The phone rang on a lazy afternoon just before 2:00. I glanced at the caller ID number; it looked mildly familiar, local, but I couldn’t place it off-hand. I picked up the receiver without a care in the world. “River Dad here.” “Hello, this is the nurse’s office at John Paulding.”
Right there, my heart skipped a beat. Even though the woman on the other end of the line quickly continued with her message, a thousand horrific thoughts flashed through my head between her words. My daughter is at John Paulding. Why was the nurse calling me in the middle of the school day? Obviously something terrible had happened to my little girl. She had fallen off the top of that massive playground death trap in the front of the building. Or tripped in class and crashed through a massive, student-made model of the Eiffel Tower made entirely out of sharpened pencils, impaling herself hundreds of times. Or shoved modeling clay up her nose on a dare and passed out (like father, like daughter).
Horror after horror raced through my mind in that instant, taunting me, flipping me the bird. One call from the nurse’s office brought up all these thoughts from the dark corners of my parental mind in less time than it takes to blink. A millisecond later my unease was muted as the nurse explained that my daughter had bumped her shin against the lunch table and would be coming home with a sizable bruise. But the lump remained in my throat for some time. It didn’t matter that the actual incident being reported turned out to be nothing life-threatening. She suffered no broken limbs, nothing sharp and pointy was sticking out of her, her flesh wasn’t peeling off her bones due to a freak chemical reaction with a SMARTBoard marker. She didn’t even need a Band-Aid. Just some ice, a few tears, and a covering-the-school’s-ass call home.
Yet, for the rest of the day, I was on edge. My usual state of blissful ignorance, which allows me a worldview where nothing bad ever happens and all roads lead to Main Street Sweets, had been interrupted by the unwelcome reminder of just how nerve-wracking it can be to be a parent. I don’t generally spend much time dwelling on all the bad things that can happen to my children when they’re out of my control — that’s River Mom’s job. If I did, I’d quickly go even more insane than I already am. I’m a writer, and my imagination knows no bounds. I can very easily envision a reality where I receive The Call from school letting me know my son has been possessed by the spirit of Evel Knievel and has mauled himself while trying to jump a tricycle down the slide and over the bodies of his classmates. (Don’t try this at home, Kids!)
When the kids were toddlers, life was a little easier because the little angels were never out of my or my wife’s sight. Sure, they got injured plenty of times. At one point, my son spent twelve months straight with a permanent lump on his forehead that moved around every few weeks with each new injury. But that’s not the point. We were right there. If a bookcase were threatening to fall on them, we could jump in front of it and shield our child from the pelting onslaught of Anita Shreve and James Rollins hardcovers.
But that is no longer the case. Now when our son falls on the playground at pre-school, scraping his knee or knocking himself silly, I’m not there to instantly invoke the power of Daddy and make everything all better. So I sit at home and try to forget that for the few hours my children are away gaining knowledge, accidents happen. All the time. It’s a lovely little fantasy world I inhabit, filled with butterflies, puppy dogs, my MacBook, and comfy chairs. Until my bubble-wrapped existence is popped by The Call.
The more I look at it, the more I think I’ve identified the problem. It’s not that our kids get hurt. It’s the instant of not knowing just how badly they’ve been hurt. The agony of hearing the Nurse’s voice over the phone. What we need to do is get rid of that moment. I propose we get rid of The Call entirely and replace it with The Text Message. And just to be safe, the school can join forces with something we’d like to get a text message from. Like, say, the Lotto Winner Notification Hotline or some such. We’d get a text, and sure it might be from the school nurse, but it might also be word that we hit 3 out of 5 in the Take 5 game, winning a total of $12.25! And if it was from the nurse, they could structure the message like an award notification. “Congratulations River Dad! Your daughter is alive and well! She was hit in the head with another child’s dangerously sharp Webkinz, slicing open her scalp and causing a fountain of blood to seep down over her eyes. But we cleaned her up, gave her a lollipop and she’s as good as new!”
OK, maybe I’m being too simplistic, doing my best to ignore the honest fact that kids get hurt. I’m just trying to find a way to cope with all the gut-wrenching fear that every parent lives with every day of their lives. To do anything else means living each moment one phone call away from complete catatonia. But I’m not in denial. I know I’m probably going to be bringing my son or daughter to the hospital at least once or twice in their lives. In fact, I already have. And after all, I was a kid once. Unlike most of my friends, I was lucky enough to never suffer a broken bone but I found plenty of other ways to injure myself. I smashed my thumb against a metal plate and had to get a hole drilled through my thumbnail to release the pressure of the blood. I fell from atop a fence, twisting my ankle badly enough to be on crutches for two weeks. I was hit in the eye with a bicycle lock and wore a pirate patch for a few days. One time, I ripped a tendon in my finger putting on my sock (true story).
I’m pretty sure my parents received The Call any number of times over the course of my schooling. I’m pretty sure they raced over to pick me up and take me home, stomachs churning in knots. I’m pretty sure they gave me some vanilla ice cream and sat me in front of the TV until I felt better. (At least that’s what I tell myself. For all I know, they put me out back with the dogs until I calmed down. I don’t really remember a whole lot of my childhood.)
This doesn’t mean that the next time I get The Call from the nurse at John Paulding (whose phone number I’ve now memorized) I’ll be answering it with a jaunty, devil-may-care attitude. But maybe I’ll be able to temper my imagination. Say, instead of envisioning my son losing his leg in that awful spinning tire swing, he will have just stubbed his toe. Or instead of having a flash of my daughter losing a pinky in an electric pencil sharpener, I’ll just assume she stapled it to her art project.