MICHAEL P. MORAN
Faith and Miracles
That cold shock of hot pain blinds, disorients, frenzies the heart so the eyes and ears throb to the same accelerating siren—life hurts, life hurts, life hurts.
My earliest fear-stained memories have nothing to do with ghosts or demons or creaking floors behind flimsy locked closet doors. They're half-recalled acts of self-destruction, word associations of seemingly innocuous causes and unforgettable effects. Car door, crushed fingers; bike ramp, skinned knees and elbows; katana blade, sliced thigh; oil slick, cracked skull. That which did not kill me did chill me like an injection of embalming fluid to the right carotid artery. How quick we are to deny our injuries, our faults, the potential consequences of what we’ve done. But that whisper of, How bad could it really be? gives breath to the ghost of uncertainty, conjuring the fear of what we suspect, of the answer that haunts us—it’s worse than you think. Fear is a scalding baton we fumble until relieved by more capable hands.
My father’s hands, secure but calloused, were not those hands. Monday through Saturday in grocery departments throughout the five boroughs, he worked. He learned of my pains only if my mother later served them with a dinner of hot dogs and baked beans.
“Stitches?” he’d ask while flipping through The New York Post, sipping his Coke.
It was my mother’s hands—cracked as they were from the cleaning solutions at the restaurant and the endless nights at home scrubbing dishes piled in the sink by her brood of five—that smoothed band-aids on holes, scrapes, and slices and ran cold water over my aching bloody skull.
“Breathe honey. Breathe,” and she’d blow on the bubbling peroxide, the breath of life restored.
Parents know when their kids hurt themselves the stern lectures can wait. No need to dog-pile guilt on injury. Children know better than their adult role models when the blame falls completely on their narrow awkward shoulders. I, admittedly, as a younger man, performed acts ranging from careless to suicidal. Each mark to the body dog-eared a new lesson, carved the parameters of my future choices (if I could survive to apply that hard-earned wisdom).
I no longer fling my whole body into my bad decisions. I heal slower, hurt longer. Yet I continue to injure myself. The skin on my shins resembles a botched transplant, discolored and raised, stories in brail of poorly-swung hatchets and hurried missteps over obstacles in the garage. Minus the select locations where surgeons undid me then stitched me, I own all of my scars. But as I rub the vitamin D on the purpled seam above my daughter’s left eyebrow, I realize my own scabbed and healed blemishes are not mine free and clear. My mother cosigned for those petite tragedies, and I wonder if she occasionally scratches the itch of my scars, too.
I heard and felt (and continue to hear and feel) her injury more than I saw it. This was our second year camping at North South Lake in Haines Falls, New York. We reserved the same two campsites as the year prior. The first year, perhaps because it was the first, was a success by all accounts. Cool mornings, warm afternoons, cold nights by the fire, gorgeous views, delicious meals, deep sleeps. But this second outing was slightly different. More rain, more time huddled beneath canopies during downpours. More people, more adults saying “No.” More cousins to play with, more bodies to account for, especially near the creek. That was the obvious fear, any child three to six-years old slipping on some rain-slicked stone and drowning in a creek puddle too shallow for mosquitoes to spawn, slipping and banging and cracking their gigantic heads on slate slabs jutting out from the staggered banks. Oh, how easy children break—at least in the cinematic horror show featured throughout all of parenthood.
Other fears surfaced too, the fears of creatures lurking in the tall grass, the things that suck, the others that bite. Nearly every piece of this verdant heaven was armed with teeth or tapered proboscis with which to feast on our blood.
Back from a hike on the second day, in the security of the campsites, we granted the pack of four children liberty to explore anywhere within our sightline. Such a false sense of security, as known by any car accident fatality that gave up the ghost just a mile from home.
Our daughter was running to me, carrying a message light and sweet: Do you want coffee before dinner? She ran with her older cousin in tow, that closeness without touching, that need to be near. Emotional connection demonstrated through physical proximity. I watched her turn from me, prepared to carry my answer: Yes, I’ll have coffee. Cream, no sweetener. Not too much to carry. The kids enjoyed playing couriers between the two campsites. It was their way of being helpful. Transform play into service, feel a part of the greater buzz of work, of purpose.
