My son, Brian, has been complaining. The ribs along his left side hurt him. The pain seems to come and go, but is severe enough to bring tears sometimes. We don’t think much of it at first. Don’t feel the need to sharpen our fear. Basketball season has started. Perhaps he has pulled a muscle?
One week goes by. Three. He’s still complaining, and I make an appointment with the doctor. She performs a number of manipulations along his ribs and back. I watch her fingers as she traces the distinct curve of Brian’s spine. It’s a deviant configuration — a dragon twisted around his future.
Okay, give me a moment. The word is still hanging in the air around me, lingering in my ears.
My son is laughing and joking with the doctor. He has no idea what the trailing line of her hand means to baseball playing and running. How it explains why he fell so often when he was younger, tripping over a too-long leg and turning his knee inward to compensate.
I’ve watched him grow into this.
“Doesn’t his left leg look smaller to you?” I asked friends and family.
“Why does he run flat-footed?” I pondered aloud, half-hearted and unwilling to hear anything like this answer. I should have done something. Did I drink a glass of wine before I knew I was pregnant? Why didn’t I know?
“This is showing up now because he is in such an intense growth spurt,” explains the doctor.
She smiles at my son, who looks at me with a flicker of nervousness in his eyes. His confidence teeters, like most eight-year-old boys. He wants to appear cool, but longs for me to gather him up in my arms, stroke his hair, sing his favorite song.
I bite the inside of my cheek. “Stay focused,” I tell myself. “Keep it together.”
So I think of broccoli. Mundane, everyday, safe-in-the-kitchen broccoli. I concentrate on it with Lamaze-like ferocity, as I stare at Brian’s shoes lying on top of one another on the floor. I hold my game face, smiling, no tears or visible terror over this news. I pull my brain into tight circles of thought, not wanting it to spiral outward in panic. Worst case scenarios threaten to play over and over like terminal deja vu. Does preparing for the worst make the merely bad seem so much better?
Broccoli. Beady little unopened blossom tops. When it’s raw, there is just a whisper of silver in its color. Blanche it for two seconds and it turns an impossible, vibrant green.
My son will start physical therapy tomorrow.
I can see, with perfect clarity, the way broccoli grows in the garden — how certain things won’t grow next to it.
Brian will have to wear a brace if his back deviates a mere three percent beyond its current curvature.
Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable. I imagine parades of broccoli stalks — a dancing forest of little green trees.
The doctor lines my son up on the examining table and points to his bent knees. I cling to daydreams of green, trying hard to minimize the significance of the half-inch difference in the length of Brian’s legs. His ribs hurt because the position of his spine is forcing them together on the left side.
Broccoli is nice with lemon and salt. It goes so well with chicken.
We go straight from the doctor’s office to the hospital for a full x-ray. When we get there, I hold Brian’s hand because he is seeing gray people wheeled around on gurneys and it scares him.
His mask of eight-year-old coolness is wearing thin. What was that stupid joke about doorbells and scientists? I never remember jokes when I need them.
I hold broccoli in my head to keep me from gulping in this black tide.
I count on thoughts of crunchy stir-fry to stop the tears that want to flow. I breathe deeply for both of us.
I go to that place of denial — that safe haven everyone uses in between shock and despair.
When the therapist sees him, we will know more. Tomorrow. Thursday. It will be a better day for bad news. On Thursday, we will know how much his life will change, and I will remember how to spell hope.
Until then, I’ll drive Brian to school, eat lunch, fold laundry. And later on, at suppertime, I’ll cook a mountain of broccoli.