The worst thing Madeline can imagine in the entire universe, and then beyond to the universes outside of our known universe, and then on into oblivion, is hurting her knee. She hurt it once. Both knees, really. Fell BAM on the concrete driveway like a linebacker lunging (and missing) his target. The cold SLAP of her bare knees and hands was unapologetic. Laying there like a frozen whale languishing on the beach, Madeline let out a whale (read: wail) that will forever be known as the Cry Heard Round the Block.
I gathered her sweet bloodiness into my arms and poured her out like Jello onto the counter where I began to dab, wipe, blow, and disinfect her wounds. The Cry was still bellowing out from her mouth, originating somewhere down low — in her toes, probably — ricocheting off the walls into my ear drums where it pounded them like mallet-wielding dwarves. And I don’t use dwarf metaphors lightly.
It was the worst thing that had ever happened to her. It became the standard, the bar for every other awful thing.
It is also her mechanism for sympathy. If I look tired or in pain, Maddie cocks her head like a parrot and asks, “You huwt knee, Mommy? You huwt knee?” If I’m bloated and menstruating and am making quite a show of it, she assumes it must have something to do with one of my knees. If I touch the hot handle of my soup pot and yank it away, a knee must be involved somewhere, somehow.
One time last month we were sitting at dinner when Drew dropped his spoon on the floor. Some mothers become enraged at things like spilled milk or flicked boogers, but I go Gary Busey-crazy whenever somebody drops a utensil. I threw my body dramatically over the side of my chair — my right leg sticking out sideways like a cartoon character — snatched the spoon from the floor, and thrust my right leg back under the table as torque to bring the rest of my body upright in one motion. What I hadn’t counted on was the fact that, well, that the table had not really, shall we say, taken it upon itself to move out of the way. WHACK.
Just as Madeline’s worst imaginable pain is a HUWT KNEE, my bar is set somewhere around the fourth centimeter of active labor. I have never broken a bone or torn a ligament or suffered a 3rd degree burn, nor have I run a marathon or blackened a toenail (those things sometimes go together), but I have endured labor twice, once time under the oppression of an ice-pick catheter and ineffective epidural. So when I tell you that this pain was right up there in the echelons of Women’s Pavilion intensity, you should pause.
Tears welled up. I held my knee close but wanted to beat it with a crowbar out of anger. I found myself breathing rhythmically to keep from losing control and terrifying The Things. Did you know the knee has a funny bone? Neither did I. Have you ever obliterated your funny bone, the one in your elbow? Exquisite agony. Multiply that by nine and you have me rocking at the dinner table like a woman about to birth a toddler. Breach.
Maddie’s eyes were like Jason’s Deli salad plates. Her worst fears were being realized. She was like a doomsday prepper witnessing the end of the world as she had always imagined it. In the sweetest, tenderest little voice she whispered, “You huwt knee, Mommy.” It was a statement. This was no question. The facts of the case were plain to see.
“Yes,” I gasped. “I hurt my knee. So bad.”
“Band-aid on it, Mommy? Band-aid?” I looked up. Her mouth was covered in red sauce; her fist aloft holding its spoon mid-bite. All the world had stopped because another dad-gummed KNEE had gone and gotten HUWT. Oh the humanity. When will we ever be free…of knees?
“No, I don’t need a Band-aid,” I said. I thought about throwing in a joke about Scotch that she wouldn’t get, but restrained myself, mostly because of the pain. “Thank you,” I said.
Two weeks later, she still asks about my knee. We’ll be sitting on the couch and out of the blue she’ll say, “You huwt knee, Mommy?” as if reminding herself that it hadn’t just been a nightmare. She pulls up the leg of her jeans and shows me her own knees, now perfect and white and without blemish, and reminds me of the time she too had experienced the worst, the absolute worst, that life had to offer.
We have hurt our knees, Thing Two and I. We are stronger now, world-weary. Wiser. I know our bond will last and last.
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