What an unnatural, hollow sound for a living thing to make. The thud of her head against the exposed root pulsed above the trees (or perhaps it just lodged itself between my ears and ricocheted around my skull like a rabid squirrel trapped in an attic). During the pause of a single aborted breath, there was no blood. She lifted her head from the debris, that spongey cushion of earth comprised of moss and pine blankets beneath leaves turned to dirt by time.
When children fall, they look to their parents, not for immediate help, but for their cue. Not for a hand getting up nor for band-aids and kisses on booboos, but because the jolt of gravity to which we’re all slaves scared their sphincters shut, and they want to know if it’s okay to unclench now. They want an objective analysis of this event that to them could’ve very well been Death stopping by for a visit. Am I dead? They ask without words. Am I going to die? Their trembling eyes want to know. It’s why so many parents when they swoop down and hook their hands in their toddlers’ armpits sing, You’re okay. Awwww, you’re okay. Whoopsie. All better. Then they scoop up the cause of all their swollen heart pride and coronary spasms. Get the kids breathing and laughing, and you can prevent the tears that further the fear that produces more tears ad infinitum, or at least until an ice pack and lollipop cure all.
Her eyes locked with mine when she lifted her head. She telepathically asked, Am I okay? My brain fired no response. Instinct told me to flip over every chair, picnic table, and relative standing between her and me. But fatherhood patience insisted I hold.
Hold. Overreact now and the whole night will oscillate between laughing while eating s’mores and consoling with cuddles in a camping cot much too narrow for two bodies.
Hold. She may lift her face and spit out a laugh at herself for tripping. Her cousin will knock the pine needles from her pants and the leaves from her hair. One big oops and a slight bump, not reduced in size, but soothed significantly by children’s Tylenol and vanilla ice cream.
Hold. Do nothing until she gives the sign. Follow her lead.
She donned the expression of absolute confusion. Life, until this moment, had been a rather pleasant affair. Every new sensation, save those jabs and pricks at the doctor’s office, had been a new measure of joy. Her face was that of an illiterate failing to comprehend the suffering in a Kafka novel. Were she older, exposed to more of life’s pains, she would have been better-read in the experiences that make us loathe our human frailty. Thus learned, she would know when your scalp from a three-inch jagged wound fireworks red warmth, and that gushing river of life cascades into your left eye and hugs the ravine of your not-yet-developed nasal arch before flooding your mouth agape with disbelief, you should, to the ground beneath you and to the sky above, cry out the single cacophonous syllable. That one sound hollered since the seventeenth century. Through every war where humans, pierced and broken, bled; atop every roof where nails penetrated flesh and hammers flattened thumbs; in every hospital corridor where parents learned all their love and wealth and precautions could not prevent what they feared most.
But she didn’t know that word. So when her face opened, tears and blood and the primordial AHHHHHHHH gushed out.
Miracles happen when your child suffers a head wound. The drunk are made sober; the slow, quick. No matter how tired you are from splitting wood in the morning and hiking before and after lunch, your limbs refuse to admit their limitations. Distance between her and you is reduced to a suggestion you choose to ignore. Legs fling out from under you, hiking boots drop into moss and leaves like unshod hooves and dig out chunks of earth with each manic gallop. Reach her. Reach her. Reach her. That’s the heart’s war cry, isn’t it? To reach her, to be next to her when she needs you, to destroy everything on this planet in a single violent gesture or through minor apocalyptic acts if they mean saving her.
The miracle of inches. A little lower and she could have broken her ocular cavity or lost an eye. And how would we have responded to that horror? I didn’t see my wife’s response. Didn’t see my father’s or my brother-in-law’s response, though both were sitting next to me watching baked potatoes wrapped in tin foil burn instead of cook. I didn’t see my niece’s response though she and my daughter were in the same frame of vision. I saw only my daughter. Even as I ran to her, I saw her alone. My heart ripped the superfluous world to wads of irrelevance and jammed them in my ears.
I cradled her. I pressed her so close to my body hoping for I knew not what. That my chest could somehow stanch the bleeding? That I could hide her from everyone else, thinking maybe if no one sees her injury it isn’t real? Thinking affection after the fact could trigger a Kal-El emotional reaction and undo the needlework of time that crocheted this bloody image? But thoughtless instinct wouldn’t stop the blood. Since I secured the role of consoler, my wife accepted the much more difficult responsibility of diagnostic investigator. How bad is it? The skin flap hung limp. The marbled fat of her flesh showed through. Stitches it is.
