Everyone knows there are differing levels of screams that can peel out of a human being. Prison wardens, Edvard Munch, and parents are particularly fine connoisseurs of the scream.
As a parent myself, I’m going to leave those connections alone because to unpack them would be too disturbing.
Screaming in physical pain is the tummy clenching variety I’m wanting to talk to you about here. Any child carer knows a long pause between injury and sobbing is bad. I’ve found myself racing towards a hurt but silent child counting 1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000 and if by then the child still isn’t screaming my adrenaline spikes as I know it’s serious.
I was once at our local park with my daughter waiting for our turn on the swing. In front of us the little boy at the highest arc flew through the air and landed hard crumpling both legs. The child was so shocked there was a momentary ocean of silence. The father started screaming before his son did, the boy’s legs origami weird beneath him.
This brings me to my son Jack jamming his fingers in a door last year. His screaming was so high on the Richter that our home shook. Shock and fear went atomic. Pulling his hand from the slammed door Jack vaulted 3 fingernails, yanking the nails from their beds and crushing the little bones. Within minutes I was restraining a hysterical Jack in the back of our car, my husband gunning us the the hospital as fast as possible, our ears bleeding with horror at the primal sound he was making.
The short of it is that we received immediate and excellent care. There were efficient nurses, x-rays, an emergency doctor, orthopedic surgeon and a hand specialist all tending to our boy. Jack was filled with pain relief and ultimately his injuries were not at all serious. Knowing this, my husband had quietly excused himself and taken to the hospital garden, lifted his head to the sky and screamed. I found this shocking and oddly marvelous. I wondered at all the other fathers whose inner warrior had been released out there over the play equipment. My husband returned half smiling, “I was worried he’d never be a concert pianist, or a hand model.” A hand model? We both laughed a little too hard fueled with receding mania. We opted not to operate to re-embed Jack’s nails and the outrageously handsome doctor just yanked them off with pillars.
Jack’s paw was all bandaged up, he was exhausted and slumbering in my arms in the waiting room of the children’s hospital. His favourite Tintin t-shirt smattered with droplets of his blood. My husband had gone off to find some food to fill our bellies until we were discharged. It was late, dark and still outside. The television was on silent, the neon lights humming too brightly. Jack and I were alone in the room with a few abandoned crisp packets and coffee cups. I sat quietly feeling my body go heavy with relief and the tidal pull of sleep that comes after panic.
The doors into the emergency ward opened and a tall willowy woman walked into the room. She seemed to be without direction drifting towards the water cooler but stopping short. She wore grey jeans and a crumpled white shirt. Noticing us she directed her face to me. Her eyes sitting so sad inside her head that all the air was punctured from my lungs. ‘Is your little boy alright?’ she enquired. Her voice sounded as if it had travelled across mountains to be in this room. It occurred to me that she may not be real; a lovely, heartbroken ghost shimmering before me with her translucent skin and dark cried-out gaze. “He’s basically had an aggressive manicure,” I answered. A silence fell between us as she stood before me. “Would you like to sit down?” I asked. And she shook her head a little. “I have been sitting for a long time, I’m just stretching my legs.” I nodded and we relapsed into silence. She ran her fingers through her hair and blinked gently at me then turned to go.
I didn’t want her to leave, her gravitational pull was strong. So I asked in a quiet rush “And you, where is your child?” The woman stopped and answered slowly into space. “My little girl Grace is inside with her father.” She paused again and thought for a moment, perhaps deciding if to speak on. Then looking down to her feet, she said, “they tell us she may finally die tonight.”
What is there to say in moments like this? What is there to be done? I wanted to enfold myself around this strong, resplendent, depleted woman. I wanted to take her by the hands and kiss her palms and say ‘I am so desperately sorry. I’m outraged for you. This mustn’t befall you! I will keep you safe. All will be well as how is the death of a child survivable?’
And yet I am just mortal. Just a stranger to this woman. I am sitting on the other side of the sliding doors of fate. I am the one who will leave within the hour with my robust son. She is the one standing with death’s hands around her heart. I wanted to keep her safe with my love, with the ferocity of my will. I wanted to rush her from the hospital, liberate her from the nightmare.
Instead, we made eye contact for a moment and I said ‘“My heart breaks for you.” She smiled with such humanity and turned back to meet her daughter’s fate. As she walked through the doors a tear fell down my face and landed on the chest of my son.
There was no screaming here. None left, none great enough to evacuate the horror. What sits at the end of screaming? Is it a void? Utter isolation? Or can it be a state of grace?