When I was in eighth grade, my two best friends and I had an inexplicable obsession with the movie Kramer vs. Kramer.
We pined for Dustin Hoffman (must have been the feathered early-eighties hair). Pre-VCR’s and DVD’s, we sat through it in the theater multiple times trying to memorize the dialogue. We tracked down and then immediately discarded the book on which the movie is based when we came to the passage early on that said something about Ted fantasizing about having sex with fat women. None of us were fat and, more importantly, I don’t think we were ready to think about our matinee idols in such carnal terms.
We also cried during the scene where Billy falls off the play structure and gets stitches. I can still see Dustin Hoffman running, panting, through the streets of Manhattan with his injured child in his arms and his shirt smeared with blood. I can see the worry and pain on his face as a doctor sews through his child’s skin.
And I wonder, as I see these images, why I was nothing like Dustin Hoffman yesterday when I took Jake to get his stitches.
The Calm of Motherhood
I am well aware that the title of this piece is not exactly optimistic, and I feel I must say that I hope these will not only be Jake’s first stitches, but his last as well.
Still, the whole incident just wasn’t the stuff that Academy Award winning movies are made of. Then again, neither are pretty much all the moments of parenting. Nor do we want them to be.
The drama began for me when I came out of an appointment at 4:30 and checked my voice mail. On it was one of those coded messages they give parents when their child has been badly injured at preschool: a pleasant, “please call me about an incident on the playground involving Jake” that immediately sets off red flags of potential panic.
Before I could either panic or return the call, Mike called me. “Another kid hit Jake with a bucket,” he said. “They think he might need stitches.”
Ka-chunk. I kicked into Calm Dealing with the Crisis Mommy gear.
“I’m a few blocks away,” I told Mike, assuring him that he needn’t leave work until I found out more.
I didn’t break any speed limits on the way there or mow down any pedestrians or moan, “My boy, my boy, my boy,” as I crouched over the steering wheel trying to navigate through a blur of tears. I didn’t even curse more than once about the parking lot packed full because of all the people hanging out at the pool. In fact, I managed to parallel park a half block away without leaving the faintest scratch on a car or other stationary object nearby.
Sure, I rushed a bit getting into the building. But no blood-curdling screams wafted from therein and no trail of blood seeped past the gate of the playground, so I didn’t feel the need to run or push anyone out of the way.
“He might need stitches,” I thought to myself. “They’re just being cautious. How badly can one be cut by a plastic bucket wielded by a two-year-old, after all?”
Indeed, when I arrived at Jake’s classroom, the only person who was visibly upset was the mother of the bucket-hitter. Jake, by contrast, cradled in his teacher’s arms, held up the plastic boo boo ball he had been given and announced that it was shaped like a flower.
This was not Billy falling off the play structure in front of Ted, then bleeding all over his shirt as they run to the emergency room. This was my child, all cleaned up with one of those neat little white I-shaped bandaids that fighters wear over facial cuts, quite happily informing me that he got to keep the flower boo boo ball.
I’m a little bit ashamed that I didn’t snatch him from his teacher’s arms and hold him against me, murmuring that I would never let anything like this happen to him again as violins swirled in the background. Instead, I calmed down the other child’s mother.
After a few minutes, Jake did ask for me to hold him, and it did feel good. I occurred to me that I ought to take him to a doctor to see if he did in fact require stitches and that I ought to call the doctor’s office, as it was now a quarter ’til five and they were about to close.
They told me to hurry over, so I told Jake we needed to get to the doctor’s office.
Now he was upset.
“I don’t want to go to the doctor!” he yelled. “I want to go to the pool!”
Here was a dilemma. I wanted to go to the pool too, but I didn’t know whether it would be allowed if, indeed, he needed stitches. So I said, “I want to go to the pool, too. But we have to go to the doctor first.” It seemed an innocent enough way of half-lying to him.
I was a bit more concerned when the doctor’s office called back before we were out of the building asking me questions about where the cut was and whether it crossed his eyebrow (“I just can’t tell you that,” I finally said in exasperation. “There’s a bandaid over it.”) and whether I was prepared to take him to a plastic surgeon.
This last bit of information did not compute. My beautiful son didn’t need a plastic surgeon. Just a few stitches. The gravity of the situation was, however, beginning to sink in.
