I remember the day it happened, the air was humid, thick and stale. My friend S. and I had gone to the zoo together with my two little boys, and we were all worn out. My older son was watching a video and my younger son was dozing on the floor as we went into the kitchen to make some coffee. S. and I sat down before the backdoor, which opens onto a fire escape landing. We were completely exhausted, but the air seemed even heavier than our own movements. It was a perfect ending, but it was also a sinister beginning. As we sat in front of the open doorway, drinking our gourmet iced coffee, we tried to stay cheerful after so much exertion, and only an occasional breeze to lift our spirits.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement of a fleshy kind, and turned just in time to see a familiar toddler walk past me onto the landing. It was as if we were caught in a tiny time snag, every thought and spoken word was so slow and laborious. I saw the movement, processed the picture, decided upon my course of action and began to implement it, all in an eternal minute. My second son stood on the landing, quite pleased with himself, and smiled almost wickedly at me. “come back here,” I called. He just laughed and turned around, pretending to hide from me. Thinking about how tired I was, I put down my coffee cup and wished, for the millionth time that my children would listen to me.
When I rose to fetch my son, my baby, my mirror image, he fell. He reached out with his arm to the side for the familiar feel of a handrail, but it was not there for him. His body fell just under the handrail. The image was almost beautiful in its perfection of fluidity. His tiny body, had it been only an inch taller, would not have fallen with such grace; arcing an exact quarter-circle before disappearing below. Had his body been only two inches closer to the handrail, he might not have fallen at all.
Time was jump-started again. My motion to retrieve my son changed into full-scale assault upon the stairway. I briefly considered jumping down to save time but the thought of landing on top of him forced me to hurtle down the steps. My mind emptied as I ran and I remember nothing but white light flashing like an emergency vehicle in my head. I jumped over the last three steps and paused for a fraction of a second to look at him. The white flashing light became an instantaneous darkness in that nanosecond as I prepared myself to see my child lying dead.
I saw his body lying still, but breathing. I approached nearly on tiptoe and flung my body over his own as I saw his eyelids flutter. My heart flip-flopped between fear and relief. Then my brain took over again. I knew I had to immobilize his body to prevent any further injury, should he have any spinal damage. S. looked down at me with eyes as big as saucers and asked if she should call 911. I told her not to, remembering all the recent hoopla in the news about 911’s lack of timing and equipment. I told her to call the number on a magnet on the refrigerator, since it was the number of the ambulance company my husband worked for. She disappeared and that was when he woke up fully.
He started to cry and tried to turn over. I had to lie down on him to keep him from moving, all the while listening to him cry angrily into my ear. I felt his hands pushing at me like a pang of guilt in my chest. I wanted to get off him; my mother’s instinct screamed at me to let him up and take him in my arms, but I knew I had to put us both through that torture. S. came back out and asked if I needed something, anything to help him. I told her I needed a piece of wood, remembering how to construct a makeshift splint from my first aid classes. She came back quickly with a tiny wooden piece of track from the boys? toy train set. “No, ” I shouted up at her, “I need something to make a body splint,; something larger than his back.” She returned again with a board and ran down the stairs to hand it to me.
I found I could not hold him down properly with just my body unless I was willing to crush him. I turned his body as one and slid my arms under him praying that I was doing the procedure correctly. I hugged his body fiercely to mine and took him upstairs. I lashed him to the board with a bathrobe tie and once again pressed him close to me. It was so hard to listen to him scream out his frustration at not being able to move. I could not stay still. I took him outside, to the front of the house and sat down on the front steps, rocking him gently and making soothing sounds. The ambulance came soon thereafter and the EMTs began their work fastening his body to a more suitable board. I rode with them to the children’s hospital terrified anew because he had stopped crying. The medic assured me that he was still okay over and over while the driver tried to distract me with facts about the hospital we were going to.
When we arrived at the hospital, my husband was standing at the emergency entrance looking frightened. We went in as I told him the basic details of the fall. The doctors paraded past us and I was suddenly struck with the incongruity of the situation. My son, my precious boy, was just another child in peril, strapped to a backboard, and we, his parents, were obviously part of the health care loop despite our freakish appearance. We argued with the doctors when we felt they were overstepping their bounds as health care providers. They wanted to do more x-rays than we felt necessary and they would not give us any reason that was satisfactory. As I listened to my husband screaming at them, I looked at the object in contention. My son was still strapped to the backboard even though all x-rays had shown him to be without fracture. He screamed even harder as my husband?s voice grew in volume, probably frightened even more. My heart sank as I thought about how incomprehensible all this mayhem must be for him. I knew that this whole afternoon would be indelibly stamped in my memory, as permanent as his birth would become. So, how fixed would this day become for him? I know I shall never know the answer to that question either, but I can guess that hospitals will forever be a source of trepidation for him ever after.
