The little blond boy sits too still on the playroom carpet, his feet out in front of him like a doll’s. He stares vaguely at his sister, his cousins, and me. He should be crying. A minute ago I was in the kitchen, scrubbing peanut butter off the lunch dishes, when the cousins surged in yelling, “Misha hit his head! He’s bleeding!” So I dropped the sponge and ran.
Now, in the playroom, I ask Misha’s four-year-old sister,“Stoh etta?“ (“What is it?”) because I don’t know the Russian for, “What happened?” Katja and Misha spent their early lives in a Russian orphanage. My language study hasn’t prepared me for a head injury.
Before Katja can answer, three-year-old Misha focuses his eyes, sees me, and begins to cry.
I think, He recognizes I’m his caregiver—his mother, I correct myself. Then I think, What would a mother do now?
Peter and I had both felt ambivalent about having kids during our courtship, but our feelings polarized when we bought a house together 15 months before our wedding. I loved children, but I didn’t want the sacrifices that come with being a mother. I expected to be laid off from my software job any day, and I hoped to use the time and our new, quiet home to revive my long-dormant writing career, the work I’d wanted to do all my life. Peter, just coming into his medical career, needed to work long hours. He envisioned a house noisy with children, and me raising them full time.
We shouted at each other, stopped speaking, and finally cancelled the wedding.
I scoop up Misha from the carpet and ask him, “G‘dye balit?” (“Where does it hurt?”). He can’t hear me over his screams. Then I see blood welling from a two-inch gash just behind the top of his head, where his close-cropped hair springs up like a rooster’s comb.
One of the cousins says, “Misha was standing on the rocking toy, and it wobbled, and he fell and hit his head on the wall. Will he be okay?” His eyes plead with me to say yes.
Why does he think I’m in charge? I wonder. “I’ll see what I can do,” I say. With Misha in my arms, I trot towards the kitchen. Four pairs of small feet follow me.
Terrified of losing Peter, I convinced him to join me for counseling with our rabbi. We laid everything out for her, bristling. She told us, “You guys actually aren’t that far apart. Debbie, you like kids but you don’t want to lose the creative life finally within your reach. Peter, you want to parent as much as you can, but you’re at an inflexible point in your career. I know you’re a compatible couple with good negotiating skills. I think you can work this out.” She recommended marriage counseling.
We booked an appointment.
While Katja and the cousins observe, I sit Misha on the counter, page Peter and the pediatrician, and call my mother.
My mother sounds calm. “Remember your brother got whacked in the head with a screen door when he was that age? And both your nephews?”
Of course I remember. They all have identical scars.
“It was scary, but they’re fine,” my mother says. “Check the size of his pupils.”
I check. “They’re different sizes,” I report.
“That’s a concussion,” my mother says calmly. “The pediatrician will tell you to go to the hospital. Can Peter meet you there?”
I tell her he has not yet returned my page, which means he’s seeing patients.
“Do you want me to come?” she asks. “Yes!” I reply, thinking, A mother ought to be there.
After five months of marriage counseling, Peter and I agreed to raise a family. He finally understood my desire for a creative life and that I’d need autonomy in order to achieve it. He agreed to put money towards day care so I would not be overburdened. As for me, I understood that he honestly did not know he wanted kids until the moment he told me. He was the genuine, steady, insightful partner I still wanted, and he would be a genuine, steady, and insightful father.
We rescheduled the wedding.
My sister-in-law will take Katja home with her while I rush Misha to the hospital. I worry that Katja might feel abandoned after living with us only three months, but I have to tend to Misha. I explain everything to her in my best Russian. She nods sagely, hugs me, and goes upstairs with her oldest cousin to pack a bag. She’s lived half her life in a group of children, so leaving our home with three kids must make sense to her. It makes more sense, I think, than staying with me.
Peter and I chose adoption so we would not be limited by my fertility’s ticking time bomb. We applied after being married two years, when I turned 42. We chose Russia because we’re of eastern European descent, and we agreed on one child because the happiest writer-moms we knew had only one. The odds favored our being matched with a baby boy about nine months old. I felt a little happy. Maybe I could handle raising one boy. Maybe it would even be fun.
Usually talkative, Misha rides silently in his car seat. In the rearview mirror, I see his eyelids droop, then his entire head. I know enough about brain injuries to fear he will not wake up if he falls asleep. Every so often, I say in Russian and English, “Ni spat! Don’t sleep!” He raises his head but does not reply.
