My daughter Helena has a flair for falling. Once a week, sometimes daily, she ends up face-down on the sidewalk of our Falls Church neighborhood. Her hands whiten with scrapes. Her pants redden at the knees. The tip of her nose stays a scab.
Watching it may be my least favorite activity. The raw pain and letdown, the embarrassment she can’t hide. But it’s the timing that makes it unbearable, the way her spills occur on the heels of exhilaration, her crashes often preceded by something like flight. I suppose it’s because of this joy—and the understanding that each fall works a fortifying magic, quickening her, teaching her how to be steadier on her feet—that I don’t stop her. I keep a close remove yet send her off (what choice do I have?), though I know how things will end.
It’s not like Helena would let me stop her. From early on, she was fearless. Hubris incarnate. Rising and falling was what the girl was about.
In the kitchen of the house we lived in when she was born, a door led to the basement. The steps were ladder-steep, the basement floor a mess of tools, must, rusty nails. Spiders were in the eaves, spider crickets in the corners. If not for the washer and dryer, we would hardly have gone down there. We tried to drill into Helena, not yet a year old, that the basement was out of bounds.
One afternoon while I was putting away dishes, she slipped my watch. In the time it took me to pull a bowl from the dishwasher, she had crawled the length of the room, unseated the door, and gone over the edge.
What I saw was nothing but sound. Pictures sparked by the muted thud of hard things clashing. That the sound was Helena’s head hitting the steps dawned as the one thud became a salvo and the salvo gave way to an antic wail. I’d never been so frightened, so wretched, so hell-bent on snatching back whatever had just been swiped. My wife, who was upstairs, later said my voice had been a pitiful mix of helplessness and rage.
I scooped Helena up. To my astonishment, she had landed on a pile of dirty laundry. I held my daughter as close as human hold allows, her face on fire, her bottom lip a bloody smear. She had wept her cheeks to ponds, but she was alert and breathing—and fighting mad.
I was furious, too. If only I had been watching her more closely. If only I’d put up a plastic gate. The violence of it, the blood and bruising, demanded retribution. But the ER nurse said, “This kind of thing really does happen all the time.”
Having kids brings many shocks, few greater than the realization that raising them is not ultimately about shielding them from pain. We’re right to try—what parent doesn’t? Still, at some basic level, we cannot do but fail. We would doubt anyone could survive childhood, except so many do. We’re left marveling at the human impulse, from earliest days, to keep going.
Just this week at a playground, Helena, five now, bounded onto the jungle gym. She made it across the buckle bridge and shot down the slide. As if emboldened by the nonchalance of her achievement, she returned for a second round. But on the stairs to the play tower, she lost her footing and crashed into a step.
She screamed. I came running, held her. But before I could gather our stuff for the walk home, Helena was pulling away, headed back for those stairs. Little Icarus, risen to fall again.
Drew Bratcher, a former Washingtonian assistant editor, can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Washingtonian.