A Horrible Mother

A Horrible Mother

sad little girl in the car seat

By Holly Rizzuto Palker

Summer camp had just begun and it was the first hot day of the year. The air outside looked wavy. I strapped my child into her car seat and kissed her chubby cheeks. She was my third so I’d learned to take the time to do this. Often. Chelsea was impish and just shy of one-year. She looked up at me with wide eyes and giggled, “Mama.”

On average, 37 children die forgotten in cars each year in the U.S. from heat related deaths. As a 39-year-old stay at home mom of three in New Jersey, I felt constantly overwhelmed with tasks yet I never imagined I could forget my child.

We drove to pick up her older brother from day camp. The car was finally cooling from the air condition that circulated on high for the ten minutes it took us to get there. My mind spilled over with an endless to do list. Camp pickup was a change to our normal routine.

Though Chelsea was almost one, I’d barely slept the night before. I shouldn’t have run to her nursery the moment I heard her screaming but I couldn’t bear to hear her cry. She was my last and I was done Ferberizing. With this child I savored the comfortable feeling of a pudgy little body cuddled up next to me while sleeping. The problem was that once I brought her into my bed, I never fell back into a deep sleep fearing that she could be smothered under the blankets.

“I can do this,” I told myself. I believed I could handle three children with little sleep. Good mothers raised offspring, bought groceries, cooked dinner and kept the house without assistance. I was proud that I could handle it all by myself.

My cell phone rang in the car and it was my mom. She knew my life had been chaotic and my husband had been away for a few days on a work trip. She was aware I needed help since my best sitter was no longer working for me. Her voice switched over to blue tooth and filled my car.

“Do you need me?” she asked.

I glanced in the rearview to see if her tone was too loud for my Chelsea whose thighs folded over the straps at the meeting points of the car seat harness. Her mouth had fallen open, eyes closed she’d been swept away into napping bliss. I spied the rise and fall of her tummy underneath her flowery sundress.

We arrived at camp a few minutes late. I cringed because I knew my son despised being the last kid left anywhere.

“I’m good. I’ve gotta go,” I interrupted my mom who was listing time frames when she could come to New Jersey during the week. She ran her own business and was my grandmother’s caretaker. I didn’t want to burden her.

Watching the other moms walk with their kids swinging racquets on the way to their cars, I got out and locked the doors by remote. I rushed down the path to the camp. I was met with a woosh of ice cold air when I opened the door to the club house. My five-year-old son caught sight of me and ran toward my outstretched arms grabbing his belongings on the way. As I went in for the hug my mind replayed like in a movie when the twist becomes clear. I realized what I’d done. I dropped the racquet and my son’s things. I abandoned him and ran.

“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” I screamed. I waded through what felt like quicksand and I headed back to the car. How much time had passed? A minute? Maybe a few seconds more? Oh my God, how could I have left my little girl the back seat?

“Chelsea,” I yelled, my face bloated with tears. I flung open the door and unlocked the five-point harness, panting. She wasn’t moving. I shook her, assuming the worst. Had I suffocated my own child?

But then she opened her eyes and stared at me bewildered, a bit miffed for waking her so rudely.

I tore my baby from the car seat and ran back into the camp with her, shaky and lightheaded.

“I need water. I forgot her in the car,” I told a mom I knew, crying. Another mother rubbed my back to console me. The looks amongst the adults ranged from complete empathy to utter disgust. A 17 year-old counselor consoled me, “it was just a minute. Its okay.” Could she comprehend the implications of what I’d just done?

Someone brought my daughter a drink. My son looked on confused. Chelsea sipped the water as she sat on my lap, oblivious that I had just become a horrible mother.

I was embarrassed but I stayed for a few minutes, trying to regain my composure. I convinced everyone I was in good shape to drive home but I was unable to trust myself.

We entered the house and I turned on “Peppa Pig” for them to watch. I called my husband in Europe. He understood, and calmed me down.

Next I called my internist and retold the story. She was sympathetic too.

“How could I have done this?” I asked.

