I knew you didn’t believe me. We faced each other in the exam room, my son’s blistering red arm between us, and I could tell. It was his third trip to the doctor in as many days, each time to see someone new. Our story had never changed.
The story was about my son Teddy and his cough — the cough I hear in my sleep, every time he gets a cold, the cough that launches me from bed so I can get to him before he gags. The story was about a bowl of hot water placed just inside a play tent, filling it with steam. My nanny Amanda set it all up; I wasn’t there.
There’s that, then.
But she does it all the time: Teddy and his little sister Elliot settled quietly on one side of the tent, the bowl of hot water on the other. Amanda between them, reading stories as they breathe.
On the day of the accident, Elliot had to go to the bathroom, so they all crawled out. Amanda left the bowl behind, beside the door of the tent. When they returned, Teddy crawled back in first. His hand reached through the door and his arm plunged into the scalding water
His screams brought us, my husband first and then me, from the separate corners of the apartment where we were at work to the bathroom where Amanda had carried him, where he shrieked and cried as his skin peeled off like a layer of dried glue: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He thought it was his fault. He believed — we’ve taught him to believe — that apologizing makes everything better.
“Is that his skin?” I asked stupidly, and turned away to cry. Only for a moment, then my husband and I were gathering him up, his arm wrapped in a wet towel. Rushing to the hospital.
Maybe I chose the wrong details to share with you, Doctor: the placement of the bowl and the tent and the angle at which his arm must have entered the water, my theories about the sleeve of his fleece pajamas making the burn on his arm worse. “Are you a father?” I should have asked, before telling you that for the past week, as I have tried to recall Teddy’s laugh, I have only been able to hear his screams. I should have told you how the sight of my son’s arm, a skinned and oozing thing, looks to me like my own intestines, festering outside my body.
After I finished the telling you stared at me, wondering aloud why Teddy’s hand wasn’t burned. I wonder too.
When the social worker came to our home she asked to see the tent and I tripped all over myself to get it, as though the speed at which I could produce it would prove some indelible fact about my motherhood. We set it up with the bowl just inside the door so she could take pictures. I asked if she wanted me to add water, for accuracy. After the photo shoot, she sat on my couch and read aloud from the report in her lap: “Mother’s story inconsistent with the burn.”
Mother’s story. In the previous two trips to the doctors it had been the father’s story. The details had been the same, but somehow only I had failed in the telling. Only I was an unreliable narrator.
The interview with the social worker lasted an hour. “What do you like most about parenting? What is the hardest thing about it?” This, I wanted to yell in her face. This is the hardest. Instead I searched for something non-confrontational. “It’s exhausting sometimes,” I told her. And then wondered how that sounded. Does she think I am so tired I would pour boiling water on a complaining child’s arm? Or perhaps just tired enough to fall asleep with a pot on the stove? I realize now the way the details of my life are open for interpretation.
When Teddy sees the pus on his bandage he yells, “Go, white blood cells, go!” We have taught him about the magic of his body, have told him he is just like Wolverine, though all he knows of the X-Man is the fearsome face on a beloved yellow t-shirt and his awesome power for healing. “You are Wolverine,” I tell him, because I need to believe it myself. He nods and smiles and his bravery — the need for it — is almost more heartbreaking than his fear.
After three trips to various pediatricians and one to a plastic surgeon, we change his bandage at home now. The first time, as my husband held his arm and gently cut the old bandage off, Teddy screamed, “No, no, don’t don’t don’t, don’t do it, stop, stop, stop. Please stop.” My hands shook as I coated the new bandages with cream. I wondered who might be outside our apartment to hear him, who might hear the screams and believe — other than you, Doctor — that we were torturing our child.
I’ve thought about sending you a thank you note. Really, I have. I’m glad that there are doctors like you looking out for hurt children, and the next time you have to make such a report, I wouldn’t want you to hesitate. But I can’t stop wondering what you heard in my voice or saw in my demeanor to make you question me in a way my husband was never questioned. And I so desperately want you to know that you are wrong.
After the CPS social worker is done inspecting our home, interviewing us and our children, our nanny, our friends, Teddy’s teacher, and our regular pediatrician, she will write her report and close our case. Per CPS policy, she will not contact you about the outcome. Perhaps in the 45 days it takes for this process to unfold — twice as long as it will take Teddy’s arm to heal — you will have forgotten all about us. Or will you remember us, the four-year-old in the Wolverine t-shirt, so easily distracted by a piece of strawberry candy, and his unreliable mother?