The person on the other end of the line was mumbling. I was frustrated. When I suddenly understood, I slammed down the phone.
“A dog bit Meena in the face,” I screamed to Pavana.
My mind raced. I couldn’t even imagine damage to Meena’s precious face. My stomach sank as we ran to the car.
In front of the house, a police officer stood with several people. A man held Meena, screaming. I took her in my arms and squatted on the ground with her draped over my knees to look at the wound.
My stomach churned with nausea as I suddenly remembered holding my two-year old brother Christian, covered in blood after a dog had bit him. I had rushed to the kitchen sink, holding his arms tight as he screamed, his head jerking to each side. I couldn’t make out the features of his face through the blood. But I had to make sure the dog hadn’t bit his throat or hit a main vein in his neck—that he wasn’t dying. Then I saw. Christian’s nose hung loosely on his face with a thin patch of skin on one side. The dog had basically removed his nose.
“Meena, I’m just going to look,” I told her. But she was hysterical. I looked.
A circular section of her lower left cheek was completely gone and a laceration extended an inch. It was wide, and exposed muscle and fat loosely dangled. The wound was awful.
“We have to go to the ER, son, quick.”
I cuddled Meena, who sobbed hysterically in her car seat on the drive to the emergency room.
“The dog swallowed my cheek,” she kept crying. “The dog swallowed my cheek. Is he going to bite the other side?”
The surgeon stood outside Meena’s room to report what the cosmetic surgeon had advised.
“I’m so sorry this has happened,” she said as she looked at my tormented face. “We know this is a child who will grow into a woman. I just can’t tell you how bad the scar will be. We have to just leave the area where skin is gone and see how it heals on its own. I’ll stitch the laceration.”
The doctor and a nurse readied Meena for stitching her face by wrapping her body in a hi-tech “blanket” that tightens around a child’s body to hold them in place. I put my face close to Meena’s in an attempt to hide the doctor’s thread and needle, but she could see everything. Being that close, I tried not let my eyes wander to the gaping wound as I stroked her head and hummed to her.
The surgeon thought she would only have to put in two stitches. Four were required. All the while Meena screamed, “Is it over? Is it done?”
We returned home around 10:00 pm. After getting everyone to sleep, I crawled into bed. Somehow coming to the end of the trauma gave my body permission to feel what it had been holding for the past seven hours, and I began to shake uncontrollably. As I did, tears surged. My baby’s precious face is permanently scarred.
I began to breathe to calm the shaking and gradually dozed.
The next day, when I spoke about the tragedy, some people seemed to make light of the incident.
“She’ll be all right.”
“A child’s skin heals well.”
“The scar won’t be so bad.”
I added many thoughts myself, Being worried about a scar on Meena’s face buys into the culture of what is beauty. Besides we are not these bodies.
I noticed myself being annoyed with all these statements—my own lame philosophizing and other’s sincere attempts to solace me. But I felt frustration instead. Then I realized it. Their words were jumping over where I was emotionally. In doing that, I felt invalidated, felt that Meena’s loss wasn’t properly honored.
I was grieving. I needed others to grieve with me—at least for a few days. I didn’t need assurances everything was all right. It wasn’t “all right.” Meena’s face was torn open by a dog and is forever scarred. I lost the immaculate face she was born with. I had expected I would always see it that way.
Isn’t that the rub in life? When we have expectations, we experience greater loss. What does that tell us about expectations and how we might manage them?
Besides, this incident especially shook me. I have taken great care and had lengthy discussions with Meena about not going up to dogs. After all, I’m the one that reached Christian first, picked him up, and scanned urgently over his bloody face to make sure he was going to live. The imprint is forever etched in the cells of my body.
I was determined never to let an animal harm Meena. I knew better. I had experience. So this incident was especially painful. My nightmare had come true.
Doesn’t this seem to happen to us? We often must face what we fear—those things that are especially difficult for us. Life is designed to draw us deeper into self reflection and awareness. Lessons seem exactly tailored to us.
I knew how all right things were for Meena. I didn’t need someone telling me that. I had seen others during the emergency room visit. As I stood in line at the bathroom, I had asked a young father if his child was okay.
“My son’s body is covered in eczema and doctor’s don’t have answers.”
Later, the little boy was wheeled from his ER room to a bed in the hospital. I was on the phone with my mother relaying the news of Meena’s accident.
The boy’s father had not been exaggerating when he said eczema covered his son’s body. The boy’s face was swollen and bright red. Every inch on his arms a malignant red. There was no “normal” skin.
My eyes followed him through the hospital door down a long corridor as I wondered what his life journey would look like. Then I turned to thought about how Meena’s life would be changed by the split second of a mixed lab biting her cheek. I doubted Meena would have as much difficulty as the little boy being wheeled past me.
But should that really make me feel my loss less? Maybe. But feelings aren’t usually something one reasons with—especially the very visceral ones that grab us in the moments of a tragedy.
No, the dog hadn’t bitten off Meena’s nose like one did to my brother. Yes, the wound would heal, though I still doubted it would “barely be visible” as many kept assuring me. Meena will be all right, and her face will be scarred. I will find whatever options are available to lessen the scar. We’ll meet with a cosmetic surgeon, though I don’t want to do cosmetic surgery. Meena has been through enough already.
To change the dressing on her face takes nearly an hour every evening as she recoils from the idea of anyone touching anywhere near her left cheek and I explain what we’re going to do, how and why, at each step of the process. She can barely contain herself. But she does not want to be held against her will to do the necessary job. They did that in emergency and two days later at the pediatrician’s office. “Oma,” she begged, “I won’t touch, don’t hold my arms.”
I have to wait to see how the wound heals to determine if it is best to leave it as it is and whether all the promises people have made about how “all right” it will be are true.
Observing my feelings to other’s responses, I felt I gained a valuable insight. I don’t know why it has eluded me until this moment. When dealing with other’s pain in the future, I decided I will try to respond to where they are in their process. If in my own discomfort or desire to comfort, I inadvertently circumvent the steps another’s emotions must move through, I offer less help than I could.
As I think back on all the times I have tried to solace another person, I’m sure I have done exactly what I felt others do with me. In trying to help others, I have always tried to “solve” problems and pointed out how it could be worse, how it wasn’t so bad, how they will live through it . . .
Now I know sometimes it is better to sit and cry with another and just hold them in their grief—at least for a little while.