Published on February 11th, 2020 | by Jennifer Jordán Schaller0
Her tooth, a white pearl, hung by strings. My four-year-old daughter Ruby had been jumping up and down inside the hallway of her sister’s dance class, a hallway I realized too late was lined with bricks. She smacked her face on a brick, screamed out in pain, and her gums flooded with blood.
I took her face in my hands and an acute, sharp, and guilty pain swirled in my torso. I cradled her to my body as she cried. Another parent rushed to the bathroom, grabbed paper towels. I wanted to cry too, but I couldn’t. Faced with my daughter’s pain, I felt like a bruise, my blood rushing to my skin’s surface, and exposed, a berry cut open with a knife.
I should have told her to stop jumping, I kept berating myself. But I had told her to stop jumping, though I didn’t keep after her, didn’t kneel down at her eye level, didn’t insist. I was calm as I half-heartedly said one, two, three times, “Stop jumping, stop being so rough. Jumping is for outside.”
I rushed my daughter to an on-call dentist who punctured her shredded gums with an enormous needle filled with novocaine. One day earlier I had flossed her teeth so carefully. I closed my eyes as the dentist told my daughter she was brave, then yanked pliers away from her face. The image of shiny pincers in her mouth haunted me.
When I was a kid, I knocked out my front tooth, too. I was at a friend’s house, we were pretending to be airplanes, then an older relative thought it would be a good idea to swing me around by my feet. Seconds later my tooth snagged on a sofa, and my front tooth hung loosely from the root. I screamed as blood spattered from my lips. I remember the metallic taste of raw flesh against my tongue. My tooth fell out a few days later, and I was toothless for a year. I wished and hoped for my grownup tooth to grow in.
On the car ride home, my daughter bit down on gauze, and I kept telling her she was super-brave. I took her to the drive-thru at Wendy’s and ordered her a Frosty. “You can have this when we get home,” I said. “Let the gauze soak up more of that blood.”
At home she didn’t want the Frosty. She wanted sleep. I guided her to the bathroom to potty, but she stopped at her reflection in the mirror. She marveled at her swollen cheeks, upper lip quadrupled in size. She must have looked like a stranger to herself. I know how that feels.
One night, when my daughter was three, I tucked her into bed and went back downstairs to watch TV with my husband. An hour later, as I climbed our dark stairwell, I came face-to-face with what looked like my reflection. Disoriented, I thought, Who put that mirror on the stairs? But this wasn’t a mirror. It was a small, crying person. I was two steps from tripping over my daughter, who had snuck out of bed to pout alone.
“Oh, you scared me!” I asked, “Why are you still awake?”
She said, “I’m not tired, mommy.” I picked her up and carried her to bed. She looked up at me with watery brown eyes that looked like my own. Did I see myself in her? Or am I, at my very core, a small child crying on a flight of stairs? Sometimes I think I’m both.
The next morning, Ruby woke up early, walked out of her room, and mumbled loudly. She puffed her cheeks out with air and pointed to her closed mouth. I almost asked her to use her words, but then I realized she couldn’t. Dried blood had cemented her lips shut. She was telling me she couldn’t open her mouth.
I felt a flush of panic and disgust. Her fluids are in the wrong places! Like a horror movie! Blood on the outside; tears on the inside. I took a breath and nodded. I guided her to the bathroom and dampened a washcloth with warm water. I dabbed her face to moisten her lips, so she could peel her lips apart. I had to be gentle, not only because her mouth was sore, but also because the dentist said her other teeth had been loosened as well. She couldn’t bite into an apple for months.
After I washed Ruby’s face, she walked to the living room to watch a show, and I started making her a strawberry and banana smoothie. Minutes later, I carried the smoothie to the living room and found her standing on the couch. I gasped and spoke with a quavering voice. “Please, sit down. Please don’t jump, at least for one day.”
Ruby’s eyes, lost in a cartoon, focused on me. She saw the terror in my face: her eyes darkened, she nodded, and she sat down without a fight. She probably could have jumped on a trampoline that day without feeling pain, but it would have been over my dead body. She sat down to placate her mother. I was on edge. My body felt raw from seeing her in pain, like my nerve endings were open, and my skin hurt to the touch. I needed her to be still, so I could catch my breath. I wanted to put her in a jar, keep her safe during all the times her imagination swept her away. I wished her body didn’t have to suffer the damage of her daydreams.
I remember being lost in my daydreams, too. When I was in elementary school, more than once, I would gaze up at the clouds breaking open to reveal the bright, blue, New Mexico sky, and then Bam! I would run into someone’s forehead. It happened more times than I could keep track. Over time, I learned to watch where I was going, to be aware of my surroundings, and to navigate the world most days without falling on my face. If she’s like me, it could take thirty years, but I know she will learn the limitations of living inside her own body.
It is a self-defeating wish, to bring a child into the world, to push her out from inside my body, bloodied, screaming, and then wish for the pain of birth to be the only pain she ever feels. She cried out when I pushed her from my body, and I nursed her until she calmed down. I wanted her to know love from her first waking moment on earth. Forty-five minutes later, she was still latched on.
I want my child to be happy, but being alive sometimes also means feeling pain: existential, physical, emotional. Through feeling pain, my daughter learns to protect herself, and her body. But it hurts so much to watch. I watch my child navigate the world and her body the way she likes, and I see how I once was. I desperately want what I know I can’t have, to prevent my child from feeling the pain I have felt. All the while my child holds up a mirror. She has become one of my stories, and I have become one of hers. We live not only through ourselves, but also through each other.