My son hates to have his teeth brushed or his nails trimmed. Each is a struggle that results in violent cries and tears; both require that he be pinned down, either between my legs or with someone else holding him while I do the job. I have learned that the best place to do either is in his car seat, while he’s strapped in. And so I trim my son’s nails and brush his teeth in the parking lot of his school, the theory here being that since he loves school, no matter how hard he screams he will recover, knowing that he is on his way into the classroom. “It’s okay, Evan,” I’ll tell him, as I snip at his nails or shove the toothbrush in his mouth, “as soon as you’re done we’re going to see Mr. Chase” (or Miss Myrna or Miss Lesley or Miss Kami or Miss Judy, depending on which day it is and which service provider’s turn it is with him.). I have yet to be questioned about this Draconian abuse; most assume that if I am the mother, I can’t be hurting him too awfully. Most assume that there must be a purpose to my cruelty, snipping off those nails while he’s strapped in, brushing his baby teeth around those awful cries.
I’m not sure when and how I developed the talent to pin my son down and endure these terrible moments; in the hospital, certainly, during the six months after he was born and I witnessed IV pokes and arterial cut downs and extubations and reintubations. From the pediatrician, too, who has to immobilize Evan with his thick forearms during examinations. I remember one dentist teaching me the more sophisticated technique of holding his head between my legs and pinning his legs between my own. “That’s how to get his teeth brushed,” the man told me. “And you can do it all by yourself!” What I do know is this: when it’s time to put Evan into a human straight jacket, mama knows best.
One day, a few weeks ago, I snipped a bit of Evan’s pinky finger along with his nail, precision being a tricky thing with a child who is professionally squirming out of one’s grasp. In a flash, the blood trailed down his hand, all the way to his forearm. I got him into the classroom and enlisted the help of his teacher in applying a band aid. The cries that began with the nail clipping only grew worse once the band aid was on. I consoled him as best I could, then left for work.
Half an hour later, the phone rang. “Evan’s in the nurse’s office. He took his band aid off and his finger’s bleeding and we need you to come put it back on.”
“You need me to do what?”
“We’re afraid to do it ourselves. He’s so upset. We don’t want to get him angrier.”
Back at school, I explained to the nurse, who knows Evan but who typically hands over duties like this to me, how to immobilize my son. “You put his legs between yours like this, then clamp down his hands like this, then strap your legs across his chest like this….” When I was done, and the band aid reapplied, I looked into the nurse’s eyes and said, “Now you know how I do it. Now you’ll be able to do it yourself.”
“Sure,” she said, but on her face I could see what she really thought. No way am I ever pinning a child down like that. I could lose my job.
I have become a master at motherly acts that go beyond brave: I can shove medicine into my son’s clamped mouth; pin him down for any task, from doctor’s appointments to teeth-brushing; ignore his cries in the middle of the night when I know there is no consoling him, when I have already tried and failed. The memories of my older, typical daughter taking a fall or crying in the middle of the night are like phantom ghosts, pale shadows of the bravery I now know. I have seen my son into nearly a dozen surgical rooms, heard from specialists that he will never see, that he very well might not talk, that his seizure disorder has the potential for devastating outcomes. I have learned to hear it all, and to do it all. And now, rarely, does my heart even stop. I pin him down, I change the band aid, and not once do I stop to think about what I have learned to do.
But I also learned that bravery is impossible without fear, and that in so many ways these two qualities are inextricably bound. From the day Evan was born I have been faced with primordial fear: of his future, of all those surgeries, the hard facts of his disability. Of how my life has changed. I bless the truths these fears have taught me, the friends I have gained along the way and the courage I have learned. But the fears are still there, frequent, just a hair’s breath beyond the bravery. For every moment I muster the strength to pin my son down, there is another moment when my breath catches in my throat and I recognize that fear.
Fear that the doctors might be right, or that I will always be the only one strong enough to trim his nails, brush his teeth and change the band aid. That some day even my own strength and bravery won’t be enough. Fear of my son’s future, of the day our beautiful, typical daughter leaves the house for college and my husband and I are alone, in the quiet, with our son.
If I am the bearer of pain to my son in the form of toothbrush and nail clippers, my husband provides the joy. He loves to play bongos with Evan, who giggles with him in these nightly drum sessions as loudly as he cries with me in the morning over the tooth brush. One night, while Evan laughed and my husband drummed, I shared with him this fear of being alone with Evan, with Josie gone. Of how it might exaggerate for me the reality of Evan’s disabilities.
“I will be so sad when Josie leaves, and it’s just you, me, and Evan.”
“You mean, you, me, Evan, and the bongos.”
“I guess . . . ”
Cliff drummed louder, and Evan laughed hard. “Listen to that,” my husband said. “You won’t be sad. You’ll be happy.”
I hope my husband is right, and that I will be happy when it’s just him, me, Evan, and the bongos. Right now I don’t feel very brave about that inevitable day. But in my time as Evan’s mother I have come to learn that like fear, which can sometimes feel endless, bravery has a way of showing its own boundless nature too.