to alert the police. She was just as horrified as I was and looked around, expecting to find a frantic woman in the area, before hurrying away to summon the cops.
“Who would leave you?” I cooed as I stroked the baby’s plump cheek. Its eyes were a beautiful shade of aqua blue and followed every movement of my face. When I looked up again, I saw two officers heading toward me. The older, more experienced cop walked at a stroll. The other, who looked fresh from the academy, approached with a little more urgency.
I explained how I’d found the baby, and the older cop stepped to one side to speak into his radio. The younger cop sat beside me and pulled out a small pad and a pen from his pocket.
“Can I take your name, sir?”
“Adam Goodwin,” I replied. The young cop introduced himself as Officer Marino and jotted in his notepad as I spoke.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” the older cop called out to us. I opened the towel to find the baby was naked.
“It’s a girl,” I called back. “She must be older than I thought. She has to be at least several weeks old. Her navel is completely healed.”
“Can you hazard a guess at her ethnicity?”
I looked down again. Her skin wasn’t pale enough for a Caucasian baby nor dark enough to be black. It appeared to be light olive, but it was difficult to tell in the mix of natural and artificial light in the concourse.
“Maybe Hispanic?” Officer Marino called out to his partner. “But then again… I don’t know. She kinda looks like my sister Lucia’s kid when she was a baby. Could be Italian, but you don’t often see kids like that with blue eyes.”
“All babies are born with blue eyes,” the older cop called over with a look of exasperation at his partner’s unhelpfully vague description. He continued speaking into his radio.
“Okay, sir,” Officer Marino continued. “Can I get some contact details from you? You know, just in case we need to get in touch with you or call you as a witness at a later date. I’m not too sure of the procedure for lost babies.”
“I don’t think she’s lost, officer. She’s clearly been abandoned.”
“Oh yeah. Sure,” he said awkwardly, as if he thought it was the second stupid thing he’d said in as many sentences.
“And not all babies are born with blue eyes,” I added to be kind. He looked embarrassed, so I continued. “The police will contact Social Services and Child Welfare, who will file a report and take custody of her.” I don’t know why I smiled as I explained the chain of events to come. I guess I thought it might soothe her or make it easier for her to hear, even though she couldn’t understand a word of it. “Then a social worker will be assigned her case and will attempt to find her a temporary foster home until her mother is found or comes forward. Then they’ll have to evaluate the mother’s state of mind, decide whether any charges should be filed, and conduct home visits to see if she might remain in danger.” I stroked the side of her chubby little cheek again. “She’s obviously been well cared for. Even this toweling looks brand new.”
“You know a lot about this, huh?”
“I’m a Legal Aid attorney. I work with Social Services and the Family Court a lot. I have an idea of the procedure, but I’ve never actually dealt with it myself.”
The young officer nodded, then shook his head in disgust. “What kind of woman leaves her baby, huh? Some people don’t deserve to have kids. I hope they don’t ever find her.” He pointed the top of his pen at the baby resting quietly on my lap. “Lucky you found her. Perhaps she’ll stand a chance without a woman like that as a mother.”
I tried to keep an even tone. “Officer, you don’t know the mother’s situation. There could be a dozen reasons why she left her baby here. She could be in trouble. She might recognize that she can’t cope. She may think the baby’s father is dangerous and is trying to get her away from him. You shouldn’t jump to conclusions before you know more.”
“Nah, I don’t buy it,” the young officer said dismissively. “Why not leave the kid at a hospital or a police station? Or just give it up for adoption? Why leave it under a bench in a train station? That proves to me she don’t give a damn.”
“You’re right, there are safer places. But isn’t this situation better than you or one of your colleagues being called to a back-alley dumpster to investigate a dead baby that’s been thrown away?” It came out far more bluntly than I’d intended. The cop was young and obviously new to the beat. He hadn’t yet been exposed to some of the horrors uncovered in the city on a daily basis.
“Yeah, I suppose so. I just find it hard to believe someone would do something like this, ya know?”
The older officer came over and informed us that no one had reported a missing child in the area and prepared to take the baby.
