James and the Giant Fall

Posted November 16th, 2009

The subject line of Emily’s e-mail was “James and the Giant Fall.” The funny headline all but trumpeted the reassuring news contained in the note.

James is the sixth of my mother’s grandchildren. A gangly, bearded boy, he is a lover of wild places and high elevations. The Giant Fall took place in Utah far from parental homes in Massachusetts.

James’ father called our brother who called me and opened by saying, “I am going to tell you the end of the story first. James is okay.” I am so grateful a lawyer knows that the denouement sometimes needs to precede the story arc. James had fallen on his head and broken his back. “Would he be able to walk?” Yes. “Would he be brain-damaged?” No. Of course it is possible that having to dig out of a snow-blanketed tent before asphyxiating, or hanging from a cliff by fingers, toes and willpower, is a priori evidence of brain damage. He is, however, his father’s son.

Each morning as I absorb coffee, and newspaper ink, I keep an eye on the traffic updates flickering past on the television. Almost every day, I am warned of impediments on I-95 south and even of accidents on local roads. Traffic congestion in Harford County is epidemic. A combination of the housing bubble from the late nineties into the early aughts and irrational exuberance about the imminent economic boom initiated by the Base Realignment and Closure Act, has obliterated forest and farmland all the way to the Delaware and Pennsylvania borders. From there, suburban sprawl focused on Wilmington and Philadelphia picks up—but that’s a subject for someone else’s whine.

When the roads are slick I pay closer attention. My Tattooed Boy often works the breakfast shift at the B & O American Brasserie in Baltimore. The job was hard-found and hard-won, and it’s a lengthy ride away. He hasn’t opted to move closer to town, though. He loves his little apartment in the rickety building on a nearby rural road. Perhaps he is attached to the chickens that scratch outside his door. Maybe he is sentimental about his first “own place.” Inertia cannot be ruled out. Whatever the case, my Tattooed Boy cruises down that stretch of highway just before the countless others depart for work. It is a commute I know too well, one shared with drivers who are invariably inattentive, incompetent and in a hurry.

Each foggy morning and fender-bender makes me fear for his safety. I also worry when too many days pass between his visits to my washing machine or phone calls for favors. I worry that he does not have a girlfriend; I worry that he has a girlfriend. I worry when he faces an evaluation at work; I worry about the implications of the stellar evaluation he just received. But that was the deal: I got the greatest gift in the world when he was born and I had to accept the condition of hypervigilence called motherhood.

The somber associations of November 11 have only fed my fear. For too many years now, Veteran’s Day has been about the memorialization of sons and daughters, many the young parents of very young children, almost all of them the beloved children of my generation. I do not know how any parent can bear to lose a child. I cannot imagine the anguish and exhaustion of living, day to day, with the knowledge that every move my child might make, or chose not to make, could end in his death.

James continues his amazing recovery from the Giant Fall. In one photograph, nineteen staples are visible in a strip of shaved scalp above the neck brace. Another picture frames a recumbent James, immobilized and looking like he needs another round of pain meds, fingers spread in a “V.” The best one shows James looking almost jaunty, upright and in the hallway, walker in hands, therapists by his side.

I wish I could wave back to him, tell him what I think we should tell all those whom we hold dear. What is the sign for “you have no idea how much I love you and how grateful I am that you are with me still?”



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