I had to go to the emergency room yesterday for a self-inflicted knife wound (lunch prep mishap; dull knife, crusty bread, these things happen). I would have driven to my uncle’s to have him glue me up—he’s a dermatologist and has performed this service many times for various injured members of our large extended family— but when I went to put in my contact lenses (so I could see to make the hour’s drive) I must have rinsed them with the hydrogen peroxide-based cleansing solution instead of saline. The pain was instantaneous and searing. All I could do was clutch my eye with my non-injured hand and make strangled yipping noises that drew all the kids and the dog into the bathroom in concern until the pain finally subsided enough for me to peel the lens off my now inflamed eyeball.
This was my last pair of contacts. My glasses had been kneeled on and crushed months prior. Wyatt tried repairing them with blue ticky tack and I drove around with them like that for a while, but when the summer weather came, they melted. My vision is not horrible. I can see well enough to drive in broad daylight at slow speeds to places I’ve been before, but there would be no highway driving for me that day. Instead of driving to my uncle for free care, I would have to cough up a $75 copay and go to the nearby emergency department instead.
Nobody had pants on yet and the dog needed to go out and my finger was bleeding through the seven layers of Band Aids wrapped around it, but somehow I managed to have the wherewithal to fill my water bottle, pack an extra pair of pants for Milo, who is only sort of potty trained, and grab a book to read to the kids during our wait.
I loathe parking garages– the dim light, the winding around looking for a spot, the potential for collisions with cars and posts and pedestrians, the inching into awkwardly angled parking spots, and then, the worst part: the herding of more erratically-moving children than I have hands to hold past the dangers of other cars backing up and rounding blind corners, and then down too steep cement stairs smelling of stale urine. There are not many things in this life that I truly hate, but parking garages make my short list. Yesterday, it took fifteen minutes of one-handed, blurred-vision driving, inching ever upward in permanent twilight, the kids making a racket in the back, before I found a spot, which required a 37-point turn to fit into thanks to the jerk drivers parked at angles to either side. I had to crawl out through the passenger door, bumping my injured hand in the process and discovering that I had not properly screwed the cap on my large bottle of water. It had glugged its entire contents all over the floor mat. I pulled the mat out and hung it dripping off the hood of the car before unloading the kids.
Trooping into the hospital, the kids were very interested in the metal detector at the door. Wyatt has an unfortunate compulsion to let security officers know that he is not carrying any bombs or weapons, and also to explain how anything in his possession might potentially be mistaken for a bomb. This is especially problematic at airports. “I know what word you’re going to say, young man, but please don’t say it!” the TSA employee said last time we flew, when Wyatt was concerned he might mistake his ipod and headphones for a bomb. (If we don’t find some way to address this tic before he hits puberty, we are going to have to start scheduling in enough extra time for being taken into custody for questioning whenever we travel.) Luckily the security guard at the hospital was unconcerned by our potential level of threat and waved us through to triage.
We sat in the otherwise empty waiting area. I was applying pressure to the ball of bloody gauze around my hand and my kids were climbing on the chairs, turning cartwheels, and only obeying my instructions to “Come here and sit still!” for thirty seconds at a time before squirreling away again. I looked at the lot of us: All three of my sons have scrapes and bruises up and down their shins—“summer legs” from hiking and playing and roughhousing all day long. Little Milo has a black eye, a healing skinned nose and a strawberry on his cheek. Wyatt’s eyebrow is growing back from where he was glued up a couple months ago; he has a scar over the other eye from a run in with a gate a couple years prior (also requiring glue) and another scar on his temple from being hit in the head with a shampoo bottle by Duncan. Duncan was sporting a big Band-Aid on his chin. He had tried to protect himself from under-the-bed monsters the night before by littering the floor with toys and pillows. Instead of thwarting monsters, he ended up booby-trapping himself, tripping during the night and smashing his chin on the table. The Band-Aid covered two scars from previous times he had split his chin deeply enough to require emergency gluing. Someone is sure to call CPS on me one of these days.
In triage, security was called, but not out of concern for my mothering. One of the kids must have flicked the emergency switch when we walked into the room (whichever one it was, he is not ‘fessing up, but I have my money on Duncan as he spent the next five minutes trying to crawl inside the back of my shirt to hide). Wyatt immediately designated himself my spokesman: “Mommy sliced herself with a knife,” he said. “She got blood on the bread. It was my favorite sourdough and I just pick it out with Daddy, but I’m not too upset at her because it was an accident (because she was not all the way paying attention, like usual). And we were going to get to see my great-uncle– he glued me up last time– but we couldn’t because Mommy put hydrogen peroxide in her eye for, like, the seventh time-“
“Second time, Wyatt,” I interjected.
“Are you sure, Mommy? I think you’re forgetting. Hey, are those blue things barf bags?”
“Yes,” said the nurse. He was smiling at Wyatt with that bemused way medical personnel tend to respond to him. “And that’s exactly what we call them, too. We use those in here more than anything else.”
