By James M. Chesbro
Over my four year-old son’s shoulders the wounded adults gazed across the room in our direction. Between their absent stares, maybe they replayed their accident and the ways they could have avoided it. What replayed in my mind was coming home from work and seeing a gash in my boy’s head. He was mimicking the downhill skier on TV, lost his balance and banged his head on a table. As I zipped his jacket over his pajamas he choked back sobs, accepting the news that instead of going to bed, we were going to the hospital. The receptionist said “Anna” into the microphone, another name that was not ours. My son’s eyes followed the movement of white fish in the large tank by the receptionist’s desk.
“Dad, look,” James said. “The fish have blood on them.” As I considered my response I saw the two drops of crimson stain on the collar of his sleeper. He kept his eyes on the fish.
“No, James.” I said. “That’s not blood. It’s just the color of the tips of their fins.”
“Oh,” he said, relief spreading across his face. We stared at each other for a long moment. I spent the day teaching high-school students, the early evening teaching college freshmen, and I hadn’t seen James since I waved to him in the driveway as his mother drove him to school. The big automatic doors to the main entrance opened as two people approached the receptionist over his head.
When James needs a haircut, his stubborn cowlick gives him a perpetual case of bed-head. When the hairs on the top of his head sprout into the shape of two ears of corn, the husks half peeled, it’s an indication of how busy I’ve been, since taking him to the barbershop is exclusively dad duty. In the morning, he runs away from me when I try to wet and comb his hair before nursery school and the husks shake.
“Can we leave now?” James asked as he twisted his white ID bracelet on his wrist. Until I told James we had to see the doctor, he was feeling pretty good about himself. We had left the triage room where the nurse fingered his way through his husks of brown hair to the wound. Neither of us knew we had three and half more hours of waiting.
“Probably two staples,” he said, as the rubber gloves snapped off his hands.
To pass the time we made up games together. We played follow the leader, which didn’t last long. We played a game of stepping on tiles and not the gray grout. If you stepped on the grout we called cracks, you were frozen and could only move if the other person tagged you.
We checked in with the receptionist to see how many people were in front of us. James sat himself in the chair, placed his elbow on her desk, rested his head in his hand and told the woman about his sisters, classmates, and teachers as if this woman knew who they were. A man wheeled an intoxicated woman to the desk. She demanded pain medication for her ankle. She waved her pointed finger at the receptionist and shouted.
James and I retreated back to the pediatric section where we sat at a small table. The TV blared over the woman’s proficient use of the f-word.
In the emergency room, I wasn’t cutting off his pleas to evade going to bed. I wasn’t standing on the landing, pointing to the second floor, exclaiming, “Up!” I wasn’t thinking about the work I still had to do after James and his sisters finally settled in their beds. I wasn’t thinking about how our three month-old might fuss throughout the wee hours of the morning. My objective that evening in the ER was as singular and apparent to me as the fear in the brown eyes of the boy in the green-fleece sleeper and sneakers. At home his younger sisters require more of my attention, but in the ER I could devote myself entirely to him. I didn’t know it then, and I hope I don’t have to repeat the experience soon, but my four hours with my son in the emergency room were a gift, because it gave me the opportunity to be the kind of father I wish I could be all the time.
Eventually, around 1:00 am, James slumped over my shoulder. I saw his body covering most of mine as I stood before the wall of windows, his legs dangling, his sneaker-covered feet tapping my kneecaps.
With two staples in his head, James slumped over me again, his sobs eventually steadying into more rhythmic breaths as drizzle fell on the slick blacktop, shining in the glare of parking lot lights. In the rearview mirror I watched my boy bring his knees toward his chest, and place his hands between them. The motor started. The interior car lights glowed orange. With his eyes closed, the cornhusks on his head rustled as he turned his head to the side. As I drove I thought about carrying him to bed, and wondered when we’d be able to go get him a haircut.
Author’s Note: I had a conference with parents of one of my high-school students the same day I ended up taking James to the ER. As they were leaving my classroom they asked me how my kids were. They told me it goes by fast, to enjoy spending time with them while they’re young, that before I knew it they would be in high school.
James M. Chesbro’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Writer’s Chronicle, Under the Gum Tree, The Huffington Post, Connecticut Review, and The Good Men Project, among others. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Find him on Twitter or on his blog