We finally made it to the doctor’s office, Jake reminding me that he didn’t want to go to the doctor’s office the whole way. I, meanwhile, obeyed traffic signals, called Mike to update him and urge him not to leave work, managed not to swear at the ridiculously slow traffic signals, and never once thought of getting out of the car and running through the streets of Asheville. It would have been far less dramatic than running through the streets of Manhattan anyhow.
The doctor and two nurses met us at the front door and ushered us into the procedure room. There, in a corner, was a child-sized table covered in blue paper with a light shining over the place where my son’s head would soon be. The smallness of it made Jake seem suddenly very small himself. My stomach gave the tiniest lurch.
“Do you faint?” the doctor asked me, as if seeking far more mundane information. Do you ski? Do you smoke?
“I never have,” I said, not so certain this wouldn’t be the first itme.
But I also knew that I have stayed calm when Jake was getting two simultaneous shots of antibiotics when he had viral pneumonia. I have been known to wait patiently for someone else to finish washing her hands before plopping my bloody, broken toe in the sink after falling off a ladder painting my dorm room walls. I was nothing but calm and centered and supportive when my beautiful basset hound baby Roxanne put her head in my lap and succumbed to the sedatives that put her out of her kidney failure misery.
Surely, then, I could hold Jake’s legs while two nurses held the rest of him and the doctor gave him some stitches.
And I could. I murmured, “Mommy’s here,” when he screamed for me, and “Daddy is very, very proud of you,” when he screamed for his father. I told him he was doing really well. I told him it was almost over. I told him he was a brave boy.
And when it was done, I told him we could go to the pool. Which pretty much got him past his trauma.
As it turns out, the hardest part of the evening was keeping him from pulling a pair of swim goggles right over the big, bandaged lump over his eye.
Best of all, in a moment of true karmic retribution, the moment Mike and I took him into his classroom this morning, we witnessed another kid clocking his attacker over the head with a toy camera.
Why Haven’t I Cried?
“You’re my role model for mothering,” the head of Jake’s preschool program told me when Jake showed her his stitches. “You were so calm.”
It was a lovely thing to say, and a telling one. This woman has dealt with many a parent of a child injured on the very playground where Jack’s face made contact with that bucket. Apparently, Kramer vs. Kramer is more realistic than I give it credit for.
Certainly, how we handle a crisis is primarily a hard-wired part of us, a survival-mode instinct that kicks in without us really guiding it. So I can’t take much credit for being calm in a crisis, nor can I fairly assert that it’s all this yoga and meditating I do. Though, of course, I secretly think that has a lot to do with it.
What I can do is consider why it made such sense to be calm and carry it over into those scary moments of mothering that fall just short of crisis. The ones where you have time to think instead of just act.
The main thing that was running through my mind as I looked for a parking space so I could be with my injured son was that the moment of Jake’s injury had passed. He was being taken care of by people I trusted. Rather than getting hysterical, I had to get to Jake and get Jake to the doctor.
Even those nightmarish twenty minutes when Jake was on the procedure table screaming himself hoarse, I knew that once the procedure was in the past, it would — in a two-and-a-half-year-old’s world — truly be in the past. Sure enough, as soon as I had my poor boy in my arms, all I had to do was offer him ice cream and a trip to the pool, and he was miraculously past it all.
In fact, next time I feel like I want to panic over something that’s already happened, I will picture Jake in the pool with his friends placing those goggles right on top of his apparently still-numb stitches. It will remind me that even if evidence of a past trauma persists — the glued-on white bandage, the purple lump peeking out from under it — it’s nothing more than a reminder, not a part of the moment itself.
In other words, like Jake, I should feel free to fully experience the moment of trauma but I should also treat the aftermath as nothing more than that. A bruise, a few stitches that will need to be removed, but nothing like the actual shock of being hit with a bucket.
Poised in the Moment — Bakasana (Crow Pose)
I’m currently sporting the same funny bruises on my upper arms that I had when I first started practicing bakasana, or crow pose. Right at the point where I was resting my knees on my upper arms, there developed bruising way out of proportion to any discomfort I felt while doing the pose. And that’s a nice lesson — that sometimes things can seem worse after the fact than they are in the moment.
Bakasana also provides the practice of balancing right in the moment. Lean too far forward, and you might tip over. Pull back into the past too much, and you’re not going anywhere. Be with where you are — even if your knees are digging into your arms — and you can fly.