As the traffic crawls, I feel concern, but nothing more, for this child in my care. I ask myself, How I would feel if I were his mother?
I keep reminding myself, I am.
The adoption match came six months earlier than Peter and I expected. Our caseworker called me at home to ask whether we might consider two Russian siblings, aged three and two. Of course not, I thought. I can‘t raise TWO kids. But I thanked her and said I would talk to Peter. I paged him right away.
Peter cannot get to the ER for three hours. “There’s nobody to cover for me,” he explains. As we hang up, Misha’s eyes close. I keep shouting, “Ni spat!” to jolt him awake. When that stops working, I set the car radio on “scan” and turn up the volume. Finally, I roll down the windows for the cold air. Misha keeps dozing. I think, I‘ll be in big trouble with his mother if he lapses into a coma.
The Russian siblings were blessed with perfect health and unusually good care. In the photos, Katja had auburn hair and a pout that showed she resented posing on the couch when she could be playing. Beside her, blond Misha grinned into the camera, his chubby hands clasped in his lap.
So cute! I thought. But I felt nothing beyond what I’d feel for, say, a photo of two bear cubs.
As our car inches under the last overpass before the hospital, Misha suddenly exclaims, “SCHOOL BUS!” And indeed, one is passing us in the next lane. Looking out the window, he begins narrating in Russian and English as if nothing has happened.
For the first time in an hour, I exhale.
For the first time in my life, I recognize my son.
Peter and I decided to meet the Russian siblings, so I put my book project away and started reading about adoption. The literature discussed the attachment of children to parents. My questions concerned parents’ attachment to children. How long would it take? What if the mother would rather write books than wipe noses? Was there hope for her?
I swerve into the first parking space I can and gather Misha into my arms. I don’t stop running until I see my mother in the doorway of the pediatric ER.
“Why didn’t you take the elevator?” she asks.
I ask, “What elevator?”
“Where did you come in?”
“The entrance by the big doors?” I say. Inside me, something begins to growl, Must fix boy.
“By Oncology? Why did you park all the way over there?”
Then it hits me: I’ve sprinted through the entire hospital and up several flights of stairs. Like my great-grandmother running through the shtetl carrying my toddler grandfather when he upended a soup kettle. Like my mother speeding my brother to this very hospital when the screen door smashed him in the head. I am the mother of an injured child. Must fix boy! comes the bear growl. Get help! Help now!
My mother leads us to the triage nurse.
Peter and I first set eyes on our children in the vestibule of their apartment. Their caregiver Anna, solid and warm, opened the door. Katja stood behind her looking sidelong at us, as if not sure we could be trusted. Misha smiled up at us from between Anna’s legs. I gasped, covering my mouth in astonishment, which did not subside, and probably never has.
When Peter arrives at the hospital, Misha has been diagnosed with a concussion. He’s now playing Legos with three boys wearing gauze patches on their heads saturated with anesthetic. Their mothers didn’t laugh when I called them “the head injury play group.” When the triage nurse asked Misha how he’d hit his head, he’d spread his little hands wide like starfish and said, “Rock rock rock rock rock BOOM.”
Peter tells me that, once the anesthetic takes effect, a surgeon will probably put sutures or staples in Misha’s head. I immediately volunteer to go pick up Katja. I feel I will kill anyone who approaches our son with a sharp object in his hand.
“Mama pupka!” Katja shouts into the phone. (“Mama’s butt!”)
Katja and I are in the bathroom at home. I left the hospital an hour ago. Peter and I thought the kids might want to talk to each other, so we arranged this phone call.
Through the receiver at Katja’s ear, I hear Misha respond, “Mama piska!” (“Mama’s pisser!”)
Both children scream with laughter. I take back the phone.
“Sounds like everything’s normal,” Peter chuckles. “Misha did fine with the surgeon. We’ll be home soon, love.”
Toilet jokes in Russian, I think. A head-injury play group. He’s right: for our family, this is ‘normal.‘
I tell Peter I love him and hang up. Then I ask Katja, in Russian and English, please to find her toothbrush.
Deborah L. Blicher’s essays have appeared most recently in The Boston Globe Magazine and Lilith. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two children, and two redfoot tortoises. Find her at http://www.deborahblicher.org and on Twitter at @dblicher.
Photo by Keith Galick