The role of parent is an awesome job. Children expect a lot from their parents. Parents help mold the jelling minds of babies, train developing muscles to perform growing tasks, and offer guidance on the rights and wrongs of modern day society. Parents are the foundation from which children leap. Children rely on their parents to remain calm and predictable. Parents are a blanket of security that children depend on.
A job description should accompany expecting parent’s first ultrasound picture. I entered the parenting workforce at a young age, ill-equipped. All of my children have taught me vital aspects about life: love, laughter, patience, perseverance and strength to name a few. Many of the lessons were unexpected and sometimes difficult to grasp. My middle son, Jay, is an intelligent young man capable of fighting the tough battles. Teaching me strength was one of his charges, which he decided to teach me over a cup of tea.
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Every morning my mother brews a cup of tea. She pours boiling water over a tea bag that rests in her favorite mug. Today was no exception to the rule. The pot on the stove is boiling, droplets of hot water jumping out to find cool shelter. The mug she chose for today says #1 NANA in red. Aaron loves to come here, being the first grandchild he has his own room. I am certain he is sprawled across his bed deeply invested in whichever cartoon that is currently airing, which is all I expect from my soon to be four-year old.
Out the corner of my eye, I watch as she places her mug on the counter just out of reach of little fingers. At this moment, no one person or thing has my full undivided attention. Aaron is contently pacifying himself; mom is running through her routine, preparing for work, I am tinkering with my new video camera, keeping the other eye on Jay.
Jay, my 16 month old is filled with confidence and natural toddler inquisitiveness. He is exploring his grandmother’s kitchen as if he were Lewis and Clark on their greatest expedition. This morning his travels take him on a journey from one corner of the small L-shaped kitchen to the other. My seat at the kitchen table is wedged between the table and the wall, giving me a complete view of Jay’s terrain, the perfect perch for watching him discover while I absent-mindedly read this video camera instruction manual.
Jay has recently mastered drinking from a cup without a sippy lid or straw. In the near off distance, my little explorer pulls out the lower kitchen drawer, giving him a better vantage point and a foothold to begin his ascent up the side of the mountain of cabinetry, where he has eyed his prize. I have never experienced life in slow motion until this moment.
Getting up from my chair my legs feel stiff, restricted, I can’t move fast enough. He is reaching for the mug brimming with hot, steaming tea. Jay and I are in the race of our lives, he seeks to quench the thirst of his pioneering body, and I want to save him, need to save his toddler lips from the heat of freshly brewed tea. It’s a tie, his little hand with a firm hold of the handle and my mothering grip over the mug warm from the steam.
I think people underestimate the strength that is packed into the bodies of little people. His hold on the mug is steadfast and I find myself struggling. Jay is pulling the cup in closer to take a sip. I am trying my best to keep all of the liquid inside and wrestle the mug free. I can’t ignore the steam any longer, the mug is tipping and life progresses in snapshots taken by a Polaroid Instamatic, frame by frame. Tea spills over my baby boy initiating his screams and my cry. Dropping the handful of scorching ceramic, I pick up my steamed toddler, take him into the bathroom, peel off his soaked t-shirt and immerse his warm body under a stream of cold water. Putting him in the tub I try to make sure the water reaches all the hot spots. The skin on his back rinses off with the stream of cool relief. I have never seen anything like this. We have to go to the hospital.
Baby boys being burned by hot tea is not covered in Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. What do I do here? He needs medical attention but I can’t put his wet, traumatized, limp noodle body, with a raw back into his car seat. Aaron is standing in the hallway that separates the kitchen from the bathroom watching as I lose my mind.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
The actual ride to Beaumont is a blur. I don’t remember anything except the paramedic asking me why I put Jay in the tub with cold water. I have no idea why. We just spilled hot water on him; cold water should cool him off. Hot is neutralized by cold. Middle school science I guess. I don’t know why I did it, I just did.
Nurses and doctors are all around my baby, looking at him, deciding the best course of action. Two nurses try numerous times to start an IV on my baby. I am getting queasier with each stab. Every attempt was unsuccessful, poke after poke and no good vein. The decision was made to send us to Children’s Hospital.
I refuse to take my eyes off Jay; this ambulance ride from Royal Oak to Downtown is taking longer than any trip I have ever taken downtown. With each mile we travel my son is morphing into someone I don’t know. His little body is swelling; I know his eyes are closed, but his lids are so puffy. The paramedic is trying to ease my mind, saying Jay doesn’t feel anything because his body is in shock.
