Saturday, November 9, 2013

Two Novembers

Anna just a few weeks after her first head injury

The first time, Anna was about to celebrate her 5-month birthday. November 17. Early darkness, turkey burgers cooking on the stove. I took Anna out of her bouncer seat on the floor and held her in my arms for a moment while I did something over the sink. Then I turned quickly, completely forgetting the seat on the floor. In split seconds I felt myself falling. Even as I fell I was thinking, can I keep her in my arms? I tried; I really tried. But after tripping over the chair and falling hard onto my knees, the force knocked my baby loose. I heard the sound of her head hitting the floor, and then her screams.

The next hour was a blur. Panic. I called the doctor and bundled up Anna for the hospital. Dan was still at work - I called him and let him know where we were going. Up I sped to the same hospital where I happened to be working at the time. Anna was drifting off to sleep. "Please don't go to sleep, please don't go to sleep," I kept saying and crying, trying to jostle her and drive about 85 miles an hour simultaneously. I knew sleep and head injuries went hand in hand.

In the ER she was bouncy and bubbly again. Relief. Only, one side of her head was starting to swell. Bigger. Then bigger. They did a CT scan. The site of my baby lying there wrapped up like a burrito in blankets so she wouldn't move made me want to laugh and cry simultaneously. Then there was nothing but crying when they told me she had a brain bleed and they would need to admit her into intensive care overnight.

All night, the beeps of monitors while my baby slept in a cage-like crib, nurses waking her every two hours to check on her and shine lights in her eyes. I tossed and turned in a chair. I thought about the parents who were there doing this all the time, the families of sick patients I wrote stories about for hospital fundraising videos and magazines. This was their life. Empathy swelled in me.

Guilt also swelled. Dark, oozing, suffocating guilt. I saw the scene play out in my head again and again. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have let her out of my arms? The thoughts assaulted me over and over, like the pictures in my mind I kept seeing of her hitting the floor, again and again. Weeks later, after the four CT scans and the swelling gone down and the brain bleed (in addition to a small skull fracture) were declared gone (on my birthday a month later - what a present!), I would still rock her to sleep and try not to cry. I'm so sorry; I'm so sorry, I'd murmur into her sweet smelling head.


Fast-forward nine years. Another late November afternoon. Dinner cooking. I heard a crash and couldn't figure out where it had come from. Ethan was right nearby and I'd thought Anna was studying in her room. After calling out to her, I went to investigate -- and found her crumpled in the downstairs bathroom tub. Her face and lips were white. She was crying and mumbling and talking in a disoriented voice about standing on the bathtub to see in the mirror and falling and hitting her head.

I knew we had to get her to the doctor. In that moment, there wasn't time to think about the past, yet the experience gave me the smarts to know how to call the doctor, make sure she could walk okay, get to the hospital, keep her talking in spite of her (once again) sleepiness.

Anna was petrified. She hates hospitals and doctors. She generally hates being unwell in any way. There were lots of tears and screaming. There was the hospital (a different one this time, closer to home) and lots of discussion. Should she get the CT scan again after having so many (they like to avoid them if possible)? The doctor went back and forth, researching and discussing with colleagues. Kind people came in and out and did their part to make us feel at ease. They decided to watch her closely for several hours. The swelling didn't get much worse than it already had. She managed to keep down (barely) some food and water. A neurological exam looked good. Four hours later we were headed home, with Anna wincing at every bump I hit on the road. The diagnosis? Most likely a concussion. She would need lots of rest.

It wasn't until the next day that we were both able to take this in. Isn't that the way these things always happen? You move in crisis mode, then get a breather and actually have time to process what occurred. For Anna, this meant realizing she was afraid of the bathroom where she fell. She kept going upstairs instead. She told me if she looked at the tub, her head hurt worse, and that she kept seeing pictures in her head of falling.

I knew just what she meant.

We had a series of small talks, as she lay on the couch and tried to make herself rest (not her strong point). I told her about the time my school bus got in an accident and how I'd been afraid to ride the bus after. I talked about having to fly on a plane just a few weeks after 9/11, and repeating the 23rd Psalm over and over as we lifted into the air. And I told her again the story of the day I fell holding her, and the pictures I kept seeing in my head, again and again, and the way I kept hearing the sound of her head hitting the floor.

After several hours we walked gingerly into the bathroom together. I let her stare at that bathtub as long as she dared and then we left. There were hugs and prayers. Later, she went in again. Slowly, baby steps, confronting her fears.

And now that we were moving past the moment I thought again of nine years ago. I thought as I often do how, while I wouldn't have wanted to live the experience, I was profoundly grateful to be able to use what I'd learned to help my daughter. That sleety November day the car slid under our bus...the paralyzing fear after September 11...the trauma of accidentally hurting my baby girl...they weren't just bad things that had happened. They could also be of use. Every experience can have a purpose, and it's not always for us.

I thought about the grim feeling of guilt and the way it had gnawed at me for so long. I saw the way guilt can make any experience so much more difficult to bear. This time around, Anna had been standing on the bathtub, something she'd been told before not to do, something she'd been warned was dangerous. I saw that a good deal of my terrified feelings in 2004 stemmed from feeling that this is all my fault. I thought of others who may be living with burdens on their backs.

It's no way to live.

And I remembered now what I had remembered then, after the weeks turned into months of secretly feeling I was a bad mom who had somehow permanently damaged my child. How could I have let her go? I had asked again and again. And yet in one sense that was exactly what I was asked to do, that we are all asked to do.

I could do my best, but know I had to let her go and trust God with her little life, because there would come a time when she would no longer be a baby that I could keep in my arms. Things would happen, like this other night in November years in the future, and it couldn't all be up to me. I could never be perfect. And that was okay.

I could let her go.

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