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Holding On

by Libby R. Horton

Holding my 18-month-old’s hand in my right, I am rushing, carrying two cartons of eggs under my left arm. Walking at my default pace, fast enough that he is trotting beside me, he yanks his little palm away. He is shrieking, running away from me in front of the row of checkout stands, toward the pharmacy. He trips and falls onto his face. I am flustered as I jog toward him, my crossbody purse slapping at my hip. With my free hand I reach down and pull him upward by one arm, onto his feet. I am probably scolding him while I do this, but I will not remember my words later. There is a small shift in his limb, a silent pop. He starts screaming.


Looking back, I want to put my hand gently on my own shoulder and whisper, Slow down. Nap time isn’t until one pm, and it is only ten. I don’t know what the sense of urgency is about. Soon, he will no longer nap. Soon, he will say he doesn’t want kisses. Soon, he will get his first big boy haircut and his wispy blond locks will be gone. Hold on to him now, as he is, I want to advise. Rambunctious and cuddly and mischievous and loving. 


I put the eggs on a nearby fridge full of beverages and scoop his 30-lb, 99th percentile body into my arms. He is crying and crying. I know he is hurt. I know I hurt him. I know better than to pick his dense body up by one limb. I was annoyed. I was in a hurry. I did it anyway, like a punishment because my will had been disobeyed.


I shush him, bouncing a little as if he were younger. I walk toward a checkout stand. Everyone in the store is staring at me. The checker asks me what is wrong with my kid. I struggle to get my VISA out. I say he tripped and he is hungry and just needs a snack. He’ll be fine. It is such a shame to see him sad, he’s such a little sweetie, bless his heart, she croons.


I walk out of the store, carrying my now-whimpering child to the car. In the parking lot, I clamber into the front passenger seat to snuggle him, just for a minute, just to calm him down. His dark eyes regard me suspiciously and his cheeks are streaked with tears. I try to hold him close to my body, whispering things like, It is okay, baby, Mommy is here. And then, quieter, Mommy is so sorry.


When he was in utero, as his due date approached, I became convinced that my son would be born missing an arm. Someone on a TV show I was watching had lost an arm before birth —  the umbilical cord had wrapped around it, cutting off the circulation. I was sure this had happened to the baby growing inside of me too; I couldn’t remember seeing both arms on the most recent ultrasound. The idea that I had now injured one of his arms, his arms that were so valued to me even before he came out, is intolerable.


I get a granola bar out of my purse, and he attempts to stop weeping long enough to eat it. Chocolate chips are smeared on his face, his nose is running, and crumbs fall all over both of us. I stare at him, realizing that he is using only one arm. The other arm dangles at his side. He finishes eating and starts crying again. His eyes, still, the way they look at me. He seems to be calculating. How could Mommy have hurt me? How could Mommy, who feeds me and cuddles me and hugs me and kisses me, who says she loves me 100 times a day, hurt me like this?


I buckle him into his car seat. My baby, who barely fussed as an infant, cries all the way home. I hope that maybe he will fall asleep and wake up fine. I hope he will wake up fixed. He is just tired. He just needs an early nap. But he is still sniffling when I pull into the garage.


I carry him into the house, and we lean back onto the family room sectional. He is nestled in the crook of my arm, and we gaze at each other. Mommy loves you so much, I whisper again and again, a finger stroking his cheek. His left arm is still hanging limp. He cries and stops, cries and stops. He is watching me the whole time. I try to be strong for him. I try to not show my fear, to not show the splintering inside my rib cage. This is the in-between time. This is the time before I know what hurt I caused him.


I envision torn ligaments in his shoulder that require several surgeries. My chiropractor recently asked me if I’d ever injured my shoulder as a child, to which I replied no, not that I know of.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve had restricted movement in my left shoulder that plagues me whenever I do Arnold presses or snatches over my head in the gym. The shoulder is one of the largest, most complex and mobile joints in the body. Because of all of its degrees of freedom, it is prone to instability and thus injury. A bad shoulder can plague a person for their whole life. I know all of this, and still...


I call our pediatrician and talk to the nurse. She tells me to go to the Children’s Hospital. She asks me if I am okay to drive. I am sobbing so hard I can barely answer.


This isn’t the first time. When my son was a baby and his sister was two, she hit him. They were playing in a corner by their bookcase full of toys. What she did to him is not memorable to me, but afterward my whole body was hot. I picked her up by one arm, moving her away from my infant, saying in a flat and loud voice, You’re done, you’re done. Her body was light, and it rotated a bit as I lifted her out of the tangle of blocks and stuffies and books. As I carried her upstairs to her room, now with both arms wrapped around her, she was whimpering, Ow, Mama you hurt me. I need to go to the hop-i-tal.


I tapped out for the rest of that evening, letting my husband put her to bed as I nursed the baby. I cried to him after. If you did what I did today, I might never forgive you, I said. The next morning, my daughter didn’t mention anything about her arm or shoulder, and I never picked a child up by one arm again. Until today.


On the way to the hospital, I calm myself for the first time. In this composed state, I believe I am thinking rationally. I am sure the people at the hospital will take my son away from me. I am a child abuser. I am unfit to be a mother. I was angry he ran away. I did something I knew better than. I imagine snapped tendons, physical therapy and inability to play some sports.


I check in at the front desk, carrying my son with both arms, imagining this embrace is my last as his mother. They snap a picture of his pouting face for their records— it is the first time I’ve ever been to this hospital. In triage, they take his vitals and ask what happened. I swallow, choking on rocks inside my trachea. I try to seem calm as salty trails river down my face. 


The nurse doesn’t seem alarmed by his injury. No one approaches me with handcuffs. No social workers come into the exam room. My son is still in my lap, my nose is still buried in his golden hair.


A doctor comes in. She is kind. You felt a pop? she confirms. Oh, it is probably just nursemaid’s elbow. Really common. Not a big deal.


I don’t feel comforted yet. Not when she palpates his arm, not when she does a little twisting action to reset his joint. The doctor leaves the room and comes back with a red popsicle for him. It is when he reaches for it with his left hand that I allow myself to breathe again. Relief pours down my face.


I still shop at that grocery store. It is the one closest to my house, and I won’t allow myself to avoid it. I deserve this bit of shame. I deserve to be reminded. Every time I am ready to check out, I remember. I remember how my son looked at me, and I remember how that day felt, and I am grateful to still be his mother.

About the Author

Libby R. Horton is a lifelong writer and a recovering PhD chemist. She attends ongoing personal essay workshops at the Boulder Writing Studio, where she is developing a collection of linked essays about the intersection of science, mental health, and relationships. She has another publication, a humor piece called How to Call Your Father, forthcoming in the Jelly Bucket.

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