By Laura Jackson Roberts
“Abnormally fearless,” the doctor tells me. “Your son is abnormally fearless.”
I’m sitting in the pediatrician’s office listening to the sounds—howls, mostly—coming through the walls from other examining rooms. Somebody’s getting a shot. Abnormally fearless. I can see my reflection in the mirror on the wall. She’s nodding and she looks a bit concerned. Is her mouth twitching just a bit? She stops looking at me and blurts: “Yes! See how he’s on that stool, trying to reach that electrical outlet? That’s what he does all the time!”
The doctor sees and he’s smiling, but it’s not a good smile. Almost frozen on his face, it’s hiccupping somewhere between pity and regret.
I pluck two-year-old Benjamin from the wheeled stool as he spins around, and tuck him under my arm like a suitcase. He kicks his legs. “My husband and I don’t know what to do.”
The pediatrician is a good doctor. He helped us in the past, when Ben needed a rabies shot after a bat encounter. He’s going to help us now.
But when he opens his mouth, he stammers. “Just….just….” He stops, regrouping.
Now my own mouth opens in anticipation, because the advice is coming. I’m going to be able to breathe again, to sit on the toilet without worry that I’m missing an electrical fire or a mauling. The floods will stop. And the structural damage. This beautiful man is going to give me the gem for which I’ve been digging. I don’t have to live like this, because there are men like him, who have framed diplomas on their walls and stethoscopes in their breast pockets.
The smile on his face evolves into a genuine grin. “It’s probably going to get worse. Just keep him alive.”
Ben is my second child. A number two always surprises, because they never follow in the footsteps of their older sibling. Like many second children, Ben is a fun-loving attention-seeker who is far more outgoing than his Type-A brother, Andy. Andy is thoughtful, reserved, and loaded with common sense. Ben hasn’t a drop. In fact, he shows a startling lack of fear.
The word “fear” comes from the Old English word “fÃ¦r,” meaning “calamity, sudden danger, or peril.” Babies are born with two: loud noises and falling. These applied to Ben for a few months, but he soon morphed into a ballsy doppelganger. While Andy never stood on the kitchen table—it was the place for eating—Ben didn’t see it that way. To him, the table was not a facilitating tool for consumption, but a challenge worthy of Mallory and Irvine. He climbed because it was there, and moved ever higher, ever closer to danger.
My husband and I would not understand our tiny creation for many years.
“Was it dark beer or light beer?” asks Poison Control.
I am so ashamed.
Ben is nine months old and it is a bright April day in the hottest year we can remember. His chubby legs are utterly delicious and he has reached that splendid explosion of personality a parent waits for. He babbles in his own language as he practices his hop-along crawl. And he’s achieved the pull-up.
The beer bottle was in the cup-holder of a plastic Adirondack chair. Ben sat in the grass around me, poking at dandelions and eating bugs, and this was okay because I was an experienced parent who didn’t get riled up over minor things. But I did have to pee, and Ben couldn’t go far in the ninety seconds it would require, so I ducked into the house. When I emerged, still pulling up my pants, I caught sight of my son. He had pulled himself to his toes, leaning against the seat of the chair. The beer wobbled as his sausage fingers reached. And then, as I stared, his hands found the bottle and he tipped it to his mouth. But he didn’t spit out the bitter brew.
My baby swilled that beer like a fat little frat boy.
The voice of Poison Control Guy breaks through my recollection. “Ma’am? Are you there? Was it a light beer or a dark beer?”
“It was a Corona.” I am holding him now as he tries to squirm away. He smells like a brewery. His onesie is soaked and the front of his diaper has absorbed all of the liquid that spilled down his round belly. Ben is alternately sniffing and licking his palms, and every few seconds he stares down at the beer bottle and strains to reach it.
Poison Control Guy says, “Oh, good!” with audible relief. “If it was a Guinness, you’d be on your way to the ER right now.”
“Oh.” I can think of nothing else to say. My infant has a taste for pale ale, and this wasn’t on my preparedness list today. “Is there anything else I should do for him?”
“Watch for signs of drunkenness.”
I stammer. “You…want me to watch my baby for signs of drunkenness?”
“Yes ma’am,” he says.
I watch Ben. He lurches. He drools. He slurs his words. He takes a few tumbles. He is either drunk or a regular, sober baby. I can’t tell. Have I averted disaster or invited it in?
An Episode in Which…
It’s noticeably quiet, but the rational part of my brain tells me that shit can’t possibly be going down because I’ve only been out of the room for the length of time it takes to pull a toothbrush out of the shower drain with a pair of tongs. Ben has done this before, so I’m a self-taught expert. The key is to visualize the angle of the trap and if I’m lucky the bristles will be at the top. Crap. I’m not lucky today. The bristles are down in the trap, but I get it out anyway.
