As a mother, you can do everything right: schedule routine dental check-ups and drag your kids to them, invite their beloved grandmother “GaGa” along for moral support, fill a bag of tricks to provide distraction and offer treats (okay, bribes) to encourage good behavior. You can zip up coats and look both ways and stick together and make every effort to keep everyone safe. But in the end there are no guarantees.
I woke filled to the brim with adrenaline, ready for battle. My five-year-old daughter had been less than cooperative at her appointment six months prior. This time, my toddler son would also get a turn in the big chair. Betting on his easygoing spirit, I put him first in the line-up and hoped his sister would follow suit. My strategy worked! Surprised and relieved by their cooperation, the four of us strode out of the dentist’s office, triumphant.
The crisp March air drew the day into sharp focus. I inhaled, breathing in the changing season’s first strong rays of sunlight, absorbing its hopeful energy into my bloodstream. I didn’t bother to insist on gloves for the short walk to our car. Glancing both ways, I acknowledged the lonely purple PT Cruiser idling a hundred feet away in the space between the medical office building and the rows of parked cars. The flat backside of its distinct old-timey design faced us. The coast was clear.
Happy chatter floated up to my ears from both sides. I stood sandwiched between my little ones, with my mom at the end of the line, connected via the tiny fingers of my daughter. Linking hands, we formed a chain – big, little, big, little – and stepped off the sidewalk.
I heard it first. The background crescendo of the engine was otherworldly, distant and haunting. Like a growling beast’s roar, it rumbled louder, and my subconscious blamed an overloaded semi speeding past on the nearby highway. Until the eerie sound was silenced by a thud.
Interlocked fingers released on impact. My mom and daughter disappeared from my peripheral vision and laid at my feet, sprawled on the pavement. I sensed a looming presence behind my right shoulder and reflexively knocked on the back of the vehicle with my fist. My empty right hand reached down to pull my daughter back to standing. I screamed at my mom to GET UP when my eyes registered the contrast of her clean white hair against the gritty black tire. My mother had been hit by a car. Less than one more revolution of that wheel would crush her.
With a trembling voice, she answered, I can’t. I looked again. Sticking out of her pant leg, a stark white bone stretched where her flesh-enclosed ankle should have been. This ivory rod exposed to the air embarrassed me with its lack of modesty. Where was her foot? Left behind, firmly planted in the leather clog she abandoned in mid-stride. Dark red drops fell, forming a circle on the hard ground. I marveled that so little leaked from what appeared to be a severed limb. I’m not supposed to see her insides!
Time paused and flipped the switch, jolting us onto a new set of tracks headed in an unexpected direction. My mind lagged behind, stuck in our previous reality, the one that made sense just seconds before. Connecting the dots, I tried to assess the current threat level.
My mom’s injury was obvious to everyone but her. Shock had done its job, shutting down signals from severed nerves at the onset of the emergency. From her vantage point, she was at a disadvantage. She could only compile clues to determine the severity of the problem: the scream from my lips that my own ears couldn’t hear, the shuffling shoes of strangers, the wailing high-pitched sirens. Lying still on her right side, she was conscious, coherent, calm…and confused.
The graphic sight imprinted in my brain, becoming my mental wallpaper, the image I knew would appear every time I closed my eyes to try to sleep. I wrestled with my reckless imagination, which rushed ahead toward possible outcomes: surgery, amputation, wheelchairs, prosthetics, loss of independence, internal injuries, even…(gulp) the beginning of the end. The disconnect between what I saw and what I heard coming from her lips added to my surreal sense of dread.
My little ones, however, hadn’t seen. My daughter whimpered softly, distraught by the hole in her pink pants exposing her now-skinned knee. She held up the scratched palm that had saved her from hitting her head. Consumed by her boo-boos, she remained oblivious to her grandmother’s gaping wound. My baby boy never said a word as he clung to my pant leg.
