A Delicate Balance

This is another favorite.  It’s a long story, but worth the ride.

Last Wednesday, I learned that having a babysitter whose primary language is Spanish can be a severe handicap when one of your kids is in the ER.

I was at a diversity conference dinner, catching up with former law firm colleagues and law school alumni, when I felt my cell phone vibrating in my purse. It was my babysitter, so I excused myself, slightly annoyed.  I was expecting her to simply be seeking my assistance with some minor bit of kid drama, like Randy refusing to do his homework, or Cami doing any number of things.

“Please, can you come to hospital, because Randy, he fall in the house.”

This, I wasn’t expecting at all. I sighed and looked at my watch. It was 8:30. I’d planned to be out until at least 10.  So much for that.  “Okay, I’ll be home — wait, did you say hospital?”

“Yes, because Randy, he get out of the tub, and he fall.”

“Is he awake?”


“Then why are you at the hospital?”

The babysitter sounded nervous.  “Because…because…he…um, he hurt — I don’t know how to say.”

A few different scenarios entered my mind.  One, Randy slipped and fell and hit his head.   The word “concussion” entered my mind, but if he was awake, he probably didn’t have one.  Two, Randy slipped and fell on his ass, and was sporting a nasty bruise.  With the language barrier, I couldn’t tell if either scenario was close.  All I got out of her was that Randy had fallen at some point after getting out of the tub.  A trip to the hospital still struck me as somewhat extreme, given that I still had no idea what had actually happened.  “You don’t take him to the hospital without calling me first,” I scolded.

“We try to call, but you no answer your phone.”

I had no defense to that.  The dinner was preceded by a noisy and lively cocktail reception.  I’d had two glasses of half-decent Champagne and wasn’t exactly looking for my cell phone to be buzzing.

I sighed.  “Okay.  What hospital?”

She told me Harlem Hospital, and I rolled my eyes.  Harlem Hospital was close, only ten blocks from my home, but it did not have a great reputation.  “Where’s Cami?”

“Cami, she stay home, she say she have homework.”

Now I was close to losing it.  Cami should have been there to translate all of this.  I could tell I was upsetting the babysitter and wasn’t going to get any more out of her over the phone, so I told her I was on my way, and rang off.

Once I had retrieved my things from the coat check and walked outside, I had two things on my mind — finding a cab, and giving my daughter a piece of my mind.  I flagged down a taxi, and then called Cami’s cell phone.  “What happened to Randy?” I said, by way of hello.

“He — he was taking a bath, and he was playing around, and he fell, and he hurt his — area.”

“What area?”

“His privates.”

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear.  “How’d he do that?”

“I don’t know!  I was downstairs doing my homework!”

“Why didn’t you go to the hospital with them?”

“Because I have a lot of homework!”

“You were supposed to go with them!  L____ couldn’t tell me what happened!”

“I’m sorry, Mommy!   He was bleeding, she had to take him.”

“Then if people are going to the hospital, you need to go with them!  You are not permitted to stay at home alone without my permission!  And somebody needs to tell me what’s going on!”

I forgot in that moment about my Champagne and the noisy room and not feeling my phone buzzing.  I was beginning to worry.  I was upset, and I needed to take it out on someone.  The babysitter was kind of a target, but between her so-so English and my abysmal Spanish, yelling at her had been futile.  The cab driver would have been a perfect target except he was doing everything I told him to do.  So unfortunately, my daughter got in the way of my anger. 

Although I can’t expect her to really know, at this point in her life, the difference between real and misdirected anger, I think she deflects all of it by taking none of it all that seriously.  I sometimes think that when I yell at her, all she hears is the sound of the teachers in the Charlie Brown specials: “Wonk, wonk, wonk.”

She responded by saying “Yes, Mommy,” a lot, her default answer when she knows there’s nothing I really want to hear except acknowledgement.  “I’m going to the hospital now,” I said.   “We’ll talk when I get back.  Keep the house locked up.”

“Yes, Mommy.”

I went straight to the Pediatric ER.   They must have been expecting me, because they waved me right inside. I walked up to the nurses’ station.   “Hi, I’m Randall A’s mother, I got a call from his babysitter?”

“Right here.”  The nurse led me towards a curtain, but I saw the babysitter first.   She looked like she was about to cry and throw up.

“What happened?”  I tried again.

The nurse intervened and called for the resident, an affable African doctor who read from the notes in the loveliest accent.  “She said he was taking a bath, and he climbed up on the sink to look at himself in the mirror, but his feet were wet, and he slipped off, and he cut his scrotum on the edge of the sink.”

I thought about the sharp edges of my bathroom countertops.  Yikes!  I looked at the babysitter, who still looked nauseated.  Now I understood why she couldn’t make me understand what had happened.  She didn’t know the English word “scrotum.”  It wasn’t a word that came up all that often in the ordinary course of babysitting.

“Mommy?” said a sad, plaintive voice.

I pulled back the curtain.  “Hey, baby, you hurt yourself?”

“Yes, do you want to see?” my son bravely volunteered.

Hell, no, I thought, but then I was also curious to see what kind of wound would make her rush him to the ER.  Randy was wearing pajama bottoms and one of Cami’s t-shirts.  He wasn’t wearing underwear, but a washcloth covered his private parts, and his wound.  He pulled down the pajama bottoms, and I lifted the washcloth — and tried not to recoil in horror.

It was a pretty nasty wound.  It looked as if the skin of the underside of his scrotum had gotten caught on the sharp corner of the bathroom sink and tore as he had fallen.  The towel was fairly covered with blood, though not soaked in it.  I could also see that it was a surface wound, but my boy had been really lucky that the sharp corner snagged only the skin, and didn’t penetrate deeply enough to injure a testicle.  Confirming what I saw, the resident said, “He’s okay.  It’s just the skin.  We need to clean it, and he’ll probably need some stitches.”

