A Father's Fear
My 11-month-old son tumbled down a flight of stairs, and it was the scariest thing I had ever seen.
Until that day, I felt like I already had a reasonably strong claim for having experienced true fear. I’d been in car accidents on steep mountain roads, been confronted by a group of angry men in a dark subway car, fallen off a cliff on my mountain bike … all moments where my own life was potentially at risk.
There had been moments where I felt great fear for loved ones as well. Around the age of 12, I remember climbing halfway up a fourteen (a mountain over 14,000 feet in elevation) with my father and younger brother. The wind was cold and the trail was long, and eventually my brother and I needed to head back down the mountain. My father gave me the car keys, said he’d jog to the summit, and come back down as swiftly as he could. Back at the car, I turned on the heater, let my brother nap in the passenger seat, and waited. Afternoon clouds began rolling in, and the sky darkened. I had estimated my father would be back to the car within a half-hour of our return. When that margin passed by, I began to worry that something had happened, that my father had slipped on the narrow trail, and fallen to his death.
At that thought, I began to cry a little, but the logistics of the situation quickly began to occupy my thoughts … How would my brother and I get back home? How would I tell my mom?
Of course, before my postmortem plans got too far, my dad materialized out of the darkening haze of the high country and asked what we’d like for dinner.
Becoming a father offers its own type of fear. When the doctors decided to do an emergency C-Section, my heart suddenly ached with concern for both my wife, and the unborn son I had been nervously awaiting.
Hours later, with both child and mother healthy and in my arms, I felt that ache disappear, to be replaced by joy.
None of those fears came close to what I felt that day.
My toddler son’s fall seemed to happen in slow motion - as moments like these are won’t to do. My wife’s sudden gasp of alarm turned my gaze immediately in my son’s direction as he began pitching forward over the hardwood staircase.
I made a silent plea, “Please just fall a step or two, and stop!” A split-second later, as it became clear my son’s momentum would be carrying him much further down the stairs, I tried again, desperately wishing the gods of physics would see fit to allow him to merely slide down a couple of the wooden steps in his “Half-Pint” onesie. But that request was also denied. Instead, my wife, father, and I could only watch in horror as the toddler flipped and spun, as he fell like a rag doll, all the way to the bottom. Even the landing was cruel, ending in a three-foot drop off the side of the stair case.
“You should lay down and try not to move until the paramedics come. Seriously, I’ve seen it. People die this way,” writes David Sedaris in his book, When You Are Engulfed In Flames. He was talking to an elderly lady, who had just slipped and fell on a grape in the produce aisle of a supermarket.
After spending some time in a coroners office, for writing research, Sedaris had indeed seen people die that way, and in conveying this knowledge to the old woman, Sedaris says a look slowly filled her face.
"It was the look you get when facing a sudden and insurmountable danger: the errant truck, the shaky ladder, the crazy person who pins you to the linoleum and insists, with increasing urgency, that everything you know and love can be undone by a grape."
I see grapes everywhere.
As anyone who has raised a child can tell you, the crawler/toddler phase is one that is especially fraught with dangers. This is the age where everything their fingers can grasp, will be going into their mouths, turning every spare penny under the couch, or lone staple beside the desk into a potential ER visit. The child has become mobile, but not yet aware of safety control. Heads will invariably bump into the sharpest pieces of furniture. Soft beds and safe cribs are just things to crawl out of, even if that means a sudden fall to the floor. Uncovered light sockets, curtain strings, plastic bags, and anything with a hinge suddenly become instruments of death and dismemberment.
To be a parent means you must be aware of such threats, and ever-vigilant in your preventative measures. Awareness is not quite the same as fear, but I think every parent has experienced that sudden twinge of anxiety, worrying about what little Timmy may, or may not have just swallowed.
For nearly a year I have experienced that low-grade fear, that only being the guardian of a newborn child can grant. I had no concept of how bad that fear could flare up like this though.
My dad had tried to install a heavy-duty latch gate at the top of the steps, but it hadn’t quite worked. The railing at the top of the stairs just did not fit the gate. The backup plan was a plastic gate, tethered to staircase banister at one end, and angled to sit against the wall on the other.
There were three of us in the room. We all knew that the boy could toddle over to the gate, and even yank on it enough to get to the stairs. We all thought that surely, among all three of us, someone would have ample time to notice if the boy began to do just that, ample time to stop him.
Watching my son fall like a rag doll down the hard wooden steps, we all realized our mistake.
I hurtled over the banister, and rushed to the bottom of the stairs where I gingerly scooped up my bawling son. A bright speck of blood on his lower lip caught my eye, I carried him to a nearby bed. There I lay him down and tried to minimize his movements, particularly in his back and neck.
Doctors and paramedics would later tell me that it was a good sign that the child had been crying, and hadn’t lost consciousness. They would also say it was a good sign that he immediately tried to turn off his back, to crawl into the arms of his mother, who knelt beside me on the bed weeping and repeating, “call 911, call 911.”
It can be funny, how parents seem to naturally find ways to work as a team under the pressures of child rearing. I felt almost robotic in those first few minutes, getting to my son as fast as I could, and immediately trying to assess how serious his injuries might be. I felt a clinical focus, feeling to make sure all the major joints were bent in the right way. The calm stayed with me when I was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, trying my best to answer each question quickly and accurately. It was almost like I was 12 years old again, focusing on the rational task at hand.
The fear ate through the last of my calm when the paramedics arrived though, and I saw my son, screaming in pain and fear, as strangers strapped him to a backboard and carried him into an ambulance.
My wife and I swapped roles right about then.
She took control, agreeing to ride down in the ambulance. She made sure I knew directions to the hospital, and that I bring the diaper bag. When I finally did arrive in the hospital ER, she was calmly handling insurance details and awaiting the start of a CT scan for our son.
On the other hand, I was a wreck. Once the ambulance left, I collapsed, feeling helpless and terrified.
Part of my brain recognized that getting off my knees, wiping the tears from my eyes, and finding my car keys to get to the hospital would be the most productive things I could do. Still, for a minute it was all I could do to simply keep from screaming.
One of my favorite authors - John Irving - has always had a habit of including “kids in peril” into his plots. In the World According to Garp, a car accident kills one child, and maims another. An orphan’s cough foreshadows a death for chapters in advance in the Cider House Rules. In the novel A Widow For One Year, the accidental deaths of two young brothers is an integral part of the story from literally page one, all the way to the end.
I used to not “get it.” I used to think to myself, well, there Irving (who has two sons) goes again, tossing at least the “potential” death of a child into a plot. I would wonder why the writer would put so much emphasis on that element of the human condition.
I no longer wonder. In that moment, hearing the ambulance wail die in the distance, nothing on earth seemed quite as real as that primordial fear of losing your child.
This story, thankfully, has a happy ending. The CT scan at the hospital revealed no broken bones, and after a few hours of observation, my wife and I were allowed to take our son home. He earned a pretty nasty bruise to his forehead, but seems otherwise, almost unphased by his momentous fall
As one of our friends put it, “I think the fall was harder on the parents than on you, little guy.”
For me at least, that is undoubtedly true. My son won’t even bear a scar, but this fear has cut me to the core.
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