It took four weeks, but Ben’s bandages finally came off. He’s got an aversion to bathing, as do most preteen boys, so it was only under occasional duress that I was able to coerce him into the shower. Had he been taking the daily bath, those Steri-strips wouldn’t have stood up to the water for more than a week or two. At his rate (“I’m not even sweating, Mom!”) it was a month post-surgery before we got the full view of his incisions.
We’d been told beforehand that the staples would be inserted through several small incisions on his side, under his right arm. What was laid bare last Monday was a gash six inches long, running diagonal along a fold in his soft body. Even now, a week later, I cringe inwardly when I see it. It is a slice through my child’s flesh. (On his back are two more, one three inches, the other, an inch and a half.) We don’t know why the change in protocol, and no one prepared us for it. They are all healing nicely, she says like a nurse. The skin knits together. The angry welts will calm down. One day it will just be a thin white line.
And yet. How does a mother grapple with that type of scar?
So much has come up to the surface in the past week. As surely as his skin is mending, the emotional wounds are weeping. I had in my mind that a return to his routines would be helpful and healing. Seeing his friends, laughing and having fun would give him a reason to get more active, feel more normal. As soon as we got home from Philadelphia I set up playdates with friends. But after a week I observed the stress that comes with normal. “I feel different. I have all this metal in me now,” he said.
How is he to process all that he’s gone through if he’s constantly in social mode? How is it to be 12 and have gone through multiple major surgeries? What kind of an emotional burden is that for him?
I watched him diving deep into his video games and when he wasn't doing that, TV. But, as soon as I said, “Ok, no more playdates for a while” I saw a marked powering down of his stress levels. And when I pushed him about the video games and the way he was hiding away in them, not dealing with his feelings, the tears flowed full force. Amazingly enough, he thanked me afterwards, able to feel the relief the meltdown had given him.
I am reminded of his neurosurgery four years ago when I was hell-bent on getting him back to school (he wasn’t homeschooling yet) as a sign of recovery. Just get him back to school. Just get him back to school. Then everything would be fine. We’d gone through so much, the stress had pulled us to a frayed thread. I actually wanted nothing more than to sit on a couch with my babies in my lap…forever…and yet, I was in a mindset that once he went back to school everything would go back to normal. (Why is normal so important to me?) Finally, after a week of calls before noon from the nurse asking me to come pick him up for one reason or another, I realized that he wasn’t actually ready. He wanted to sit in that lap, too. And the bottom line was, there wasn’t a way to return to “normal.” That was something to redefine.
Friday night I was gone for hours with Harry at his ballroom dancing class graduation dance. I’d missed some fireworks between Toby and Ben. Mark filled me in when I got home, but everyone involved had been sound asleep by then. At 3 am, though, Ben was awakened by pain both physical and emotional and I sat with him, soothing him, for about an hour. When he awoke in the morning the first thing he told me was, “I feel emotionally broken.”
He was in a funk when I told him I had to be gone all day for a full Saturday of activities: 4H club foam weaponry project with Toby, Hebrew school teacher appreciation luncheon, and then Hebrew school. But later he put on a smile and gave me a kiss goodbye. Ten minutes from our front door, though, I got a call on my cell phone and his sweet, sad voice said, “Mommy, I miss you! I want you to come home to be with me.”
I put him off temporarily while I got Toby settled at his activity and lined up an afternoon playdate and rides for him to and from Hebrew school. I talked to my very understanding friends and suddenly it didn’t feel at all indulgent to rush back to him, to pull him into my lap.
On the face of it, Ben is looking fine. He’s moving more smoothly, having far less pain. But, I knew that I needed to go home. I called him back up. He was more cheerful, being brave and putting off his anxieties about being separated from me. He and Mark had worked something out with the computer. He told me, “You can go to work, Mom. It’s ok. I’ll be ok.” And I thought, he can hide in that, yes, that could work to free me up to take care of my obligations.
But I countered that with the voicemail I’d just listened to from my boss at Hebrew school and her emphatic understanding for my last minute cancelation of music. I countered that with the voicemail I’d just listened to which he’d left on my phone the night before: “I need you to help me cry, Mama,” he’d said. “I need you to come home.”
I’ve always been the caretaker of the emotional territory in our marriage. It’s something we’re both conscious of. Mark is amazing and talented and very sensitive and generous. But he’s also someone who routinely dismisses physical and emotional ailments of his own or someone else’s. It’s not hostile, it’s a level of consciousness. And it’s not a male/female thing. Harry and Toby are much more outwardly emotional, like I am, than Mark and Ben. So having Mark tending to Ben when Ben is feeling emotionally broken didn’t feel right to me. Not that harm will come, mind you. No harm would come.
“Ben, if you were a baby, I’d stay home and nurse you, if that was what you needed to feel safe. It’s ok, no one at Hebrew school needs me more than you need me right now.”
"Thank you, Mama." He actually thanked me.
And so, I went home. Mark met me in the driveway, he was stuffing the back of the truck with a load to take to the dump. “I don’t think you needed to come home,” he said. “I know you don't,” I said. “But I did."