Double crap. It’s my toothbrush this time. What is that? Slime? Can I just dip that in alcohol and keep using it?
I recognize the sound of a twenty-five-pound body on the landing in the kitchen. How did he get downstairs? I follow the sound, but he’s perfectly safe and…
Why are his hands blue?
Why are his lips blue?
“Ben, what is on your hands?” He looks at them, then at me. “Ben! What is on your hands and mouth? Were you playing with something blue?” Food coloring? Magic Marker?
“Ben! Why are you blue?” I’m certain he’s going to show me a blue marker, or maybe an open baking drawer. It’ll be cute—there will be flour on the floor and maybe some little blue food coloring handprints around the kitchen.
But the kitchen is clean.
While I’m having a frenetic moment of worry inside my own head, he toddles off into the living room. He sits on the floor next to the fish tank, where I have been tending to a pair of angelfish who are suffering from a parasitic infection. Fish medicine is blue.
Benjamin’s mouth is blue. I see the boxes he’s dragged over to use as a stool. I see the discarded squeeze bottle. The child-proof cap has been gnawed off.
Toxic! In case of ingestion call a poison control expert and seek immediate medical attention.
Poison Control Guy is kind to me again. More importantly, he doesn’t remember me. He has a gentle tone, which somehow eases my physical anguish but can’t quite touch the mental component, the reality that my child guzzled fish medicine while I was in the bathroom with a set of kitchen tongs trying to un-wedge my toothbrush which that same child shoved into the drain.
I’m instructed to hydrate Ben, to dilute the poison. He should be okay, but I must watch closely for vomiting. Poison Control Guy calls me back in an hour, and again in two hours, to check on the boy.
The UPS guy asks me if Ben has eaten a smurf.
All babies have escapades. A tumble down the stairs ends in maternal and infant tears, or a swallowed substance triggers a frantic call to poison control. But as the tiny human grows, he learns that putting things into his mouth results in a bad taste and a belly ache. Ben either never learned or never cared, because he was abnormally fearless. Something inherent and primitive was missing: the fear.
But Benjamin is fearless. He won’t preserve himself.
It’s up to me.
Can I get a punch card for this?
The West Virginia Poison Control Hotline is 800-222-1222. I have it on speed dial in my phone, and posted in the kitchen, and the bathroom.
“Poison Control. How can I help you?” he asks.
Oh my God. It’s the same guy. This is his full-time job. He sits in a chair and answers the phone every time I call him.
“Hello?” he says again.
“Uh, yeah.” I have to think fast. This is my tenth call. There was the beer and the bleach and the fish medicine. There was the Comet and the toothpaste and the Resolve Carpet Foam. There was the child-proof Tylenol, and the little packet of desiccants in a new shirt pocket that specifically said “DO NOT EAT” in bold letters. They should have rewards points for frequent callers. Nine poisonings and the tenth is free.
I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t leave booze and bleach out on the floor. In fact, it was quite the opposite: they were behind closed cabinet doors, with child-proof locks. They were six feet up in the air. They were supposed to be safe. But they weren’t. They weren’t safe from the tiny tornado. His fat fingers worked at those child safety locks, or broke them completely, and he climbed like a mountain goat. From the toilet, to the sink, and up on tiptoes to the top of the bathroom cabinet. And today, while I was speaking with the lawn tractor service man…today was not my fault. The tractor guy left the dirty oil filter out, right on the ground.
“What’s the child’s name?”
Poison Control Guy is going to recognize me.
“Aye. The lad’s name is…Scott.” Oh damn. I’ve affected a Highland brogue so as not to be detected. “The wee one tossed back a bit of motor el from the lon trahkter’s el felter.”
“He drank from a used oil filter? Oh no. How much did he swallow? Do you know?”
“Weel, it’s on ‘is lips and his got a bit on ‘is tongue.”
“Alright,” he says. “I’m going to need you to hydrate him thoroughly. Motor oil is toxic, but it sounds like he probably spit most of it out when he got a taste of it. Hydrate him and watch for vomiting and fever. I’ll call back in an hour to check on him.”
I promise that the lad will be hydrated and monitored. And I wonder how this has happened again, his tenth poisoning, when I have tried so hard to be vigilant. Rather than proving myself worthy of the sacred title of “mother,” I have revealed my ineptitude time and again. The task of raising this child has proven me to be a failure. It seems my arms just aren’t long enough to keep him safe.
Curious George Flips a Switch
We had ribs for dinner last night, and the kitchen isn’t so clean. In fact, my husband put rib bones in the garbage disposal, and it sounds like the engine on a Piper Super Cub about five minutes after it’s crashed into a barn.
I’m flummoxed by the rib bones, which have splintered into shards now, and have begun to work their way into the mechanism of the disposal. Luckily, my wrist is narrow enough to reach down into the hole and fish these wretched little time-wasters out, piece by piece.