“This happens to parents more often than you can imagine. They don’t always remember quickly like you did.”

I kept crying.

“You’re exhausted, mentally stretched and still hormonal,” she answered.

“I’m not in my right mind,” I argued. I couldn’t accept that I made a mistake this severe. I convinced her to send me for testing to determine if I had some sort of cognitive dysfunction.

I heard a news feature about a man two months later who was being tried for murder because he “forgot” his child in a hot car and she died. I secretly sympathized with his defense because I believed how it might happen. Two of my relatives mentioned the story in disbelief. They couldn’t conceive of ever making a mistake so grave with their own children. I was afraid to tell them my story.

My tests came back negative for any mental impairments. From that day on, I drove with my purse by my toddler’s feet. I do this so I can’t leave the car without something I’m used to always holding. I check the back seat double and even triple times without a child in tow. I’ve finally forgiven myself and I thank God that I had the presence of mind to remember my child was in the car before it was too late. I’ve slowed down and stopped trying to be all things to all people. I swallow my pride and ask for a favor when I need it and If I’m late for camp pickup then so be it.

Holly is a freelance writer and novelist. She teaches drama to pre-school children and she is also raising three of her own dramatic children, a husband, and a dog. www.hollyrizzuto.com



Lessons on a Pirate Ship

Lessons on a Pirate Ship

APACHE JUNCTION, ARIZONA - MARCH 14: The Arizona Renaissance Festival on March 14, 2015, near Apache Junction, Arizona. A pirate ship ride thrills visitors at the 27th Annual Arizona Renaissance Festival held near Phoenix.

By Erica Witsell

“This is the best weekend ever!” my five-year-old son Clayton proclaimed as he buckled himself into his booster seat. He proceeded to enumerate for his younger twin sisters all the glories of the fair.

“We’re going to see the animals! And the pig races! And the flying dogs! And Dad said we could have cotton candy!”

Dee Dee, caught up in his excitement, punctuated the end of each proclamation with her own little cheer: “Animals! Pig races! Dogs! Cotton candy!”

And we’re going to ride the rides!” Clayton said. This finale, the part of the fair that for him trumped all others, was met with worried silence.

“It’s okay, Dee Dee,” I told my daughter. “You don’t have to go on the rides if you don’t want to. You can watch.”

And watch she did, quite contently, while her sister Sylvia went on the Nemo ride and Clayton and Daddy rode the caterpillar coaster. She gathered her courage for the flying dragons, and while Sylvia waved and posed like a movie star, she clutched the bar with both hands, her face frozen with worry and concentration.

After an hour of rides, we broke for lunch by the sea lion tank where the kids dutifully ate the carrot sticks and hard-boiled eggs I had smuggled in.

“If we eat this healthy stuff first,” Clayton explained to his father. “We’ll get the cotton candy.”

Soon after, with sticky hands and coated teeth, we headed for the Mooternity Ward, where a calf was born before our eyes. Its mother stared at us with wide, startled eyes as first the front hooves and then the black round nose of her calf emerged.

“Poor thing,” I muttered, more than once. The mama cow circled inside her small enclosure as if searching for somewhere else to be, away from all the staring eyes. Still, I pointed and exclaimed with the rest of the crowd, lifting my children up so they could see. You came out of your mother just like that, I told them, suddenly overcome by a desire to remind them of the births they would never remember, the miracle of their presence in a world that, mere seconds before, did not contain them.

Watching the wet calf sprawled in the hay, struggling to find its feet while the mother licked it with her thick tongue, I was struck not only by the raw intimacy of my connection to my children—their flesh was of my flesh—but by their undeniable and persistent separateness. There the little calf was, quite its own little unique being in the world, when just moments before the mother had been alone.

I squeezed Clayton’s shoulder. “Isn’t it amazing?”

“Yeah,” he agreed politely. “Can we go ride some more rides now?”

Our tickets were running out.

“One more ride each,” I said. I was growing weary of the crowds and noise, the endless temptations of food and prizes and Dee Dee’s corresponding chorus of “I want! I want!”

