We were in the emergency room because my one-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, but 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.
Two hours earlier we were about to have dinner as a family. At the time, we were living in Minnesota. My wife 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 out of reach. Norah reached out for the bowl of potatoes, and Tristan, Norah’s three-year-old doting brother, pushed the bowl within reach, and Norah, a mighty lover of mashed potatoes, 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, and 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 wanted to hear that sound again.
We rinsed Norah hand’s 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, Norah on her mother’s lap, snuggled into Mel’s chest, whimpering, her hand folded down in 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 wondered if they were going to accuse us of being negligent parents. I thought about the moment the accident happened, I traced it back, and wondered how I could have stopped it. Perhaps I was negligent.
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 that 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 mid section. 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 mix of sorrow, regret, frustration, and anger, that felt like a ball of heat crawling into my throat, and once it got there, it rested, deep and heavy, just below my jaw.
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. I bounced between my mother, father, and grandmother as a kid. I have a slew of stepsiblings that have come in and out of my life over the years. I’d always seen family as a temporary thing. Up until that moment, I didn’t really know what family meant. I didn’t know that nothing hurts more than watching someone I love feel pain.
When my father died seven years earlier, I didn’t 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 one-year-old daughter’s burned little hand, I cried. I finally understood what it meant to really care for someone.
You would also enjoy,
Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.