I am lying on my back on top of the rumpled covers. The late afternoon sunshine from the big bedroom window is lighting up the tips of Gabriel’s long, golden brown bangs. He is kneeling next to me, and his face, held in steady concentration, is hovering over mine. In his hands he is holding a three-tiered tinker toy contraption whose square base is resting on my chest. He is steadily revolving a short yellow dowel that sticks out of the side of a wooden wheel at the top, a little hand crank for his Medicine Machine.
“This is fixing your heart. Now you make the heart sound, Mama.”
So I say it quietly, in rhythm with his cranking. “Thump thump. Thump thump.”
When his sister Frances can bear it no longer, she asks if it can please be her turn now to be the doctor. She takes over the machine, Gabriel assumes the patient position, and she proceeds to treat him by sticking the tinker toy dowels into his ears. When I warn her not to, she makes a move towards his nostrils. “Don’t worry Mama, these don’t even fit in his nose,” she explains. (How, I wonder, does she know this with such certitude?)
The kids found me after I took to my bed this afternoon, strangely exhausted and incapable of unpacking all our things left piled by the front door. We’d just gotten back from a weekend at my mother’s house. The occasion for the visit was a lacrosse game. A friend of ours has a son who plays lacrosse for his college team; they had a game Saturday night at the college down the street from my mom’s house. In preparation, the kids made a big sign to cheer for Jake and reminded each other of his number so they could recognize him on the field. Sadly, after a long, rainy day, last minute thunder and lightning delayed the game. I brought back my sleepy son to put him to bed, then returned to catch the last few minutes of the first half. The rain had stopped, the weather felt warmer, and my enthusiastic five year old was cheering wildly.
Then the strangest thing happened. As soon as the players retreated from the field at halftime, the sky changed and we suddenly found ourselves in the most torrential rainstorm I’ve ever witnessed. The wind picked up violently. We learned there was a tornado warning; a policeman directed all of us to the closest building for safety. The gusts were forceful, my daughter was screaming in terror, and I could barely see through the pummeling rain. I hoisted her onto my hip and ran as fast as I could, flanked by lacrosse players in pads and face masks on either side of me, trotting along with their long sticks. I made some feeble attempt at playing that long run like it was a great adventure, but I wasn’t very convincing to the shaking girl in my arms. The storm swept past us in just a few minutes, but it took me a long time to recover. I felt my legs tremble occasionally as the adrenaline continued to course through my body in little bursts.
Before too long, we were all dry and warm at my mother’s. In the morning I began to gather our bags to pack the car up and head home. In the middle of those efforts, a neighbor walked in the front door with a stricken expression on her face. My mother and I followed her outside and discovered a driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed into my car that had been parked on the street. When I stepped onto the porch, I saw his car perpendicular to the median, arrested in its wild trajectory by the side of our car. The entire drivers side was crumpled like a piece of paper. As I leaned in to try to open the back door, my eyes rested on my son’s car seat through the window. The door was wedged and bent so badly it couldn’t possibly open. I felt another rush, not unlike the night before. I was stricken by the realization of our shocking vulnerability, our fragility laid bare.
I could have been loading the trunk. I could have been buckling him into the seat when that car came racing out of nowhere.
Our car was towed, my husband drove the two hours to pick us up, and by the time we made it home I felt beaten. What is a mother to do before freak weather and sleeping drivers? Sickness, earthquakes, nuclear disaster, war? This afternoon, life seemed impossibly treacherous to me. So I went upstairs and closed my eyes. Until, minutes later, my little ones found me. I told them I didn’t feel well, so they had the fine idea of curing me with their tinker toys. I admit, I did start to revive as soon as Gabriel slid purposefully off the bed and shouted over his shoulder that he needed to find a doctor bag first.
He came back and introduced himself as Dr. Armadillo. After he worked on my heart, Frances cured Gabriel of the sting of deadly picky fly juice. He then inspected her persistent jiggly teeth problem, and prescribed pumping and cranking the Medicine Machine to relieve an aching armpit. I closed my eyes and listened to them probing and examining each tender, fragile body part. I will wake up tomorrow and put flax seed in their oatmeal and remind them to cover their mouths when they cough. As if these things were magic talismans, protection from tornadoes and negligent drivers. As if I could make life stop hurting. But we do these things anyway, because what else is love but all our tender efforts to lessen the hurt for each other and protect what is joyful and true?
Sometimes you’re reminded that it could all change in a moment, and sometimes that makes you want to take a nap in protest. But beauty and delight, humor and wonder redeem and outweigh the fragility of our flesh. I was so grateful to my kids for reminding me, and calling me back to where life happens.
Thump thump. Thump thump.
(Come read more at my blog, Homemade Time. I’m so pleased to be a new blogger here – look out for regular posts from me in the weeks to come).
About Meagan Howell
Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.