Raising The Bar
By Stephen D. Rogers
How long would it have taken me to hammer in that nail? Five minutes if I'd bothered to look for a hammer? Thirty seconds if I'd simply slipped off a high heel shoe and aimed carefully?
That nail had been protruding from the wall since the day I moved into the apartment. Dozens of times I thought I should do something about it.
I never did.
Frank Junior stayed with my Ma while I went to work. He filled the hole his grandfather left and she saved me the worry and expense of pre-school child care. None of us were particularly happy with the arrangement.
Frank Junior looked up from his drawing and I had to stop myself from gasping, even now. "Mama."
I leaned over the kitchen table and kissed him my little angel boy. "Hi sweetie. Were you good for Grandma?"
"He was excellent."
My mother was standing at the stove, stirring a pot of something that smelled like tepid water, not quite close enough to Frank Junior for my comfort but who was I to talk?
"What did the two of you do today?"
"Frank drew with his crayons."
I lifted him into my arms and snuggled against his neck. "The entire time?"
"He's very talented."
"Yes you are. You're a wonderful draw-er."
"Did you draw pictures with your red crayon?"
"And your blue crayon? Wow." I could look at his face without wincing but I wondered sometimes if he saw the anguish in my eyes. That nail had ripped--
"He had some apple sauce about an hour ago."
"Did you give him the sugar-free kind?"
"I gave him what was on sale."
My mother never blamed me. No one did. Accidents happened every single day. Children his age were always getting hurt one way or another. It was nobody's fault. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
"The sales quarter ends this week. I probably have to work late tomorrow. If not, the next day." I jostled Frank Junior until he giggled.
"It's no trouble."
"Good. I'll call once I know for certain."
"The number hasn't changed in forty-seven years." Ma wasn't the type to make me feel guilty. She didn't evoke much feeling at all.
"Well, I have to get my darling prince home so I can fill..." tickle, tickle "...his ticklish belly."
Frank Junior was laughing as we left the kitchen. My mother was stirring.
I still had nightmares that people took Frank Junior away from me because I was an unfit mother. My son was scarred, disfigured for life, because I had been too lazy to hammer in one lone nail.
Plastic things were stuck in unused outlets. Cords were taped down. Drawers were fastened and poisons were hidden and I served milk with every meal.
He was new to running and he slipped. He fell in the worst possible direction towards the object I warned him never to touch.
Frank Junior sat in the car seat waiting for me to finish securing his belt. He knew that -- as soon as I was done -- he'd get a cracker for the ride home.
"Here you go honey."
I locked the door before swinging it closed and stared at my mother's house before climbing behind the wheel. I didn't know what I'd do without her.
"Did you have fun today sweetie?"
"Yes, you have a cracker."
I started the car and headed home.
A therapist came and sat with me one day at the hospital, asking questions to see how I was coping. She only managed to rouse me when she suggested I might be angry with Frank Junior for getting hurt.
"He didn't do anything wrong. He didn't disobey me, break any rules. He was running. We were playing a game."
"You can't blame yourself."
"I certainly can't shift the blame to him."
She talked with me another ten minutes but I never saw her again. I wasn't sure whether she thought I was bearing up nicely or beyond human help.
Many people in my position would have prayed. My mother would have. She did. I'd lived without faith for too long to find comfort in running back to the God of my youth. Besides, Frank Junior was the victim, not me.
I put on a happy face when he was awake and I quietly wept as soon as his breath evened out and slowed.
Frank Junior nodded in the rearview mirror.
"We're almost home, honey."
Some days I thought about calling that therapist.
But what if my feelings weren't normal? What if I was some kind of monster? What if I was unfit?
She'd nod and take notes and then the people would come and take Frank Junior away from me.
It was better to say nothing.
Upstairs, the light on the answering machine was blinking.
"It's me. I'll be out of town for the next month so the check will be a little late. Thanks."
Thanks for what? For being understanding? For not calling the cops? For loaning him the money so he could take some floozy to the beach?
I put Frank Junior in his highchair and rolled three trucks across the recessed tray. "Broom, broom."
"Mommy is going to make supper while you play with your trucks."
The nail incident did change me, changed me in a way I never would have expected. I had hurt my baby, inadvertently, but hurt him none the less. I had raised the bar of what was acceptable.
Since that day, I yelled at him more. What was shouting compared to what I'd allowed to happen?
Since that day, and for the first time, I imagined striking him when he didn't listen, when he fought me during changing, when he acted out the way children do. After all, look at what I'd already done.
These were the thoughts I was afraid of sharing.
Maybe they were normal and the therapist could reassure me.
Maybe they weren't.
I forked the hot dog out of the boiling water onto a plate, turned off the burner, and moved the pot to the sink.
What happened happened. There was no way of changing that, no way of going back. But what was I capable of now? How had the accident twisted my sense of right and wrong?
"Okay sweetie, would you like pea jar or carrot jar?"
I took a jar of peas down from the cupboard and emptied a third into a plastic bowl. Holding the hot dog with the fork, I sliced it in half down the middle and then chopped off thin chunks. Finally I poured milk into a sippy cup. "All ready."
Sitting in front of Frank Junior, I smiled. "Are you hungry?"
He nodded and handed me a truck.
"Thank you. Have to pick up." I put the trucks on the table and slipped the bib over his head. I'd take care of myself later. I didn't want to lose a second of available focusing. "Time to eat. Hot dog and peas and milk."
I spooned him some peas. "Hot dog needs to cool down."
He leaned forward to suck more pea off the spoon.
What if I stopped giving him vegetables? It certainly wasn't a crime but how much damage would I do to his developing body? What if I fed him junk around the clock?
What if I stunted his growth or made him obese?
As it was I was probably missing some significant vitamin or mineral, the deficiency cursing him to future health problems. He could thank me then for my weak knowledge of basic nutrition.
He could thank me for my inattention to detail.
I tested a bit of hot dog against my lips.
"Yes, it's cooling down. Almost. Drink some milk."
I understood one thing about my feelings. Frank Junior was a daily reminder of my mistake. Every time I gazed at his sweet and tender face I was slapped by the reality of that nail.
How long would it have taken me?
Hot dogs were a known choking hazard. If I didn't cut the pieces small enough, if I urged him to stuff too many into his mouth, I might be excused from forever seeing the unmistakable evidence of my negligence, excused from being the chief witness against myself.
These things happened.
If Frank Junior died tonight I would no longer have to worry about how the scars would affect him at sixteen, twenty-four, seventy. I would not have to question, at every junction in his life, how that nail might have impacted the results.
Of course the price was impossibly high.
I fed Frank Junior a piece of hot dog after checking the temperature once more.
"Yes, cooled down."
I would bear the guilt because I was his mother and I loved him. I would resist the temptation of anger, of escape, and I would cope the best that I could.
Frank Junior was holding the bit of hot dog on his nose, his eyes crossed from trying to see it himself.
He laughed. Then we laughed together.
Stephen D. Rogers©2004
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