Last weekend I watched my eight-year-old son fall out of a tree, plummet twelve feet through the air and smack into the ground, on his neck.
As fun things to do on a Saturday afternoon go, this has got to come somewhere near the soggy, rotting bottom of the list. Really, I’d recommend an afternoon eating a dog’s haemorrhoids more highly.
Below is a photo of the tree. Very near the top is the branch from which Charlie fell, narrowly missing both the bricks I’ve cunningly made into a stupendously un-child-friendly border AND the step ladder that one of my children – who shall remain nameless, Phoebe – put there to make it easier to climb into the tree. (Please ignore the very attractive plank hiding in the bush, for now. It comes in later…)
The heart-stopping sound of a child’s body thudding into solid ground from a great height is one that Mother Nature has cunningly hard-wired into our DNA, alongside that of Screaming Baby, Husband Shagging Au Pair In Spare Room and the ghastly ‘ting’ of an Empty Nutella Jar.
It elicits a response so primal, bloody-chilling and desperate it’s on a par with women on a hen weekend being told there are only twenty bottles of tequila left behind the bar.
As I watched him fall, realising there was nothing I could do to stop him and awaiting the toneless, dull THUD of Human Hitting Grass followed by the grim, leaden silence indicating a smashed up child, my sense of Time passing did that thing it does in films where they try to make it look as if it’s both standing still and speeded up – an effect sneakily achieved by alternating between slow-motion and fast-forward, and shooting it free-hand so it’s all wobbly and a bit blurred, making the pop-corn munching viewer feel suitably sick and empty of breath.
Truly, my mind deserves an Oscar for special effects and cinematography.
Once Charlie’s neck hit the grass, followed by the rest of his floppy body, and I stopped pretending to be Steven Spielberg and writing my Oscar speech in my head, there followed a few minutes of,
“SHIT! Oh my God! Charlie! CHARLIE!! Are you OK?? Can you hear me? Can you move? Can you move your neck? Can you move your back? Can you move your eyes? How many fingers am I holding up? No, it’s not rude, I’m just checking you can see and count to two. Can you follow my finger as I move it up and down, left and right? What’s your name, Charlie? Oh, good point…..OK, what’s my name?” and so on.
I quickly concluded, with tear-inducing relief, that he was neither paralysed nor concussed, nor much interested in my DIY child-rescuing methods.
As one does in such moments of overwhelming joy and love for someone you thought you’d almost lost, I decided there and then that I was never ever ever ever EVER going to be angry with him again, or ignore him when I was trying to write an email, and that he could have as much ice cream as he wanted, FOREVER, and I would stop kissing him in the school playground every morning in front of his friends. And wiping breakfast off his face with a spat-on tissue.
And I also decided, also right there and then – it was a very busy second or two of decision-making, as you can see – that I would definitely let him climb that tree again if he wanted to.
Indeed, that I would encourage him to.
This may seem a tad irresponsible, or even stupid to you, but here’s the thing:
As you already know, because you are Very Clever and you’ve read my various scribblings here and there – for which I thank you hugely from the wobbliest bottom of my heart – I am a devoted student of the ‘Knocks and Bumps’ school of life.
An adventurous, curious child from birth (in the sense that I am curious about things, not that I’m weird…although the jury is still out on the latter, to be honest) I’ve always pushed buttons and boundaries, stuck my fingers in the flame, got burned and promised myself I’d not do that again.
Until the next time.
I’ve always wanted to ‘just see what happens if…’
“Ooopsie”, my most commonly used word as a child, generally meant,
“Um, Dad….I was just seeing what would happen if *insert X,Y, Z* and I seem to have sawn off my arm and caused £1000 worth of damage to your record player….Sorry.”
Natural tendencies for adventure, risk-taking and experimentation were exacerbated by my equally out-going, life-living parents who raised me to believe that if you’re not falling you’re not learning. And one glance at the scratched wreckage that is my body would indicate that I must have learned a heck of a lot.
When I was a child I spent so much time in A&E after one disastrous Little Experiment or other that I was on first name terms with all the doctors – it’s never too early to lust after a man with a stethoscope around his neck, I’ve always thought – and they eventually named a room after me.
The Liz Fraser Rectoscopy Room remains to this day.
And I’ve not changed much as I’ve grown older: my body is littered with bumps, dents, bruises, scars, burns, cuts and grazes, each of which is the result of some Little Ooopsie that I’ve sustained during my lessons in Cotton-Wool Free Curiosity.
Exhibits include the dent in my leg caused by driving a motorbike off a 20-foot wall into a paddy field because I was ‘just seeing’ if I could ride the letter N between pot holes (I couldn’t. The letter S, it turns out, is much easier, and very helpfully works in both capitals and lower case….);
the burn scars on my hand caused when I was ‘just seeing’ if the gas taps in my school chemistry lab worked when you only turned them on a teeny weeny bit…and then tested this with a naked flame….KABOOM. Whaddayaknow, they did work;
and the three gleaming new scars I have to today caused when the heavy plank I was painting – see, there’s the plank at last – fell and broke its fall on my shin, because I was ‘just seeing’ if I could stop holding it for a second and sunbathe my left arm better.
Perhaps these injuries were all caused by my own stupidity. Who knows. All I know is that I like being adventurous, I like experimenting and I’m far happier living life to the full and getting hurt from time to time than living in a cocoon of boring, safe cotton wool and experiencing nothing.
So when it comes to raising my own children I am passing the Cotton-Wool-Free baton to the three of them.
I’ve often written that I believe Kids Should Be Allowed To Climb Trees And If They Fall Then They Will Just Learn Not To Stand On Such Bloody Small Branches In Future. I let my children take risks – small, calculated ones, but risks nonetheless.
Life is all about pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, discovering what you are capable of and using the skills that you have. (Oh, and drinking wine and eating cake. That’s important too.)
Of course everyone has their own limits of how far beyond the ‘comfort zone’ they are prepared to go, or let their children go, and, as is the nature of Life, tragedies do happen when you’re having fun, pushing those limits.
My son’s fall this weekend made me question my pro-risk, cotton-wool-free method of living, and raising my children. But only for about three nanoseconds.
Because while some may think a parent is bloody stupid to let their children take risks and get hurt, I argue it’s equally bloody stupid to wrap them up, shield them from what life has to offer, and prevent them from reaching their own potential and living their lives to the max.
If you love something you live, feel and relish every inch of it, push it to its limit, share yourself with it and give part of yourself to it, take the good with the bad, explore it as far as you can and learn as much as you can from it.
That goes for Life as much as anything else (yes, even Nutella) and I want to make sure my children have a love affair with Life for as long as they live.
Of course they’ll get hurt along the way. But it beats sitting safely in front of a TV for 50 years watching your life drift past without you.
The step ladder has come down for a while and the tree stands empty of children. But I know Charlie and his sisters will be right back up there again soon, and I’ll be glad when they are.
I might stand at the bottom with a trampoline and a (half-naked) fireman next time though……just in case.