My son is the bravest child I know.
Don’t get me wrong– most kids are infinitely brave, far more fierce than adults when it comes to anticipating pain and accepting the realities of life. I worked as an entertainer at the children’s hospital for a few years before I had babies of my own. I was constantly in awe of the strength of small children, amazed by their simple stoics that was in no way confused with martyrdom.
I watched children set their mouth in determination and take needles and creams and procedures that would make a grown man cry; held tiny hands as they sat and succumbed to whatever needed to be done with little complaint or argument. Children old enough to understand pain and procedure, but young enough to still curl like warm puppies into their mother’s laps, stood and faced things that I can’t bear to think of for the gigantic fear of it– say, a bag of bright yellow toxins designed, simply and morbidly, to kill the cancer cells; hopefully before they destroy healthy tissue– and did it with a resignation that was noble instead of sad and showed not a hint of bitterness.
It’s one thing to watch a child be braver than they should have to be over and over and over again, when they are not your own child, when you haven’t actually had children of your own as yet and have never experienced that massive rush of oxytocin that forever alters the neural pathways of your brain so you’ll never be able to view the world the same again; when your job description includes a sense of emotional detachment and an ability to feel empathy without pain.
It’s another thing entirely to witness your own child being stronger than you would ask anyone to be… over and over and over again. Parents are a child’s most accurate emotional barometer. We know what scares our children, the fears that linger in parts of their mind they don’t quite have full access to yet; because we have spent years in a pensive study of them, learning with heartbreaking accuracy every tiny muscle movement and the emotional equivalent that’s occurring within. It’s what we do. It’s love and human instinct meshed in the most intimately powerful, primitive way.
I am so infinitely proud of my little man. But it’s pride tinged with penance and pain– he is so very, very brave and strong. It breaks my heart that he has to be.
The Chop is just on four and a half years old, and very much a four year old boy. He’s clever and funny and determined and kind. He has no volume control, runs riot through the house, antagonizes his sister till both her and I are near shedding tears of frustration, and makes me wonder if a year of prep before starting kindergarten may not be a bad idea after all. I’m eternally not quite fast or smart enough to keep up with his energy levels and that deliciously thirsty childhood need of knowledge… there are times when his questions are too complex for me to answer. (I have no idea how long it would have taken to construct a car, or which bit they would have started with first.)
At two and a half years old, the same age his sister is now; the Chop fell from standing on a child’s table to the tiled kitchen floor of our Purple House. He would have been fine… except that he had his dummy in his mouth, by some feat of gravity and acrobatics managed to hit the floor mouth–first and split his lower lip right through to what they call the ‘skin line’, requiring Ketamine to stitch it back together.
Throughout the six hour wait in the ER, my son had been his usual chatty self– like most small boys, his pain tolerance is incredibly high. It was only when in the theater itself, with three or four medical staff standing around as my husband and I attempted to coax our son onto their white slab of a table, which must have seemed an unbearably huge and vulnerable place to be to someone that small; that the Chop refused, planted his feet to the ground like a small, stubborn donkey and stared at me with two clear, blue mirror images of my own eyes that pleaded with me and seemed dipped, doused in a instinctual, petrifying fear. He knew Something Big was about to happen, and we’d told him it might hurt….
Pulling him onto the table screaming wasn’t an option, and not because I’m a really good parent or even a good person. It was the simple matter of the most basic trust that was underlying that fear in my son’s eyes– he trusted me, trusted us, to protect him; and I wasn’t going to break that trust if I could help. Not yet. Not at two years old… there’s plenty of time left for that.
“I know you’re scared.” Crouched next to him on the floor, eyes level with his… that was all I said. It was enough, for some reason I still can’t put my finger on. Maybe it was simply identifying that emotion, saying ‘I know’ instead of ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ The Chop– reluctantly, but of his own will, the bravest child I’ve ever seen– climbed onto that huge, intimidating slab of a table. I’m sure the only thing he felt was the needle stick of the catheter– seconds after they injected the drug he went limp in our arms, eyes open but glazed, and the distress in our voices was obvious as we sung The Big Red Car and cradled our boy in our arms as those meds wore off again, warned by the nurses that he may have hallucinations that were frightening, in those few minutes where he floated between conscious and not.
But naming the emotion, whatever that emotion may be- anger, pain, fear, frustration- acknowledging that’s it’s real, it’s effectual and reactive and tangible… there’s a massive power in that. And we needed it desperately less than a year later, when my little boy lost his dad at just three years old.
Being brave doesn’t always mean not being afraid… it means feeling that fear, and doing it anyway.