A nurse is waiting as we pull up. She is smiling, but I don’t know why. I try but I can’t return the obligatory reply. The paramedic recites Jay’s stats. The nurse grabs Jay’s swollen leg, finds a vein and starts an IV as the gurney is being pushed into the hospital. As we enter, Jay’s gurney is escorted left and I am being sent to the right.
Someone, I am not sure who, has walked me to this room across from the nurse’s station. Hours have passed since I have seen Jay. I feel like I have talked to every administrative personnel in this hospital: the burn ward head nurse, the lead doctor over Jay’s case, intake specialist, social worker and hospital chaplain. I know there are a few others but my mind is elsewhere. I keep replaying it over and over in my head. I should have told my mom to take the cup with her.
Here he comes. Two nurses are pushing in a gurney with my baby boy on it. This is not what I was expecting our reunion to be. Jay is mummified, wrapped in gauze and bandages from the waistband of his diaper to the top of his head. Through my silent tears I see two openings for his eyes, a tube in his nose for feeding, according to the nurse, and an IV taped to his arm. The only open skin is on his legs and his now pudgy little hands.
One of the nurses tells me when I am ready I can hold him, but a nurse has to hand him to me. His burns are in the first, second and third degree. He’s retaining fluid because of the burns which makes him weigh double what he weighed two days ago, which she knew because he just had immunizations.
Doctors are keeping him sedated via a morphine drip along with Tylenol 3 around the clock. I vow to stay at his side. I will leave this hospital when Jay is discharged, not a moment before. The decision to stay is both easy and hard to make. I am choosing to sit by his side but I can’t help but to worry about my oldest son Aaron and what he must be thinking. I haven’t seen him in days, I miss him.
There are moments I think he isn’t going to make it. There are moments when doctors warn me that he might not make it. Today, day 20, the doctor sends the hospital chaplain to offer spiritual advice. The chaplain strongly suggests I call Jay’s closest family members and urge them to visit him today.
Jay’s Grammy, Amethia, came in with her sisters and a quilt they made for him. Amethia wraps Jay in his quilt; the sisters all hold hands and pray over my baby. Before leaving, Amethia assures me that everything is going to be fine and not to worry.
Fine. How could everything be fine? How do I not worry? My son has not walked or talked in 20 days. He hasn’t smiled or cried. He hasn’t fed himself, sipped from a cup, or thrown a ball. I haven’t heard the husky sounds of his voice or the pitter patter of his little feet. I haven’t seen Aaron in 17 days; a friend brought him to see me on day three. My boys haven’t played together in 20 days. My son is not my son and has not been my son for 20 days. How can she say everything is going to be fine?
Jay is sound asleep, as he has been for the past 20 nights. I am going to let him sleep the entire night under the quilt his family brought him. My bed, this leather visitor’s chair at the side of his crib is not the greatest for getting rest. I toss and turn, nightly, beside him in my new bed dreaming, more like having nightmares. Most nights I dream about Jay, my Jay, the explorer.
“Ma. Ma. Ma ma ma mama. MA!”
Startled I turn over, look at the crib and there he stands. My little mummy is awake and calling for me, his mommy. Crying, I put one arm around him and use the other hand to buzz for the nurse. I can’t believe after 20 days of silence my baby is awake and talking.
During the rituals of everyday life, three weeks, 21 days, is just a moment. 21 days. Jay was hospitalized for 21 days. I was hospitalized for 21 days. 21 days in a hospital, a children’s hospital is a long time. 21 days in a burn ward, a burn ward for children is unimaginable. Being away from my 4-year-old for 21 days while sleeping in a chair next to my burned, sedated toddler for 21 days lasts a lifetime.
* * *
The road to recovery was long and taxing filled with ointments, bandages and doctor’s appointments but as time passed his burns healed. Although he has a few superficial scars, Jay doesn’t remember the tragic moments of the day. I feel confident in saying that he has healed 100% from his burns.
As for me, I am still in the process of healing. My road to recovery has taken a lot longer to travel. Having my world flipped upside down was difficult to navigate. I went from being the rock of stability for my boys to living in a world of uncertainty.
Somehow, in the moment, I managed to find the strength to rescue my baby and stand by his side not wavering for 21 days. Strength to hold my hand steady when I was too shaky to apply the creams. Strength to pick myself up and carry on even when the doctors were skeptical. Strength to stay mindful that life is precious and can change drastically in an instant.
Something as insignificant as a cup of tea can change the trajectory of your life, can steal a child from the security of your arms. All too often, life is taken for granted. Loved ones, young and old, should be cherished. My boys will tell you that I am overbearing and smothering, but the truth is I know that life is misleading. Something as innocuous as a morning dose of caffeine can prove to be life altering to the unsuspecting curious bystander.