There are things I wish I didn’t know.
I wish I didn’t know that companies make tiny braces, small enough to hold necks no bigger than a wrist. I wish I didn’t know that when babies are transported in an ambulance, they are stripped of their powdery-smelling clothes and strapped to adult-sized gurneys, naked. I wish I didn’t know that little bodies that are supposed to eat every two hours can go more than 12 hours without a drop of milk and be satiated by a pacifier dipped in sugar water.
The day I broke my baby started like every other since his birth three weeks earlier — with me admiring his perfection.
His legs were just gaining their chubbiness. His fingers were long and his grip strong. His eyes, color-ambiguous almonds, quickly found me when I spoke.
That morning, I took a dozen photos of him wearing a onesie with a typewriter and a phrase I found poetic: “So my story begins . . .”
I imagined how the rest of it might go — a good college, a loving partner, his pick of jobs. It didn’t matter that years as a reporter in New York and the Washington area had taught me that we can’t write our children’s stories. That if we could, flower girls would not die in car crashes and little boys would not slip under school buses they thought were leaving them behind — two stories I covered early in my career. That if we could, second graders with big brown eyes would not vanish from homeless shelters — a more recent story.
If we could, I’m sure we would all write fairy tales and I would have never ended up on a wet CVS sidewalk, cradling what I valued most.
My son was not planned but was gifted to me at the perfect time in my life. He came three years after my husband and I experienced three miscarriages in a row, a pile of quiet loss I thought would never diminish until my first son was born in 2012. Then in 2014, I learned we would be expecting another boy. No one was more excited than his big brother and no one more careful than me.
I didn’t drink coffee during the pregnancy, even though my doctor said a cup a day was fine. I avoided all soft cheeses, even though I knew I’d be okay if it was pasteurized. I wore ugly, comfortable shoes to work, knowing that I have a penchant for falling.
When I was younger my knees would just decide on a whim to fail me and pull me to the ground. Doctors determined I had dislocatable knee caps and through the years I’ve grown to expect that at any time it might feel as if someone took a bat to my knees, sweeping them from underneath me. It happened during a ping pong game once and another time while I was crossing a cobblestone road in Brazil.
I don’t know if it was my knees that caused me to fall the day I strapped the baby to my chest in an Ergo carrier, making sure to carefully tuck him into a padded infant insert, but I know they didn’t help me when I needed them most. That morning, my mother and I had planned to walk five minutes to CVS to get my older son some air and a toy. When we left the house, it was sunny and my toddler was happily babbling in his car-shaped wagon. Three minutes later, the sky and the day turned dark. The rain pummeled us. My toddler wailed. My mother pushed him faster. I reached to cover the tiny inch of head peeking out of the carrier and don’t remember seeing the curb or feeling my shoe slip off. My knees hit the pavement first. Then my elbows. Then that tiny inch of head.
He cried when we fell. I would later learn this was a good thing, that it meant he hadn’t blacked out.
I would also learn that these incidents happen more often than anyone talks about. As I sat holding my son in the hospital waiting for scans to confirm what I feared most — that he had a skull fracture — I was told repeatedly by nurses and doctors that they see this all the time. I assumed they were trying to comfort me when I felt most alone, most inept. But they weren’t.
Dr. John Myseros, vice chief of neurosurgery at Children’s National Health System and the doctor who attended to my son, said he personally sees a couple of cases each week. And nationally, according to data he provided when I contacted him recently, more than 600,000 children visit emergency rooms for blunt head trauma, and of those, 95,000 have intracranial injuries and 5,700 will die as a result. Intracranial injury remains the leading cause of traumatic death in childhood.
The skull fracture my son experienced — and which most babies experience, according to Myseros — was linear, or a crack in the bone that does not depress into the brain and doesn’t usually require surgery or result in brain damage. In other words, during the most unfortunate day of my life, I was lucky — even if it didn’t feel that way.
“The thousands of parents who drop their kids, fall with their kids, turn around for a moment and have their kids fall,” Myseros said, “need to know that it is NOT their fault, unless of course they intentionally injure their child, which sadly does happen.”
My son was admitted to the hospital overnight and by morning, Myseros told me he didn’t believe there would be any lasting damage. Today, I have a chubby 7 month old who has hit every developmental milestone and smiles more than he cries — something I am grateful for everyday. I am also grateful for the CVS staff member who, without hesitation, tore open a bag of padding to wrap around his wet body, the neighbor I hadn’t met before he dropped everything to drive us to a hospital where an ambulance would take us to Children’s, and the nurse who didn’t just lend me her charger when my phone died but insisted I keep it because, although she didn’t say it, who knew when I would be going home.
While at the hospital, when everything still remained unknown, I took another photo of my son.
In this one, he is restrained in braces from his head to his naval, his face scrunched so tightly that one ear is bent. I didn’t look at the screen as I clicked it. I couldn’t. But I took it in hopes that one day — maybe when he’s a screaming toddler fighting with his older brother — that it would serve as a reminder of what I learned that day: While we can’t write our children’s stories, we can enjoy the chapters that aren’t filled with things we wish we didn’t know.
Theresa Vargas is a reporter at The Washington Post who is currently on leave, living in Indonesia with her family.
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