Mommy, am I going to die?
Whew. Your four year old turns to you with pure, unfiltered fear in his voice and speaks those words. Take it in. Feel it. Let it numb you, because it will. Let it stop your breath, because it will, just for a moment, before you collapse into him and tell him over and over until your voice is hoarse that no, no you aren’t going to die, and don’t you ever think that.
It was simple enough: we were in the hospital because our old, moody hound had been woken up out of a sound sleep by the precious four year old who only intended to give her a quick kiss on the head. He meant well enough but had been warned before to never disturb the dog when she’s asleep – he could scare her, something could happen. Well children will be children and that’s just what he was and is, and there we were an hour later sitting in the lobby of an urgent care, waiting to have the bite on his neck cleaned out. Cleaned, bandaged, sent home. Then 24 hours later there was puss, fever, chills, and a lacy red rash spreading from the small nip on his neck to the area beneath his chin. So straight to the ER for an infection that had him on an IV of antibiotics for the next day and a half.
Up until then my mind was in protection mode: focused only on making him comfortable, being the rock, making him laugh, adjusting his pillows. Letting him play Minecraft on my cellphone. Giving him kisses he didn’t want. He looked so small in his hospital gown, and I ignored the voice in my brain that whispered incessantly about how damn sad it is that child-size hospital gowns must exist. Everything would be fine, we’d be sent home the following day.
The nurse hooked up another round to his IV and stepped out. Somehow the tape on his hand that held the needle in place had come loose, probably from the very serious round of whatever video game he’d been playing. Suddenly it fell out, and the smallest amount of red trickled down his gown. I mustered a casual “oh! let me call the nurse” and fumbled for the intercom, not realizing the tears had already started flowing.
When I looked up, the panic had already set in. It’s a look you never want to see on the face of your child, a look they should never have when you’re mere inches away. You’re there: the parent, the rock, the promise they need that everything will be just fine. But somehow my son was a million miles away in that hospital bed, panic-stricken, hysterical, lost.
“Mommy, am I going to die?” he choked out. There was a buzzing in my ears. The room turned for a moment. I brought him to my chest and went through the motions. “Don’t you ever think that. Don’t you ever say that. No. No, no, no.”
The nurse returned, the IV was put back in place, my four year old wiped his face and went back to playing videogames.
I, on the other hand, turned to dust and at some point was swept up with the rest of the trash in the room, discarded in the hospital hallway, brought to the large, dark basement. I’ve played those words in my head like a morbid mantra. I’ve bottled the fear in his voice and kept it on me, always. That moment changed everything.
I hear those words in every scenario my mind plays with: the car crash, the life-threatening diagnosis, the freak accident. My son on a thin mattress under a thin white sheet under fluorescent lighting, the loosely tied hospital gown falling off one shoulder, the curve of his small face, asking me if he’s going to die. And in every quiet panic attack the question is always the same: what if I don’t know the answer?