The Story of Brave Mommy – for Andrew

September 16, 2007 at 5:57 pm (Uncategorized)

On our recent trip to Boston, we had to call the fire department for help. Luckily, my mother-in-law’s house wasn’t on fire. Nor did we have a major medical emergency. What we did have was a naked three-and-a-half year old locked in an upper story bathroom.

It was our last night in Boston, and we had an early flight to catch the next morning. We were tired from a busy day, which had included a trip to the Charles River to see the bronze statues of Jack, Lack, Quack, and the other ducks from one of Andrew’s favorite books, Make Way for Ducklings. It was hot and humid, and we were packing and sweating at the same time. Andrew was a bit wound up from the excitement of the ducks, as well as from getting a ride on a swan boat and having ice cream for lunch and dinner.

As is so often the case with youngsters (and puppies), the more tired Andrew became, the more needlessly and frenetically animated he grew. So while I stuffed our dirty laundry into plastic bags and Jay collected Andrew’s toys from under the beds, Andrew stripped off his clothes and ran around in progressively tighter concentric circles. Truth be told, I wasn’t paying much attention to him—or to the virtual Spirographs he was making—when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the white flash of his naked body disappear into the bathroom and heard the slam of the door. “I have to go poopie!” he hollered from behind the closed bathroom door. “Well, that should keep him occupied for a few minutes,” I thought, with some relief, as I returned to two of the great mysteries of traveling with children: how had the number of our possessions and the volume of our belongings doubled after a few days in Boston?; and how could I possibly squash all of this into our already bursting suitcases?

Jay was the first one to notice that Andrew was locked in the bathroom. It didn’t seem like a big deal at first. I could hear Andrew giggling—still, with a touch of that tired mania—as Jay knelt at the outside of the door and tried to coach him into turning the deadbolt. Andrew did an excellent job of twisting the lock in the proper direction, but either the mechanism was stuck, or he wasn’t strong enough to deliver enough leverage to open it. He continued to laugh, but he was also rattling the door knob and banging on the door. “I am stuck,” he kept repeating. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so blasé about the situation.

We were fortunate that Jay’s mom insisted on calling the fire department right away because Andrew’s good mood quickly turned into full-blown hysteria. He was crashing against the door and had started crying. It probably didn’t help that he could overhear Jay and me agreeing that there was no way into the third floor bathroom from the outside because his mother’s ladder simply wasn’t tall enough. By the time the fire trucks arrived with their sirens blaring and their lights flashing, Andrew was hysterical. I was doing a mediocre job of calming him by telling him stories with my nose pressed against the door. I praised him for being brave and told him the fire fighters had arrived. “Nooooooo!” he screamed. “I don’t want the fire fighters. Noooo.”

I was genuinely perplexed by Andrew’s response. As I’m sure any other parent of a young boy will testify, there is nothing more fabulous in Andrew’s world than fire fighters. The highlight of his life so far had been a trip to our town’s fire station, where he met Captain Dave and the rest of the crew, and was allowed not only to sit behind the wheel of the giant ladder truck but also to press the button that started the screaming of the siren. When he plays, he frequently enacts fire rescue missions with his miniature trucks and ambulances, and when we drive through town, he’ll bellow with delight when we pass a fire truck, particularly if it has its lights flashing. I was sure that telling him that his beloved heroes were coming to his rescue would not only calm him down but also convert this terrorizing ordeal into an adventure. Boy, was I wrong.

Even though Andrew was shrieking at me to send the fire fighters home, there was no stopping them. Crouched in front of the door with sweat coursing off my face, I felt beyond powerless. What if in the throes of hysteria Andrew slipped and cracked open his head on the toilet? What if he tried to break down the bathroom door and instead broke his neck? What if he jumped out the window to avoid the rescue mission? I shouldn’t have worried. Andrew’s screaming stopped just as I heard the thud of boots on the bathroom floor as the fireman jumped through the window from his ladder. “Hello, little boy,” he said. Even before Andrew responded, I heard the padding of his little feet up to the door. “You know,” Andrew said, his voice clear again, “I’m pretty sure I can open this door by myself now.” To his credit, the man let my small son try to unlock the deadbolt one more time before he stepped in and did it himself. Andrew fell out of the room, into my open arms, and began sobbing and shaking once again. His naked body was slick with sweat, his face slimy with tears and snot.

