The email from my friend Margot* said, “Bad day.” After I read it, I agreed. I’m sharing it with you, readers, because what happened to Margot and her son, Luke, could happen to any parent and child. You might read Margot’s story here and say, “I would never do that,” and maybe you wouldn’t. But have you never slipped up, ever? I have–in ways that have made me think for days, “Wow, close call.” Margot’s story hit home for me not just because she’s my friend, but also because there’s something we can all learn here about our kids who are still children, even when they start to look like they’re not.
How many horrible stories have begun with the opening “It was a beautiful day…?” But it was a beautiful day, one of those perfect, long summer Saturdays where everything is sun-kissed and it feels like the afternoon will never end. My ten-year-old, nearly five-foot-tall son, Luke,* and I had just finished shopping for his back-to-school clothes, an essential task as he seemed to have outgrown nearly everything he owned overnight.
We stopped at my favorite gardening store on the way home to buy end-of-summer flowers to plant later that afternoon. While paying, I asked the lady at the checkout counter what to do about the huge decorative grasses dominating my garden. She told me how she and her boyfriend had pruned theirs back by gathering the blades in bunches and cutting off several tufts at a time.
At home, Luke headed inside for the couch and I worked on various flowers in the garden, dead-heading them before attacking the tallest decorative grass with my large garden cutters. As I snipped each blade back, it occurred to me that this method would take forever. Recalling the lady’s advice about bunching and cutting, I sought Luke’s help.
“Luke!” I called several times. Getting no response, I took a more direct approach. “Can you please get off the couch and come out here and help me in the garden? Stop lying around. It’s a gorgeous summer day outside.”
Luke came outside and held bunches of the grass, offering advice while I trimmed. “Mom,” he said as I clipped, “you need to get that piece right–,” and he let go of the tuft he was holding and stretched out his right hand, pointing his index finger exactly where and when I was cutting…as I snipped off the tip of his finger.
“Emergency room, now!” I really did think I’d cut off his fingertip, given the gash and the gushing blood. It took us approximately six minutes to get to the ER, where Luke’s bloody finger soaked through the paper towels in which we’d wrapped it. He and I both cried through the lengthy check-in process, and the wait, until finally we met with the orthopedic surgeon who happened to be on call that day.
“We’re lucky he’s here,” the physician’s assistant said, referring to the surgeon. “He’s a hand specialist.” The surgeon then explained that the nail would have to come off as the cut had sliced right through the nail base, but after repairing the muscles and stitching the laceration closed, a new nail would grow back and in a few months my son’s broken finger would be fine. He operated that afternoon.
What is the parenting moral here? I’ve been up all night trying to find the answer to that one. What was I thinking? There’s no way I would have allowed my five-year old to get near my garden cutters to help me prune the grasses, so why had I asked Luke? Is the lesson that no matter how old your child is, you should keep him or her away from large, sharp gardening cutters, because it’s just Murphy’s Law that of course he’s going to stick his index finger in them? Well, yes. But there’s more to it than that.
While our growing tween children may approach adult heights and seem like they are able to take on adult activities, they are still inexperienced children who don’t always exercise appropriate caution, and that can lead to accidents. They still need us to watch out for them.
“Mom,” Luke said to me in the car as we picked up his prescriptions for painkillers and antibiotics, “Don’t feel so bad. It’s both of our faults. I should have told you I didn’t want to cut the grasses. You’re still a good mom and my favorite person in the world.”
Luke’s reassurance was sweet. But the truth is that I exercised poor judgment. I put my child in harm’s way, and I have to live with that fact and with the knowledge that I almost snipped off his finger. Luke and I both learned important lessons on that beautiful summer day: Mom is not perfect, and now that Luke is getting older, we both have to remember to be more careful.
*Margot is not my friend’s real name. Luke isn’t her son’s name, either.