BY MARLENA MADURO BARAF
The cast starts on her instep, covers her lower leg, ends four inches past her knee. It covers almost half of Penny, who is four. Our granddaughter will be fine when the bone heals, six weeks in an “Elsa Blue” fiberglass cast the color of princesses dresses. I am heartsick.
I was in my kitchen washing a pot. My daughter-in-law was on an errand. My son and my husband on the second floor. I was the closest.
Five minutes earlier, her sister Elena, who is six, ran past me laughing. I should have read that sugar-fueled laugh. I should have followed Elena to the front of the house. I should have said, “Girls, let’s find the soft Frisbee for some outdoor action.”
The two girls had been playing a game of sliding-in-socks on the wood floor from the narrow hall into the living room. Elena slammed into Penny, and Penny’s leg banged against the stairway wall.
Penny’s cry was loud and insistent like the siren of an ambulance. My son flew down the stairs, got to her first. I found them on the living room couch, Penny’s soft brown curls against his shoulder, her eyes wild and dark. “It’s not like her to keep this up,” we said. “This is the easy child.” Penny didn’t let me bring a soothing ice bag anywhere near her.
In the emergency room, Penny’s parents waited hours with updates to my husband and me at home. “It’s a spiral fracture of the tibia,” they said, “…the long bone in the lower part of her leg.” They told us of waiting for X-rays, then for a doctor to read them, for another to immobilize the lower leg in a splint. “The doctor says this break happens all the time with children under six.”
In my house two little girls had been doing something they shouldn’t have. Out of sight for fifteen minutes. Adults distracted by some chore. I can’t turn back the clock. Though children’s broken bones heal faster than adult bones, you are left with a little sadness and a little fear. When I hear how Penny screamed when her leg was moved, even gently, my heart breaks.
Her parents’ lives have imploded. During the last weeks of the hot summer there will be no pool or beach to distract Penny, no week of zoo camp, allowing mom and dad a rest before their small vacation from work is over. Penny must be carried to the bathroom at night and down the stairs of their house. Six-year-old Elena is having difficulty with the different kinds of attention that her sister is getting. She wants to ride in a stroller like Penny. The parents argue and cajole, and then they give in. “One day only,” they say. Now they travel with two strollers in the back of the car, stepping back in time.
I get texts from their mom, a picture of Penny sitting in a stroller at the edge of the lake laughing, a corner of blue, fiberglass cast peeking out on the far side of her skirt. She’s throwing pebbles into the water. Children are resilient. I comfort myself with this knowledge.
A few weeks later, Grandpa and I go to visit them in Rhode Island. We are having breakfast at the yellow Formica table with golden flecks that belonged to my daughter-in-law’s grandmother. The blue of Penny’s cast is dulling now with rubbed off marker names in many colors. She has finished her toasted waffles, fresh berries, and milk.
“Grandma, ask me if I need help with anything.”
“Penny, can I help you?”
“No, Grandma.” Penny slides down the front of the chair using the strength of her arms and the support of the long cast that lands first on the floor. The other, pink, articulated limb is helping with the angle. Penny slides her bottom onto the floor and scurries on her cheeks pumping herself up with her hands, across the tiled kitchen floor, onto the wood of the dining room and the rug of my son’s office where she reaches into the pyramid of cubbies that hold the toys. I am proud and worried, as we don’t know yet the final results of the healing process.
On the following day we drive with our daughter-in-law to beautiful park-like grounds with an old carousel to do an activity in which both girls can participate.
My husband and I climb onto fiberglass horses with real horsehair tails. Grandpa sits on a horse in the outer circle so he can pull on the brass ring and toss it into the clown’s mouth. My daughter-in-law sits in the chariot seats with both of her daughters. From my vantage point on the horse some feet behind I see my daughter-in-law smile. It’s a long, lovely ride. When the carousel stops, my daughter-in-law walks off quickly, holding Penny tight against her body and then runs down a path toward other buildings in the complex. We learn that Penny had a panic attack while on the carousel, crying loudly. The accident weeks before seems to have opened a chasm of fear. Elena says that Penny had to go to the bathroom badly.
Penny is still crying when her mother returns and settles her in the stroller. I want to help. “Let’s go look at the water and the flowers, Penny.” I wheel her across the paved street to the gardens. I point to a rowboat with two people along the edge of the sound. “Penny, look!”
Penny looks, and buckets of tears resume. They stream down her cheeks as she twists from side to side in the stroller. “Life is not fair. It’s not fair. I can’t go in the rowboat. I can’t dance. I can’t walk. Life is not fair, Grandma.”
I am at a loss for words and can only agree. “Life is not fair, Penny.” And I wish I’d broken my leg instead of her.
Her mother, who went to get our picnic lunch from the trunk of the car, arrives. She takes in the scene. “Everyone must be hungry!” she calls out cheerily, then she wheels the stroller down to a spread of lawn under a giant tree. Grandpa lays down the cloth. We sit and eat. Penny is eating her sandwich and smiling. Elena too.
Penny turns to me, “Grandma, that is not a carousel for broken-legged people.”
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Marlena Maduro Baraf is a Panamanian-born writer and interior designer based in New York. Her work has been published in the Westchester Review and Blue Lyra Review. She is currently at work on a memoir.