“But no damage to the — ”

“No, just a bad cut.”

I sighed.  I looked towards the curtain opening. Leidy was pacing outside the curtain.  I covered Randy back with the towel, and opened the curtain.

“Thank you,” I told her.  “You did the right thing.”

“I was — I was scared.”

“I know.  But this — this was bad.  This could have been really bad.  I’m sorry I got mad.  You were right.”

“I didn’t know what to call the–”

“Yeah, I know.”  I patted her shoulder.  “You did the right thing.”  I looked at my watch.  It was after 9 pm.  “It’s OK if you leave now, you know.”

“No, I — I want to make sure he okay.”  She stayed a few more minutes, and then, after I assured her that Randy would be OK, she left.

A woman came over shortly, who I soon understood was the attending.  The resident showed her the notes, showed her Randy’s wound, and she quickly agreed that Randy would need stitches.  “Lidocaine,” I heard her say before she walked off.  I remembered lidocaine from all of my years of watching ER.  It was a numbing agent, a local anesthetic.  But didn’t that usually involve a —

Just as I was thinking “needle,” a male nurse with an easy, joking manner came to help, and before I knew it, the team had quickly assembled a mini-surgical theater, with betadine, gauze, sutures, and a long needle.  The lidocaine.  I shuddered, knowing what was coming next.

“Okay, man,” the resident said to Randy, “We gotta sew it up down there, but first we gotta numb you up, so you won’t feel anything.”

“Okay,” Randy said.

“Mom, can you hold him?” asked the male nurse.

The resident picked up the needle.

“Wait, what are you guys doing?” Randy asked.

“We gotta numb you up down there,” the male nurse said again.

Randy started squirming.

“Mom, you gotta hold him,” the nurse said.  The resident put some betadine on a gauze and squeezed it onto the wound.

Randy started to cry.

“Come on, man, you’ve been so brave,” the resident said.  He was holding the needle.

“I don’t want that,” Randy said.

“This is the medicine.  We gotta put the medicine in so you won’t feel it when we sew you up.”

“I don’t want it,” Randy repeated.

“Come on, sweetie,” I said, trying to hold down Randy’s upper body by blocking it with my own.

Randy wasn’t having it.  As he saw the needle approach his testicles, he completely lost it.  “You guys!” he screamed.  “You guys! You know better!  I don’t want this!  Don’t do this to me!”

The resident stuck the needle in, but seemed to be having some difficulty finding the exact spot he wanted.

Randy thrashed and bucked.  “I. DON’T. WANT. THIS. YOU. GUYS. KNOW. BETTER!”

“Hold still, man!”

“Hold him, Mom!”

“Come on, man, you gotta let us fix you up down there, ’cause you’re gonna need that one day!”


I play a game with my son at home where my legs and arms are the “jail” and he has to use his strength to break out.  He is a strong, athletic boy, but he has never been able to escape from jail.  But at home, he’s never had anyone come at his testicles with a needle.  On this day, with a needle aimed at his scrotum, he got out of jail.  I couldn’t hold him.

I stepped back, afraid the needle of lidocaine would pierce a testicle if he didn’t stop moving.  I looked at the male nurse. “You’re going to have to hold him,” I said.  I turned away from the spectacle, half in fear and half in amusement.  I couldn’t believe my little boy’s appeal to his fellow males for the sanctity of his testicles.  I didn’t want him to be hurt, and I wanted this ordeal to be over for him, but I realized I was witnessing a moment that my son will remember for the rest of his life — the moment when he became, if not a man, then decidedly male.

Things again moved quickly.  The nurse held Randy much better than I could, the attending came to help the resident get the lidocaine where it was needed, and just like that, it was over.  Randy’s scrotum was numb, the pain had subsided, and he was calm.

From there, the resident stitched him up quickly and efficiently.  Randy lay back calmly, almost contemplative, as the operation came to a rapid and successful conclusion.  “Thank you,” he said to the resident when it was over, polite as ever.  I snickered and had to turn away again.  The area was cleaned again, slathered in Bacitracin ointment, and covered with a gauze.  The medical staff had been ultra professional, though I was sure they shared quite a chuckle over Randy later.  I was impressed with the medical staff, even more so because of the hospital’s less than stellar reputation.  A few minutes later, we were discharged and back on the street; ten minutes later, we were back at home.

Cami ran downstairs and greeted us, giving her brother a big hug.  I told her Randy had needed stitches, but didn’t describe his ordeal.  I apologized for yelling at her, and all was forgiven between us.  It’s now been nearly a week, and Randy is again riding his skateboard through the hallways, swinging on the open stair risers, and generally setting himself up for the next injury.  The first time I reminded him, “This is how you got hurt!,” he seemed duly chastened.  Now, he just ignores me.  We are almost back to normal.  But he can’t wait to see his adult cousin Charles over Thanksgiving, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find the two of them huddled up in Charles’ old room at my sister’s house, bonding over Randy’s story and the joys — and pitfalls — of being male.


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4 Responses to “A Delicate Balance”

  1. lisa cohen Says:

    this was a great story – made better cause i know all the players.

    you should know – it repeats itself a bunch of times, like it got posted wrong?

    i really like your writing, will look for more.

  2. Carolyn Says:

    Thanks, Lisa! I cleaned up the post so it should display properly now.

  3. Fancy Pancakes Says:

    I am so glad I found your blog. You are a wonderful story teller. I’ll think of this story when my 2 month old is getting his shots next week…. 😦 I’m scared!

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