Death is after me, I’m sure of it. It all started last Friday, with a tick.
We were visiting Brooklyn, staying at our friends Toni and Bud’s house. Gracie was wandering around instead of getting dressed, as she is wont to do, when she asked me, from the other room, “What’s this black thing on my back, Mom? It hurts.”
As she walked in to show me, I first thought that she had grown an enormous black mole. As I am wont to do, I overreacted. In the speed of a lightning flash, I could suddenly see all the steps – diagnosis, melanoma, terrible surgery, and then my sweet blonde girl wasting away like Amy in Little Women, her lips all stretched and cracked.
It's incredible how quickly my frantic imagination can kill off my kids.
But as she got closer, and I could see more clearly, it was suddenly horribly, awfully worse. There is nothing worse than thinking something is inanimate, and then watching it start to wiggle. Since I had never before seen a tick engorged (what a gross word, don’t you think?) I thought it was a spider there on her back. When I realized that I couldn’t flick it off, the gravity of the real, rather than the fake-frantic situation hit me. Not only was this a tick, the kind that causes Lyme disease – but I was going to have to figure out how to pull it out of my child’s skin.
Where was my damn home family medical book? Oh right. Packed, like just about everything else.
These days we are home – as in no longer in France, where we spent the school year. But since our house is being renovated, "home" is a series of borrowed, rented, improvised, cobbled together places. I prefer to think of us as home-rich, rather than homeless, as there are plenty of people loving and generous enough to take us in. My in-laws in New Hampshire, saints that they are, are hosting not only us, but also our dog. So in case you wondered how Grace got a tick in Brooklyn, you should know that just a day before then, she was at their house, romping and snuggling with our dog, who is both chick magnet and tick magnet.
We’re incredibly grateful to have a place to live, ticks and all. However, the fact that we’re in constantly borrowed digs means that in a time of crisis, confusion, or other sort of upheaval, I’m even less prepared than usual. Even if I knew precisely what tool(s) were required to remove this spiderlike thing embedded and cemented in by its jaws, I wouldn’t know where in Toni’s house to look.
For me, necessity is the mother of panic, but I’m also pretty sure that it, rather than Al Gore, is responsible for the Internet. While I used one hand and one part of my brain to keep Grace calm and quiet on the sofabed, I used the rest of me to google “tick removal” on the iphone.
The instructions were simple. (Now that you are reading this, you are more than prepared for a tick-crisis of your own. Let your gladness at this fact cut down on how much this paragraph grosses you out.) Grasp the tick around its awful little neck with tweezers or a piece of thread. (Toni is the crafty sort, and their spare bedroom is right next to her craft room, so thread was easy enough to find. ) Bill ran down to fetch a plastic bag, so we could save the thing in Toni’s freezer, just in case Grace started later on to fell Lyme-ishly ill.
The next step is for you to yank on it hard enough and long enough and steady enough so that the bug pulls the flesh up into a little skin tent.
In case you didn’t realize, at this point your child will commence yelling bloody murder.
Pull longer and harder than you think you really should have to. The tick will protest by wiggling its little leggies, trying to get away. Eventually, and after a long pull and a lot of yelling, the icky and potentially deadly beastie and a long string of rubber-cement like stuff will detach from your precious child. Now put it in the baggie. No, I mean the tick.
That’s the crisis part. The scarier part, however, is Lyme Disease. Immediately after the tick was out of her skin and she stopped yelling, Grace turned to me and demanded: “What am I going to do if that tick had parasites!?” Since then, there has been no fever, no aches and pains, and no gross red bullseye rash. We’re still watching carefully for the next few weeks, to be sure, but for now it looks as though death has stalked away, thwarted for this moment at least.
(Except for that poor dead tick we left in a plastic bag in Toni and Bud’s freezer. Whoops. Sorry, guys.)
Act Two: Falling. In Love.
We drove back up to New Hampshire the next morning during a rainstorm, sheets of water washing the car as we traveled up I-95 and I-91. It’s likely that these were actually the most dangerous few hours of my week, although driving always feels perfectly safe to me -- as long as I'm the one doing it. My weird anxieties tend to attach to unlikely occurrences, rather than actually dangerous things, like cars.
Monday we got back to the routine of our other borrowed place, with Bill taking Grace to work on her fish project, and me putting Abigail through the paces of her 2nd grade end-of-year math test. After a few days as tout la famille, it's always good to divide and conquer.
Things were going swimmingly, in that Abigail had put on her new sparkly leotard (thanks a million, Toni) with her kneesocks and was acting like some kind of Superhero Girl Genius -- doing gymnastics while solving word problems. Say what you want about the French educational system: that girl certainly learned a whole lot of arithmetic. To get her ready for her test, I was just layering a little bit of thinking on top of her rote skills. "I'm smart at math," she likes to inform anybody who will listen. Sometimes she also does somersaults.
After a solid hour and a half of math review, she was ready for a break. She darted out of the room and Abby-scrabbled as fast as she could up the slippery oak stairs.
Without holding the railing.
And wearing her kneesocks.
You can guess what comes next.
