The scar that was once an ugly, pulpy red is now simply a shiny ridge of pale pink arching below my eyebrow. Only a careful observer would even notice. But I will always know it’s there. If I press my fingertips against it, I can feel the ropey layers of collagen that formed over the wound, sealing me back together. In this small and tangible way, I am different now.
“What happened?” asked the triage nurse in the emergency room, dabbing gently at my brow to keep the blood out of my eye. The swelling was starting to inflate the right side of my face. The nurse glanced from my husband sitting next to me, to my grown daughter and her partner hovering in the doorway. It’s tough to faze an ER nurse.
What happened? I fell from a tightrope I’d been walking for 26 years.
Three days earlier, I had gotten a call from my 26-year-old daughter. Since her move to San Francisco, she’d been calling me every morning as she walked to the train on her way to work. I treasured those ten-minute blocks of time, when I could hear her moving purposefully through her world, half out of breath, telling me about her weekend volunteer work, or the L-Word watch party she attended with her partner, or the talk she might give at a tech conference. On this particular Friday morning, I was readying the house for her arrival; she and her partner were to board a red-eye that evening and come for Christmas. I answered the phone with a smile in my voice, holding it with my shoulder as I smoothed the covers on the guest bed.
But there was no smile on the other end of the line, no breathless striding along the streets of the Mission District. Instead, her voice was choked with tears. She’d been to the doctor a few days before—a cluster of vague symptoms she attributed to the stress of moving across country, starting a new job. The doctor ordered bloodwork, and when the results came back, my daughter’s phone rang at four in the morning: she needed to go to the hospital immediately.
Her blood sugar was so high they’d checked it twice in the lab. “This must feel really scary,” I murmured into the phone, willing my voice not to shake. “But you’re going to the hospital, and they’re going to figure it out. It’s going to be okay.” I was already angry with myself, the oblivious mother who had answered the phone with that sing-song “Hel-lo!” How could I not have sensed my child’s suffering across the miles; how could I have been so ignorant, so out of step?
After we hung up, I remembered what I should have said and texted: “Good for you for listening to your body and going to the doctor when you knew something was wrong!” And then: “I love you! Keep me updated!” But soon my daughter and her partner were in the bowels of the hospital, and my texts went unanswered.
Part of me, fueled by maternal hysteria, wanted to rush to the airport and fly to her side. But as I paced and waited for news, I realized that my desire to be with her was rooted more in simple love than parental instinct. I was no longer a mama bear storming in to protect her cub. My cub was grown; she could protect herself. As I waited for news that day, I clung to the quiet certainty, as real and solid as a river-smoothed stone, that my daughter—and her partner who loved her so deeply and so well—could handle whatever the day had in store.
A diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, as it turned out. For several hours, while they waited for test results and a visit from the diabetes education team, their chance of making a flight that night faded like a mirage. “I just want to get out of this hospital and come home,” her texts pleaded.
And I flashed to another hospital, 26 years earlier, my own voice pleading, “I just want to take my baby home.” I was perched on a rocking chair, still bruised and bleeding from childbirth, my daughter curled against my breast, nursing sleepily. The fluorescent lights of the special-care nursery were giving me a headache, and my whole body was sore from sitting upright since dawn in this cold room. My daughter had been here nearly her whole five-day life, ever since she was whisked away after birth with an irregular heartbeat and lackluster breathing. Group B strep and jaundice had kept her here, an IV port taped to her tiny arm, ultraviolet lights bathing her in an eerie glow.
I had to wait thirteen hours after her birth to hold her. I wasn’t allowed to get up, something about hemorrhage risk, so instead I frantically called the nursery for updates, ringing my call button for a wheelchair. “I’m breastfeeding,” I reminded the nurses. “Please don’t give her a bottle.” No one cared about my birth plan or my concerns about the importance of colostrum. Under the guise of protecting my baby’s health, my preferences were summarily ignored.
It didn’t help that I was a teenager.
After a few days, they discharged me from the hospital, but not my baby. “I’m not going anywhere,” I told them. But the nurses explained that parents weren’t allowed in the nursery overnight. They kicked me out at midnight. “Go home and rest,” they said, voices dripping with patronizing disdain. “She’s in good hands.” I struggled with the hospital breast pump and left carefully labeled bottles full of thick, yellowish milk in the nursery fridge. I returned at 6 a.m. to find they’d given her formula anyway. And again the next morning.
By now, she was five days old, and the jaundice had cleared. Still, they wouldn’t let her come home. “She needs IV antibiotics for the strep,” the nurses explained. Then I heard them whispering. It wasn’t quite so simple. She could go home, as long as they were sure I would bring her back for antibiotic injections. Could they trust me?
To be fair, I was 18. In my shorts and worn-out t-shirt, my ballpoint-decorated sneakers, I wasn’t the picture of parental reliability. But over the past few days, in this room, I had changed into a mother. The very cells in my body had been rearranged, my internal compass re-magnetized, aligned with a new True North. I had entered this hospital a scared pregnant teenager, but that wasn’t who I was now. These nurses had witnessed my transformation.
When the doctor came in, I listened to them plead my case—the same nurses who had initially ignored and dismissed me. The girl who had dragged her ravaged self downtown on a city bus at sunrise to be at the hospital for her baby’s next feeding could be trusted, they argued, to complete her child’s course of antibiotics. They were right.