I can hear Ben. Trains. Living room. He’s alive.
When I think I’ve retrieved all of the rib bones, I reach under the sink and turn on the garbage disposal. Horrible noise. Damn. More bones. I turn it off and find another piece. Turn it on. Horrible noise. The pattern continues as I turn the disposal on and off repeatedly. When it stops sounding like mangled metal, I’ll know it’s clear.
I’m feeling around for that last rib bone when I hear the grinding. It seems I hear it before I feel it, and then my fingers blaze with scarlet pain. Thankfully, evolution has given humans quick reflexes. I pull the hand out and stare at it for a few milliseconds before I release the scream. It’s a long scream, a primal scream. It’s the scream of a hand in the garbage disposal, a thing of horror movies and unimaginable what-ifs.
And while I’m screaming, there is Benjamin at my feet. He’s crept up quietly beside me, and he’s watched me turn the disposal on and off and on and off. He’s seen the switch. And he’s gone for it. His hand is frozen on the switch, and his face is frozen in horror. When he hears my scream, he jumps as though there are electrodes in his butt cheeks. Then he too begins to scream. We’re both standing in the kitchen, looking at each other, screaming. For a brief moment I swear that I see a hint of fear.
As my adrenaline tapers off, so does my howl. And then I begin to yell. Ben falls apart, running from the room as fast as he can, tripping over the dogs’ water bowl and upending a potted plant. Dirt spills out everywhere, mixes with the water, and congeals to a soupy sludge. On the uneven floor it all slides to the west and runs under the refrigerator. I can hear him sobbing in another room.
I stare at my hand. It’s still there. It’s actually still there. Oh, it took a hit—it’s purple and gnarly-looking, to be sure. A few of my fingernails aren’t so much damaged as they are gone. Lucky for me, garbage disposals are designed to grind, not to slice. We all imagine they slice, but there are no blades. Just grinders. I’ve been mashed like a Yukon gold.
He tried to mutilate me.
This thought settles into my head for twenty seconds, and though I can still hear him bawling, I don’t think I can move. I continue to stare at my hand. Ten fingers. Holy shit. I carried this child for nine months, I gave birth to him and loved him. I let him barf on my shoulder and now he’s tried to de-finger me.
Finally, I’ve got the wherewithal to wonder where he has gone, and I find him in the next room, crying toddler tears of regret in the corner. He comes to me with a soaking face and wails, “I’m sorry Mommy, I’m sorry I did that!”
I tuck my flaming fingers into the folds of my shirt and use my good hand to wipe his tears. The horror which flickered across his face evolves so quickly into remorse that I’m not sure it was there at all.
The Little Engine That Had No Choice
At the park, I chat with a woman supervising her three-year-old daughter. Our kids run from slide to rope ladder to swing. We follow them, conversing, knowing we’ll never see each other again. I am tired, deep in my heart. The weight of being Ben’s caretaker is putting knots in my shoulders. It feels like keeping suicide watch in a room full of firearms, and my safety record sucks.
Eventually, the woman asks me the question I’ve been expecting. She tries to be casual. “So, what’s that on his head?”
“That bruise shaped like a pear? He fell.”
Every child falls, and boys do it with aplomb. “It sure is bluish,” she says. “Glad he’s okay.” She looks at me out the side of her eyes. “How’d that happen?”
I don’t sugar coat my answer. “He launched himself down the stairs.”
“Oh.” There’s a pause. She looks hard at my son, who is climbing the rope ladder in his bare feet—God knows where he’s put his shoes. Her daughter stands on the ground and looks up as Ben hangs on with one hand and leans backwards over the abyss. At least there’s a rubber mat on the pavement.
“My daughter sometimes jumps on the new couch. It makes me nuts. Is that…stair-jumping thing….is that something he normally does?”
“Yes. It is.” I want to say something about Ben’s pediatrician and the abnormally fearless, but I don’t.
She bites the inside of her lip. “Is he still in diapers? I think I smell something. Maybe it’s my kid.”
Was I really going to have to do this? “No, it’s his shirt,” I reply.
This woman can’t contain her curiosity. Not that I blame her. “His shirt?”
“He found a bottle of deer repellant and sprayed his shirt a few times. It was in a bag on the backseat. I bought it at the garden store and he reached it from his seat on the way over here. You should smell my car.”
“It’s dried blood and putrescent egg solids.” I add, and grin because it’s so damn vile.
She’s repulsed. And she’s starting to think it’s time to get her kid away from mine. Up on the apparatus, Ben lets out a howl and holds his thumb. I coax him to the edge beside the fireman’s pole and he throws himself into my arms. Something electrical shoots up my back and I grunt hard. This child is breaking me down. My vertebral column is giving up.