I was about to write the phrase "the worst thing about when your kid has a bad accident," but then I realized that there are myriad worst things, and that they follow one another like possessed dominos.
The first worst thing is the horrific sensation of knowing something bad is happening, and not being able to make it stop. As Abigail was falling down the stairs, I kept hoping she would catch herself. Instead, she just started to screetch louder and louder. I kept hoping that she was screaming in fear rather than in pain. I kept wanting her to fall more gently so she wouldn't break anything, but somehow also wanted the fall to be over already; how could this agony possibly be going on so long?
Time really does slow down when something terrible is unfolding. I thought I was leaping out of my chair to run to her, but by the time I got there, she had already taken three hours to fall all the way down and somehow right herself. She kept screaming and screaming and screaming -- those of you who know Abigail might take this opportunity to imagine just how loud that was. The screaming was the next worst thing, followed by that worst moment when I had to determine whether moving her would make it worse. She tried to crumple into a little pile on the linoleum, but since she was standing up, I figured I could help her to the part of the floor with the carpet instead. I just wanted her to lie down so that I could start figuring out how to fix whatever was wrong. And to be sure she didn't pass out. (Abigail passes out a lot.)
But suddenly, there was a whole lot of blood. She was grabbing her leg, and holding her head, and her hand was covered in it. "My leg! " she screamed, "My leg hurts so badly!" so at first I thought she had cut herself there. But as she pulled her hand away from her face to grab at her leg, I saw her curly blonde hair soaked in angry red. Copious bleeding is another worst part.
Suddenly the (dark-red) linoleum seemed like a far wiser place to be tending to her wounds, wherever they were. Leaving a tick in somebody's freezer is bad enough. Allowing one's child to gush blood all over a white wall-to-wall carpet is inexcusable, no matter how much Grandma dotes and adores. So I dragged my poor daughter back onto the hard surface so she could bleed in peace while I ran to get a towel.
Mid-run-to-towel I remembered my Emergency Voice. This is the voice I first discovered in myself when Grace started having these super-fun inexplicable freakouts at age two and a half. My Emergency Voice sounds a lot like a lady Mr. Rogers, soothing and narrating while my brain races ahead to find the nearest fire alarm. I got to hone and perfect Emergency Voice during terrifying episodes of croup, again when Abigail broke her leg, and then during all of her later thrilling fainting episodes. Emergency Voice was also awfully useful when I had to direct fire drills at school, particularly when the drills were actual fires.
The calm I project when speaking in Emergency Voice is the precise opposite of my ability irrationally to fear things that will never happen. It's as though my brain says, "Well, that worst thing you hoped for is finally here. Now you can stop all that pesky dreading!"
So there I was once again, in crisis mode, but where was that stupid family medical book? Where was the gauze? Where were the Band-Aids? Why did we pick today to run out of paper towels?
All of these questions I asked internally. From the outside, I looked and sounded like I was just strolling out of a yoga class.
As opened all the cupboards looking for something to stanch the blood, I spoke as slowly and quietly as I could. I told Abigail she was going to be OK, that she could let herself stop crying, because I had checked and I was sure her legs were fine, I just had to get this little boo boo on her head to stop bleeding so we could get a nurse to take a look and make her all better.
There was a particularly bad moment when Abigail opened her eyes and noticed how much blood had pooled on the floor. I also had to wonder for a second how the folks at the ER might feel about seeing a kid with a sparkly leotard, knee-high socks, and blood dried in her hair. As I pulled on her regular clothes and put on a ponytail, I kept talking quietly and steadily, telling her how brave she was being, how she was safe and secure, how proud I was of her. The scary thing had happened, and nothing bad was going to happen now. I said this not because it was true, but rather to make it true.
Her sobs started to lengthen out, and her breathing slowed down. "I just feel shocked," she said again and again, but I'm pretty sure she meant that in the emotional rather than the medical sense.
After the bleeding stopped, and her crying quieted, she looked steadily into my eyes. Her fear melted into something more like need, and trust. "Mom," she breathed, "Can you just hold me before we get in the car? I like it when someone helps me when I get hurt." I snuggled there with her for a minute or two, and then she clung onto my side while we walked to the car.
At the ER she lay with her head on my lap for the two hours we waited, an ice pack on her eye and a warm blanket over her body. She was quieter and stiller than I have seen her in years; now that I think of it, the last time she was this quiet and steady was her last visit to the ER. When Abigail stops moving, even for a few minutes, you really notice, and her mind quiets down as well. She just lay there and talked to me as though I were the only person who could protect her. As though I were the only other person in the world.
I tried, for her sake, to be that person. I told her how terrific she was. I told her as honestly as I could what might happen, and what we would do to make it OK, even if there were stitches or needles.
There were. Both. First, the doctor pulled off the bandaid to reveal an inch-and-a-half gash running just under her left eyebrow. It was pretty deep, he said, and if it were his daughter, he'd be sure that she got the stitches.
She nodded as said all this. She liked that he was telling her the truth, that he was being straightforward with her. He would stick a needle in to "put her skin to sleep," and that would certainly sting. The stitches themselves wouldn't hurt; she'd only feel a tugging. But she had a question for him before he got started. She looked up at him, as seriously and thoughtfully as she could, given that one eyebrow was slumping all puffy down into her eye.
