In the evenings my boy gets wild.
Drunk with exhaustion, he spins and laughs and dances. He jumps on the bed and squirms into his pajamas. And then he crawls into my arms and we talk about his day and he falls asleep, dreaming, hopefully, of the giggles and the laughs and dancing.
Usually our routine ends in his crib, but two weeks ago, instead of drifting off to sleep in my arms, my boy found himself stuffed into his car seat with a bloody towel pressed to his head as we rushed to the late night urgent care.
During the giggles and the dancing and spinning my little boy dove, head first, right into baseboard of the bed. I was standing right there, and I reached for him, but I didn’t catch him. As his head, his baseboard there was a terrible crack, then a moment of silence, then the loud, pained wail I’ve replayed over and over in my mind since.
I picked my boy up, expecting a goose egg, but my hands and shirt were immediately covered in blood. The gash was deep- split and puckered, and for a moment I panicked. As a parent, I fear one of my weaknesses is risk assessment, when is the fever too high? When does the complaint of a tummy ache warrant a visit to the pediatrician? How about a scrape? Or a head bump? This time though, there was no doubt.
I grabbed a towel and held it tightly to his head as I packed him into the car quickly. I sped all the way there and, as soon as I walked through the door, I was ushered into an exam room.
There was talk of sedation and of stitches, sub-dermal and surface, of needing restraints to clean the wound and needing to wait a few hours to check for deeper issues. And then there was a second opinion from a doctor who is a mother of four, and the agreement that I could hold my son tightly to my chest, fully lucid and whimpering, as she glued his head wound closed with the gentleness of someone who’s done this many times.
Before we left, my son had a Popsicle and laughed at the nurses silly faces. When we walked out the door, I noticed that my car was parked halfway on the curb and halfway in a handicapped spot. As my boy began to nod off on the way home, my hands gripped the wheel tightly and my eyes darted from the road to his image in rear-view mirror and back.
That night, as my son slept in my bed, I roused him every other hour to make sure he would wake and struggled to close my eyes when he did.
I know that more experienced parents, the ones whose kids have had stitches and casts and nights in the hospital, must be used to seeing blood, surely the bumps and bruises of childhood must begin to seem routine at some point.
But this time, for us, was the first time. The first time I’d watched him fall and not been able to catch him, the first time his blood stained his clothes, the first time I felt his pain as viscerally as he did. It was also the first time I learned to let go of my guilt and to realize that childhood just comes with bumps and bruises.
At first I felt ashamed. When the doctor asked “how did this happen?” I heard “How could you have let this happen?” A good mother doesn’t let her toddler get so hurt. A good mother doesn’t allow spinning on the bed. A good mother ensures her child’s bedtime routine is calm and gentle and quiet.
As I lay awake that evening, tossing and turning with remorse, replaying the moments leading up to the fall, I tried to determine how it could have been prevented.
Perhaps my son shouldn’t dance on the bed. But that’s where we snuggle and sing. Perhaps I should have baby proofed my bedroom better. But everything’s anchored and I would have had to literally pad every surface to prevent this hurt. Perhaps I should have instituted a quieter, calmer bedtime routine. But play before bed is when we laugh and when we connect and my boy loves to play before bed. Perhaps I should have caught him when he fell.
Yes, perhaps I should have, but unfortunately I can’t be everywhere, always and my arms only reach so far.
My boy will have a scar for a long time. The doctor said that if we’re diligent with sunscreen and moisturizer it will likely fade before he graduates high school. Though the glue will disintegrate and the bruise will fade I’ll be looking at the remnants of my boys first hurt for a long time.
I’m sure eventually I won’t even notice, but, for now, when I do, I’ll make sure to remember not that it came from one pained night but instead that it as the price we paid, mother and child, for playing and laughing and growing without restraint.