Ever wonder how you would respond in a crisis? The heart stopping, life changing, this-can’t-really-be-happening kind? I’ve always imagined I’d be cool and confident under pressure, then crack once the adrenaline and immediacy of the situation wore off. I was right. But I never expected a crisis to leave me with clean counters and folded laundry.
My husband slipped and fell down the stairs last week, hitting his head on the banister. I found him sprawled halfway down the staircase, bleeding and unconscious, after hearing a series of loud thumps that woke me from a light slumber. The time was 5:20 am.
After my initial scream, which woke our two daughters, I moved into action, putting my extensive Grey’s Anatomy training to good use. Relieved to find my husband’s pulse, I quickly put Ava (9) and Rhys (4) to work.
“Ava, Daddy is hurt and needs an ambulance,” I said, hysteria lurking behind every syllable. “I need you to get the telephone for me and dial 9-1-1. Can you do that?”
Ava’s eyes widened. “Mommy! Mommy, what happened? Why is he bleeding like that?”
“I don’t know what happened,” I yelled. “Get the phone!” Seeing her eyes, widened in terror, reminded me to calm down and breathe.
“Honey,” I said, “I know you’re scared. I want you to look at me.” Surprised by the newfound authority and control in my voice, I said, “Get the telephone and dial 9-1-1.”
As Ava ran to get the house phone, Mike began moaning and slowly writhing, his eyes opening briefly before rolling back in his head. Placing myself between his 6’ 2” frame and the remaining ten steps, my job was clear: use my strength to keep him from rolling down to the bottom.
A flash of pink caught my eye. I looked up to find Rhys standing at the top of the staircase clutching Finn, her favorite doll, and the hem of her rose-covered nightgown.
“Rhys, your job is to get me a clean towel for Daddy’s head. Can you do that, honey?” I said.
Rhys tilted her head and smiled at me before hurrying off; Ava handed me the phone so I could speak with the emergency dispatcher, who tried to calm me down while I begged her to hurry.
Ambulance en route, I turned to Ava again. “You have one more job. Open the front door so the ambulance people can come in.”
When Rhys returned with her offering of a single sheet of wet paper towel, I felt panic building inside my chest. As blood spilled from the gash in Mike’s forehead onto the hard wood steps, I wanted to scream – at Rhys, at the universe, at God, at anyone who would listen. We needed help. Real help. Not a half-sheet of Bounty; a fucking grownup.
Instead of screaming, I pressed my pajama sleeve to Mike’s head and used the paper towel to wipe the smears of blood from my hands.
While we waited for the ambulance, we talked to Mike as he regained consciousness and convinced ourselves he was going to be okay.
The sixty minutes between the ambulance rushing Mike to the emergency room and my friend Jackie arriving to take care of the girls was the longest of my life so far. After leaving messages for friends and family and cuddling with the girls, I settled them in front of the television and looked around for something to do, something to distract me from the panic and dread rising in my chest and the sight of congealing blood pooled on the staircase.
Cleaning was the obvious answer. When in doubt or panic or confusion, I clean. I clean counters to be specific. I doubt I’ve ever cleaned more efficiently. I methodically wiped down our kitchen counters three times before loading the dishwasher and folding the many loads of laundry cluttering our dining room table. I cleaned spit from the sink and scrubbed the toilets, something our children have never seen me do.
This robot mode felt safe, solid, something to hold on to. I knew if I slowed down for even a moment, I’d be overtaken with fear. And I was desperate to keep terror from getting anywhere near me again.
Around the time I started cleaning out the refrigerator, sanity returned. I grabbed a bucket and some rags to tackle the blood-splattered staircase. As I lovingly wiped Mike’s blood, the tears finally flowed. And haven’t stopped since.
Other than a serious concussion, five stitches and two chipped teeth, Mike is remarkably unharmed and recovering well. As for me, I’d like to borrow some of Mike’s resiliency. And our house has never been cleaner.