We were in the emergency room because my 1-year-old daughter had burned her hand on some oven-baked mashed potatoes. It was 2009. Norah was on my lap, her small hand red and blistered, short brown hair curling just a bit on the end, her face red and flustered and heartbreaking. Her long, deep cries had softened to sorrowful sounds.
Across from me was a nurse with brown hair and blue scrubs. I was holding Norah’s burned hand out for her to examine, but the little girl was fighting, and I couldn’t tell if she was afraid the nurse would hurt her more, or if she just didn’t want to show a stranger what happened. What I do know is that I felt a deep sorrow in the pit of my stomach when I looked at her small blistering hand, and I had a difficult time fully understanding the emotion.
I think it had something to do with the fact that I didn’t have a great relationship with my parents. My father left when I was 9. My mother has been married three times, and my father died divorcing his fourth wife. As a child, I bounced between my mother, father, and grandmother. I have a slew of step-siblings who have come in and out of my life over the years. I’d always seen family as a temporary thing. Until I a became a parent, I didn’t really know what family meant. I never knew that nothing hurts more than watching someone I love feel pain.
Two hours before we visited the hospital, we were about to have dinner as a family. At the time, we were living in Minnesota. Mel and I were both 26, and I was in graduate school. Mel was trying a new recipe for buttery baked mashed potatoes. They were cooked at 450 degrees, and most of the evening they smelled wonderful. Mel set the pan of potatoes on the table and then scooped some into a bowl so they could cool. Norah was in the high chair, and Mel set everything on the opposite side of the table, well out of reach. Norah reached out for the bowl of potatoes, and Tristan, her 3-year-old doting brother, slid the bowl across the table to his little sister.
Mel and I both saw it happen, and we both reacted, but just not fast enough.
Norah stuck her hand into the bowl. She let out a long cry and held out her hand.
I know my children’s cries. I know whey they are crying for attention, I know when they are crying because of injustice, and I know when they are crying because of a scuffed knee. But I’d never heard anything quite like the way Norah cried after burning her hand. It was both deep and high. It was filled with panic and sorrow. It was a mix of tones and pitches, and it set off something inside me that I couldn’t explain. Never in my life have I wanted so badly to reach inside and take away someone’s pain. I never want to hear that sound again.
We rinsed Norah’s hand off in warm water, called a nurse hotline, and were advised to take Norah to the emergency room. This was our first visit to the emergency room with a child. At the time, I recall assuming that Tristan would be the first to make a visit. He was the rambunctious boy in the family, but instead, it was Norah, our chubby-faced, soft-mannered little girl.
We were in the waiting room for some time, with Norah on her mother’s lap, snuggled into Mel’s chest whimpering, her hand folded down into a hook shape. It was bright red and sad, and by the time we made it into the emergency room, I was a mess of emotions. I wondered if her hand would be permanently scarred. I wondered how long her recovery would be. I worried about her like I’d never worried about anyone in my life.
I told our story to the nurse in ums and ohs. I over-explained and asked a lot of questions as I spoke. I have to assume that I sounded like a nervous wreck.
The nurse listened. She told us things like this happen. She told a story of when her young son was burned on a fireplace. A doctor came in. He was dark-haired with a large midsection. He examined the hand, recommended it be cleaned and covered with ointment and wrapped. He said she would heal up in a few weeks.
Then the nurse had me hold Norah’s small tender fist, so she could clean it and cover it in burn cream. Norah let out the same deep horrible cry she did when the accident first happened, and suddenly something crept up inside me. It was a mix of sorrow, regret, frustration, and anger, and it felt like a ball of heat crawling into my throat. Once it got there, it rested deep and heavy just below my jaw.
When my father died seven years earlier, I didn’t cry. I didn’t know him well enough to cry. I didn’t cry when I permanently injured my knee at a concert. I didn’t cry when I got married, or when my children were born. At the time, I couldn’t remember the last time I cried. But there, in that emergency room, as the nurse treated my 1-year-old daughter’s burned little hand, I cried.
I finally understood what it meant to really care for someone.