Today River had his worst ever accident and I learned how incredibly painful it is for mom and dad, as well as for baby, when baby gets hurt.
Mark was watching River while I played Scrabble with my grandma. River loves to crawl up and down beds. He’ll crawl to the foot of the bed, squeal with joy, then turn around and crawl to the headboard. Mark brought him to the bedroom so that he could relax on the bed and River could entertain himself this way.
I heard a crash and a pained “Oh no!” from Mark. It sounded like a piece of furniture fell. I imagined River crushed. I drew in a sharp breath, then waited to release it. I hurried to the bedroom and saw Mark, still on the bed, holding River upright next to it. River screamed in heart-wrenching sobs of pain. This was real pain, not the kind that would be assuaged by showing him a ceiling fan.
I picked him up and heard enough to understand that he’d fallen backwards – from a high bed onto a hard wooden floor. Perhaps I need to learn to modify my emergency reactions, but I couldn’t bring myself to look for injuries. All I wanted to do was to comfort him, to hold him, and to make him feel safe. I held him and walked slowly around the house, making soothing noises in his ear. In the meantime, my heart was crying in pain as loudly as his sobs.
My poor baby. How did I fail you enough to not protect you from this hurt? I’ll do whatever I need to do to help you feel better, to help you recover, to help you have faith in us again. Mark felt similar awful, though I was so wrapped up in River’s pain that it took me a few minutes to realize it. He walked with us, looking at River intently and asking me to give River to him, but I wouldn’t. River loves us both, but he’s had a bit of a preference for mommy lately. At a time like that, I wanted him to have whatever made him feel best, even if it made dad feel a bit worse.
Then, when Mark commented that River had blood in his mouth and I looked down enough to see a little bloody spittle running down the side of his mouth and red blood amidst his two front teeth, my heart broke just a bit further. He was really injured. The only times I’d seen his blood were when I clipped his fingernail a little too close in his first weeks, and when he’d been playing with the recyclables and cut his finger on a can. But he hadn’t even seemed to notice the second incident.
Still, I didn’t force his mouth open and inspect what was wrong there. I only felt panic and sadness to know that he was injured and I wanted only to calm him, thinking that we could deal with the injury a bit later. Eventually, he settled down a bit, and eventually, I allowed Mark to take him.
I knew that Mark probably felt a similar urge to make amends to River and I needed to allow him the space to do that. So I reluctantly went back to the Scrabble game with my grandma, where every whimper I heard sliced through me like a knife.
Once River had settled down, Mark asked me to prepare a bottle for him. I did so and River fell asleep in Mark’s arms. They sat there together for a while, then Mark put River in his crib and lay in a nearby bed beside him, unwilling to let him out of sight, unwilling to let anything happen to him again.
It turned out the blood was from River biting his tongue during the fall. Once River settled down, Mark touched his head in various places and it seemed all was OK there. When he got up from his nap he was back to being his energetic, happy, exploratory self.
But still, it was a horrible, awful experience to go through. I’m sure my heartrate was elevated for quite a while. It reminds me that even a big, strong baby like River is still fragile, that so much careful care can suddenly go down the tubes with a single accident.
I lean more on the let him explore and learn from the world than the overly cautious side. I’ve had at least two close calls with him almost falling backward (one off of a swimming pool ledge). Both times I managed to catch him with a quick grasp of his legs. Mark was less lucky this time, but it could be me next.
I think back to kids in my childhood who spoke of breaking their bones or needing stitches or other injuries and illnesses. I think of adults who recount those times from their youth. But only now, for the first time, can I understand what it’s like for the parents. I can understand the sheer panic my mom describes my dad experiencing when I fell over the side of a canoe as a toddler or when I fell through the space between a bench and its back. I can understand the panic I remember on my father’s face when my brother was choking and he quickly turned my brother upside down by the feet and pounded on his back. It’s a primal, carnal fear, a terror of so much love and so much investment lost in an instant, an acknowledgement of the child’s helplessness and a realization of the immense responsibility held by the adult.
In the same way that my love for River is deep and overwhelming and powerful beyond description, the way his hugs and his reaching out for me with a smile fill me with a radiant happiness that touches my core, seeing his pain has the opposite effect. Equally deep, equally overwhelming and powerful enough to jolt me to the core.