This was at church Wednesday night, headed down to the Fellowship Hall to eat dinner. Three minutes before she had been playing out on the playground, climbing and running and jumping and swinging. On the playground equipment, I had watched her so much more closely, held her hand, told her she wasn’t big enough to swing on the monkey bars. And now here she was, tumbling down stairs like a rag doll. My heart nearly burst as I was flooded with thoughts: “Well, now my child is dead. It’s my fault for letting her go down the stairs by herself. And some other church member is going to turn the corner and see my daughter’s limp body rolling down the stairs and know that I am in fact the most terrible parent in the universe.”
After banging her head on the first stair (and these are church stairs, people, not the soft carpeted cuddly stairs we have in our home), she rolled to the side, so that her fall went from head-over-heels to side-to-side. And – either because this new fall trajectory gave her more capacity for control, or because church stairs, in addition to being hard, are also wide – she was able to stop her descent at the fifth stair.
Naturally, she burst into a terrified scream. Once she had stopped moving, I leapt down to grab her up. I checked her head, her back, her elbows and knees. I could see a red bruise forming at the hairline of her scalp, but she appeared otherwise unscathed. I cradled her to my chest and spoke soothing words, trying to rock her gently. We walked past the hallway and, after ten seconds of screaming, she suddenly stopped, pointed to the Fellowship Hall, and said, “I want eat.”
“You want to eat?” I said, slightly suspicious.
“Are you okay?”
She wiped her eyes. “I want eat.”
“Well, let’s go eat, then.”
We walked down the hallway, and when we got into the Fellowship Hall and she saw some older boys chasing each other in the back, she pointed and said, “Boys! Down, Daddy. I want down.” Her tumble down the stairs seemed completely behind her. I can’t say she’d forgotten it; the next morning at home, she hesitated when walking down the stairs to breakfast, and she needed some coaxing and hand-holding. But the trauma was over and past.
For her, anyway. My heart was still racing. Even as we sat down at our table to eat and our churchgoing friends greeted us and smiled, we were both completely jacked. My hand shook as I held Curly Fries’ banana for her to peel. I felt on the verge of tears, either from horror or from relief. It was twenty minutes before my adrenaline subsided. Just in writing this post and remembering how it felt to watch her falling, I can feel my stomach tightening with a sick feeling. I can’t even say that time slowed down as I watched her fall; it happened in real time, neither slow nor fast. But I remember that sense that a mistake had been made, a critical error that could never be erased, and for just a moment I felt frozen into the realization that I would have to watch and wait before I could know what the damage was going to be.
Welcome to parenthood. In just a single moment, your very sense of existence can shatter, only to be put right back together again. Any parent who has turned around in the supermarket to find their child isn’t standing in the same spot knows the feeling. Turns out she’s just standing over there, but in that one moment it seems like the essence of reality has plunged a dagger into your heart. A constant threat assessment runs in the back of your mind, using up valuable memory space that you previously used to enjoy your life. And there’s always the sense that you’re just waiting for a damage appraisal, preparing yourself with contingency plans for how we will cope.
I’m so glad life isn’t like this for my child. I can’t believe how resilient her little body is. If it had been me that had tumbled down the stairs the way she did, I’d be in the hospital right now. Of course, I’m much taller and have a lot farther to fall; I’d have fallen those five steps before my head had even hit one yet. But it takes a week or more for a bruise on my body to heal. Hers is already gone. This is due to the rapid pace of growth that her little body is undergoing. Children literally grow so fast, and naturally their bumps and scrapes and wounds heal over quickly. It’s amazing how she can literally walk off a spill like that, how she can smack her face against the side of the slide halfway down and, blood still dripping down her nose, want to get back on and finish the trip down. I wish I were that resilient. But the truth is, I am still hurting from her fall down the stairs a few nights ago.
I know there are many more scrapes and bumps and falls in my child’s future. I can probably go ahead and plan on taking her to the Emergency Room a couple of times, count on a broken arm or leg, plenty more bloody noses. And I can count on the hurts that don’t bleed or bruise: broken hearts and hurt feelings and wounded prides. It makes me want to cry to even see those words on the page, but I know it’s true. And I just trust that my child will continue to be resilient and strong. Stronger than I am, that’s my new prayer. Please God, let my child be stronger than I am. I’m not sure I can be as resilient to the pains my child suffers as she is.
When people tell you love is painful, believe them. The more intense the love, the more frightening life becomes. But, damn, is it worth it. Because when I see her shake it off – bloody nose, skinned knees, bruised head, hurt feelings, whatever – I am so proud of her that I could shout. Seems like a small thing, I suppose. But who doesn’t feel the need to rejoice at every moment where you seem to snatch life away from the jaws of death? That’s parenthood: a thousand daily moments of watching life being snatched away from death. And if I get to participate in that, then I suppose I am strong. So long as my child is stronger than I am.