If You Don’t Cry

A playground in the 1970s was the most dangerous place for a child to be.

First of all, there was rarely any adult supervision.

Second, the play equipment was more along the lines of an American Ninja Warrior course…minus the safety nets and water underneath the hazards.

The swings alone were responsible for countless injuries. Those wooden planks with steel bolts held massive steel chain links that burned your skin off in the Southern summer heat and collided with the head of many a child who miscalculated the pendulum of the swing.

Yes, I was one of those children.

We lived in an apartment complex in Nashville, Tennessee for two years when I was five and six years old. The complex had one of those ninja playgrounds complete with a massive swing set, a solid steel merry-go-round that spun so fast the real challenge was to avoid being thrown to the gravel ten feet away, a steep metal slide with a ladder that threatened death, and a wooden see-saw that seemed out of place in that sea of metal.

The see-saw, however, had dangers of its own. My five-year old self can’t accurately measure the length of the wooden plank that made the see-saw, but it was so long that the real draw of the thing was the slide up and down the length of it. Its wood was weathered, making the top smooth and slick, and excellent for sliding. If I could convince two sturdy kids to sit on the ends and be the bobbers going up and down, then I could enjoy the sliding. I had quickly learned that the role of bobber was not for me. Control over when the other kid might bail and send me crashing to the ground from the full height of the see-saw was, quite simply, something I was unwilling to surrender.

So I was the slider.

The thing about this slide was its edges. Yeah, it was smooth and slick on top, but the sides were not only rough, they were splintered and breaking down. One day as I slid, I held onto the sides a bit too tightly and felt a painful prick in my left hand. When I looked down, there was a tiny drop of blood at the entry point, but across the entire width of my palm was a giant splinter measuring three inches long.

No big deal, right?

But it was.

No one could get it out. My parents took turns poking and prodding and pulling and tweezing while holding me down, as I screamed and writhed underneath them. They had neighbors come over and attempt the same. My poor little hand was traumatized with the effort.

My soul wasn’t faring much better.

It. Was. Not. Budging. Much to my father’s chagrin, we needed help. These were the days well before urgent care centers were on every corner, so we had one option – the emergency room. And, for reasons I will never understand, my father was the one who took me.

At the hospital, I was placed on a thin, metal bed in a freezing cold room with bright lights above me. I remember the hospital staff around the bed with their blue gowns and masks on. Someone walked over to my left side and strapped my arm down and out away from my body.

Then, suddenly my father’s face was above mine as he said to me, “Kaysie, if you don’t cry, I’ll buy you whatever toy you want from the toy store.”

Now, before I continue with the story, I think it’s important to note here that I can count on one hand the number of times my father bought me a toy. This includes Christmas and birthdays. So, you can imagine how he was able to get my attention with the above proposal.

Five seconds later two masked doctors stood on each side of my arm. One of them pulled out a huge needle, told me to hold still, and injected it into my hand.

I mean, for crying out loud.

Except, I couldn’t cry out loud.

We’d made a deal.

Kind of.

I never really agreed, but I never said no either. Not that there was time. Between the shock of what was happening to me, the sheer lack of comprehension of it all, and the blinding pain I was experiencing, it was all I could do to keep the contents of my stomach inside me.

But I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream. I didn’t shout. I held my breath or barely breathed, pinched my right leg with my right fingers as a distraction (a coping skill I’ve held onto, by the way), and held still just like the doctors asked, while they surgically removed a three-inch piece of wood that had embedded itself in the muscle tissue of my hand.

Because as soon as I heard my father say toy store, the game was on.

I don’t think he was baiting me. I don’t think he was daring me to see if I was gutsy enough to get through the procedure without crying. I think my father was a coward.

Looking back on the situation now, as an adult and a parent of four children of my own, who has accompanied each of them to the ER for various needs (some of them multiple times, bless their exhausting little hearts), it feels to me that he knew that it was going to take everything he had, which wasn’t much, to get through my procedure, so he was desperately trying to find a way to make it easier for him.

Because you see, there were no hospital vending machines for gin.

And gin was how he got through the things.

But you know what? I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. At the time, I was focused on one thing…this:

And I wanted it bad. Just real bad.

I wasn’t a doll person, typically, but THIS doll was primo. I mean, she ate, she drank from a bottle, AND she peed in a diaper! It wasn’t a toy! It was like having a real, live baby!

Spoiler alert: not so much.

After the procedure, I was placed in a wheelchair and wheeled into what must have been a holding area with my dad. I didn’t know this, of course.

Why didn’t adults talk to children in the 70s?

My dad must have decided he would die without a cigarette at this point because he told me he’d be right back and left me sitting there alone in my wheelchair. Suddenly, a nurse approached my chair and began wheeling me down the hall to another room…without an explanation and WITHOUT MY FATHER. She was one of those lovely no-nonsense nurses, so without fanfare, she pulled up my right sleeve, sanitized my arm and gave me what I now know was a tetanus shot.

For the love.

After that little bonding session, I was returned to the holding area just as my father turned the corner, so No-Nonsense Nurse Nancy passed me to him, and I feel confident he was quite relieved to then walk his five-year old stitched, splinted and dry-eyed daughter out of the hospital.

I never shed one tear and, for once, my dad was true to his word. My Baby Alive was delivered to me brand new and in the box by my father later that same day.

I gotta tell ya, though, I paid way too high a price for a doll that kept getting clogged with baby food.

Because this became a pattern between my father and me.

Once I proved my strength in a crisis, I guess he thought it meant he could expect me to step up the next time it was needed. And the next time. And the next. And so on.

I guess I thought so, too.

You know, I never went back to the middle of that see-saw. I realized that the bobber position was perfect for me after all.

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