I didn’t learn about my son’s concussion until a day after it had happened, when I saw the middle school phone number on my caller ID. “Daniel’s here,” Nurse Nancy said. “He apparently hit his head yesterday. He’s not feeling well.”
“My head hurts,” Daniel said in a soft whisper. “And this morning it was blurry when I read for too long.” My “mama bear” instincts went into overdrive even after he followed up with, “but I got some Tylenol and it’s starting to feel better.”
“When did you hit your head?” I asked. “Do you want to come home?” I couldn’t help but pepper him with questions, probably enough to reverse any effect the pain medication had already had. He wanted to stay in school, he said, go back to class and go on with his day. I stared out the front window, watching the leaves fall from the massive elm trees, making their way down to the ground in a dance of rust and oranges twirls.
How could I have missed this? I thought I had mastered being “in tune” with my 12- and 15-year-old children’s needs, keeping sufficient distance when necessary, yet always maintaining a watchful and empathetic eye. Especially since my maternal mishap from seven years before, when Daniel was 5. When he tripped over his light-up, multi-siren shiny red fire truck and broke his fall with his right hand. He cried. We iced it. And then we put him to bed, assuring him it would be all better in the morning. He woke up hours later, screaming in pain. A call into our pediatrician led to a late night run to the emergency room. Four x-rays and several consults later, Daniel left with a splint on his arm, and a cherry lollipop in his mouth. The next day, when he chose a fluorescent hue of blue for the color of his cast, the nagging feeling of maternal failure lingered in my mind.
As soon as Daniel came home from school I was waiting for him, with a container of pineapple chunks and homemade banana bread. “You O.K.?” I asked, putting my hand on his shoulder. He nodded. He told me it had happened during the Yom Kippur services the day prior, when he and his two friends left their seats for an extended trip to the bathroom. I remember it now. The three boys had been sitting a couple of rows behind my husband, Doug, my daughter, Emily, and me. When Daniel walked down the aisle, he glanced over and gestured his head towards the door, mouthing “bathroom.” But, at the time, how could I have anticipated that what he really meant was a walk to one of his friend’s cars to grab a football? That after having a catch, one of the boys put the football back into his car and inadvertently slammed the trunk on Daniel’s head? My son cried as he walked back to service, walking a couple of paces in front of the other boys so as to hide his tears.
Should I have known what had happened, when the boys re-emerged about a half-hour later, walking back into the service, their vacant seats now occupied by others, forcing them to find new seats? When I noticed Daniel had a funny expression on his face? Was it embarrassment? Guilt? I couldn’t quite make it out. His cheeks were beet-red, and the bottom of his shirt, right around his neckline, appeared wet from sweat.
“Where did you guys go?” I recall asking as we left the service and made our way towards our car. “Oh we just went out to get some fresh air,” he said, his eyebrows raising ever so slightly, a gesture he often made when not revealing the full story. He went to bed that night, his belly full after having fasted all day and then partaking in a feast of noodle kugel and cheese blintzes. Neither of us mentioned what had happened during services.
As Daniel stood before me, relaying the story from the day before, familiar feelings of remorse rushed through me. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. He shrugged and looked away. Where once he would have cried, running to me, finding me during the service to tell me he hit his head, this time he had chosen the opposite. I get it; it’s because he’s 12. But I still should have known. Because a mother should know these things.
I gave Daniel an ice pack and he sat down on the couch. I emailed a doctor friend to make sure I had it all covered. I sighed as I sat down next to Daniel on the couch, slipping my feet under his favorite chenille blanket now wrapped around his body, looking at his face to register what he was feeling. Was he disappointed in me and my lack of mothering?
“The Yankees are going to clinch the AL East,” he said, focused on SportsCenter. He adjusted the blanket to make more room for my legs. He rested his head on my shoulder, the ice pack now cast aside. I let out a long deep breath. As he curled his feet in closer, I realized he had already moved on. Or he never cared. What Daniel needed was having me next to him now. That much I knew. And I also knew, as his mother, that there was nowhere else I would rather be.