A June afternoon.
We’re back from gymnastics: an 8-year-old daredevil paired- up with a worrywart mom.
My delicate psyche could have better coped with a docile, ordinary child, one satisfied with Barbies and baking cookies, not this fearless shooting star doing double- flips into pits filled with giant blocks of foam.
And she deserves a mom who says Have Fun! instead of Be Careful.
But she got me, so here I am, trying to stay calm and somehow keep up until she finally leaves me in the dust. And I know it won’t be long.
By next year she’ll be out of the gym and onto a springboard and in a few more years when the high dive is too low she’ll jump out of an airplane for her eighteenth birthday because its suddenly do-able without my permission, and then it will be on to a tower thirty feet in the air with eighteen feet of water below.
But on this lovely summer day, the third grader is just starting to claw her way out of the sticky cocoon I wove around her at birth. And so far, I’m doing okay. More or less.
Yet inside motherhood, there’s always something threatening to frighten me into an institution. Today it’s a brown bat.
One that should be someplace else until twilight. One that isn’t supposed to be flopping around in the grass by the back door.
On the back step, our calico cat is hard at work grooming, rough tongue rasping furiously along her leg.
The R word has been in the local news a lot lately.
And now it worms its way into my overwrought mind.
Bring Sassy in, I tell my little girl, who wears burst blisters from the uneven parallel bars like a badge of honor on her palms.
A terrible tongue twister starts to writhe inside my head.
I tell myself to shut up and call the Health Department and ask them what to do.
Dr Seuss answers the phone.
Did the bat bite the cat?
Or did the cat bite the bat?
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
Off with its head, she confides. It’s probably rabid, she gloats two or three times, just to reassure me. As for your cat—I know, I say quickly.
But there’s no danger to your child if she didn’t touch the bat.
She didn’t touch the bat, I repeat dumbly.
There’s no danger my mind screams back, if the cat didn’t follow all its God-given instincts and pounce on the bat while it fluttered sickly on the ground. And if my beautiful first- born child didn’t pick up her pet with those raw blisters touching the saliva that dripped from the rough rasping tongue that was cleansing Sassy’s leg of the deadly rabies virus from which there is no escape once it has silently invaded your innocent eight- year- old bloodstream. I tell myself to shut up.
What did you say? I ask weakly.
“I said,” sighs the health department lady, ” there’s no problem unless your cat attacked the bat and got bodily fluids on its fur, and your kid happened to have, like, open wounds or something on her hands.
But she DID have open wounds on her hand.
Oh please, bring on the back handsprings and the pit full of foam blocks, and then take Erin back to the future and the ten- meter tower over the diving well, the open airplane door and the parachute, the hundred- mile bike race, the slick snowboard mountain at Tahoe, the giraffe roping and the cliff -diving in Africa.
Please don’t let my child get rabies from petting her cat.
The pediatrician is used to my absurd anxieties. There’s a post-exposure series of rabies shots, but let’s just wait for the lab results ,he counsels. There are too many “ifs” in the scenario, too many dots to be connected, says Erin’s doctor. Nothing to worry about. Calm down.
But he must have that same tongue twister stuck in his head too because an hour later he calls back. Why don’t I just bring Erin over there right now for the first rabies shot, he says. No sense waiting all that time for the lab results.
Better safe than sorry, he says as casually as a person can
who has just had the operator break in on my line with an emergency call from my doctor.
So we go.
Erin doesn’t cry. But with the shot,her teeth begin to chatter.
What’s wrong? I ask the doctor and he throws me a look.
It hurts like hell. That’s what’s wrong, he says.
I dare to look at the needle. He has put it right into
the open blister on my little girl’s palm. For the first time in her life, she screams in pain. I tell my daughter I’m sorry, but I don’t think she even hears me.
For a few days the daredevil is afraid to play in her own back yard. But I finally lure her outdoors to help me in the garden.
A yellow swallowtail dances around our heads as we weed.
Mommy, Erin says in a small voice.
Can butterflies have rabies?
It’s too late now to tell her that she doesn’t need to be afraid of butterflies, that everything will be all right, the bat won’t have rabies, Sassy won’t have to be euthanized, and before she knows it she’ll be the one handling and testing and healing bats and rats and big scary cats, and using a tranquilized rhino as a bean bag chair, and when she enters vet school in 17 years she won’t even need a booster shot.
Since I don’t know any of these things yet either, all I can do is mumble that she’s safe now—immune for life once she’s had all five inoculations.
But when I look around she has gone. And behind me I hear a door slam shut that will never open again.