The Blessing of a Broken Arm?

On a recent Saturday morning, Jim and I stood at our kitchen counter and looked at the weekend puzzle, trying to figure how we might fit the chores, the errands, and a bit of work into a day. I needed to be in town for a few hours; he was hoping to finish a project.

“Would you be OK if I let Ursula and Virgil ride their bikes to Cam’s house?” Jim asked. Cam lives at the far end of our dirt road, about five miles away. Neither of our children have ridden their bikes that far alone. I rode down the road in my mind, counting the steep downhills (three) and uphills (none of note), the traffic (minimal), the route-finding (pretty straightforward). I could imagine Ursula handling all of it. She’s 12; she’s taken shorter solo rides. It would be a fun adventure for her. Virgil? At 7, he’s an enthusiastic but wobbly rider.

Jim and I made a pact about safety issues before Ursula was born. We agreed that the person with the lowest tolerance — the person who said, “I’m not comfortable with this” — got the final say, no questions asked, no debate. It’s worked well for us. So when I said I didn’t feel comfortable sending Virgil on such a long and difficult bike trip for his first bike ride without one of us, Jim didn’t press the point. But I was fine if he accompanied them on the ride, and then rode back home to work.

Problem solved, hazard avoided — right?

I was on my way home when I got the call: Jim and Virgil were headed to the emergency room; Ursula was safe at Cam’s. Virgil had taken a pretty bad fall right before they reached Cam’s house. He hadn’t crashed on the downhill — he’d shown impressive caution and control, Jim said — but trying something new. Jim had showed him how to stand up on his pedals to get more power going uphill. Somehow, his front tire had clipped Jim’s back tire and Virgil and his bike had tumbled down a steep, wooded embankment.

A young resident at the ER gave us the official diagnosis: dislocated elbow, fractured ulna bone in his left arm. In the days since we brought Virgil home with that arm in a cast, I’ve been thinking about what happened, wondering if we should have done something differently.

Several years ago, as part of a book discussion through the kids’ school, Jim and I read The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by psychologist Wendy Mogel. I liked the parenting book, which draws on Mogel’s years of experience as a family counselor and her knowledge of Jewish teachings. After Virgil’s accident, I pulled it down from my shelf and turned to the chapter of the same name.

“There is a Hebrew phrase, tzar gidul banim, that refers to the ubiquitous pain of raising children,” Mogel writes. “We parents go through years of emotional anguish as we raise our kids, but tzar gidol banim also refers to our children’s pain. Without it they cannot grow strong.” That is, a parent’s duty is not to protect children from every conceivable situation where they might get hurt, but to let kids take reasonable risks and learn from the consequences. I felt better after reading the chapter, but still, it was about the blessing of a skinned knee, not a broken arm.

As I was about to close the book, I noticed the word “broken” in the epigraph: “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” I thought of Virgil, how he’d handled the long wait in the ER and all its accompanying poking and prodding, his stoicism when the residents had to redo the first cast, his bravery after the fall. I considered how well he’s moved on and found new joys in the summer.

I’d still choose a successful ride to Cam’s over the accident if I could. But I would say that Virgil’s spirit has grown a bit because of this broken arm. And the cast comes off, we hope, before school starts.

Learn more
.. The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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