My cellphone’s insistent jangle burst into the splendor of the pre-school parent-teacher conference. We were in the midst of hearing about our son’s many strengths: high cognitive skills, wonderful communication, exemplary vocabulary and supreme sense of humor. Embarrassed by the interruption and not wanting to disturb the string of compliments, I found the phone and abruptly turned it off.
A moment later my brain registered concern. I had seen the identity of the caller—my friend who was picking up our older son after school. As the pre-school teacher continued his praise, a fraction of my brain ran through the possible reasons for her call. Perhaps she was reporting that she had him and all was well. Or maybe she was checking if it was okay to get ice cream, since her sugar standards are more generous than mine. I trusted that she could handle whatever might be going on, and that in fifteen minutes I would be done with the younger brother who is always shorted on attention. But part of me was already gone, wondering and hoping nothing was wrong.
The moment our conference ended I called back. I listened for a clue in the tone of her “hello.” I heard no panic, only concern. The news: my child had fallen while playing basketball, moments after he arrived at her house. He was lying down with ice on his elevated foot, which might be the tiniest bit swollen. He did not want to play; he wanted his mommy. Something was wrong.
Relief sprinkled with guilt danced down my spine. This was not an ambulance emergency, but it was a real injury and I had not answered the call. Points off for me.
We hurried over. When he saw me, his red eyes closed, his mouth twisted, and he reached for a hug. He hurt. I lifted him up and carried his 60 pounds to our waiting car.
Settled at home, I phoned the pediatrician. “Didn’t I see you five minutes ago?” she said, herself the mother of a pre-schooler. “What happened since then?”
“Slam dunk contest,” I explained. “Hmm. It could be broken,” she said, “but it’s too late in the day to get an orthopedist appointment and I don’t want you within a mile of the ER. If he can’t walk on it tomorrow morning, go get it X-ray’d.” We kept it on ice, fed him Motrin, and crossed our fingers.
The X-ray the next morning showed three broken bones, clear as the sunny day outside. The orthopedist held the film up to the sunshine streaming through the window on the eleventh floor of the medical building. Four floors below was the obstetrician whose hands guided this child’s entrance into the world, whole and perfect. I stared at the broken bones I was entrusted to safeguard and felt a momentary dizziness, a breach of duty.
The mop-haired orthopedist explained how the foot’s growth plate would create new bone cells to heal these fractures in a matter of two weeks. I wanted to know about long term consequences: “Will this be a problem for his future in the NBA?” He gave me a smile, looked back at the X-ray, and did not spoil any dreams: “No. This won’t be a factor to keep him from professional sports.” Other things may, but not this. Good enough.
From the rainbow assortment of casts, Aaron chose light blue, for the Dodgers. The doctor cautioned us not to scratch under it, warning about cuts and infections. I carried Aaron to the elevator, and his feet almost reached the floor. But he knew how to hold on, his four-foot-four frame wrapped around me. I didn’t mind; it was something I could do for him, a penance.
Downstairs, the pharmacist equipped him with crutches, and told him he was the best 8-year-old crutch-user she had ever trained. But they were no match for the three deep steps leading to our front door. Aaron handed me the crutches when we got home, and reached up for his father’s arms to carry him in.
The rest of the day brought visitors with balloons and Sharpies to sign his cast. His girl cousins drew hearts, his grandfather wrote “break a leg.” He worried aloud about how it would feel to sleep with a cast on.
At 3:00 a.m. the itching began. “Mom!” he moaned from his bed. “It itches so bad!” I thought of the doctor’s warning of infected cuts and tried to comfort him in other ways. I scratched his back. No help. I offered him mind tricks: “Try scratching the other leg and see if it helps.” Uh-uh. I tried persuasion: “An itch is just your nerves telling your brain to scratch, but there’s nothing physical there.” No! Mom, please!
Neither of us could take it any longer. I searched the darkened house for a safe scratcher. I came back to his room with a scrubbed-clean skinny paintbrush. “Use this,” I said.
He accepted the black rounded implement and gently guided it down the top of the cast toward the middle of his shin. One second later came one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard, as beautiful as the cry that followed the frightening minute of silence after he was born: “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” His face relaxed into sheer relief as he exhaled in ecstasy. I took the implement from his hand and set it on the table next to him. He rolled over, murmured “thank you, mama” and fell asleep before I could kiss his head “you’re welcome.”
He had the weekend to learn how to walk on three legs. It was hard, unsteady work. He left the crutches in the corner most of the time, opting for crawling and hopping. His good leg tired. His armpits ached. His heart dampened from missing flag football games. His mind worried about how he would fare at school, with his classroom on the second floor.
Monday came, we arrived at his school with some trepidation. In a matter of minutes he learned some good things: There is an elevator at school. He can choose a different friend to ride with him each time. He can play on the classroom computer at lunchtime with anyone he picks. As the day went on, he and I learned ever more valuable lessons: Children can be kind, patient and compassionate. He is strong. He is resilient. At his core, he has a positive outlook. He can weather this. He can meet any challenge. Nothing can stop him.