I feel like someone who flirts with her own breaking point on a daily basis, but few things threaten my sanity more than when my son is in pain.
On Sunday night, my indefatigable and fearless almost-4-year-old launched himself off the couch in defiance of gravity and growth plates and my raised-voice warnings, and I heard easily the most stomach-turning sound I’ve ever heard in my life: the sound of my boy’s body breaking under his own weight.
I’ve been through some hospital shit with this kiddo before. His hurricane early birth and 87 days in NICU. Chronic lung disease, a “normal” complication of prematurity. Surgery to bring down an undescended testicle. Surgery to insert ear tubes to enhance his hearing and help prevent infections.
All of those experiences showed me that Jax has near-superhuman resilience and healing powers, not just of body but of spirit.
On Sunday night, I learned he can break.
He learned, too. He crumpled like a football player grabbing at his injury, his face pinched and shocked with pain he’d never before experienced. He screamed, soundlessly at first, unable to find his breath before I found him, scooped him into my lap and began my mantra: it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s gonna be ok…
His wail was heartbreaking. He began to hyperventilate and, break or no break, pain or no pain, I flashed back to when he was hooked up to a ventilator and my only thought was, make this boy breath.
I found my calm voice. I coaxed him to take deep breaths like me, in and out. I hugged his back to my chest so he could feel my breath and make it his own. I repeated my mantra between the coaxing. I cradled his calf in my palms and asked him to point to where it hurt. He did. I asked him if he could walk, because I guess I was already trying to repress that terrible sound. He tried to put his right foot down very gently and the wail was twice as bad as the first time, and he clung to me with this look in his eyes like I’d betrayed him and that was the second time I nearly broke. Instead I resumed my coaxing. I got him to breathe. I explained everything I was going to do before I did it, asked him if he was ready for me to pick him up, that we had to go to the doctor, and he cried but agreed, ok, o-o-o-k m-m-ommy, and off we went. Putting him in his car seat was difficult. Driving to the hospital without being able to comfort him with anything but my voice was difficult.
I am alone in this, you see.
The ER was of course packed. Jax was of course painfully adorable, telling the intake nurse, I’m Jackson and my leg is h-hurt really b-bad. Audible awwwws rippled through the waiting room, but it still took an hour to get him in. A dose of ibuprofen. X-rays. I could see the fracture from across the room, a jagged bolt of lightning on his shin that I would later tell him looked like his hero Lightning McQueen’s paint job. The splint. Let me tell you something. I know those nurses were helping my boy, but when they straightened his leg at the knee to bandage him and he yelled mommy can you can you can you hooooold me? I very nearly grabbed one of them by the throat.
The instructions. The ice pack. The exhausted short drive home clutching the phone number for the orthopedic specialist who would see us the next day. The eggshell walk from the car to my boy’s room, where it took 10 whole minutes to get him out of underwear and into his overnight pull-up. The bed-time songs I sing to him every night, this time while padding his bed with extra pillows and whispering again that everything was going to be ok.
The monitor volume dialed up to 10. The bourbon, neat, in the dark living room, that at least stopped my hands from shaking.
About 45 minutes later, I heard him scream. A belly sleeper, he had tried to roll over in his sleep. I kissed his sweaty curls and told him he had to stay on his back, and he seemed to understand, even through his delirious fatigue.
He whimpered through the night, but he didn’t wake again, except for the 3 AM dose of ibuprofen I snuck in to give him. He sat up, drank it, took my kiss, and laid back down into unconsciousness until after 9.
I barely slept. Sympathy aches in my legs. Paralyzing fear that he would need pins, plates, surgeries, that he would heal wrong, that his pain would never ever stop. And I hate myself a little for it not only being about that tiny broken leg, but a solo mom has to think about time off work, about paid leave vs. unpaid leave, about childcare, about what the volatile father with visitation would say, how he might blame her, how he might accuse her of negligence or unfitness or worse, how everything could be lost in one badly executed leap off a couch…
Jax woke groggy and fussy and stiff, but not wailing in agony. I layered Tylenol and ibuprofen, took him to a 10:45 appointment, found out his break was “uncomplicated,” the bone didn’t need to be set, and the worst was over as soon as Jax picked red for his cast color (“like Lightning McQueen,” of course).
Kids heal fast. The lesson is the same as it’s always been. Yes, he can break. And be over it before I am.
In the few days since, I have gripped railings with obsessive fear, because what if I fell and broke my leg now, too, and I couldn’t care for him or carry him? I have called doctors to make sure the appropriate referrals were made so I don’t go bankrupt with ER and specialist visits I only assumed were covered. I have freaked out proper over his preschool’s staff shortages and his teachers’ considerations about whether they can accommodate Jax, can spare a whole person to wheel him around, carry him to the bathroom, make sure he doesn’t try to stand and put weight on his leg for two weeks, because if he can’t go to school, I can’t go to work, or at least I can’t go to work without him, and my boss and my colleagues are understanding and flexible but everyone has limits to their understanding and flexibility and what if I need to take a full-on leave of absence because anyone else I trust with the care of my child, let alone my injured child, works and WHAT AM I GOING TO DO, and how am I going to keep this boy still and not constantly testing his limits because never being still and constantly testing his limits is what got him a broken leg, and my last post was about taking walks with my son and now we can’t take walks together for a month and who cares about my pedometer but the poor kid, and yeah the volatile father has been ok so far but when and how epically is that going to change, and shit I’m forgetting to eat again and I think I’m coming down with something…
A woman could break.
Or. A stepmom could take some days off next week. A best friend could show up unexpectedly and hold her hand while a cast is put on a little boy’s leg, then follow her to the pharmacy and go inside for her and buy a cast cover and a sheet of McQueen stickers and a pack of pull-ups. A co-worker could procure not one, but two borrowed strollers and spend her lunch break delivering them to the office. A boss could say, take your paid time, do what you have to do, and thanks for all you do for us. Another co-worker could say, you aren’t alone. I know you don’t like to rely on people, but you can, and offer her office’s couch, her high school daughter’s after-school time, a contact person for potential sitters right on campus. A preschool teacher could say, bring him just mornings at first, we’ll take good care of him, and the boss could say, work from home afternoons for a bit, we’ll get through it…
After she carries him to the bathroom, washes his favorite blanket that he’s been dragging through medical waiting rooms, shares a bag of M&Ms with him, and lines up his favorite cars on the couch at his side, a little boy could snuggle his mama and say, you’re my best friend in the whole world.
I have rolled with plenty of real and metaphorical punches. I find, fumble, forge a way through everything, somehow, but not always on my own strength and grace. This is borrowed strength, borrowed grace. It humbles and sustains me.
Maybe you think I’m being dramatic. Shit happens, kids get hurt. Maybe you handle setbacks and crises better than me. You probably do. Maybe you are cringing at how I’m making this about me and not Jax, but this is my safe space and this is self-care and I need to dump the weight of all this somewhere that it doesn’t reach him so I can be present for stroller walks and floor stretching and lifting him with my legs so my back holds up and reading him new books and inventing little lessons and activities so he doesn’t spend a month just watching TV. And when you mom a young child, alone, anything about them is about you, too.
When that co-worker said, I know you don’t like to rely on people, she was right. I don’t. It hasn’t worked out so well for me in the past.
Relying on people is a leap off a couch, and a prayer. I have no choice but to not break. I have to beg and borrow. From the bones out, I have to heal, too.