Scott William Woods 1670 words
Originally published in Blood and Thunder 11:66-68, 2011
by Scott William Woods
Minnetonka, Minnesota, 1972
Anna Ellis smacked her daughter’s bare bottom with the hairbrush for the fifth and final
time. It hurt to have to do it--more than it hurt Sarah--but Sarah needed to learn her lesson. She
simply could not keep making noise like that when the twins were sleeping.
Her eyes were wet, and yet she hadn’t made a peep. Quite the strong-willed girl at eight.
Like her mother that way.
Anna lit a Parliament, took a deep drag, and let the smoke whoosh out. Maybe she’d
been a little hard on Sarah. She really was very helpful with Mason and Jason.
Well, it wasn’t the easiest thing having two four-month-olds at 37. When her periods
stopped, she’d thought at first that maybe she was going into early menopause. Of course she
loved them dearly anyway, but with Tom out on tour promoting his book, she was down to her
Maybe she’d go visit Sally. It was after 4:00--they could have cocktails. Sarah could
watch the twins again. They were both asleep, and it was only next door. And it was Saturday
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after all. Maybe TV dinners tonight.
Sarah combed out Malibu Barbie’s long hair with the doll hairbrush. Then she bent
Barbie at the waist, pulled up her fuchsia mini, pulled the panties down, and laid Barbie across
Barbie was bad. Barbie made too much noise and woke up her baby brothers.
She gave Barbie five whacks with the hairbrush. Barbie didn’t make a peep.
A high ‘Waa-aah’ started up from the babies’ room. Sounded like Jason.
Sarah knew what to do. Mommy had shown her. She crept into the babies’ room over to
the crib, raised up on her tiptoes so she could reach over the bar, and lifted Jason up. Mason was
still sound asleep, lying on his knees and elbows, thumb in his mouth, blue blanket tucked in.
She cradled Jason in her arms and rocked him gently. He kept crying. She gave him his
pacifier, but he spat it out. She sang Rockabye Baby, Jason’s favorite. That didn’t do it either.
Maybe he was wet.
She laid him on the changing table on his back and pulled open the onesie snaps. One-
two-three. The diaper cloth felt dry. Maybe one of the pins was sticking him. She separated the
folds of the cloth and ran her finger all along each safety pin. Nothing sharp.
Jason was still wailing, and now Mason was stirring in the crib. Mommy said to come
get her if there was a problem, but she could handle this for Mommy.
The twins had just eaten an hour ago, but maybe Jason was hungry again. Sarah carried
him out to the kitchen, and laid him on his blanket on the floor. She opened a can of formula,
poured it into a bottle, and placed the bottle in the warmer. She tried the pacifier again. This
time she pushed a little harder and held it in place. Jason didn’t like that. He moved his head
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from side to side trying to get away from the pacifier and cried louder.
She left Jason on the floor and went to check on Mason. His thumb was out of his
mouth, and he was making little grunting noises. Jason was waking him up. She needed to stop
Jason from crying. The bottle should be ready now.
Jason didn’t want the bottle either. He spat out the nipple just like the pacifier.
Sarah ran down the reasons Mommy had told her. Wet, hungry, diaper pin, too cold, too
hot, sick, lonely. She touched the back of her hand to Jason’s forehead, like Mommy did.
Didn’t feel like fever. What could he want? He shouldn’t be crying for no reason.
She wrapped Jason in his blanket again and picked him up. Rocked him a little harder.
Maybe she should go get Mommy next door. But she was supposed to be Mommy’s Little
Helper, and Mommy said she needed the break.
Mason started to cry in the nursery. Sarah cradled Jason in her arms and ran in. She held
Jason in one arm, reached up on her tiptoes over the bar, and stroked Mason’s back. Both of
them kept crying.
Jason was a bad baby. He’d made too much noise and woken his brother. She got
Mommy’s hairbrush, took off Jason’s diaper, and turned him over her knee. Five whacks with
the hairbrush should teach him to be quiet.
But Jason wouldn’t learn his lesson. He was bawling louder than ever. She had to get
Jason to stop crying so Mason could go back to sleep. And then get Jason to sleep before
Mommy came home and got mad at her.
She picked up Jason under the arms and held his face close to hers. “Stop crying, Jason!”
she yelled. “Stop crying before Mommy comes home!”