Clayton, on the other hand, allowed no distractions. His heart was set on one thing: he wanted to ride the pirate ship. As Clayton triumphantly measured himself against the Are you tall enough? post, his little sister Sylvia piped up.

“I want to ride with Clayton!” She was still sore that we hadn’t let her ride the teacups, so I let her check her height, too. I was certain she wouldn’t be tall enough, but the bored ride attendant dipped his head at her.

“She can ride if someone goes with her,” he said.

“I’ll go with them,” my husband volunteered, but no, I insisted I would go instead. The pirate ship was an indelible icon of the fairs of my youth. I could clearly remember climbing aboard with my best friend Mary, my chest tight with excitement, while Billy Joel’s You May Be Right blared over the speakers, beating its thrilling soundtrack in my brain.

Handing the last of our tickets, I directed my children to the center of the ship, the least scary row that Mary and I had always avoided when we could. Sylvia sat between Clayton and me; I kept my arm around her as the ride began.

It was exhilarating at first, the rush of the wind in our faces as the ship surged through the air. We screeched as we climbed higher, laughing happily.

But within moments, it all went wrong. Clayton’s face turned green; his jaw clenched.

“I don’t like it,” he said. His lips were pursed. Was he going to be sick?

“It’s too scary,” Sylvia observed matter-of-factly from beside me.
In an instant, all joy had fled. Oh, what had I done? I had willingly—intentionally—put myself into any parent’s worst nightmare. My children were terrified and there was absolutely nothing I could do. I clenched my arm tighter around Sylvia and tried to reassure Clayton.

“It will be over soon,” I promised.

He glanced at me hopefully, but I was wrong. We were climbing higher and higher, so high it was impossible not to think that in a moment the ship would break free from its finite pendulum and spin us wildly through the air.

“When?” Clayton groaned. “When will it be over? I want it to be over.” He had wrapped his arms around the bar, holding on with all his might.

I squeezed Sylvia to my side. She was very quiet.

“Just hold on, Clayton,” I said. I wanted desperately to reach for him, to pull his frightened body against mine, but I could not let go of Sylvia. She was so small it seemed to me that she could easily slip beneath the metal bar that ostensibly held us in.

“Just hold on, Clayton!” I repeated. “Look at your shoes. It will be over soon.”

But it was not over — The awful swinging went on and on. Suddenly I could stand it no longer. The ride had to be stopped, and there was only one person who could stop it.

My husband stood grinning at us from the ground, camera in hand.

Get him off!” I screamed desperately.

I opened my mouth to call again when suddenly I felt a shift in the relentless momentum of the ship. Relief flooded me.

“It’s okay, Clayton,” I gasped. “It’s stopping.”


“Now. It’s stopping now.”

As soon as we were off the ship, I reached for Clayton, pulling him to me. We were safe! I felt hollowed-out by fear and adrenalin. I had not saved my children, but at least they were safe. I wanted to wrap my body around them; I wanted to drench them in apologies for having put them through such an ordeal.

But already Clayton was wriggling free. The green terror in his face was gone, and he grinned proudly at his dad.

“I rode the pirate ship!” he said. Already he was putting it on the list for next year’s fair.

I knelt down to hug Sylvia.

“Are you okay?” I asked. She was still so quiet. Had she been traumatized? What kind of awful parent was I, to take my three-year-old on such a ride? But my brave little girl seemed totally unfazed.

“The other boys were making happy faces because they were happy,” she explained. “But I was making a scared face because I was scared.”

And that was that. “Get him off!” my husband mimicked me, laughing, and suddenly we couldn’t stop giggling. We laughed about the pirate ship all afternoon. The next morning, it was the first thing Clayton wanted me to tell his teacher.

“Just don’t tell her how you screamed, ‘Get him off!'” he told me. “It’s too embarrassing.”


Erica Witsell the mother of three young children and a community college instructor of English as a second language. Following the birth of my twin daughters, she began a blog, On The Home Front, to capture the joys and challenges of mothering three young children while caring for a fourth.