Napkins. Ice. Pressure. Make a left outside the campgrounds. Half an hour drive.
We were the light. Hugging the winding descent through Kaaterskill Wild Forest at dusk, en route to the Catskill Urgent Care facility before they closed for the evening, we emitted a blue light from the car’s interior.
“Everyone likes beans on toast,” so said narrator John Sparkes as the Pedro the Pony episode of Peppa Pig rolled through the denouement to the end credits. The anthropomorphic cartoon characters were camping outside Pedro’s house, sleeping that night like cowboys.
Maybe the screen light was bad for what she had, but we were desperate. Keep her conscious. The blood stopped, but she was groggy.
“Love, don’t go to sleep, okay? Don’t sleep.”
“How old are you baby?” my wife asked from the driver seat.
“Five,” she said without moving her lips.
“Who is the president?” I asked in her ear.
“Ugh, Donald Trump.”
We were desperate to reduce the half-hour drive without overcorrecting the steering wheel and adding to the splotches of car paint streaked against the metal road guards. More desperate to avoid the sedan’s wheels skidding and launching the whole family over the ledge to a forty-foot drop. Something told us it wouldn’t be like the cartoons where Wile E. Coyote reflects momentarily before gravity engages.
We barely spoke the whole ride.
That stillness in the car was the absence of power. As we wended down the mountain toward the urgent care facility, we were doing all we could. My wife drove. I sat in the backseat holding the compress to our daughter’s wound. Back at the campsite, my mother was praying for all of us, and I could understand that. She was even more powerless than we were—powerless to protect, powerless to heal, powerless to bring help to us or us to help. That silence in the car was the void many would have filled with God. It’s the same void created when the buck pauses right before the bullet strikes and its lungs fray and life froths out in the tall grass.
The void is the fear of death, what made Jesus’s fingers tremble in the garden.
In the void we drove, the light in the car increasing its intensity as the world outside succumbed to night. But once we entered Catskill Urgent Care next to the Walgreens, another miracle happened—we could speak and joke and laugh.
All urgent care workers know this to be true: the most challenging case of the day crosses the threshold minutes before closing. The nurse laid out our options: if our daughter could sit through the stitching, they could fix her up right there. A jagged wound would make for a gnarly scar. If we wanted something neater, aesthetically pleasing, we’d have to visit the plastic surgeons in Albany. If she couldn’t sit still long enough for them to complete the stitches, we’d have to travel forty minutes to Albany anyway where the nurses would strap her torso, limbs, and head to the gurney.
We put our faith in our daughter and the nurse and the doctor. We relieved our burden onto the professionals, and they blended medical care with a necessary human touch. They told stories about their injuries as kids and what shirts they stained with their own blood. They freed us to be our daughter’s parents again. They placed the sterile sheet over our daughter’s head and injected her scalp with the local anesthetic. We ducked under the sheet with her because that’s what parents do. They meet their children where they are so they can lead them where they need to be.
“Mommy, I want this check-up to be over now. I don’t want this check-up anymore.”
“I know,” my wife said. “Breathe with me, bub.”
And then the miracle of local anesthesia kicked in. She was calm, and we joked, and she laughed. The doctor squirted water in the wound, and I suggested it was toilet water. Though she was scared, our daughter screamed,
“Daddy, you’re silly. You’re silly.”
The doctor prescribed ice cream for the next few days, and we offered to feed it to the newly-stitched scalp wound.
Our daughter has some notions of God based on what her friends have said, and we’ve answered questions when she has them, but she doesn’t pray or speak to a higher power. She turned to us for a response. She had faith in us, and we had faith in the doctor and nurse. And that criss-crossing faith closed the void.
During the ride back to the campsite, we watched videos and ate popcorn and marveled at the nearly-full moon hung over the valley, shining in the darkness. We showered upon return. Around the fire that night, the trauma and the shock finally caught up to us and sunk us in our camping chairs. Limbs heavy and sluggish. Minds silent as the stars above us. We stubbornly chewed cold barbecued pork. Though our daughter bled, we all felt drained. Our brother-in-law did all he could do and cracked open the whisky. Our daughter cuddled with us close to the fire, nodding off, regaining consciousness, and when her breath steadied in those long exhales of sleep, we drank straight from the bottle of Fireball and cried and breathed life with her.