In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion recounts the experience of losing her husband of many years. One minute they were sitting down to dinner together, and the next, he lay slumped over, dead from heart failure. Of that moment, she writes, and writes again:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Addie, Nolie, and I ventured to the gym this morning. I always feel better when I work out regularly, and I wouldn't mind getting rid of this babygut. So we head to the gym and the girls hang out in daycare for an hour while I try to run and lift weights and sweat a little. We get home, and Nolie is thankfully asleep in her carseat so I can make Addie some lunch. Pretty ordinary stuff.
Addie decides she's done with lunch and starts to climb out of her chair. As she's doing this, her legs somehow get twisted around her and she ends up falling from the chair, landing on the floor, back-of-the-head first.
I wait just a split second before jumping up and snatching her off the floor. I've trained myself when my kid falls not to immediately scream out in horror, prancing like a ninny and waving my hands all around (which is my first instinct), because she falls about a thousand times a day, and 999 of those times it's not a big deal to her unless she sees me making a big deal of it. So, while I used to squeal and flail about when she fell, now I try to be calm, usually cheerily calling out something like "Uh-oh! Pop up!" until I know it's serious enough to warrant screaming and flailing about.
This time, it became obvious pretty quick that this was no ordinary fall. I grabbed Addie off the floor and checked the back of her head to make sure it wasn't bleeding--it wasn't. There wasn't even a knot. But she was arching her back, her arms splayed at her sides, eyes rolled back in head, not breathing.
I have seen this before. This summer Addie and I were at the gym so I could take my pre-natal yoga class. On the way out, Addie fell down some stairs and hit her head and had the same reaction. I described it later as looking like a seizure--her eyes rolled back, her head lolled around, tongue out; she wasn't breathing, her arms were akimbo, her back arched. It took several minutes for her to be able to focus on me (these minutes felt like hours, by the way). It was the most terrifying moment of my life. There were no articulate thoughts running through my mind at the moment, just raw fear. After thinking on it later, I believe it was fear that my child would be paralyzed for life, or be epileptic, or in a vegetative state. Fear that the oh-so-ordinary, in an instant, becomes the life-defining, the life-changing.
At the gym that day, I freaked out, even after Addie had come to and seemed fine. I had the preschool teacher there call an ambulance. By the time it got there, Addie was sitting quietly in my lap, having the occasional hiccup kids get after a hard cry. I kept apologizing to the EMTs for over-reacting--they kindly assured me I did the right thing, and said that we should take her in for monitoring. So Addie and I crawled in the back of the ambulance and headed to the hospital, and after an hour in the ER, I took her home. The doctor at the hospital said they sometimes do head CTs for falls like that, but they're more to reassure the parents than anything, and since Addie wasn't puking, she'd probably be fine. So we just went home.
Still, I watched her really carefully that day, and for a few days after that, seeking signs that something was wrong, that some hidden contusion was just lurking in her head, waiting to burst. If she stuttered over a word, I wondered if there was a brain bleed. If she slept longer than usual, I'd figure she'd died from an aneurysm. You get the picture.
But after that happened, too, I began to question my memory of the event. Had her eyes really rolled back in her head? Had she really gone unconscious? Or was I just being overly anxious, overly sensitive? Good Christ, was I one of those moms? Maybe I was! Maybe I had Munchausen's! Maybe I needed to be hospitalized!
A few months later, we had Nolie in the E.R. for what turned out to be a bad cold (Okay. Now you're getting the wrong idea. In my defense, the doctor made us go in. I didn't want to. But since she hadn't had her vaccines and was only a few weeks old, we went in. She was totally fine). While we were in the waiting room, though, a mom brought her two-year-old in, bleeding from the head, and with the same symptoms Addie had when she had fallen. I recognized them immediately as what I had seen with Addie this summer and, while I felt really bad for that mom and her baby, a small, secret part of me was also glad to know that I hadn't manufactured the event.
But all that aside, I still completely panicked when Addie fell today. My hands are shaking as I type this, and I'll probably need to check on her several times today before I feel okay about it (she fell asleep really quick at naptime! She didn't want to read as many books!). I'm sort of wondering if those physical symptoms are a result of her getting the wind knocked out of her. At least I didn't call the ambulance this time, and didn't make Eric drive home from work.
But I wanted to. I wanted to call a thousand ambulances to make sure Addie was okay. And am reminded again that life changes in the instant.