What I Relearn Every Summer At The Pool

What I Relearn Every Summer At The Pool

By Sarah Dille

0-1I watched from behind the glass window as she took her first plunge into ten feet of water. She had told me in the car that she was feeling brave enough to do it. I believed her, but I’m not quite sure she believed herself, until she found her legs leaving the side of the pool and she braced herself for the slap of the water onto her small body.

I don’t know who let their breath go first. I’m not even really sure I realized I had been holding mine as I watched her propel herself forward in the water with well-practiced scoops and kicks. I waved at her enthusiastically, proudly, amazed. I could not have done that when I was five. It was my best friend who taught me to swim. One summer, years past the time I should have known, years past the birthday parties at pools where I sat sheepishly on the side or hovered on the steps, not knowing how to tread in the water or float, not knowing how to conquer my fear of what would happen if I let go. It was always embarrassing. But I didn’t really know how to fix it.

The summer before 7th grade, my friend took my hand and led me into the pool. She showed me how to blow bubbles out my nose, relax my body and my mind enough to trust myself to float. She helped me sit on the side of the pool, told me to make what my daughter now calls pancake hands and helped me dive for the first time into water that rose above my head, letting go of my fear and mistrust of myself in a pool. She helped me let myself go. She made me brave.

Every summer now, I relearn about myself at the pool even though most times it is not me who is submerged in water. I watch my daughter and her swimming teacher and I realize that many of the lessons to be learned in the room that smells so strongly of chlorine are lessons for me. They aren’t about blowing bubbles or floating, about scooping arm movement or how to dive properly. They are, once again, lessons on trust; lessons on bravery; lessons on letting go. I learn about taking wishes from my childhood and pushing them upon my motherhood, taking a cue from that small girl I once was, sitting at the side of the pool too afraid to take risks.

Parenting has taught me that I can’t be that girl anymore. Every day of parenting is a risk, is an act akin to diving into water where you know you cannot stand on your own two feet.

Every part of parenting is about trust. About trusting my partner, my daycare provider, my children and, mostly, myself. The early days of motherhood felt to me much like those initial attempts at floating. It was only as I relaxed that I was better able to keep my head above the proverbial waters.

And, swimming lessons have, year after year, also taught me a bit about letting go. As swim instructors guide my daughter towards independence, help her to not need my holding her and catching her, teaching her to float freely in the water, I realize again and again that raising a child seems to me a lot like teaching them to swim. The consequences of not succeeding are downright scary. It is so much easier to stick them in your arms or make them wear floaties until they are 29. But then they’ll never really experience the freedom and fun of the water. They’ll never learn to swim. So I try to let go. Let go of unrealistic expectations, of comparisons to other mothers and children, of expert advice that only contradicts my instincts. I watch my daughter bravely jump into ten feet of water, letting herself go and trusting herself to float back to the surface and I want to feel that freedom too.

It is sometimes scary to be a parent in this intensive parenting culture. Those of us who have always been successful—in school, in our jobs—we hate the prospect of not matching that success with our children. We hate the idea that someone else might be better than us or that there may be some magic formula out there that we are not privy to. Therefore we buy the books, search the Internet, tap into our own mother’s brains in hope of finding the secret. We surround ourselves with expert information until it feels like we are drowning.

Sometimes I feel like I did that summer before 7th grade, ready to take the plunge, confident that a friend will be there on the other side to hold me up and hold my hand and hold my heart with care. Other days I feel like I can’t swim. Like I’m standing in water that reaches just above my head and I don’t know quite what to do to reach the surface.

But when I have doubts about what I am doing, the choices I am making, which I inevitably do, I remember all I’ve learned in the pool.

Sarah Dille is a mom of two great kids, wife to a serial remodeler, and a full-time English teacher. To keep her sanity, she writes about weathering the many changes of parenting and the lovable craziness of her children on her blog, toddlersummer.com.