“Do you want me to bring her down to the station?” I asked hopefully.
“There’s no need. We’ll take her until Social Services arrive. The patrol car ain’t fitted out with seats to take a baby, so we’re gonna hang on here until then. You’re free to carry on with your day, sir, but we may be in contact again soon.”
I nodded, feeling oddly bereft, and wrapped the little girl tightly in the toweling again before I stood and gave her a quick cradle in my arms. “Look after her,” I said, preparing to hand the baby over to the older, more experienced cop, since Officer Marino looked scared to handle her.
He unclipped the radio from the front of his shoulder and handed it to his partner before awkwardly taking the baby from me. He held her up to his chest and wrapped his arm around the bundle.
As I started to move away, she began to whimper. I had walked just a few steps toward the exit before her screaming cries dominated the sounds of the station. By the time I got outside, my grief and sadness had returned, and I was on my own again.
AFTER PAYING the taxi driver for the ride to my apartment building, I took a deep breath before opening the glass doors that led into the lobby. I headed up two flights of stairs and down the short hallway, passing my neighbor’s door. It was slightly ajar, clearly left open to listen for my return.
Della Walker, or “Miss Dee” as she was known in our four-story apartment block, was a retired nurse. She was one part Maya Angelou and two parts Whoopi Goldberg, though in recent weeks that mixture had been inverted. I knew she’d appear the moment my keys jangled as I pulled them from my pocket. And true to her Georgia roots, I also knew that her hands would be full of Southern comfort food. I wasn’t disappointed.
“My spiced chicken, fried confetti corn, and mashed potatoes with cream gravy,” she called with a smile as she walked toward me with a covered plate. “And buttermilk biscuits, freshly baked today,” she added as she handed me a small Tupperware box.
“Thank you, Miss Dee.” I bent down and gave a peck on the cheek to the woman who’d fed me both food and advice for the past five weeks. “You really are a godsend.”
“Now, honey, tell me how it went today. I know it had to be tough.”
I slowly nodded. “It was, but at least it’s over now.”
“And tell me, how were Michael’s momma and daddy?”
“They were okay. I think they were a little worried that it had taken me two weeks to give them the ashes. But I think they realized that it was hard—”
“—hard to let go,” Miss Dee finished my sentence. “But you gave them what they needed to grieve, a chance to have their child with them forever.”
“Yeah, but what about me?” I asked hopelessly.
“You get to keep all those memories in your heart where they belong, honey. They’ll never be relived or felt in an urn. An urn don’t feel nothin’.”
I gave her a brave smile. I knew she wouldn’t leave until she saw one.
“Now, baby, if there’s anything I can do for you, you let me know, ya hear? Just you holler.”
I leaned down and gave her another peck on the cheek before she wrapped her hands around my face, gave it a little shake, and headed back down the hall and into her apartment.
I unlocked the door and walked into my empty home. It was a modest two-bedroom apartment, but without Michael, it felt as if the space could fill a mansion. I walked through the open-plan living room and kitchen and dropped my empty bag onto the counter. I drew back a chair from the dining table, uncovered the food, and began my recently developed ritual of getting halfway through Miss Dee’s meal before my throat closed up and tears ran off my cheeks and onto the plate.
I didn’t want to leave the table because I knew what was coming. It was the same thing every night. But tonight—especially tonight—without even Michael’s cremated presence in the apartment, I knew it would be worse, and it terrified me. I would lie on our bed alone and surrender to impossibly dark thoughts. They’d hold me hostage until I finally succumbed to sleep. I’d have a few hours of sweet unconscious release, but eventually, the nightmares would recapture me as I recalled saying good-bye.
“I love you, Michael. You are and will always be everything to me,” I’d said over the hospital bed as the artificial sound of his heartbeat slowed. Then I whispered the same thing I’d whispered every night before we went to sleep.
“Dream of me, Mikey.”
I never knew if he heard me that last time I said those words out loud. Only once, in a precious dream, I heard the words Michael said back to me every night. “Why dream when you’re here next to me?”