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The blood dripped off my hands and spattered the left knee of my pants. I cradled my son in my lap in the corner of the long hallway as he burrowed deeper and deeper into my midsection, as if trying to reenter my womb. My one hand held pressure, while the other stroked his soft hair—as towhead blond as the day he was born—now tinged with bright red.

“What do you do?” I heard myself ask to no one in particular.

We’d been walking out of preschool pickup on a Friday afternoon. A weekend of plans stretched before us—a drive down to Philadelphia for visits with family, kicked off by a reunion dinner that night, a rare opportunity to see old friends. We’d all been looking forward to it, especially me. I hadn’t been out in a while.

We were approaching the doorway to the lobby when my 3-year-old turned to ask me for his lovey. As I retrieved the security blanket from his little backpack, he lost his footing and stumbled backwards. His head met the corner of the metal door frame with such force that a piercing crack echoed through the emptying hallways. Stunned and still, I watched my son’s delicate face contort into a pained, howling cry.

I snapped to and instinctively clutched him to me. We fell to the ground as I pulled him out of the main aisle. Someone handed me a wet paper towel and told me to apply pressure. I obeyed, grateful for the direction.

“What do you do?” My voice was shaky, unfamiliar.

A small crowd had gathered, but no one offered a clear answer. In a flash of lucidity, I realized that was because it fell to me. I was the mother. This was my baby who was bleeding, hurt, broken. I had to act fast, fix it. I had to figure out how.

My life has been cushioned and charmed. Crisis mode is not something to which I’m accustomed. In what felt like an hour but was actually an instant, the options raced through my wrecked mind: 911? That didn’t seem quite right. Pediatrician? But this was no routine office visit. Straight to the ER? Ugh, the ER. So, for a moment, I froze. Only my hand trembled as it applied pressure to the wound.

I have a strong stomach. I watched, unflinchingly, as they punctured my arms eight times to get an IV line before my third C-section. I curiously eyed my own placenta after the procedure and fingered the scar, asking my surgeon husband for every detail about how they cut me open.

But when your hand is covered in your child’s blood, that’s another thing entirely. No stomach is strong enough for that.

I choked back the tears welling in my throat and summoned the searing clarity that takes hold in a crisis. My free hand got to work. I quickly arranged coverage for my other boys. I called the pediatrician. I memorized the address for the closest urgent care clinic. All the while, I held pressure as he bled. And I hoped.

When we arrived at the clinic, the staff greeted us—cordial, but distracted. My son was in good spirits, so I was calm. He had a one-inch gash on the back of his head. He needed three staples to help the wound heal. It was all very perfunctory. The PA offered a numbing gel that would take 30 minutes to work. He recommended doing the procedure without it, but he admitted this could help.

My eyes drifted out the window of the small, sterile room and I saw the sun sinking. It was late afternoon. We were already risking a long, trafficky ride to Philly—if we still went. Waiting the 30 minutes would likely mean missing the dinner event.

But what does a mother do if there’s a way to lessen her child’s pain? Even by a little? She waits. And then she holds him on her lap as his arms clasp tightly around her neck and the PA inserts three staples into his scalp.

When I was young, I learned a rabbinic text that, according to Jewish tradition, every person is responsible for teaching her children how to swim. I always resented this. I hate swimming. I hated learning how to swim. Why is that one of the carefully enumerated things we are to instill in our children? What about music? Words? How to read? How to speak? No. How to swim.

But maybe, if not taken too literally, what it means is this: we must teach our children how to survive. How to save themselves. Parenthood, ultimately, is a long lead up to letting our little ones go forth in the world without us.

And we learn right along with them. Even when it feels as if the waves are crashing down, swallowing you whole. Even if you can barely breathe. You stay afloat. You learn how to swim. All over again. This time, your strokes strong enough to carry others to shore.

We all piled into the minivan that night—my boys, the three staples, and I. It was a miserable ride. The monotony of traffic was broken up only by the restless cries of boys in the backseat who’d dropped a toy or a snack, now irretrievable. Finally, my need for a restroom trumped everything else.

I pushed the stroller through the Friday night crowds, flanked by the older boys on either side—my hands now familiar with finding their way while full. The lines from the fast-food counters snaked around, nearly blocking the bathroom entry.

“Can we buy a snack?” asked my oldest.

“No.”

I managed to park the stroller and my boys in front of a single stall, where I willed my body to relieve itself as fast as possible as my eyes frantically counted their six feet. “Don’t go anywhere! I’m almost done!” I shouted on repeat through the stall door.

Back in the car, boys buckled and plied with snacks, I pulled the minivan, which may as well have been a life raft, back onto the Turnpike.

We reached Pennsylvania. But as we crossed the state line, I knew we wouldn’t make it to the dinner. I glimpsed my blood-stained pants, the three blond heads in the rear-view mirror, my own weary reflection. And I knew. I had everything I needed.

Dina L. Relles is a lawyer, writer, and mother of three young sons. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and writes regularly on her own site, Commonplace. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.

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