From Mother to Daughter
When my daughter Aeddan came running out of the trees clutching her arm, I immediately knew a bone had broken. Instincts of motherhood hustled me into overdrive, much like what happened with my own mom when I broke my arm at age four. My mother, normally reacting to life with worry and alarm, this time displayed calm and composure. She did not blanch at the sight of my forearm, bent into an awkward U, but instead quietly phoned the neighbor as she tore a bedsheet in half to make a sling, then loaded me into the back of the neighbor’s car, her eyes never leaving mine, willing me to be still.
Now I understood.
I buckled my daughter, white and faint, into our Subaru. She said, “Mom, the world is turning black,” and began to shiver, classic signs of shock. I laid my hand on her shoulder, locked eyes like laser beams with hers, and told her something true: “It’s going to be okay. I’ve got you.”
At the hospital, Aeddan and I waited in the lobby for doctors and nurses to make their pragmatic triage decisions. With time now to look at her wrist, the break was clear, and ugly. This was no simple fracture. Her wrist bent at an unnatural angle just below where her palm connected to her arm. Across the lobby from us sat a man and boy, suited up in matching BMX uniforms. The man had a similar injury to Aeddan’s; he too cradled his arm to his chest. However, my ten-year-old was made of sterner stuff. Periodically she would quietly moan, or tell me it hurt, or ask when the doctor would see her. This man, on the other hand, was rocking wildly back and forth, making more noise than a lowing cow in labor.
When the man (who had arrived after us) was called in before us, I joked with Aeddan. “Maybe you could yell a little bit. You know, throw a tantrum or something.” I was proud of her bravery. Whenever it started to crack, I lent her more of my own, refusing to panic, refusing to complain about the long wait, refusing everything except words of life and encouragement. I did not realize it, but we would need to call on this bravery again before the evening was over.
Eventually a nurse delivered us to a back room and hooked Aeddan up to a morphine drip. “I’m really cold,” my daughter said, but the nurse was already there, holding a blanket warmed by a dryer. As her mother, desperate to ease her suffering, I was grateful for the shift in complaint—being cold felt normal, so unlike having a broken arm. I could deal with cold.
I spent another thirty minutes trying everything I knew to distract (reading aloud, singing, telling stories and jokes—which worked, but also led to, “Ouch, Mama, don’t make me laugh!”). Finally, the nurse came back in with some paperwork for me to sign.
“Who reads this stuff?” I joked. “Seriously, I could be giving away my house and wouldn’t know it.” This is the real way mothers in fairy tales lose their first-born children: legal agreements. The convoluted language is tricky under the best circumstances; now, my brain was firing only one message: Your daughter is hurt. Stop wasting time!
Collecting the forms, the nurse took a moment to clarify. “Just to make sure, you are signing that we can use conscious sedation. That means she will not be all the way under while the doctor sets her arm.”
“Will it hurt?” I asked, startled.
“No,” the nurse replied; “just a little pressure. And she won’t even remember that.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “How long until the doctor sees her?”
“We can go now,” the nurse said, leading us down the hall and into the operating room, which was like none I’d seen before. Instead of a regular door on a hinge, it was separated from the hallway by a massive sliding glass wall, similar to the doors that lead out to many back patios. But this one was thick, bullet-proof, industrial. Though I noticed this, more important to me than the architecture was what was happening to my girl.
A technician was preparing to x-ray her arm, and positioned it across a small tray just above Aeddan’s lap. The tech grabbed a lead apron, folded it in thirds, and laid it across my daughter’s middle section, like a belt.
“Oh, hey, doesn’t that need to be opened up?” I asked.
“Oh, no. It’s fine like that,” the tech responded.
This was not satisfying. “Umm, what about her lungs and stuff?”
The tech waved her hand dismissively. “We only need to protect her ovaries.”
“No,” I said, feeling a tidal wave of rage rising within me. “We’re going to protect all of her. I’d like you to cover her up.”
The tech looked at me, hard, and said, “It’s fine the way it is,” and left the room to start the x-ray.
Aeddan later spoke of my fierceness as I marched into the room, putting my hand on the apron. The tech raced back in, shouting, “Hey! You can’t be in here!”
“Right,” I said. “I can’t be anywhere even in this room, but my daughter can lay unprotected under the x-ray machine? I don’t think so.” Deliberately, carefully, I placed the open apron across my precious, brave girl, and gave her a grim smile. “You ready, sweetheart?” I asked her.