The Secret Burden

The Secret Burden

By Laura Fokkena

fokkenartWhat they told us in high school was all wrong. Back then we were reminded, over and over and over again, that we should delay parenthood as long as possible because it was so much work. “It’s so much work!” declared the narrators on the grainy film strips, the experts brought in from Planned Parenthood, all the articles in Seventeen. Babies meant we’d spend our days cranking out bottles of formula and our nights rocking screaming infants to sleep; babies meant second jobs and diapers and a never-ending pile of laundry; babies, in short, meant years of grim and thankless labor. Why we were supposed to dread that work but embrace the work that would get us into a good college was beyond me, but we were reminded again and again that having babies before, say, thirty, would be a loathsome, dreary task. (I guess after thirty parenting magically transforms into a cheerful, upbeat endeavor.)

I now know better. I now know that the worst part of parenting is not the diapers or the temper tantrums or the sleepless nights: it’s the fear. Fear that your child will hate you, or end up weird, or get lice or rickets or right-wing politics, but most of all, say-it-in-a-whisper-’cause-it’s-just-too-fucking-terrible: die. Children can die.

Whoever came up with that idea was one big sadist. And now, let’s create a world with Redwood trees and ocean sunsets and lighthouses, French wine and Czech beer, the sound of cicadas on summer evenings, and human beings capable of love and life and space travel. Oh and then–the afterthought–just for the hell of it? Let’s make it a world in which two-year-olds can die. Ha.

Good one, God.

Parenting books and magazines fill pages and pages with advice for interviewing caregivers, questions about smoking and discipline philosophies and Can I please see three references? But I had only one interest as I searched for someone to look after my daughter. Would this person be suicidal at Rakaya’s demise? Not out of a sense of guilt or responsibility, but because a life without Rakaya just isn’t worth living? Okay, then. They were fit to care for her in my absence.

Of course that narrowed the field down to my husband and my mom, which was somewhat inconvenient.

Not that we didn’t leave Rakaya with friends, babysitters, here and again with regular daycare centers, the public school system. But there was one significant difference during those episodes, and that was my angst. Leaving Rakaya with her (very lovely, competent, caring) babysitter while I went to work was, for me, like leaving her in a basket in the Nile. Would I ever see her again? What would become of her? What terrible fate might befall her in the four hours I spent filing documents for grocery money?

I surprised myself, shortly after her first birthday, by being calm when I picked her up one day and saw a large goose egg on her forehead.

“She fell against the coffee table,” her babysitter told me, and recounted the harrowing story (which really wasn’t all that harrowing–the kid, new to this whole ambulatory thing, had taken a few steps and then had fallen down) with all the horror befitting someone who just might be, okay, if not suicidal then surely catatonic had my child met with a more drastic fate. She was ashen, head shaking, hands to her throat. Terrorized, basically. All good signs. Very good signs.

I surprised myself because my calm was earnest. “It’s okay,” I reassured her. Me, reassuring the babysitter! But it had happened hours ago, a lifetime in one-year-old terms, and Rakaya was now happily drinking juice and playing with her doll. With a giant gash on her head. “These things happen,” I said. And they really do! And I really knew it! My kid had gotten hurt and I wasn’t there to comfort her and, guess what, we survived.

(Of course, one will note that I still remember it seven years later.)

I thought my worry burden would lighten once my daughter was smart enough to avoid electrical outlets, but no such luck. Rakaya’s eight now, and we live on a busy street in Boston. For months I’ve been telling her that when we go back to my hometown in rural Iowa she’ll be able to ride her bike anywhere she wants to, “just not here in Boston; it’s too dangerous.”

Except now we’re in my hometown for a visit and I’m expected to put my money where my mouth is. She came back to my mother’s with her friend Aaron today and asked what her “limits” were.

Don’t vote Republican. Don’t date anyone who doesn’t respect you. Don’t argue with the cops; you’ll never win. Don’t sacrifice art for calculus, or vice versa. But, oh, okay, she was speaking geographically.

“I dunno,” I said. “What are Aaron’s?”

