It was a sunny afternoon, the first nice one of the year. I made my kids go outside. My 5-year-old was game, as she usually is. Hand her a bucket of chalk and she’s good to go. My 9-year-old was a little more reluctant, as the lure of Minecraft was strong. “It’s too nice of a day to be inside.” It was my mother’s voice I heard coming out of my mouth, but it worked. He got up, put on his helmet, and took his bike outside.
I started cleaning out my minivan. After a long stretch of cold, wet, dreary days, it was a disaster inside, but I was committed. I was focused. I had been at it for a while, unearthing forgotten library books, more fast food wrappers than I had imagined, and a duffle bag filled with clean towels and swim gear from when I thought that I could drag the kids to the Y for swimming after school.
When Sam yelled my name, I didn’t immediately understand what was happening. He was coming down the hill on his bike, and going so much faster than he should have been. He looked terrified, and couldn’t stop. He steered the bike up onto the lawn, and the bike careened off the side of the yard, directly into the upturned back door of my minivan.
The van door hit him in the chin, and went all the way back to the bone. The back windshield had shattered on impact, and the glass rained down all around him on the driveway. It all happened so fast, so suddenly. The whole world changed then, but I couldn’t even imagine by how much.
The trip the ER in the ambulance was a blur. He wasn’t screaming; he hadn’t passed out. He was in shock.
I was in shock. We spent the next 12 hours in the ER, with doctors fluttering around him, two plastic surgeons working for hours to stitch him back together. Nobody seemed to be too worried about his head. He was wearing his helmet, and the “distracting injury” was to his chin. He had stitches all over his face, and his whole chin had to be reattached.
But the prognosis was good, and we went home that night. I was grateful that we had gotten to go home, grateful that he’d heal. Grateful that my biggest worry was going to be scarring. I could handle scarring.
Two weeks later, when Sam’s headaches started, I didn’t immediately connect it to the accident. I talked to the pediatrician; I started dispensing Tylenol and Motrin. The headaches got worse; we switched to Aleve. They kept getting worse, and we went into Urgent Care. That was the first time I heard the word “concussion.” We were three weeks post injury, and now he’s got a concussion? The next day, he started vomiting and screaming in pain when he moved his head. Another day in the ER, and a diagnosis of the stomach flu. And confirmation of concussion—because of course, he had a concussion.
We went to more doctors, and the pain kept getting worse. He started complaining about his neck, his back, his shoulders. He started seeing double; he started keeping one eye shut. He cried. I cried. I gave out more Motrin, and then when the doctors prescribed more pain killers, I gave him those as well. We went to more and more doctors, and got ever more conflicting diagnoses. It was a concussion, a severe concussion. A stomach bug that was particularly virulent, and just happened to have hit at the same time. The pain should ease up—maybe it was whiplash. Secondary injuries, now that his face was healing so well.
On Friday night of that week, my stepdaughter came over for Shabbat dinner. We’ve done Shabbat dinner every night for years. But on that night, when Sam was in so much pain, I looked over at my stepdaughter and realized that she was crying along with him. My 17-year-old stepdaughter was so devastated, watching her little brother suffer. It had gotten so much worse, so fast.
The next morning, we went back to the Emergency Room. His eye had stopped tracking. It was still a mystery—none of the symptoms were adding up. They admitted us that night. The next day, he went under general anesthesia for an MRI, a lumbar puncture, and a vision test. The diagnosis was pseudotumor. One that may or may not have anything to do with the original injury. He may or may not have a concussion. There may or may not be permanent damage to the optic nerve.
We were in the hospital for four days. For a kid with a severe anxiety disorder, the hospital was a particular kind of hell that I hope he never has to endure again. He didn’t smile until I brought his little sister in on the day he was to be released.
We’ve been at home for a week now. We’ve been back and forth to different doctors, and I’ve gotten especially adept at Googling diagnoses and alternative pain management techniques. I taped a piece of paper onto the refrigerator to keep track of when and what pain pills he’s taken. I was able to negotiate a new position at my job, where I can work from home with severely reduced hours. Everything is changed now.
I don’t know exactly what will happen next, but I do know we couldn’t have gotten this far without our community. The community that I didn’t really even know I had.
When I was in the hospital, and unable to do much more than worry about Sam and try and parent my girls over the phone, my synagogue and larger Jewish community came together and organized a meal train, with homemade meals and school lunches delivered for the next few months. I’ve had so many people reach out and offer to help, to pick up a gallon of milk for me, or to pick up a daughter from school.
I didn’t grow up as part of a large religious community. I converted to Judaism as an adult, and I’ve always felt a little bit outside the norm. We’re members of our local synagogue, and active members of the community, but I had no idea, not really, what that meant. Now I know that it means there is a safety net for when everything falls apart. When your child is sick, and you don’t know how you’re going to get through until the next day because you’re so worried and scared, there are people there who help, people who you may or may not have known well enough to chat with before, people who will give up their time and energy to help out when you don’t even know to ask.
My son will heal. My family will heal. We will get through this. But the lessons I’ve learned about community and kindness and the unending generosity of my Jewish community will last a lifetime. I’m grateful for wonderful doctors, for knowledgeable and kind nurses, and for understanding employers. But I’m mostly grateful that I chose to raise my family within this Jewish community, because I’m awed and humbled by so many people who reached out to help us when we needed it the most.