But Jason still wouldn’t listen. She gave him a little shake. His head wobbled back and
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forth on his neck, and he went quiet for a second. Maybe that would do it. She shook him
harder, and harder, until he finally wasn’t crying anymore.
Sarah went back to the crib. Mason was asleep again. Jason didn’t want to keep his
knees up, so she laid him flat on his tummy and covered him with his blanket.
I sighed as I drove as fast as I could to the Ellis house. This didn't sound good. The
mother was hysterical on the phone. She couldn’t wake the baby up, and he wasn’t breathing. I
didn’t do that many house calls anymore, but I could get there before an ambulance.
So sad. Crib death happened even in the best families. And in the best neighborhoods.
The Ellises lived in a subdivision full of rambler homes just like Beth and I did. They were such
a nice family, too. Both professors at the University. An older son off at Stanford. Sweet Sarah,
getting to be a big girl now. The twins seemed like they'd been a bit of a surprise, but there was
no question they were wanted and loved.
Anna Ellis opened the front door as I raced into the driveway. Tears streaking down her
cheeks, Sarah clinging to her waist.
Anna was holding the baby. Even from the car I could see there was no muscle tone.
The baby's arm dangled limp and lifeless.
She met me at the door, the imploring look in her eyes almost more than I could take.
The baby's outstretched hand was already growing cold. These tiny bodies lost heat rapidly. It
was too late for CPR.
I opened my bag and removed my stethoscope, delaying the moment as long as possible
when I had to look into Anna's eyes again. She unsnapped the onesie with her free hand and
pulled it up so I could place the stethoscope over the heart.
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When I couldn’t bear it any longer, I stopped listening and looked up at Anna. Still the
beseeching desperation, hoping against hope. Holding her gaze, I pursed my lips and shook my
head slowly from side to side.
She tore the infant away, whirled from Sarah, and stumbled keening into the living room.
I followed her in over to the couch. "I'm so sorry, Anna. If only there were something I
could do." She was racked with blubbering now, clutching Jason’s body to her bosom,
"Mommy's right here, Darling," over and over.
I laid a hand on her shoulder. "I’m truly sorry, but I need to complete the examination."
She took a deep breath, interrupted by three gulping spasms, and laid her son on her lap.
Sarah nuzzled next to her. "What's the matter, Mommy? Don't cry."
Alcohol on the mother’s breath. She wasn’t drunk, though. I touched my finger to the
soft spot on the front of the baby's skull.
Something was wrong here. The fontanelle should have been flat and soft, not hard and
bulging. The eyes were open, and the pupils were widely dilated. I shone my flashlight in them
out of habit--no reaction--and pulled out my ophthalmoscope.
Hemorrhages in the retinas. Like those cases in Connecticut. Shaken baby syndrome,
they were calling it.
"Tell me what happened."
It came rushing out, tumbling out. "I was just over next door at Sally's for a few
minutes. They were both asleep like little angels when I left. Sarah was watching them--she has
before. When I came in I checked on them first thing and”--she started sobbing again--"and
Jason didn't look right, and then I could tell he wasn't breathing!"
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"Take me in to see Mason."
"No, Doctor, you can't think Mason too? They're supposed to be baptized next week!"
Mason was sound asleep, peaceful. On his tummy with his knees tucked up underneath.
Thumb in his mouth. Baby blue blanket lovingly covering him.
"What could have caused this?" the mom asked. "He wasn't sick or anything!"
Those cases in Connecticut. That baby nurse who killed infants by shaking them--she
was a large adult, six feet tall with unusually strong hands. Sarah couldn't possibly generate
force like that.
But those retinal hemorrhages shouldn't lie. Maybe the unusually strong hands had
nothing to do with it.
I looked at Sarah. Her eyes were locked on her mother's. "Don't cry, Mommy. Sarah
will make it all better."
And made my decision. Sarah was too young to understand what happened.
"I'm so sorry, Anna. It's a crib death. Sudden infant death syndrome, SIDS, they’re
calling it. No one knows what the cause is."
The mother burst out weeping again.
Even though it was clearly an accident, I still needed to protect little Mason. “This is
going to be traumatic for Sarah, too. It's probably best that she not look after Mason by herself
for a while. Until she’s older."
Sarah stared hard at me and then buried her head in her mother's lap. Maybe she wasn't
too young to understand any longer.