It was July, and our family of five was living temporarily in Cologne, Germany. “A learning experience for the kids,” we said. “A family summer abroad!” The trip, our grand adventure, had been planned months in advance in exacting detail.
We selected our apartment especially for its child-friendliness. Two kids’ bedrooms and a play room were fortuitously outfitted with all the sturdy, German-made toys my three children, ages 10, eight, and six, could possibly desire. Mounted on the wall in each of the bedrooms hung loft beds, well guarded with protective railings, perfect for fort building. My kids argued all the way up to our arrival date over who would get the two loft beds and who would have to sleep in a lowly “regular” bed below.
I shudder now to think of those conversations – and especially to think of those loft beds.
On the night of the Fourth of July, about halfway through our summer, I was asleep when I was awakened by a loud thud in the next room. Racing into my daughter’s bedroom, I found her in a pool of blood on the floor, incoherent, my husband screaming over her. Somehow, she had fallen in her sleep the nine and a half feet from the loft onto the hardwood floor below. A confused, desperate scramble followed. Despite all our planning for our experience abroad, my husband and I had never educated ourselves about what to do in an emergency. Now, with our daughter injured to an incalculable extent, we did not even know how to call for help in Germany. 911 was obviously not the right number, but what was?
Eventually, my husband tried dialing 911 anyway, which (incredibly) got him through to emergency services. After an agonizing 40-minute wait, during which the ambulance went to the wrong address, help arrived.
My daughter spent a total of five days in a German hospital. She had fractured her skull, sustained a serious concussion, dislocated her inner ear, and broken her right collarbone. Despite my being fluent in German, the hospital experience was a labyrinth of cultural differences, uncertainties, and frustrations. And with no family or friends nearby, I felt plunged into a nightmare of confusion and terror with no emotional support. While my daughter dozed in a semi-conscious state for most of the five days, I spent the time sobbing helplessly in a corner.
It was the worst week of my life – a picture of pain.
But as the incident recedes further and further into the past, I find my reaction to it is not horror or even sadness. Rather, my emotional posture toward that time is one of holding it close to my heart. In short, I am discovering that pain can be precious.
Pain is intensely personal. It identifies us. Though I didn’t ask for it and would never wish it on anyone, the time my sweet little girl was injured in Germany is becoming a part of my family’s story – and of mine. The incident is gradually taking its place as a piece of the patchwork quilt of me: as a parent, wife, and human being. There is something unique and distinguishing in it, stamped upon me now like the color of my eyes or the signature dimple in my left cheek. Having lived through it, I will never be the same.
Precious to me in retrospect is the strength and intimacy this time established between my husband and me. My husband rose to the occasion of being the father to an injured child in every way, and I love him more than ever for it. There’s a closeness that arises from shared experience, good or bad. No one else on this earth knows what it was like in those moments when we found our child senseless on the floor, not knowing if she would live or die. No one else spent nights lying beside her and the five beeping machines attached to her body, wondering if she would ever regain her spunky personality after the head injury, or recover from the subsequent facial paralysis. These are dear secrets only the two of us share, locked in the treasure box of mutual memory.
Like the intimacy gained with my husband, I found a similar spiritual intimacy with God through this incident. During those five days and the ones that followed, while my husband cared for our other children, I had to face many difficulties alone. But believing that I was not truly alone – that God saw me – held me up through some of the worst of them. I know He saw me when I held my daughter’s hair back as she vomited blood, or as I made the hour-long public transit ride to her hospital, red-eyed with lack of sleep, suppressing sobs. His presence comforted me when I faced the awful task of cleaning her bedroom of the aftermath of her injury. These are tender memories now of times spent in the arms of One who never lets go.
Finally, my pain holds a precious place in my heart because it opened my eyes to the fragility of life – a lesson we don’t often speak openly about, but has great, quiet value. My daughter easily could have died that night. Coming face-to-face with that sobering reality has made me love her better. I comb her hair with extra gentleness now, read her the extra story before bedtime. A deep thankfulness rises within me every time I think of how close we came to losing her.
I always knew that the word “tender” had two meanings: one painful, one sweet. A wound can be tender and sore; a loving memory can be tender and dear. But it wasn’t until my daughter’s injury that I came to realize that the two seemingly disparate meanings of this word could coexist as one.