We had even been to this public rink -- the city basketball courts, flooded in winter -- a handful of times in the span of a week, and my 6-year-old daughter had grown from a hanger-on, slipping and sliding in all directions, to a fairly confident skater, making turns and accelerating from one end of the rink to the other.
She stopped to watch the pick-up hockey players crashing around on the other half of the court from time to time, then tried out some of their moves, unaware that I was watching her with pride, as I made my own laps around the rink. She could see that falling was part of the game and became more theatrical about sliding to a stop when she lost her balance.
Then she fell mid-turn, and landed on her left hip, her right leg slamming atop her left as she hit the ice. We both knew something had changed as soon as she swished her snowpants a little and grimaced. By the time I got her to her feet, the tears had started, but they didn't convince me of anything other than the shock of falling hard. I hauled her under one arm up the ramp to the warming shed and onto the bench where we'd left our boots. Frustrated by her wailing and inability to help me wrestle off her skates, I remember turning to the concerned high-schooler behind the concession stand and downplaying the damage -- "Just a little twist," I think I said.
Reader: Here's where I admit I come from pretty bootstrappy stock. I don't coddle often, and I have zero patience for my daughter's attempts to act younger than her age, needling for help she doesn't need -- tying shoes, wiping her butt, adjusting the temperature in the shower. There are a lot of tears in our daily life over trifling things like what to wear, hair that resists brushing, and having to eat breakfast. Whatever the cause, I lack some degrees of compassion.
So, we slept on the situation and went to the clinic in the morning, where the specter of there being something really wrong with her leg silenced her long enough for the physician to shrug and say, "Well, try to get her to walk on it," handing me some kid-sized crutches.
Trying to get back through the clinic waiting area to the car, I switched on the tough love. By this time, the crying had given way to shrieks of terror as she realized I wasn't going to carry her and was instead walking ahead to push the door open for her. "Mama! Mama, don't leave me!" she sobbed.
My response? I started laughing. I couldn't help it. My body's deepest impulse was not to embrace her, to give a little when a 6-year-old was clearly in pain. Me? I laughed. I heard myself and caught the complexity of the situation on the face of the nurse receptionist, who was frowning. By the time we got to the car, I was mad at my daughter, scolding her for lack of 'try.'
Five days, three assessments and three X-rays later, a pediatric orthopede applied a thigh-high cast to heal her broken tibia (she'd had a splint in the days prior, while swelling receded). Adults typically break both the tibia and fibula, but Eliza had been lucky in a kid-flexible kind of way. It didn't need pins or surgery for alignment. It needed time -- 10 weeks to be exact.
As we stumbled through the first agonizing days of helping her dress, helping her turn over in bed in the night, helping her submerge backwards into a bath, her casted leg in a garbage bag, resting on the side of the tub, and helping her in and out of buildings and her kid-sized wheelchair to avoid putting weight on the leg, I felt sorry for both of us. Here was a kid with a life-altering wound. And here was her parent, with barely enough empathy to be bothered.
What the f&!?
Am I really so selfish? I am sometimes shocked how mixed my emotions are in wanting to be over and done with the sticky entrapments of parenting, like a constant pulling of my arms and legs and brain out of the thick taffy of my child's grasp and need for me.
A few days into 'the break,' I realized I had not apologized to my daughter for thinking, wishing, hoping her leg was not broken and that she'd tough it out. We were sitting at the kitchen table, eating dinner, she with her hot pink and purple-striped cast stuck out to the side of her chair.
"I'm sorry I didn't believe you when you told me your leg hurt so much," I said. "I'm sorry I made you walk on it." It felt like a lot to admit.
She looked at me for a couple seconds, then looked down at her plate, then looked up at me again. For her to process this without a) asking more questions in return, or b) asking me to repeat it because she wasn't listening, spoke volumes.
"That's OK, Mama," she finally responded. "You just didn't know."