Jay and his Mom wanted Andrew to come down and watch the fire trucks. He steadfastly refused and buried his head in my shoulder. By now I understood his reaction. In the world of play and imagination, Andrew is one of the fire fighters. He is rescuer, not rescued. Even on his tour of the fire station, he was in the driver’s seat—literally. What a terrible inversion this night had become for Andrew. He had become one of the bumbling folks needing rescue, like Mr. Frumble, the absentminded pig in the Richard Scarry books, who makes hundreds of brainless mistakes to bring out the brave fire fighters.

We didn’t really discuss the incident for a couple of days. We were busy with the rest of our trip, and any time we even mentioned it, Andrew became upset. I felt bad for him. I don’t have his rich fantasy life of being a gallant rescue hero, but I do know how utterly embarrassing it is to be defenseless and in need of professional help. Having an illness that involves a cardiac condition has involved a few too many trips to the emergency room—even once with an ambulance involved—for my liking. And I wasn’t even naked (with an unwiped bottom) and locked in a bathroom. I visualized one of my heroes (who shall go unnamed) vaulting through a window to help me out of a post-poop crisis. No wonder the little guy didn’t want to talk about it.

A curious thing happened in the coming weeks, though. Andrew began to ask me to tell him “The Story of Brave Andrew.” I quickly figured out that this tale followed the facts of the evening of the locked bathroom—with a particular emphasis on Andrew’s bravery in the face of an awfully scary situation. In this telling, Andrew bravely tries to open the deadbolt, but the treacherous lock refuses to cooperate; Andrew bravely overcomes his panic of being trapped and listens to his Mommy tell him stories; Andrew cries a little, but because he is very brave, he lets the firefighters come; Andrew bravely stands aside to let the firefighter drop into the room.

I have no trouble telling this version of the story because it is true. Andrew was indeed very brave. As he and I have discussed lately, bravery doesn’t mean not getting into difficult situations or not being afraid once you’re in a bad way. Instead bravery means doing something (or not doing something) even though you are afraid of it and even though you don’t want to do it. And that is just what my son did.

I am not one of those people who ever bought one of those hokey posters that were popular a few years ago. These were the ones that proclaimed that “Everything I Needed to Learn, I Learned in Pre-School/From My Cat/From My Dog.” I am a firm believer that I know a lot more than my young child (and my cat and dog, too). But sometimes, I do learn quite a lot from my pre-schooler. I think he can be such a telling example because he is approaching situations for the first time, so he behaves with passion, with significance, and with deliberateness. The night of the bathroom was one such instance. He has become an example for me on how to get through a terrifying experience. It wasn’t pretty; he hollered and shook and let his tears fly around the room. He made a fuss and almost broke a solid wood door. But he survived it. He was brave—brave in getting through the event in itself, but also brave in circling back to confront the evening later on his own terms. He could have simply never talked about it again. Plenty of us do that. But he has come to his own meaning of that night, rather than obliterate it from his memory. He has chosen not to focus on his fear, not to focus on his humiliation, not to focus on being dumb enough to lock a door he couldn’t then unlock. Instead, he has come to understand his own strength in a difficult situation.

With Andrew showing me the way, I am rethinking a few of my own recent obstacles. Living in chronic town certainly presents plenty of those. For instance, I spend many days undergoing tests, procedures, or appointments I would rather not have performed. But, as my son has proved, the bravery isn’t in enjoying these events, but in surviving them with my dignity intact. Just three days ago, I had to report back to the hospital to have an ultrasound of my liver done. A recent CT scan revealed a lesion on my liver that hadn’t appeared on previous images. It is likely either nothing, or simply a clearer picture of the granulomae that were revealed by an earlier biopsy. Nevertheless, I had to show up for the test and have my body manhandled by a careless technician who seemed to think it was appropriate to maul my breasts and press with all his might with his ultrasound wand onto the full bladder that is apparently necessary for the procedure to result in a good picture. But, like my son, I was brave. Not because I didn’t get grouchy with the technician and ask him to stop plopping my breasts around like they were slabs of meat, and not because I wasn’t scared that I had liver cancer, and not because I am so fed up with tests that I want to scream when someone mentions them. No, I was brave because I did it. And because I know I’ll do it again if I need to. But mostly because I try to write honestly in this space about the experience of illness. I could simply pretend I was healthy. But I’d like to think I’m brave for facing my demons and hoping others can learn from my mistakes. I’ll call this “The Story of Brave Mommy,” and I’ll dedicate it to Andrew—the bravest little guy in the world.

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