My new acquaintance approaches me. “Is he okay?” she asks. “What’s that on his thumb? Is that a rope burn?”
Oh great. This, now?
“No,” I answer, deciding to being honest. “That’s a regular burn. He got up on the counter and made himself toast in the night.”
Under my breath, I mutter, “I’m just trying to keep him alive.”
On our way home, I wonder what special combination of genes came together to form this unusual child. His father and I are prudent, logical first-borns. His brother worries constantly about things like an escaped bull on the playground, and a colony of flesh-eating ants nesting in his jack o’lantern. Andy is always on alert. The boys have an unequal distribution of fear, with none left for the younger. My husband and I are paying the price for our roll of the genetic dice. We’ve created abnormally fearless, and now we have to raise him.
Now we have to save him from himself.
The Inmates Are Running the Asylum
Ben is on that spinning stool in the doctor’s office again. He’s going to make himself sick. He knows how to vomit on command, so it won’t be a taxing performance. And he’d love to be able to show the pediatrician the extent of his intestinal pyrotechnics.
Kids are howling in the next room. I hear a tired mother’s voice. Ben is no longer on the spinning stool. Crap. He’s on the scale. It’s broken. He actually broke the doctor’s scale. Am I going to have to pay for that? Maybe they won’t notice.
I’m sitting on a chair in the little room, staring at myself in the mirror. My reflection just looks back at me. She looks like me from last year, listening to the abnormally fearless diagnosis for the first time. It doesn’t yet thunder in her head like a mantra, like a warning. On her side of the mirror, she’s still wondering how to fix it, rather than how to accept it, as we do on my side. I miss my own fearlessness, but it no longer fits my body, no matter how many times I try it on. Everything about motherhood worries me now.
Perhaps when we begin a parenting journey for the second time, we’re all abnormally fearless. With the first child, we battle. We slay the dragons of ignorance and sleep deprivation. We triumph and find patience and earn our smug-parent stripes, imagining how easy another child will be. But each child is a blank slate, one who pays neither mind nor homage to his predecessor. And my reflection doesn’t know this. She’s sitting there wondering why the Andy-rules don’t apply to Benjamin. How can she tweak this little blonde problem, this tiny boy, so that he fits into his proper place, where she can steer him along with one hand?
Benjamin won’t be steered. The only hands on the tiller are his own. I’m in the boat, but I’m sitting up front, and I just can’t get control. Do I claw my way to the back and take over, or do I keep a watchful distance? Would it matter to Ben what I tried to do either way? Is my only job to stay the course?
I don’t know how to raise this child.
Ben’s poking around in the garbage can. He pulls out a discarded tube of….ew. Lube? Is that rectal thermometer lube? Christ on a kayak. I snap at him, haul him out of the rubbish, and mentally prepare my questions for the doctor.
When he walks in, he’s a new face, a new partner in the practice. Damn! He’s going to think I’m a delinquent. Our other doctor gets it; he knows I’m trying. He told me to keep the kid alive and I need to see him so I can stand up and point at the little garbage weasel and shout, “He’s alive! You told me to keep him alive and I did and now I need you to tell me how much easier it’s going to be!”
The new pediatrician is ridiculously handsome. I watch Ben receive an examination. I watch him jump up and down and tell the doctor his name and his dogs’ names and where he goes to preschool. And I watch him begin to swing from the broken scale in the corner while the doctor takes notes. It makes a wretched clang and I pull Ben off, because it’s time to receive my assurances that this is just about over. I’ve put in a solid year of life-saving duty, of vigilance. I’ve dropped the ball many times, but the boy is in one piece and there’s minimal scarring and no major head trauma. Almost all of our pets still have tails and we’ve developed a healthy relationship with our plumber. Ben even has his own Facebook fans. They call him “Calamity Ben.”
“Do you have questions?” the doctor asks.
I take a big breath. “Last year the other doctor told me that Ben was abnormally fearless and that I just had to keep him alive. I’ve been trying and he’s still diving off of furniture and picking up snakes and throwing knives. He’s not afraid of falling or traffic and he takes off his life jacket and throws himself in the pool. I keep calling Poison Control. It’s been a year from hell. Is he going to stop soon?”
This pediatrician doesn’t bat an eyelash or miss a beat. He flashes me a Ken-doll smile.
“Keep him alive for another year,” he chuckles, and touches my shoulder. “You’re doing fine.”
Author’s Note: I’m often asked if Benjamin’s stories are the truth, and I reply, wearily, that they are. As of this morning, he has a black eye on the left side of his face, permanent marker on his nipples, and no desire to live gently. For some reason, I was chosen to be his mother. He and his brother are the loves of my life.
Laura Jackson Roberts lives in Wheeling, West Virginia with her husband, Shawn, and sons, Andy and Benjamin. Recently published on Matador Network, she is an MFA student at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, focusing on humor in nature.