Her eyes wide, she gave me a slow nod.
I turned to the tech. “Now,” I said, “she’s ready. I’ll be in the hall.”
Once the x-ray was finished, I had a few last moments alone with my daughter before yet another nurse came in. This one said, “Okay, mom, you step out now. There’s a waiting room down the hall.”
“Can’t I stay?” I asked.
She laughed and waved me off. “Oh, no. You don’t want to see this. It’s hard on the moms.” At her words, I felt the stirrings of panic. Before I could ask or protest, she said, “Now, you head off; I gotta get these big guys in here to help out.” She waved to three male nurses, who were milling around the opening to the room. I blinked in confusion—they looked like bouncers in scrubs.
“You go on now; we’ll be fine, won’t we, buttercup?” She turned to her patient, my child.
Things felt uncontrolled, moving too fast after the hours of waiting. Don’t alarm Aeddan, I told myself. Knowing that her bravery was, in part, an extension of my own, I leaned in and kissed her, praying a brief prayer over her. I gave her a high-five (on her left hand), and arranged my face into a cheerful, encouraging smile. “See you in fifteen minutes,” I said. “Knock ‘em out, girl. You are going to have such a great story to tell your friends tomorrow!”
Aeddan gave me one thumbs-up. My adrenaline had worn off, and my brain was now unraveling the truth. I knew what she was about to experience, and so turned my back on her before my face could give me away.
Conscious sedation. I remembered, too late, that I had heard a report about this new and controversial method of anesthesia, which didn’t block the pain a patient would feel, but would erase his memory of the pain.
Her memory, I whispered to myself. Her memory of the pain.
According to the report, some people were calling it inhumane. And here this hospital was, using it on a ten-year-old. My ten-year-old.
In my mind, I saw the thick glass wall, and understood: soundproof. Alone in the small waiting room, I thought of the three husky nurses, and could see them holding my child, struggling as the doctor was, surely by now, attempting to set her compound fracture back into place. I tried not to imagine my girl’s cries and shouts, her feeling of being abandoned and betrayed by her own mother.
I remembered the first nurse, assuring me that she would feel only mild pressure, and started to cry.
I wept on the phone as a friend prayed for me, and reassured me that everything would be fine, and reminded me that things could be much, much worse: 100 years ago, barbaric practices like this were standard. My girl would have been biting on a piece of thick leather, ending up with a malformed wrist anyway. And she’d remember it, too.
This calm was good, and I breathed it in, knowing that, in a few short minutes, my girl would need me to be strong, composed, positive.
The face I wore when I walked back into the operating room was dry, fresh from the cold water in the bathroom faucet. My eyes took in the chaos in the room: strewn about the floor were medical gloves, rolls of tape, masks and gowns. The three beefy guys were gone; I had time to think, You couldn’t take the time to clean this up? before the remaining nurse, impervious to good common sense, announced, “Oh, she’s a fighter, your girl. She gave us a run for our money, didn’t you, buttercup?”
I kept my face a placid mask as I turned to Aeddan, who was beaming, my blessed amnesiac, clearly loving the feeling of strength and power. “Mom, they said I bucked like a horse!” she said proudly.
“Aw, I knew you had it in you,” I said, all the while visualizing the nurse’s fat neck between my hands, envisioning how the staff would come running as I yelled about malpractice and unprofessionalism. But I love my daughter, who needed me.
Before checking us out, the doctor showed us the after-procedure film, pointing out the poorly set wrist, saying, “This is pretty common with juveniles. It’s hard to fully set their bones under conscious sedation, because it’s difficult to keep the patient still.” I glared at him, breathing through my teeth.
The next day, at our regular hospital’s pediatric orthopedics department, Aeddan went in for another procedure—this time fully sedated. The doctor told us, “No child should ever be subjected to conscious sedation. It almost always requires a second setting of the bone; it’s just too painful for a child not to struggle.”
I could have cried. I could have raged, and fought, and kicked and bit. Part of me wanted to.
But here came my daughter, and I remembered again that her bravery extended from mine in an invisible cord no less important or powerful than the one connecting us for nine months all those years ago.
So instead, I locked eyes with her, and smiled.
Dawn Claflin lives in Seattle with her husband and two kids. She’s just finished her first YA novel and is at work on her second. You can read her adventures in parenting at Parent Map, Mamapedia, Literary Mama, Hipmamazine, online at dawnclaflin.wordpress.com, and of course, at Mothers Always Write.