I was on deadline when the phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize, but I answered it anyway. The chaos of a busy place with a hundred different voices spilled out of the receiver.
“Is this Eli’s mommy?”
“It’s the staff at nursery school. He fell here in the courtyard.” A pause. “He’s uh, bleeding a little bit from the forehead.”
“He’s – bleeding?” I repeat. “A little bit?”
My husband Nachshon, also working from home, had overheard, and was already standing at the door of my office. “I’ll go now,” he said, and was out the door before I’d even hung up.
In 20 minutes, Nachshon had collected him, taken him to an emergency clinic across the street from the pre-school, and not half an hour later, my son had seven stitches in his forehead. Nachshon texted me a photo from the clinic with a horrible red crack up running up from our son’s eyebrow. I said I was on my way but he said not to bother, they were already coming home.
And so my precious boy, just a few days shy of his third birthday, walked in with his head bandaged, a sight that was sadder than I can explain. “Ima,” he said as he walked in the door. “I fell. I got a bang on the head.” I held him and rocked him a while, showering him with TLC, telling myself it could have been much worse, a million thoughts running through my mind. Was he traumatized? Would it leave behind an awful scar? He seemed to want to forget about it and move to familiar comforts. “I want juice,” he pleaded, “and then ‘So Long, Farewell,’” a “Sound of Music” clip I’d turned him on to because I needed a break from Barney.
The world suddenly felt different. For the first time in our lives as parents, we’d had a real injury. I felt helpless and out of control. I wanted to find someone to blame. Was it the fake grass he was running on when he hit the climbing ladder that leads to the slide? Was the whole playgym defective? Where the staff not watching him closely enough? Should we sue the city?
In the days to come we explored and investigated and had the equipment checked out, and soon came to the conclusion that there was probably no one to blame. Sometimes kids run and fall, sometimes they happen to fall in such a way that they split their foreheads open. I myself bear the scar from an accident I had when I was 5 — an older boy in the neighborhood suddenly had the urge to push and run with my bike (with me on it) and then let it go, sending me careening into a metal mailbox at the end of driveway. Still, I made up stories about how Eli’s accident wouldn’t have happened at the last gan he was in, the private, more expensive one where the big playgym was made of wood and not metal. Or this guilt-inducing train of thought: this wouldn’t have happened if he were at home with me.
If I had anyone to blame it was the universe itself, which was teaching me one of the hardest lessons of parenthood. I won’t always be able to protect my child from harm. I won’t always be there when he falls, though I wanted to believe I would. And I can’t keep him at home forever. The need to let go, ever so gradually, of the desire to protect and control is something that is a work in progress for me. Our son’s first big boo-boo (may there be no more) was probably more traumatic and memorable for us than him.
Eli’s fall happened three months ago, but he still gets reminded of it a lot, because people ask, with understanding curiosity, what happened to his forehead. I sometimes wince when I look at that scar in formation, sad for his pain, occasionally missing the perfect babyface he had before the fall. Each night and each morning, we put a special scar gel to help the healing process. Nachshon told Eli that his stitches were in the shape of a giraffe, and so the gel is “food for the giraffe,” which makes the process a bit sweeter.
Eli’s little giraffe aside, the animal I most associate with our relationship is the lion. For about a year now, Eli has been assigning animals to everyone in the family: He was always an elephant and his sister, amusingly enough, a snake. At some point, he decided I was a lion and took to calling me “Mommy Lion,” which he still does when he’s feeling sweet and cuddly. I love the thought of being a lioness, luxuriating with her cubs. But a real lioness is famously fierce in protecting her young. I wonder whether I, whether any of us, can ever live up that ideal.
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