"My mom makes me feel safe when I'm afraid," she told him. "I would feel better if she could hold my hand."
Which of course I could. The doctor, the nurse and I all stood in total silence while he stitched. It was gross to watch the needle go in and out of her eyebrow, but less gross than detaching a fishhook when it's catch and release. I held both of her hands, actually, just to help remind her to stay still, although I didn't have to worry. She didn't move a muscle or make a peep.
But as soon as he was done pulling tight his four cool little knots, she hopped right off the table and nearly ran to the vending machine she had scoped out earlier when she had been so weak and scared. Great relief should always be followed by salty snacks.
With this return to perpetual motion, she was my little girl again. Four little stitches in her brow, the thread bristly and black. But she was back: back in the mode of hopping and leaping and wiggling around and demanding treats from the vending machine. She and I back to our version of normal, as we defeated death once more.
Act Three: Groundhog Day
Since we've been out of our house for nearly a full year now, with nine of those months in France, our goofy lab mutt Samson has been in exile from his family, and we from him. However, being a pretty smart dog, he quickly adapted to life with my inlaws. My father-in-law takes him for long walks on the Dartmouth campus, where all the co-eds coo, "Isn't he so cute!" My mother-in-law brings him along in the car on her errands, and he sits under the piano while she plays. He is the granddoggy supreme in their house, and has quickly made himself fully and happily at home.
He's also appointed himself the early warning system and game warden for their entire yard and the giant field that stretches away down the hill. He barks at the postman, who always greets him by name with a biscuit. He barks when he sees his friend Olive, a Great Dane who started out their friendship as a puppy, and now towers over him. But mostly he barks at smaller animals. Squirrels make him go completely nuts, as do cats, and groundhogs. His barking is usually loud and scary enough to ward these little critters away, and once they're gone, he'll stand there barking until he has forgotten why he started.
Until today. When death came silently, and I couldn't chase it away in time.
I was hanging clean laundry on the line outside when he came to the door, apparently just for the innocent purpose of keeping me company. His little floppy black ears appeared in the doorway, and his nose pushed up into the air by the screen door. I let him out and hung my soggy sheets. When I turned back, a few seconds later, he had his jaws clenched around an animal, and he was shaking his head violently. He would unclench for a minute, then bite down harder, his sharp teeth (I guess this is why they call them canines) ripping into the flesh. It was weirdly banal and silent. The only sound I could hear was his jaw opening and closing.
At first I was actually afraid for him. I've always thought of him as a total wimp of a dog, all bark and no guts. I didn't want this icky badger-like thing touching my sweet dog.
I yelled at him in my Stern-This-Is-Danger Voice as loud as I could, trying out commands he had never heard before, like "Leave it!" and "Stop Biting the Groundhog!" But it was as though my mild-mannered dog had gone all bloodlust and vampiric. He couldn't seem to let go. I realized that the groundhog was getting by far the worst of it, and eventually decided it would be most humane to let him finish things off.
This little bloodletting episode also seemed to go on for a long time, although the groundhog stopped moving awfully quickly. Then and only then could I get Samson to listen to me, and to move away from the meaty, bloody lump. I called him over to me, a little afraid that the groundhog was just playing possum (do groundhogs even know that game?) and would hop up and sink its own teeth into me.
It didn't. It just lay there, while Samson slunk over and crouched down at my feet. "Bad dog," I Danger-Shouted, but in retrospect, I'm not sure why. Nobody in their right minds cries over a groundhog, even when that groundhog has been mauled to the point where its eye is hanging out of its socket. And maybe animals are supposed to kill one another. Silently, and without drama, fear, yelling, or guilt. At least this is what I am telling myself so I can still look Mr. Woofums in the eye.
Once again, there I was on my own in someone else's house, without tools or clues. What does one do with a bloody groundhog sitting on Grandma's doorstep? I wracked the Little House on the Prairie part of my brain for the right thing to do, but all I kept thinking of were episodes of The Sopranos. I wiped the blood off of Samson's face as he looked up at me, all happy and proud. Then I went out into the garage and found a shovel with which to fling the dead body into the bushes. My shoveling his groundhog made Samson totally nuts, (as though it were once again alive) so I had to shut him in the side room.
A little later, Grace came home and let him out without asking me, at which point he raced straight down to the bushes. He must dragged the carcass out of the deep grass and onto the lawn and started chewing the groundhog's head off. When I caught him, the top third of the animal was gone, exposing all its guts inside. It was gross, but mostly because my dog decided to treat his murder victim as an afternoon snack and I had to shove it in a garbage bag so he wouldn't finish it off.
This week I have seen it all. Including death.
Death didn't look, or sound, or even smell like what I imagined. It wasn't a predictable, dry-lipped wasting death, or a long dangerous falling death, or anything particularly scary or dramatic. It's nothing like the kinds of things I fear all the time. Instead, it was quick, and nearly silent. A snap of the jaws, a few crunches and silent shakes of a neck, and suddenly no more movement at all.