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A Heart To Hold Your Child’s Pain

I am at my desk when my wife rushes in, breathless with alarm. Our son has been hurt. Head injury while playing basketball at school. Ambulance taking him to the emergency room.

Everything drops. I am up and moving at once. One thought and one only: “Get there.”

I am driving too fast on a winding road, rain misting against the windshield. I am rushing across the grass, plunging into the emergency room, interrogating nurses. But he’s not even there, yet.

I am pacing, looking down the long driveway, willing the lights of the ambulance to appear. Behind me, the theme music from “The Price Is Right” is a tinny distraction, and I marvel that some part of my brain hears television, some part is not consumed with fear. In the distance, red lights flash against a sky the color of a dusty nickel.

I am in the ambulance bay, waiting for the vehicle doors to open and the paramedic is trying to steel me, telling me that the tubes, neck brace and back board I will see are just precautionary. I nod. He and his partner lift the stretcher out and of course, no words could ever have prepared me for my middle son looking like that.

My voice rings false cheer as I call to him. “Marlon! Hey, Marlon!” Marlon looks through me. He is dazed and not fully aware of his surroundings.

I am at his bedside. Minutes have passed, and he is becoming lucid. His eyes are focused and he knows me. I test him with Lakers questions because that team is a bond between us.

Starting center in 1988? Small forward in 1979? His answers are slow, but correct.

Half an hour later, he doesn’t remember talking to me.

Watching him, I am recalling what happened just a few days ago, when my wife and I flew home to L.A. for a visit with family. Sitting in my sister’s living room, I went into my standard kids-are-driving-me-crazy routine. Nothing you haven’t said yourself if you’ve been a parent for any length of time. Just standard complaints about dishes that aren’t washed, bedrooms that are unclean, behavior that frustrates.

Twelve years, I told my sister. That’s when my youngest turns 18. That’s when my “sentence” is up and I go free. We all laughed.

But of course, parents never go free, do they? That’s the lesson I am learning here for the umpteenth time.

I am holding my son’s hand and reflecting that not so long ago, I could close my fingers over his and make them disappear. Now he is all arms and legs, all go! go! go! and it seems unnatural that his blue jeans and Air Jordans lie atop this bed, unmoving. And, God, whatever happened to the time?

I reproach God because it’s not fair, really. Seems unjust that you love anything as much as you do a child. The love makes you helpless hostage to their careless lives, their reckless whims. The love means you can’t be serene unless they allow it, can’t unclench until they navigate the day safely and return home. And when disaster strikes as inevitably it must, the love can damn near kill you.

I am listening to my son tell his mother how he got hurt. Going for a layup, came down on someone’s shirt, slipped and slammed head-first into the wall. “How much is it going to cost me to have the wall fixed?” I crack, because at times like this, dads joke. Marlon grins at father wit, but wants me to bear the most important thing in mind: “I made the shot,” he says.

I am back home, watching my sleeping son. I kneel and wake him to make sure I can. He is cranky and has a headache but seems otherwise OK, so I go upstairs, sit at my desk and raise a window. A feeble sun has split open the gray. A welcome breeze rustles the curtains. Outside, I hear the school bus wheeze to a stop, depositing my youngest son safely on the curb. It is a good day.