The mind of a child dwells in the present. The script running in their young minds casts themselves – always – as the main character in the action. Without enough history, they can’t extrapolate. Lacking firsthand experience with pain, they can’t empathize. In the tension of this moment, an overwhelming sense of responsibility weighed down my shoulders. I couldn’t predict the level of loss they’d experience from this collision, but there was still time to protect them from this sight they might never unsee. I possessed the power to limit the collateral damage.
In my unstable mind, the blacktop quaked and separated under my feet. I straddled the growing divide, struggling to maintain my balance. I’d stumbled upon a milestone of motherhood. I would have to choose who to comfort and protect: my mother or my children. Most marks on our timelines are faint at first, best identified in hindsight. This one slammed into me and stared me in the face, threatening to divide my life into before and after.
A kind woman’s hand on my shoulder guided me back to the present moment. With her help, I ushered my babies off the pavement and into the grass next to the building. I walked away from my injured mother, leaving her in the care of a swarm of helpful strangers.
Huddled together with our backs to the wind, my new friend and I formed a protective human wall around my kids. Our closed circle temporarily blocked out the rest of the world. Silent pleading prayers translated panic into sacrament inside my head while reassuring words rambled out of my mouth for the benefit of my preschoolers.
While I grieved having left my mother’s side, my guilt evaporated as I realized that she had trained most of a lifetime for this moment. Motherhood defines her, forming the solid core of her identity. I have known all my life that she would, without hesitation, take a bullet for my brother or me. And now she had. Disguised as a one-and-a-half ton hunk of metal and camouflaged with eggplant paint, this bullet barreled down a wide path on four rubber wheels. It came out of nowhere, speeding inexplicably in reverse. In her role as grandmother, she would gladly stand in front of a firing squad in my children’s place. This backfired blast felled her like a rooted tree. Albeit accidentally, she was a willing sacrifice.
Her bone snapped in two and broke through the skin where it hung by unseen threads. An open, or compound fracture, was the official diagnosis.
The word compound drove me to the dictionary, searching for explanation. One definition read “a combination of two or more elements that cannot be separated by physical means.” I considered these deep, invisible, permanent bonds connecting separate identities, intertwined and strong. For confirmation, I flipped through pages till I reached “F” and found “the cracking or breaking of a hard object or material; the state of being broken” in the space next to the word fracture. Divided and splintered by a sudden and violent impact. The diagnosis itself was an oxymoron.
A medical website I found listed the most common scenario resulting in this type of fracture to be a pedestrian struck by the bumper of a moving car. This validating statement enraged me with its implication that this aberration was commonplace. I read on to discover that the risk of complications was high, infections were probable, and recovery would be long and painful.
When we arrived at the hospital, the nurses sought me out and led me down the long hallway to spend a few moments with my mother before her surgery. Lying intubated in the pre-op waiting room, her face was as white as the sheets that covered her. A speechless angel patiently enduring purgatory, waiting for salvation. Her panicked eyes relaxed only when they came to rest on the children I carried on each hip. We were there. We were whole. She exhaled. This was enough. This was all that she needed to know.
Bending over her bed, I found a space between the tubes and kissed her cheek. I lowered my kids to the mattress, one at a time, so she could squeeze their tiny fingers before we had to go. I turned to navigate our way back to the waiting room through blurry eyes while they wheeled her away.
The wound that unzipped her skin revealed what was underneath and shocked us all with its vulnerable purity. Though the dirty parking lot teemed with potential contaminants, miraculously, no infection set in. Her fierce love awakened invisible antibodies that sprung into action while the surgeon set about rebuilding her structure.
Our pedestrian lives were interrupted. My kids’ innocence, threatened. My own, lost. The tragedy was unexpected but we were not unprepared. When an external force broke our firm grip, it exposed a deeper connection. My mother’s heart agreed with mine. My instinct mirrored her own. Love was a knee jerk reaction and sacrifice a reflex, part of the job description. Even when it meant letting go of one another’s hands.