Three weeks ago, my son was hit by a car.
Nearly every parent I know personally, on hearing the news, called or emailed or hugged me and offered some version of a horror-struck observation, "that is my worst nightmare." All I could do was nod dumbly, and then nod again, take the proffered hug and clutch it to my heart like a lifeline.
Often I would try to respond, but it is very hard to know what to say. He survived. In fact, he survived miraculously intact. His only injury was a broken leg. A barrage of possible responses, all focused on the ultimately positive outcome, would come bubbling to my lips: doctors tell me he will be running around again by June...I am so grateful he had on a helmet...there were no other marks--not a single injury on his lovely skin--apart from the faintest of pink smudges on his collar-bone...his brain is fine... his internal organs? fine...today he was laughing and giving me sass from the couch...he should be able to play on sports teams again in the fall.
With every positive statement, I would see a mother's shoulders relax, a father's jaw slightly unclench. I would feel a palpable relief, hear a sigh over the phone. Thank God. Thank goodness. Thank every power in which you believe that is higher than us. Thank you. He is alive and will recover.
And yet, every time I said those things I knew dispelled that nightmare, I also felt like I was lying. Or like I wanted to scream out the other side to the story. The story I saw.
Yes, I wanted to say, he only has a broken leg. But have you ever been walking down the street with your dog and your children, happily enjoying an unseasonably warm winter's afternoon, watching them circling cul-de-sacs gleefully on their bikes or scooters, and then stunningly, horrifyingly, unexpectedly, watched a car plow into your child? Have you ever seen what it looks like to have your eight-year-old first-born plastered to the front grill of a gold-tan minivan and then drop to a heap on the street? Have you ever, I wanted to shout at the top of my voice, have you ever sprinted shrieking and hysterical down the street to gather up in your arms your precious, only-oldest child--not knowing what you will find when you arrive by his side?
Yes, he was talking. No, he had not been knocked out.
But in those endless, racing, hideous moments before finding that out, when your heart was bursting and your legs felt like they were moving without even touching the pavement, have you ever known the fear of the very real possibility that you may not find your child alive at the end of the longest short run of your life?
I could not and did not say any of those things to people who offered immediate condolences and aid. And yet, I could not bring myself to say either, "he only has a broken leg." Because the fact was, I felt like so much more had broken that day.
My most regular gesture towards getting rid of that "only" was to explain that he'd had surgery to repair the leg, to say that I was so deeply grateful that we live in proximity of one of the best children's hospitals in the country, to mention with some wonder that he'd been hit around 5pm and was in surgery by 8:30. Most parents can imagine that icy clutch of worry over the idea of their child in emergency surgery. In fact, it's far easier to imagine than is the horror of witnessing what I saw. Mentioning the surgery, the morphine, the two nights in the hospital, became my default way to indicate the seriousness of the accident without delving into my own sense of trauma--which, I felt, might have been a burden and also might have seemed like a kind of melodramatic excess. He is, after all, expected to recover fully.
My closest friends, of course, know that I've been struggling myself. They know that I spent the first two weeks after the accident sleeping in my son's queen-sized bed with him. I had to wake him every four hours to take pain medicine.
But I have not much said aloud that I also needed to reassure myself--at least every four hours--that he was still breathing. That he was sleeping peacefully, soft, warm, calm. That his thick, dark hair, long overdue for a cut, was still falling in locks over his eyebrows; that his body, miraculously, was lying there next to mine. When he was just coming out of the post-surgery anesthesia, groggy and floppy, with a raspy voice and little control over his limbs, his first sentence after holding out his arms for a hug was, "I need to see my leg." It made so much sense to me, over and over, in that first week, that he would need reassurance that the leg was not lost.
I needed the same reassurance about him.
After the first few nights, I stopped seeing the accident every time I closed my eyes. But it took more than a week before I could fully believe the many doctors and nurses who had told me there was nothing else wrong with him. When he got headaches and dizziness from one of the pain medications, I felt a chill horror again: had they missed something that was really wrong with his head?
They had not.
It was not until they changed the medication, and the dizziness went away immediately, that I finally began to think it was possible that somehow he really had come out of this with only a broken leg. After his first check-up, two weeks after the surgery, when I saw the x-rays (he has two internal pins, each the length of his entire femur) and heard the surgeon exclaim, "this looks fantastic!" I finally began to relax.
I have been tremendously lucky throughout all of this. Those first anguished nights in the hospital, social workers and doctors and friends and family all reached out to let me know that I was supported. A grandmother I didn't know, and saw only that once, stopped in the hallway to give me a long hug and reassure me that "we've all been there" as I sobbed quietly outside the door of my son's room, loathe to let him know the depth of my own fear. Her grandson was a long-time resident of the oncology ward, and I felt humbled and incredibly fortunate that my own child would be leaving the hospital so soon. So temporarily injured.
The outpouring of friendship within our town has been incredible. My son has received nearly a hundred cards--most of them handmade--from classmates, kids who ride his bus, neighbors, kids who play with him in after-school care, and relatives. People have shown up unannounced on our doorstep with pots of chili, homemade pasta sauce, muffins. All have come bearing sympathy. One mother organized classmates to drop by every afternoon to cheer up the long hours. Another came over with her dog, so that I would have a companion on that first, difficult walk that I would take again with my pet on a leash through the neighborhood. Close friends scooped up our daughter and kept her for more than 24 hours when we were first in the hospital, entertaining her with trips to the candy store and a hundred other fun moments.
It turns out that this accident, while awful, has not been a parent's worst nightmare.
My child is in physical therapy, slowly recovering his flexibility and strength. He still cannot lift his own leg an inch off the couch. But last week, he could not move himself into a sitting position without help, and today, he looked at me with a withering glance when I asked him about setting up an aide to help him to the bathroom when he returns to school on Monday. "I can go to the bathroom by myself," he said, a new-found confidence in his voice.
When he stumbles on his crutches, he panics, and I can see flash across his face all the terror of the most recent, shocking time he was knocked over. I can relate. A few days ago, I drove by a neighbor boy's scooter lying abandoned in their driveway and had to fight back waves of my own panic and nausea at the sight of an empty, fallen scooter on blacktop.
But we are coping, both of us.
Every time he stumbles and rights himself, he gets stronger. Every time I walk the dog, am passed by a car, and nothing bad happens, I breathe a little easier.
And every day, the tremendous community in which I find myself so fortunate to reside reminds me of how lucky we are. We have knit ourselves into a group of friends that are dear, but we have also become members of a far larger community of an elementary school and a town that looks out for each other. Parents I know only in passing have reached out with genuine kindnesses. Ones I knew only a little more have become friends.
I am thankful every day for the knowing looks and follow-up calls and emails from mothers who really have tried to imagine those awful first moments, and who have done their utmost to heal my spirit just as my son's leg is healing itself.
They have all made me realize that coping is a process best undertaken with the help of many many outstretched hands. I will be eternally grateful for the ones they have extended.
Friday, February 24, 2012
Three weeks ago, my son was hit by a car.