“Really?” I said. It had never occurred to me to come to the emergency room for vomiting. For our family, it’s always acute injuries.
“You would not believe what people come here for,” he said.
“What’s barf?” Duncan asked.
“Throw up,” I said.
“I don’t like throw up,” said Duncan.
“My not yike dat, too,” said Milo.
“And anyway,” Wyatt interjected, taking back the reigns of the conversation, “nobody has ever figured out my mysterious symptoms…”
“Mysterious symptoms?” asked the nurse.
“Yes,” said Wyatt, beginning to explain a long list of very vague symptoms he has experienced over his life, starting with, “Sometimes my face feels tingly…”
The nurse was a riot. He took my blood pressure, examined my finger, all the while nodding seriously to Wyatt. As he led us to the examination room, he asked, “So, tell me, Wyatt, does your left elbow ever feel itchy?”
“Well,” he replied, “I can’t exactly think of that right now. I think so. Maybe you should give Mommy your phone number so she can call you if that happens.”
When the triage nurse left, Wyatt said to me, “He’s nice. You should give him your phone number so that he can be friends with you and Daddy.”
We sat in the examination room a while. I read to the kids from a humorous book called “Half Magic” and their giggles drew interested peeks behind the curtain from physicians and nurses. People were friendly. I think a room full of giggling children might be a welcome change of pace for an emergency department. It was crowded with the four of us on the bed, but the kids were being pretty well-behaved. Despite our injuries, I felt like a decent mother for a few minutes.
“So that’s how you take three kids to the emergency room!” said one physician who came to see what was the source of such hilarity. “I’ve got three kids, too,” he said.
“Well, you can see we’ve done this before,” I said. He laughed.
A woman came by with pinwheels for the children. They cheered– they love getting anything to play with– and as I continued reading, they blew on their pinwheels, watching them spin. Within five minutes all the pinwheels had been intentionally taken apart and the pieces used as robotic arms, swords, action figures, telephones, rockets, drumsticks, flutes, hats, antennae, brother antagonizers, and, always the favorite, projectiles. When the resident walked into the room, Wyatt greeted her holding the stick of his former pinwheel pointing down from his nose, saying, “Look, it’s half past my eyeballs!”
She was delightfully quick. She held up a tongue depressor to her own face: “It’s quarter ‘til my eyeballs,” she said. And just like that, she won their hearts.
Here are the questions they had for her as she examined my wound: “Do you have a birthday?” “Do you like rockets?” “On your birthday, do you have chocolate cake with high-fructose corn syrup?” “Do you have two goldfish?” “Have you been to Ireland?” “Do you have candles on your birthday?” “Do you believe in alchemy?” “Are you a grown-up?” “Do you have kids?” “Do you like kids?” “Do you poop in the potty?” “Have you seen a buffalo?” “Have you been to California?” “Are you a vegetarian?” “Do you believe in dinosaurs?” “Are you a fan of comic books?” “Do you have a hippo?” “Do you like the top bunk?” “Can we order a snack?” and “Do you have blood?”
Milo also let her know that his new Power Ranger underpants have a special “penie pocket” so his penis can come out to say hello. He offered to demonstrate this feature for her, but I talked him out of it.
Then Duncan fell off the bed, smacked his head on the floor and wailed loudly enough for two nurses to come running. He was appeased with another pinwheel, which he immediately dismantled and used to poke Milo, who responded by wetting his pants “just yittle bit”. I grabbed him off the bed and went running to the bathroom, saying, “Hold it in! Hold it in!” with him clutching his crotch and crying that he didn’t want to take off his “Pow-Wanger” undies, and Duncan trailing behind, crying, “Don’t leave me, Mommy! Don’t leave me here!” Milo finished peeing in the toilet and was mopped up and changed into new shorts, but he was freshly insulted by the lack of Power Rangers on his spare pair of underwear. He was appeased with another pinwheel, which he used to whack Duncan, naturally.
My wound was examined by a nurse, a resident and an attending physician, then cleaned, glued shut, and examined again. I need to try to keep it dry for a few days, which is going to be a trick since the dog is due for a bath and, between meal prep, potty training, picking up after the dog, kid bathing, and all the gross things a parent has to handle in a typical day, my hands get washed a lot.
As the nurse gave me my discharge instructions, I took in the sight of the room: the paper on the bed was shredded, there were pinwheel pieces all over the floor, Duncan and Milo’s faces were both tear-stained, and Wyatt was spinning in circles faster and faster on the doctor’s chair, likely to launch himself into a wall at any moment. I thought about our house. My sister is arriving on Thursday and I have high hopes of having, if not exactly a spotless, organized, and decorated home for her to visit us in, at least one that looks a little less like the aftermath of some natural disaster. When the nurse finished up by asking if there was anything else I needed help with that day, the following words popped out of my mouth before I had a chance to pull them back: “I noticed there was a pharmacy. Think maybe I could refill my birth control while I’m here?”
He handed me a pinwheel.