“They’re releasing me!!” my daughter texted, joy and relief shining through her messages. “I have a prescription for insulin, and they showed me what to do, and we’re going to try and make the flight!” Now she was the one who had proved to the doctors that she could be trusted with her own care. Twelve hours later, she was in my arms.
Over the next few days, we tried to find our footing in this new world. She tested her blood sugar before every meal and before bed, administering units of insulin accordingly. We learned a new language, of carbs and glucose and highs and lows. Again and again, she turned down beloved sweets, her face stricken. We filled the fridge with kale. “Good thing I like veggies!” she said gamely.
The day before Christmas Eve, I wandered into the hall bathroom in my pajamas, idly chatting with my daughter about plans for the next day. She already seemed like a pro as she fitted a test strip into her glucose monitor and pricked her finger.
And then—”Shit.” I leaned over to look at the reading. “Oh, shit.” And she started to cry.
“If it’s that high, you’re supposed to go to the ER?” I willed my voice to sound calm. “Maybe, I don’t know, I’m supposed to call.” She’d been holding it together—we all had—moving forward hour by hour, pretending that this diagnosis wasn’t devastating. She’d been defiantly keeping her calendar of social engagements and holiday celebrations, wrapping presents, even decorating a gingerbread house with little candy shapes she couldn’t eat.
But no amount of defiance could change the number on the monitor.
While we waited for the doctor to call back, we strategized, testing her blood sugar again, assuring her that going to the ER wasn’t a big deal.
But somehow, as I was trying to put solid ground beneath our feet, I lost my own footing entirely. One moment I realized that I felt light-headed, the next I was lying on the tile floor, my daughter’s arms around me, the mist of a vivid dream dissolving into utter confusion. How had I gotten onto the floor? Why was my daughter rubbing my arm with that look on her face? And why did I keep hearing the word blood?
When my daughter graduated from college and we had her degree framed, we joked about doing a photo shoot: me holding my master’s degree, her with her BA, both of us flipping the bird to everyone who thought we couldn’t do it—a hearty fuck you to the people who were certain that success and higher education were never going to be part of our futures. But as fun and irreverent as that sounded, something in the idea left a bitter taste on my tongue. Because, while we did beat the odds, it wasn’t without help. And despite their surprise at our triumphs, every single person in our lives wanted us to succeed. They were just filled with doubt. Who could blame them?
But I’d had no room for doubt. If you step onto a tightrope, you must proceed with total confidence. You can’t think about the empty space below, the narrowness of the wire. Eyes straight ahead. For 26 years. My baby is going to be okay.
Because if you look down, if you realize how little control you have, if you think about how a simple breath of wind can cause everything you thought was solid to waver… you’ll fall.
I had fainted, falling hard against the tiled wall of the bathroom on my way down. I hit the wall with the side of my face, and the force of the collision split the skin above my right eye. Blood looks dramatic against white porcelain tile. I tried to sit up, but quickly decided that lying down felt better. Half an hour later, we all piled into the car for the emergency room: my husband driving, me holding ice tenderly against my face, my daughter cradling her backpack full of diabetes supplies, and her partner holding her hand and soothing us all.
So when the triage nurse asked me what happened, I started with, “Well, a few days ago, my daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes . . .” The nurse turned to my daughter in the doorway. “How’s your sugar now? Are you registering too?”
The four of us sat in the ER waiting room, punchy from adrenaline. We cracked jokes and made up stories about the other patrons. “You knew I was uncomfortable with all the attention,” my daughter smirked. “Very kind of you to provide a distraction.” At one point, loud music erupted from a Bluetooth speaker tucked into a discarded jacket, the waiting room banding together in mirth as we sought the source. The sparse holiday decorations—a single snowflake hanging from the ceiling, a small snowman marooned on a vast expanse of glass—lent the space an absurdist air. It was the strangest double date ever. But our laughter was helping to give structure and shape to my world again. I didn’t feel woozy anymore. I’d found my footing.
On advice from her San Francisco doctor, my daughter retested her sugar in the ER restroom. It had dropped back to an acceptable number. She and her partner went home. My husband and I waited through the CAT scan (no concussion), EKG (strong and steady), and tetanus shot (ouch). My husband tapped out melodies on his synthesizer app to make me smile, and we kept murmuring different versions of, “I’m just so glad her sugar went down, so glad she’s okay,” like a benediction of gratitude. The clock ticked past 3:00 a.m. “Merry Christmas Eve,” we said.
When the doctor finally came in to deal with the laceration, he prodded at the cut, indecisive. Stitches or glue? Which would hold the wound closed long enough for it to heal? Which would leave the least noticeable scar?
I blinked at the doctor, uncomprehending. What was this about scars? My daughter’s belly was already marred by bruises—splotches of red and purple from the injections of insulin keeping her alive. I would do anything to take away her bruises, spread them over my own body instead. But my cub is grown; she can protect herself.
I fell from a tightrope I’d been walking for 26 years, but it wasn’t my tightrope to walk anymore. My cells have been rearranged. Of course it left a scar.
3 replies on “Tightrope”
Laura, what a pleasure it is to read this piece! Beautifully written, and the sense of who you are and where you’re coming from is so real I feel like we’re already friends. You made me smile and gave me courage. Thank you!
I particularly enjoyed how you wrote about your birthing and new mom experience. Joining the past and present experiences of worry, anxiety, faith, and hope in your mothering were impactful. There is lovely symmetry with the overt and suggested symbolism of scars.