The year my daughter wanted an accident as her bedtime story

By Tracy Tambosso

For over a year of her young life, my daughter insisted I tell her “an accident” before going to sleep at night. It seemed incongruous to me that a ribbons-and-lace four-year-old should delight in the details of bodily harm, but she was passionately interested in these stories and, although I felt vaguely baffled, I could come up with no good argument against them. Early on in this routine, it became apparent that she had no real interest in the background story; she endured it simply for the sweet anticipation it added to the injury. And since “better with blood” was her unspoken but obvious opinion, my husband and I were soon racking our memories for every scratch we’d ever suffered, eventually canvassing family and friends, and receiving their reminiscences of childhood scrapes with unexpected gratitude.

We never fabricated an accident; there was something nestled there that seemed too vital to nourish with fiction. And my child’s elephantine memory permitted no repetition. None, that is, until her favorite tale was told, and then that one—and only that one—had to be retold on demand, in precisely the same order and detail of the first telling.

Her favorite accident by far, the one that sent her to sleep with a contented half-smile on her face, was my childhood account of watching my cousin break his arm. I was ten years old at the time, and an aspiring tomboy. My cousin was eleven but I was just as tall as he was, which made me immensely proud. Due to my leggy advantage (my cousin’s height was mostly gained in his torso and big head), I dared him one summer afternoon to jump over his neighbor’s porch railing. The feat entailed taking a running leap from the front door and launching oneself over the waist-high railing onto the lawn below. Dean rose to the challenge and, invoking his age-given right, called first jump. I watched as he sailed over the railing, caught his foot in mid-flight and landed so hard on his wrist that the bones of his forearm broke out through his skin and stuck into the lawn.

During the telling of this story, my daughter never interrupted with questions about the consequences for the orchestrator of this very bad idea; neither did she care to consider the many times my cousin tried to get me to break something in the name of holding up my side of the dare. She would simply watch me with huge eyes and the stillness that comes from total four-year-old absorption until the bones were firmly embedded in the soil, and then interrupt with: “Was there blub?” Allowing the moment the gravity it deserved, I’d break my earnest stare into the middle distance, draw in a quiet breath, and, looking back into the unguarded expectation of her gaze, say, with a slight nod: “There was blood.”

Regardless of the accident being recounted, this affirmation of blood signaled the conclusion of our nighttime routine. Once it was uttered, my daughter inexplicably insisted on holding my gaze and solemnly saying, “Mama, if I laugh, I’m just thinking of something funny in my head and I’m still asleep. Always remember that.” The strictures of the ritual being thus observed, I’d kiss her cheek, both butterfly (for her) and standard (for me) and leave her to her dreams as I quietly closed the bedroom door and returned to the always-awaiting myriad tasks of work and house and family and life.

Was it profound, this nightly sharing of gruesome memories that concluded, and possibly redefined, her challenges of the day? Did it somehow manage to nurture resilience in the face of human frailty? Or was describing these accidents just a means to create a sacred time between a mother and child? I felt we would never be past playing out our roles in this ritual; and then one day I woke to realize it was gone. It had slipped away without my noticing, which made its passing even more of a loss.

Looking back on that time now, my memory holds more than nostalgia. I feel a recognition, something closer to the experience of reading a note I scribbled to myself years ago: “my baby’s head smells like sun-warmed pebbles on the seashore—how will I ever again visit a beach without mourning the loss of this moment?” We move on: moments come and go, some as intense instances of visceral connection, others as passing routines overlooked until the clarity of hindsight brings them back into view.

I had a ritual with my daughter that I honored until she outgrew the need of it. It occurs to me now that I needed it just as much as she did. We were both facing the threat of an uncertain future, learning to overcome the things we feared. For my daughter, that thing was harm: not knowing how to gauge the gravity of seeing herself bleed. For myself, it was time: allowing the years with my child to slip by in a haze of distraction. Eventually, my daughter realized that injuries are a passing experience; she stopped worrying about her ability to heal. And I realized that passing experiences, shared repeatedly with those we love, form a meaningful lifelong bond.

I stopped worrying about holding on to every moment and allowed the moments that matter to define themselves. Today, almost twenty years later, the unlikely image of my cousin’s bleeding bones topped by tufts of dirty grass still fills me with a warm glow of connection to my child.

Tracy Tambosso is a dentist in rural British Columbia, Canada. In the spring of 2018 her dental practice, and much of her town, was devastated by flooding. During the year it took her to rebuild, she found the opportunity to sign up for an online writing tutorial with Tim Kreider. This is one of the essays she wrote.

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