Even as I thought this, I knew it would be true from my own experience. I was taken to a hospital when I was barely five years old, (only for observation) and I have many memories of that time, none of which are even remotely pleasant. This time, I knew I was not just sympathizing with my son, I was empathizing with him, feeling my own fear and frustration all over again. Little wonder that we were so suspicious of the doctors, rarely had we encountered an MD who treated us with any amount of respect. This day would serve to reinforce our defensive posture against doctors forever.
Perhaps we were lucky, in that having suspicions against the doctors gave us an outlet we needed. Perhaps we exaggerated their threat to our child in order to create that outlet. Writing about my feelings made me skip around all this introspection, ironically enough, because my attentions were focused on my inner reactions to my son, not reflecting on my own failings. Although our experience in the emergency room was worth commenting on, it was the simplicity of the real emergency I was attempting to write about. Seeing my baby lying on a backboard, screaming not in pain but in anger, was the primal vision I wanted to clarify. I knew that this was the symbol of reality. Whatever we were feeling and whatever play we were acting out, he was the person in jeopardy and I could do nothing about it.
We had to return home without him. Leaving him there was not just hard, it was painful. I did not trust the doctors to perform only the necessary procedures, I knew they couldn’t wait to get their hands on such a unique individual, but there was nothing that could be done about it. We came back at the appointed time to pick him up, having been promised that if the blood test and second MRI showed no problems he would be free to leave. When we went into his room we found him lying listlessly in a steel crib, watching television (not one of his favorite activities). He perked up when I took him out and held him, but I could tell he was drained from the previous day’s commotion. Things went from bad to worse when we discovered that he had not received his blood test and consequently was not allowed to eat or drink. There was another argument resulting in a meeting with the head doctor and a social worker. The hospital decided to file a report of suspected child abuse to prevent us from taking him out against medical advice. We were accused of being irresponsible and my husband offended the head doctor in return.
All throughout the morning fracas I continually wondered about my baby and if he would be traumatized by having to stay overnight there. I could not get up as much outrage at the arrogant doctors as my husband had, since I had been the subject of medical curiosity many times before.
Things were resolved later that day, after the social worker came to our house to assure all parties that we had not been thrashing our son around on a daily basis. She was not happy with the hospital for this obvious spiteful move, but it had to be done. We were understanding towards her and even drove her to our house and back in our own car
The reality of the situation hit me that night, as I tried to go to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I could see my baby falling ever so slowly off of the landing all over again. It chilled my bones and brought bile to my throat each and every time. I finally broke down after lying in bed for an hour, seeing him fall again and again. I cried in my husband’s arms and I hated myself for crying. My tears were not relief or even guilt, but something more. I cried because I knew that this day was stored away in my mind forever. I could never escape what happened or pretend it happened any other way. I knew I was left to reexamine my actions and emotions without the luxury of ignorance until the day I die. Yet I considered this my penance.
I wished I could be more accepting, not cry like a baby, but people grow slowly. My husband reminded me that we were lucky, not only that our son was unharmed but that this was our only tragedy, so far, as parents. I wanted to believe that everything was going to be fine from here on out but I knew that just the experience itself had already changed me as a person and as a mother.
I reflected back upon how I had been feeling right before he fell and how all that heaviness turned so rapidly into sharp edges of fear and then again into soft curves of delicacy at the sight of him. To this day, I look differently upon all of my boys, including my (then) husband, because I remember the fragility of their outward forms. I can bring back those moments of fear and loving relief with just one image: my tiny baby falling gracefully off a landing.
How easy it is to forget that the human body is breakable and mortal. I wish I could say that I learned something earth-shatteringly important that day but what I took away from it was more subtle. I experienced first-hand what some people never learn; namely that the essence of what gives us hope is the willful ignorance of death. What gives me hope now is what everyone knows but does not internalize; death cannot be cheated but it can be faced.