Ada Shipman walked up the stairs to her son's room. It was midmorning. Christopher, 9 years old, was half-awake. She went to his bed, bent over and lifted him like a baby.
"Hi, Mommy," he said, gazing at her with huge brown eyes.
He is 9 but his body does not know it. It's the size of a toddler's, the arms and legs thin, crooked sticks. He has something called osteogenesis imperfecta. His bones are like pretzel sticks. A cough might crack a rib. A mother's loving squeeze could kill him.
Ada Shipman first saw him when he was 2 months old, propped up like a doll on a hospital pillow. His natural mother was an addict. He wasn't supposed to live more than a couple of years.
Ada Shipman took him in.
"He was the cutest little thing," she said. "He just needed somebody to love him, to pull him through."
She is a big, wide woman with close-cropped hair, coffee-colored skin and dazzling white teeth. She is 44 and lives in a rented house on the East Side that she keeps like she owns. She started taking in foster kids 10 years ago. She always felt she was Christopher's mother and now she is. The adoption -- after four years of paperwork and promises -- finally went through seven months ago. They piled in the car and went to Chuck E. Cheese to celebrate.
He does not know how it feels to throw a baseball or wrestle with his Dad or walk to school. But he loves to talk on the phone and watch Power Rangers on TV and draw pictures of his friends, Jordan and Angelica.
His room is a menagerie of stuffed animals. There are matching Rugrats curtains and bedsheets, bright blue and red. A Michael Jordan poster hangs on the wall. His pet goldfish, Goldie, swims nearby. He made a sign and put it next to the tank: No Fishing -- I Mean It!
His is a small universe, the room a big part of it. He gets washed here, too -- sponge baths from a bowl of warm water. The bathroom is too narrow; a careless turn and a cabinet edge can crack his skull.
Heading downstairs, Ada shuffles and grips a stair rail for balance. Neighbors thought she'd been drinking the first time they saw her on the street, weaving. She doesn't touch a drop. It was the multiple sclerosis taking hold.
She first felt the pain a few years ago, like a swarm of bees stinging her arms and legs. Sometimes it goes away. Sometimes it's so bad she can't move at all, even with the pills.
She remembers her wedding day, three years ago. It took her forever to get down the aisle, holding onto her 20-year-old son, Jamal.
"My brain said, 'Go,' " she says, half-laughing. "My body said, 'No.' "
Nurses now come in to get Christopher ready for school. She can't do it on days the MS is bad. But she still does the laundry and vacuums and has him most of the day.
She was afraid when the MS came they might take Christopher away. That's when she and her husband, Ron, a bus aide and handyman, took steps to adopt him. Ron said, "Christopher's not going anywhere but here."
After what happened at the grocery store, Christopher didn't want to go out for a long time. She took him with her and he asked for a big soft pretzel and she said yes. Two elderly ladies, trying to be nice, laughed and said, "Oh look, that pretzel is just about as big as he is."
Christopher heard and started crying and asked her why they made fun of him. She said they weren't, not like the kids do, but for a long time he stayed in the house. His body betrays him, but his eyes see clearly. "He's old enough now," she said, "to know that something's wrong with him."
Some neighborhood kids taunted him, saying he couldn't walk and do what they do. It tore his mother's heart. Then he started a couple of years ago at School 84, for the disabled. He saw other kids in wheelchairs and didn't feel so different.
We are sitting on the front porch, lined with plants. There's a green stalk with leaves in a plastic cup labeled "Christopher," a school project that survived the summer. There's a rubber porch mat for traction, and concrete steps. She casually mentions trying to get a wheelchair ramp, because a couple of times last winter the nurse carrying him fell.
"Thank God," she says, "he didn't break anything." In Christopher's world, steps can kill.
Ada talked to a lady at one agency. She said they could build a ramp. The lady called back later to say, sorry, but Christopher didn't qualify because he isn't mentally disabled.
The phone rings. Christopher grabs the one upstairs, next to his bed. "Mommy," he calls, "somebody is on the phone for you."
"He really likes talking on the phone," she says. "It's something he can do well."
He has had more broken bones than she can count. Putting on a coat is as treacherous to him as an alpine ascent is to most people.
There are pictures of her two adult children on the living room wall. There is a picture of the three foster kids she took care of for years -- sisters, in matching lavender dresses -- on another wall. Not an 8-by-10 photo, but blown up as big as a window.
"They're with their aunt now," she says. "I still see them."
A baby's cry comes from upstairs. Ada Shipman excuses herself, returns with an infant in her arms. She just got him a few months ago. He's a blind crack baby, born four months premature, with cerebral palsy. He quiets as she talks to him.
"He didn't ask to be born like this," she says. "I'd hate for them to put him in an institution and forget about him."
It is time to go. I walk down the concrete steps, steps that could kill. I think of bones that crack and MS and a damaged baby. I think of all the bad luck squeezed into one house. A house brimming with love.