Resiliency: A Lesson From My Broken Baby

Jenni Frizzell-Fuller Baby

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I can already tell you what the best part of this week is going to be: this Friday, my daughter Norah gets the cast off her leg, one day shy of her 11-month birthday. That will be a good day. The best day.

How does a baby who can barely crawl, let alone walk, have a broken leg, you ask?

Well, unlike a youngster who crashes on her bike or jumps off a swing-set, about which you can say, “She broke her leg when she crashed her bike. I was horrified!” I cannot blame my daughter, or learning experiences about gravity, for this one. I am 100% at fault for my daughter’s tiny purple cast. I am the one she trusts, unequivocally, to keep her safe. I have carried her up and down our staircase hundreds of times since the day she was born, and yet, I broke her leg.

I had just gotten her from her afternoon nap. I propped her on my hip and started down the stairs. Before I knew it, the ball of my sock-clad foot was slipping down the carpeted staircase. Everything about the world became a blur of stop-motion freeze-frames and a roaring in my ears. A voice in my head screamed, “Protect her head, protect her neck, your body needs to absorb this.” I wrapped my right arm tightly around her, trying to move her towards my center as quickly as possible, while my left arm flailed for a grip on anything to stop me from somersaulting downwards. I did everything I could to fall backwards, not forwards, and succeeded, only to land on Norah’s leg, that clung innocently monkey-like to my back.

You would think she would hate me, want to push me away and scamper to a safe place, but she clung to me as we caught our breath on the staircase. She cried a little, but more, she searched my face for a sign that we were all okay. I smiled at her, despite my own fear that I had done irreparable damage to one of us. My elbow bled and my side throbbed, but Norah’s tiny whimpers of fear cut far more deeply. I moved us to the sofa where we snuggled and she calmed. Through that evening, she cheered up, ate dinner, and started playing. It wasn’t until Ted and I tried to get her to pull herself to standing that we noticed she wasn’t bearing weight on her left leg. Thankfully, because at that moment my brain stopped working and my heart stood still, Ted made the call that she needed to see a doctor. 

At the urgent care clinic, a doctor examined her and made the call that if we didn't see improvement by morning we needed to see a bone/joint specialist. That night, Norah slept for 12 hours straight. That's what kind of trooper I somehow am the mother of.

Let me tell you this: you will never, ever forget the moment that you see your child’s broken bone on an X-ray. You will never, ever forget how tiny and scared they look lying on an examination table built for an adult. You will never forget her searching your face for reassurance as a stranger wraps plastered gauze around her leg and up her thigh. You will never, ever feel anything like the shame you feel when people see a tiny cast protruding from your child’s pant leg and immediately look at you, wondering, “What kind of parent lets their baby break their leg?!”

But there’s something else that will stay mired in my memory for the rest of my life: I will never forget Norah’s unbelievable resilience at this setback. She had just learned to crawl when she had her cast put on, and in my worry of the reverberations of this accident I wondered if it wouldn’t stall her development—nope. Norah has been able to cruise around like everything is totally normal. She has learned to crawl and pull herself to standing and climb all over her dad and her siblings and the dog, despite being a little bit hobbled by her cast. If she has been in pain during the last month, she has never once let on (other than those pesky teeth that insist on popping in!) She is happy—hilariously so at times—and still looks at me like I am the one to root her in this scary world, like I am the one to keep her safe.

Her little heart is just as resilient as the rest of her. Just as she hasn’t allowed this physical challenge to hinder her in any way, part of her (I assume) thinks that this is what happens to everyone, and therefore, has treated it like every new thing—from her first terrifying bath to her first taste of chocolate—it’s what happens in this world, in this lifetime.

Except that it’s not. And for that, I admire my little girl. I admire her courage and her sense of humor. I admire how she lets me force her leg into a plastic protector before bath time. I admire her skills and her strength as she lets her arms and right leg make up for her broken leg to accomplish whatever gymnastics she’s attempting at any given moment. I admire how anytime music comes on she absolutely must dance in her little, head bobbing, booty bouncing way.

I admire how quickly she forgives, and wish my heart were that open to those who unintentionally cause me pain.

I admire how she seemed to say, “Okay. So this happened. I’m over it and I want to keep going,” because sometimes those are the hardest thoughts to think in the face of adversity.

I most admire her bottomless resiliency that seems to flow much more deeply than mere naïveté of being a baby. And while I still kick myself every day for slipping on that one stair, while I still shake at the thought of it, and while my heart breaks every day when I unzip her jammies and see that purple cast, she is able to laugh and coo at me and explore her world with her wondrous eyes, everything new, everything wonderful, with each morning. She buries her face deep in my neck before pushing off, asking to get down and get moving, but for that one second, her breath warm on my skin, she is able to make me magically feel capable of being the superhero she thinks I am.

As I share this story, other parents tell me about the time they slipped, or accidentally slammed a finger in the door, or watched their child roll off of a bed or a couch, or even had to go to the ER for stitches and broken bones. It's more common than you think. I'm sure that many more times Norah will get hurt, and I'm sure some of those times it will be my fault. But I'm also sure that each time she gets hurt—my fault or not—I will feel this same crushing, all-consuming guilt, the broken heart of not being able to protect her from everything in this dangerous world, chief among them, my own mistakes. 


About the Author

Jenni Frizzell-Fuller

Jenni is an English teacher at Hellgate High School. has always been an important part of her life: journaling, poetry, prose, and memoir all have a special place in her writing life. Jenni is a wife, a step-mother to two amazing teenagers, and a mother to a three month old daughter. She loves Montana and has lived there all her life, but she does have a bit of wanderlust and would love to teach and write abroad someday.

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January 2015 – live & learn
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