When I was a kid I thought for the longest time that my baby brother was an accident. I don’t mean the condom-broke-and-I-got-pregnant accident, of course. I had no idea what a condom was anyway, or what it would be used for. This was apparently a need-to-know thing on the school playground, and my schoolmates (and enemies) clearly thought I was not someone who needed to know. I wouldn’t have learned it from my father and uncles, who never talked about sex with us and probably didn’t use condoms themselves, or at least not at home. Later I learned there was something called the rhythm method, which my cousin Gloria and countless other Catholic women practiced and which, judging from the fact the she was always either pregnant or bottle-feeding a newborn, was apparently subject to a significant error of measurement.
No, when I say accident I meant a car accident. I was six at the time and we were driving back home after a weekend trip to my grandfather’s farm, a ten-acre plot of land in what would later become one of the most sought after townships in central New Jersey. It was really just a hobby farm where my grandfather would plant vegetables and grapes and remember his childhood on the farm outside Naples he had left as a 10-year old immigrant. I remember the car smelled of peppers; there were bushels and bushels of them that filled the back of our station wagon, enough to make more trays of sausage & peppers than we’d ever eat, freeze or give away.
We were stopped for a red light on a steep street, behind a truck my father had nudged up to. The light changed and the driver tried to shift into first but slipped gear. The truck slid back and bumped into us. I felt the car lurch once and then again in three smaller jumps, almost in rhythm, doomp-da-da-da.
I don’t remember much of what happened next, except that I wound up at the house of a distant cousin, of which we seemed to have an endless supply, where I was given a bowl of tomato soup with pastina and told that my mother and father were fine but had gone to the hospital just to be extra sure. My grandfather picked me up later and brought me home and put me to bed.
The next day at breakfast my grandfather told me I was a very lucky boy because God had given me a baby brother. Daniel, he said. I’m not sure if I was more surprised at the fact that a traffic accident had caused the appearance of a baby brother or at the strangeness of the name. I mean, practically everybody in my extended family was named for somebody else, and no one was named Daniel. This already made him unusual in my eyes. It turned out he didn’t wind up looking like anyone in the family. I didn’t see this at first of course; to a six-year old he was just a noisy mouth surrounded by lots of doughy flesh. But as he got older and became more of the Daniel he is, I began to notice these differences—his round face and full cheeks, the deep brown eyes, so watchful, as if he were collecting scenes and impressions to store in some labyrinthine archive of memory that he’d process later. His gracefulness and agility, the way he’d suddenly appear and just as unexpectedly disappear. And then there was his monk-like quietude. He always seemed to be contemplating something, something much more interesting to him than we were.
In any event, from that moment on, and for an embarrassingly long period of time, I was convinced that people were born by accident. Not always car accidents, but always some outside force or event, a stroke of fate, so to speak. It helped that Daniel was practically the last of the siblings and cousins in my generation to be born, so I didn’t have much direct experience afterwards to contradict my belief about how we all came into this world. But I found or maybe constructed proofs. One was my fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Balzola. She left our school in February and came back the next a mother. She was a towering, large woman with barrel-sized hips who always worn high-heeled shoes, and she seemed to totter than she walked, like a giant top that was losing momentum. I figured she had slipped spectacularly on the ice on her way to work and landed in the hospital with a new kid.
I was even more convinced of accidental births after overhearing my father talking about how many more babies were born after the New York City blackout. I had these images of God delivering babies to women trapped in elevators or caught on the subway between stations or sitting in cars stuck in traffic in the middle of Lincoln Tunnel. There were a few practicalities I had to work out, like who brought the blanket and clothes that babies usually came wrapped in. I wondered if this was something women prepared for, as I was doing for Confirmation, or something that just suddenly happened to them, like a visitation from the Holy Spirit.
Eventually I had to concede that lots and lots of accidents happened without anybody being born, so the connection between our car accident and Daniel’s arrival must have been, well, accidental. This was about the same time I began to feel the first stirrings of sexual awakening and figured out that a baby had to have something to do with the man and woman being in bed. Not that I had figured out the sex. No, I thought God deposited the baby between the couple as they lay in bed facing each other, their gaze fixed on each other’s eyes—that was important for some reason, the looking into each other’s eyes part—in a moment of utter communion.
This was an explanation of birth that could only have been thought up by a kid whose imagination had been colored by paintings and stories of saints and demons and whose world was one where angels trod. I’m still not sure if it would have been better to have known the biology instead. In my version, it was incidental whether God used a random event like a truck backing into a station wagon loaded with farm produce or the tableau vivant of a couple in bed. What mattered was that birth was an act of divine intervention. I grew up thinking it was God who placed Daniel in our family and my life. Nothing remains of the faith I had as a child, but I still think there’s something divine about my brother.
Image: Frantisek Kupka, “The Beginning of Life”, c. 1900