Joshie, my four-year-old, broke his leg on Christmas Eve.
It was just before bedtime, as we were leaving a family party. I watched it happen: Josh started to run, tripped over his feet, fell into a heap. Marty held him as he cried, and I listened and thought, “That's not a normal cry. He's in some serious pain.” We first thought he had rolled his ankle, or maybe sprained it badly. He cried off and on, all the way home, but our other two little ones were crying, too. It had been a full day, everyone was overtired and strung out on Christmas cookies, and we put the kids to bed right away.
Our two boys slept straight through the night, but on Christmas morning, when millions of other able-bodied children are bounding down the stairs to check out their presents under the Christmas tree, Joshua stayed in his room and called for us. “Mooom! Daaad!”
I opened the door to his room, and there he was, sitting on the bottom bunk, his bed illuminated by a strand of peppy colored lights.
Josh smiled big, and held his arms up to me. “Carry me downstairs, Mom? My foot hurts.”
I hefted his thirty-something-pound self into my arms, and carried him down to the living room, a feeling of dread growing steadily in the back of my mind.
We set him up in our cozy armchair, and he happily ripped open his gifts alongside his brother and sister. He didn't cry or complain unless he put weight on it – “Definitely just a twisted ankle,” Marty and I told each other – but I should have known when I tried to put his shoe on and he cried big, fat tears, or when his brother bumped his leg at church and he cried again, hard. Christmas Day was a blurry rush of church and family, but early on December 26th, when Josh still didn't want to put weight on his left foot, we packed him up and brought him to a local urgent care center, as soon as it opened.
Diagnosis: broken tibia. They splinted his leg past his knee, referred us to a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, and sent us home with a “Merry Christmas.”
My not-so-optimistic mind whirled with logistics, teetering on the verge of dramatic despair. How would we go anywhere for the next two months? Didn't casts go on for six to eight weeks? How could I do this on my own? My four-year-old had a six-inch crack in his bone and needed a full leg cast. We couldn't just throw him in a stroller. Can four-year-olds even use crutches? What would my other kids do while I cared for Josh? Would this affect his growth? Would he need physical therapy? Hundred of other similar questions followed, racing through my mind like bullets. I started going down, fast.
I had to make a decision that morning after Christmas, when my mind started to disintegrate a little. I told myself: You can either suck it up and deal with it, or you can wallow. Decide.
Thank goodness for everyone involved, I picked option one. (I've had to re-decide to pick it again, several times since.)
Can I admit this? I don't like to struggle or suffer, even a little bit. But it's incredible, paradoxical, even, how suffering creates empathy, where before there was just a vague feeling of sympathy. For example, throughout this December, I've been sharing with my boys about the refugee crisis in Aleppo. We've prayed for the men, women, and children who have been displaced, people without jobs, homes, and food. My heart breaks as my mind stretches, trying to imagine what it would be like to lose everything.
The night before our Joshie saw the specialist, we were up all night with him. He was in a good amount of pain from his now-splinted leg. I imagined bone rubbing on bone as he twisted and turned, crying out every few minutes. We brought him into our bed around midnight, and I groggily volunteered to sleep on the floor, because it was a toss-up: cozy bed with a thrashing child, or hard floor by yourself? I threw some blankets down on the ground and settled in.
My floor-sleeping that night was not suffering, not even a little. But my Joshie was suffering, crying out in pain that night from a broken leg. My heart was broken for my little boy, and my attitude was in serious need of repair. The weight of everything came down hard on me that night: what it would mean to care for three children like this, when two would have to be carried in my arms, and where days now stretched long and thin ahead of us. That night after Christmas, I was so vividly aware of this broken world we live in, the same world where, thousands of miles away, people were fleeing for their lives, lying on rocky ground in the middle of a desert, little ones crying themselves to sleep.
The next day, as the specialist unwrapped Joshie's splint, she grimaced as she removed the last of the bandages. “Oooo. Look at the lip on that splint. That probably hurt your ankle pretty bad, huh buddy?”
She pointed to a red mark on his foot, where the splint had been digging into his skin. “That's what was causing all that pain last night,” she said. “A few days more and it would have broken through the skin. That's way better, right?” Joshie nodded, a big smile spreading across his face.
A few minutes later, his lower leg freshly cast in bright pink plaster, the doctor sent us on our way. “Three weeks should do it,” she said, smiling. “Below the knee is fine. It's only a crack in the bone. It'll heal really fast.”
Back in September, on a warm Sunday afternoon, I shattered a wine glass under my bare foot. I ended up with stitches in the fleshy, tender part of my arch. I told the doctor I had three kids to care for and a wedding to shoot the following weekend, so he gave me a post-op boot. “Try to keep your weight off it for the next couple of days,” he said. And then, a wink. “You can handle it. You're a mom.”
We obviously made it through that week, with the help of family and babysitters and a broken office chair that I rolled around on like a maniac, but it was difficult. I remember thinking, I can't imagine what it would be like to lose your mobility long-term, with young kids to care for. The possibility had never before entered my mind, but during that final warm week in September, I got a taste of life without the use of one of my legs. This was fresh, new, a perspective earned through blood and tears and lots of pathetic crawling up and down our stairs. I'm glad to have it.
And so, as we walked out of the specialist's office last week, carrying a smiling Joshie and his pink appendage, all I could think to pray was, “Oh God, thank you that it's not me. Thank you that I'm not the one with the broken leg.” This thought surprised me. Normally, I'd have focused on the inconvenience, the expense, the trouble of it all, but now, thanks to a bout with a wine glass a few months back, I was grateful, thankful, even joyful.
I'm not at all minimizing Joshie's injury, or the very real, terrible pain it caused him at first. But my little guy has this incredible, funny, resilient personality. He's the one we call our “chill pill,” a boy who loves lounging in bed, leisurely playing with toys, or taking half an hour to eat his pancakes. A pajama-pants-and-comfy-couch combo for a couple of weeks has his name written all over it.
On the day Josh's leg was first splinted, he spent most of his time hanging out, watching movies and eating snacks. But that night, as I cooked dinner, I could tell he was getting restless, itching to move around again. His baby sister was whining on the floor a few feet away from the couch, bored with her toys.
As I watched from right around the corner, Joshie slowly, carefully scooted himself off the couch onto the floor. He muttered happily under his breath, “Back in business!” and shuffled over to his sister, dragging one of her favorite blankies along to snuggle her with.
That moment, my friend, was when I knew my boy was going to be perfectly fine.
It's been a little over a week, and Josh is already trying to walk on his stump of a cast. (“He shouldn't,” said the doctor, “but he'll try. Just let him take the lead. Kids know when they're better.”) I carry him to the bathroom, and out to the car, but other than that, he scoots around on his backside. The wood floors of our small house are working in his favor.
He hasn't complained once about his cast, except for maybe one time. It was the end of another long day, and he was crying quietly on the couch, in middle of a cacophony of chaos happening all around (something about a six-year-old's costume malfunction and an eleven-month-old who really didn't want her diaper changed). While Marty handled the other two, I sat down next to Josh and put my arm around his tiny shoulders.
“It's just – it's just – it's just --” he stuttered, then took a deep breath, staring down at his cast. “It's just a long time. It's a long time.”
I held him tight, feeling sad and grateful, both at the same time.