“He can’t cross highways or railroad tracks,” she said.

These are good limits. Stellar limits! Perfect for an eight-year-old girl in a town that sees all of ten cars a day on any given street.

And still I’d rather have her riding in circles through the living room.

When I was thirteen on vacation in Texas, a strange man came up and asked me if I’d ever done any modeling. Being thirteen, all the don’t-talk-to-strangers rules went right out the window. Modeling! Why, no! Why, no, I hadn’t! He said he wanted to photograph me–how about now? My mother, buzzkill that she was, happened to come along at this juncture and the distinguished photographer, to my great disappointment, scampered away along with all my hopes of stardom. When I told Mom of the encounter, we were back in our hotel room behind locked doors faster than you can say Blue Lagoon.

Am I being paranoid? Who’s to say? These are just–“just”–the Scary Bad Dude tales. Never mind the stories of abuse and inadvertent neglect, never mind the car and bicycle accidents, the illnesses (“I thought he just had a touch of the flu”), never mind drowning, dog bites, and, heaven forbid, crib death.

When Rakaya was a toddler, I learned that a girl I’d gone to school with had lost a baby to SIDS. I’d known Roxanne all my life and knew she’d make an exemplary mother. She said she’d put the baby down for a nap and came back twenty minutes later to find the child still and blue. Bring her BACK, the first reaction has to be, hurry hurry something my God anything bring her BACK. But it’s too late. Twenty minutes and it’s already too late. How does the globe have the audacity to keep on spinning when such a thing is happening all over the world?

And really, the wonder is that any of us survive it. Crib death, polio, playground accidents, abductions, car crashes, heart murmurs, football practice: anyone who makes it to twenty-one is either tough or lucky.

When my daughter was little, we lived for a time in Africa, and my husband and I would argue over letting her play with the doorman’s son; the boy had a nasty cough that my husband insisted was tuberculosis. I protested that he was being classist, and anyway Rakaya was a fat American baby with all her vaccinations. But I had to remind myself that my husband had been raised in this country where children really did die, habitually and without fanfare, from diseases we in the West no longer concern ourselves with. Our parenting magazines talk about self-esteem and getting kids to do their chores. Theirs talk about preventing typhoid.

And yet I still believe I was right, still believe that our fat American baby with all her vaccinations should have been allowed to play with the boy. I reassure my mother that Rakaya and Aaron will be all right as long as they don’t cross highways or railroad tracks (even as I’m not quite sure myself) and I send her off to the Science Museum in the company of friends who would be merely sick with guilt–not quite suicidal–should anything happen to my only child. I do this because I remember riding unbelted in the back of our old pick-up truck, remember playing with my friends in unsteady abandoned houses, remember climbing trees and later mountains, remember taking flights as an unaccompanied minor, remember that adventures are what make life worth living. My daughter’s babysitter could have strapped her down to avoid that bruise-on-the-coffee-table incident, but then my child would never have learned to walk. Would never have learned to run.

Still, the risk we take as parents makes me angry. Before I had children, I didn’t know how hard a person could love another human being, and it horrifies me that this love is coupled with the responsibility for keeping that same human alive. How’s that for comic tragedy? How’s that for totally unfair? As it turns out, the biggest adventure of all is to love with such intensity.

On the night we brought Rakaya home from the hospital, I had to stop by my husband’s workplace and pick up our house key. She was all of forty-eight hours old, brand new, sizzling with perfect Apgar scores, as yet untouched by danger or the weariness of life. When I got back to the car, my mother told me that they’d come this close to being broadsided by some idiot tearing out of the parking lot. I was immediately livid. Never mind the car. Hell, never mind my mother. Someone almost killed my child! That bastard! Why, I’d track him down right now! Screw the baby’s homecoming; I was a mama lion; I was going to find that sonofabitch and eat him for breakfast.

I was overwhelmed with the force of my own reaction, overwhelmed at the blunt awakening to the fact that I was going to feel this way not for the rest of the ride home, not for the next eighteen years, but for the rest of my whole damn life.

