As a young boy living in a beach town, I often walked to school in the fog. Sometimes it was so thick I couldn't see beyond my reach. I would sit on the sidewalk, wrapped in the fog's soft white blanket, a world without edges. Safe, protected, empowered by my imagination, my world was what I wanted it to be.
When did I start to fear the fog?
I left that beach town and became a successful college graduate, following my dreams, afraid of nothing, good at everything. I married my high school sweetheart, got a job, bought a car, a house, had a baby boy. My world was a magical place where every cloud had a silver lining, and I was its silversmith.
Then, at age two, our son fell from a tree. It happened on Saturday, playing at his friend's. But I didn't know until Sunday morning. My wife got up, went to his bedroom, and screamed. When I ran in, he was standing in his crib. The left side of his face was pink, the right side was blue. It was like a fantastic mask, but it was a bruise, covering half his face, as if he had been smacked with a shovel. He didn't seem to mind the bruise, but we were terrified. We rushed him to the hospital.
One look and the nurse immediately sent him to x-ray. Then we waited. The nurse said she would watch David while the doctor talked with us. We were led to a long, empty corridor. Down one side, there were closed doors. Along the other, glass windows overlooking a garden. After half an hour, we heard the echoed sound of shoes on the hard linoleum floor. We watched a doctor walk towards us, a walk that I can remember to this day: He had a large envelope in one hand, which swung at his side to the rhythm of his clicking heals, the pendulum of a ticking clock, a time bomb with its hands about to strike midnight.
He must have told me his name, must have asked if we were the parents, but all I remember is his fingers reaching into that envelope, pulling out a sheet of film. He put it up to the light of the window and looked at the gray image of my son's skull.
“That's the biggest skull fracture I've ever seen!” he said, genuinely surprised by what he saw.
The blood drained from my head. I thought about the floor, how hard it would feel if I fainted. I struggled to stay conscious. The doctor reached into the envelope and pulled out another x-ray.
“Split his skull wide open, like a watermelon dropped from a second story window.”
I heard the words, but was confused by the lighthearted delivery. Still looking at the x-ray, he pointed at this second bearer of bad news.
“The impact was here, at the back. Split it all the way to the front.”
He shook his head, then looked at me.
“Must have been hard and fast. Didn't even follow the sutures.
He held the x-ray for me. His finger traced a jagged tear from one end of the skull to the other. He pointed out the plates of the skull, that allow the brain to grow, that meet along suture lines. The doctor stopped talking.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, as if that were reassuring. “It's important to watch for swelling in the first 24 hours. That's how he got the bruise.”
The doctor saw I didn't understand.
“The blood leaked out along the fracture, drained down between layers of skin.”
He put one hand on his head, let his fingers flow down, over the contours of his face, stopping when his palm reached his chin.
“It seeped out the fracture, settled while he was sleeping.”
The doctor blinked, looked at me, blinked, looked at my wife. I waited for him to go on, but he just kept blinking, looking from me to my wife. I opened my mouth to talk, to break the finality of the silence, but I didn't know what to say. My eyesight drifted to the end of the hallway. I saw a sign with big red letters. They glowed with the word “EXIT.” A chill brought me back, to the doctor, to paying attention to what he was going to say, what he was going to tell us to do. He stayed silent. Was he waiting for some signal from us? A question? Then he spoke, as if to fill the void.
“If it wasn't for the massive skull fracture, he would have died last night,” he said casually.
I didn't understand. I repeated what he said, in my head, trying to grasp the sentence. But the words didn't belong together. They floated apart, suspended like droplets of water in a thick fog - nothing solid, nothing to hold on to.
Slowly, an image in my brain revealed itself, an apparition, peeking out from behind its dark hiding place. I saw the picture of what might have happened, the picture of “he could have died last night.” The image flickered into a movie:
I shook my head, to dislodge the images. I swallowed, and swallowed again, feeling the bile rising. My stomach wanted to lurch, to purge what I was feeling. I looked for the doctor, focused my attention on him, tried to imitate his composed serenity. I pushed the movie away, back into the hole from which it crawled. The images faded away, back into the ether.
The doctor was looking at me, examining me. I straightened my back, lifted my head, closed my eyes and repeated my mantra, “I am in control, I am in control, I am in control.” I opened my eyes.
“Thank you,” I managed to say.
Twenty-five years, three children, four jobs, and one divorce...
Tonight I drive from Richmond back home to Petaluma, crossing the bay on the “roller-coaster” bridge. At the first rise, San Quentin is not visible. I head down towards a thick white blanket covering the middle section of the bridge. As I approach, I see wisps of mist flying across the highway, ghosts freed by high winds from their ocean graveyard. These denizens fly low, over the road, over my car. I pass through them. They pass through me.
The fog closes and I become a bubble, my headlights a reflected glow. I slow down, afraid of what might be ahead, what might be hidden just beyond. I creep, until I climb the second rise, up out of the fog, over the crest, then down towards Marin.
I can see San Quentin Prison in the distance. From its base, flood lamps climb the prison's wall of stone and brick. The spreading cones of light are so bright that the shadows become impenetrable, turning this enclosure into an island of black and white.
Inside the prison, behind the walls, behind the bars, my son is sleeping, unable to see me, unaware that I am passing.
I drive to the bottom of the second rise, where the bridge sets me onto firm ground. I continue home, heading inland. The fog gives up, unable or unwilling to follow.