Now my daughter and I play a game.

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you more,” she responds.

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t. Mamas always love their babies more. If you have babies, you’ll understand.”

“I’ll love them more than I love you?” she asks (and, feed my ego here, the child is skeptical, bless her heart).

“Yes,” I say, “you will.”

But sometimes the unthinkable becomes reality. Sometimes we really do lose our children, through miscarriage, through stillbirths, through accidents and illnesses. Every cemetery is littered with pint-sized gravestones: unnamed “infant sons” and “infant daughters.” Every religious tradition and every scientific textbook has a way of making sense of this, and every one of them is inadequate. “My whole life was good,” says my grandmother, who’d survived war, disease, and abject poverty, “except for losing Willie.” Willie, my uncle, who was killed in a car crash when he was seventeen.

Recently my mom and I were reminiscing about living on the farm where I’d grown up, and I reminded her about “that thing”–probably a baby badger–I’d seen under the car when I was around ten years old. Now that I was an adult, she shared with me the darker ending to that story: how, after I’d told her about it and then gone off to play, she snuck off and called my dad, who came home from work in the middle of the day and shot it.

It was the responsible thing to do. Wild animals rarely came that close to the house, not with the dogs around, and when they did it was usually indicative of rabies, or something worse. My sister was only three or four and played outside unattended. There really wasn’t any other choice.

But for days after that, my mother told me, she’d look out the kitchen window and see the mama badger sniffing around the garage, at the edges of the field, wandering up by the house and then disappearing back into the tall grass, beyond the windbreak.

She was a mama like the rest of us, unexpectedly unencumbered, and she was searching for her baby.

Author’s Note: I’m interested in the cultural treatment of parents and parenting, particularly where risk is involved. Modern American parents are expected to protect their children from all manner of danger, emotional and physical, yet simultaneously produce independent free-thinkers capable of dealing with anything life throws their way: goals that seem contradictory to me. But parental attitudes toward “acceptable” risk change throughout history and across cultures, and exploring the origins of these trends (and, often, questioning their wisdom) is the common thread in most of my writing about motherhood, whether I’m talking about homeschooling, education, single parenting, or traveling with children.

Brain, Child (Fall 2003)

Laura Fokkena’s essay, “Watching Them Grow Up,” appeared in Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad (Seal Press, 2002). Her writing has also been published on AlterNet.org, PopPolitics.com, PhillyMama.com, Linux Iran, Egypt Today, Home Education Magazine, and other publications. She lives in Boston.

Art by Caty Bartholomew

Ben Will Be Two

Ben Will Be Two

By Abbe Walter

Art BenBen will be 2 in two weeks. He is walking around the house with a book that sings the nursery rhyme “Rock-a-bye baby” when you open it. A different line sung for each page turned. He never keeps it open past the first page. Open, shut, open shut, open, shut. Rock-a-bye-baby! Rock-a-bye-baby! Rock-a-bye-baby! My 3-month-old Jake is napping in his crib and the August sun is pouring in thick like butter through the living room windows. At 9:00 a.m. sharp the phone rings. My stomach drops. My husband Brian looks at me from the next room. I take a deep breath and say hello, meeting Brian’s eyes. Brian immediately picks up the other extension in time to hear Dr. Khan ask me if someone is there with me, and me saying yes.  “OK, good,” Dr. Khan says. “I’m so sorry but the blood tests we did yesterday, well, it looks like Ben has cancer, most likely leukemia.

Brian drops the phone and collapses against the living room wall onto the floor crying, instantly, gasping for breath. I can hear him in stereo, through the phone and through the house. Dr. Khan says I can hear you are not alone, that is good. (Brian later tells me his first thought was that Ben was going to die. For some reason, death did not enter my mind at that moment though it certainly haunted me so many times in the years that followed.) I have no thoughts or feelings and I do not shed a tear. I am aware that I am not crying, but I don’t know why, and I quickly think that I should be crying. But I am not. I am numb, floating above myself, watching from somewhere else, hearing Dr. Khan speak, not understanding, not absorbing. Yet I realize that I am asking questions about how to proceed. Where do we go? What do we do?

I am staring at Ben, who is walking around with his book. Rock-a-bye baby! Rock-a-bye-baby! Rock-a-bye-baby!

One of us calls our parents, I don’t recall whom. Brian’s parents will come to our house to watch Jake and my dad will meet us at the hospital. Brian’s parents arrive; everyone is hugging each other except for me. They are hugging me. I am not hugging. They are all crying. I am not crying. I am staring at Ben. I am imploding.

By 10:30 a.m. Ben is admitted to New York University Medical Center. Ben needs to have an IV put in. I don’t understand why he needs an IV and I’m afraid it will hurt him.  They take us into a small room. No windows. Ben is sitting on my lap and I am holding him and kissing the top of his head. Brian is standing next to us, his hand on my shoulder, a hand on Ben.  A doctor attempts to access a vein. Ben screams. Tears spring from Ben’s eyes, from my eyes. The doctor shakes her head and says, it didn’t work, let’s try again. She tries again, shakes her head again and says shoot. I ask what’s wrong. She explains how his veins are so tiny and so fragile. The veins often collapse. It can be tricky, she says. I ask if there’s anyone else who can try.

At 11:30 a.m. there have been so many pokes and so many collapses, so much screaming and so much crying, that I am certain Ben, Brian and I have all been permanently punctured. Now there is a small army of doctors and nurses in the small room and I am incredibly hot. Sweating. By now, the room is totally dark except for Ben’s beautiful little arm, glowing translucent red with tiny blue veins, magically illuminated by a special light they brought in, and the fluorescent glow of the fish tank against the wall, meant to be calming, soothing, relaxing, distracting.

I want to smash my head right through that tank and scream. I want to crawl out of my skin. I want this to stop. Rewind. I want them to leave my baby alone. I ask again if the IV is really necessary right now, and everyone looks at me, some sadly smiling. By now it’s all been explained to us more than a few times by more than a few doctors. Your son has leukemia. He needs to start chemo today. First step is the IV. We need to get started. There is no choice.

I recoil at the thought. I don’t want them to put that poison inside my beautiful, perfect, innocent baby boy. I am sick with worry about the effects the chemo will have on his young body and his developing brain, the effect this experience will have on his life. What had been his life. What his life is supposed to be.  What his life was supposed to have been. I am struck with the realization that life is forever changing right now. Now. That they are stealing my son from me in order to save him and he will never be the same and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. There is no choice.

Ben is once again struggling against the looming IV needle and a team of nurses, doctors and techs are holding him down. My jaw is clenched and my blood is racing, heart deflating. Another poke. Another scream. Another collapse.

“No more, mama,” Ben says.

I need this to stop. I am yelling at the doctors and nurses to just get someone, an expert, someone who can successfully access my baby’s veins and just get this done.

I need this to stop. Can’t somebody just do this?

I have lost track of time in that small, dark room. Ben has stopped struggling. He is limp, damp, staring deeply into my eyes with his big baby blues. His strawberry blond hair clings to his forehead. I cling to his small, chubby hand. My mouth is so dry. I want to say I am sorry to him but I cannot speak.  My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I am desiccated.

A short while later the doctors and nurses finally get the IV in, and they cheer, happy and triumphant, smiling at us, as if we feel the exact same way.

Author note: Ben will be twelve. He is almost as tall as me, is sweet as sugar, laughs the loudest laugh and still has the most beautiful blue eyes in the world. Ben was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia over 9 years ago. He was treated for 3 years and 2 months, and is considered cured. I know that childhood cancer is one of those dark fears nobody really wants to think about. I understand you. This essay was written as an invitation to take just a peek. Maybe understand those of us who have gone through it. And those who still are fighting the fight.

About the Author:  Abbe Walter lives with her husband and four children in Connecticut, where she also works and writes. She is a practicing clinical psychologist who has been published in various scientific journals. This essay is her first non-academic publication.  

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