Little Grey Elephant

I don’t like how he rides his bicycle without grabbing the handle bars.

Ethan goes down the street, arms up in the air above his head. Laughing, he says, “Hey! Look at me!”

I look and cringe as he wavers, the front tire wobbling, and I expect him to lose control and dive head-first over the bike, but he corrects himself and continues down the road.

“Would you stop doing that and ride your bike like a normal person? You’re going to give me a heart attack!” I yell.

His response is a hearty chuckle and he grabs the handle bars only to start pedaling at break-neck speed. He goes faster and faster then suddenly, he grabs the breaks and skids to a stop, the back tire now in front of him, dust billowing around him. He takes off again, going faster than before.

This kid is going to be the death of me, I just know it. Nine-years-old and already giving me issues. God help me when he reaches his teens–if he lives that long. He’s fearless, carefree, and scoffs in the face of danger. Lethal combination. But, I remember when I was nine and invincible, so I relax and continue watching him ride up and down the street.

Soon his friend Peter rides toward him and they stop and huddle their heads together in a serious conversation. I can’t quite make out what is being said, but the minds of nine-year-old boys plot delicious plans and sure enough, he calls out to me.

“Hey, can I go over to Pete’s house? Please?”

“Sure, pal. Remember your dad will be home by seven to take us out for dinner. Try not to blow anything up, okay? And be careful, please.”

I think he yelled back “Okay!” but he was too far down the street to hear. I keep sitting on the porch swing out front and am actually kind of glad he left. Now I can focus more on my book I’ve been half-assed reading. Without Evel Knievel tearing around the neighborhood, I’ll have some peace and quiet.

Yet despite my chance to relax, my thoughts wander away from the book and to Ethan and his father–my husband, Matt–and what a rocky start we had.

Matt’s first wife is no longer in the picture. She married Matt but only because she found out she was pregnant with Ethan. Her family protested them not being a “conventional family,” and they were married when she was three months pregnant. Soon after Ethan was born, she filed for divorce, picked up and left town, leaving Matt to raise his newborn son alone.

Matt has no idea where she is and wants to keep it that way.

“But what if she wants to see her son? What if she has a change of heart and wants to get back into Ethan’s life?” I asked Matt one night as we were lying in bed.

He laughed softly, my head bouncing gently off his chest.

“Baby, no way in Hell. As far as I’m concerned, you’re Ethan’s mom,” and he wrapped his arms around me tight.

Ethan was four when Matt and I started dating and I was careful around him. He wasn’t exactly receptive to me at first and would throw temper tantrums whenever Matt and I would leave Ethan alone with a babysitter. Matt had been a stay-at-home dad until Ethan was in preschool, so there were some separation issues, but I was extremely patient around him during this transition.

Time passed and Ethan began warming up to me. He’d hug me whenever I’d come over and I was sure to spend as much time with him as possible to get him used to me being around. Matt proposed to me a year later and I moved into the house after we married. By then, the three of us had formed a family and all went smoothly.

I came out of my daydream and sighed heavily. Looking down at my watch, I saw it was quarter till seven and I began berating myself.

“Jesus Christ, Karen…waste the whole afternoon away…”

Matt would be home soon and here I was off in la-la-land. I got up off the swing, grabbed my book and the glass of iced tea which had gone lukewarm and went inside. I decided to go over to Pete’s house to get Ethan and send Matt a text to see when he was going to be home. I walked into the living room and saw my phone on the couch, grabbed it and saw I missed a call from Matt.

“Hey, gorgeous,” he said as I listened to the message, “I just got out of work and am running late, but I should be home by seven thirty. Hope you two are hungry! Ask Ethan where he wants to eat and we’ll leave as soon as I get home. Love you.”

I smiled at the sound of my husband’s voice–deep and soothing. I love when he whispers in my ear and nibbles the lobe, breathing softly into my ear.

I walk out the front door and down the sidewalk to Peter’s house and see Ethan’s bike haphazardly on its side in the front yard. I walk up to the stairs and knock on the front door, then return to his bike and pick it up. Peter’s older sister answers the door, her look of excitement quickly fades when she sees it’s me, then sticks her head into the house and yells, “Ethan!! Your mom’s here!!”

I heard feet thumping down the stairs and Ethan shot out the front door over to me and grabbed his bike, already on top of it, ready to pedal back home.

I lean over to him and whisper, “forgetting your manners?”

“Oh yeah…thanks for having me over, Pete! See you tomorrow!”

I placed my hand on top of Ethan’s head and smile up at Peter’s sister and now Peter, as he was standing next to her in the doorway.

“Smooth, slick. Let’s go. Your dad should be home soon.”

We make our way back home, Ethan pedaling slowly beside me in the street as I walk on the sidewalk.

“Where do you want to eat, little man? Gentleman’s choice.”

“Can we have ice cream?”

“Just ice cream?”

“Yes. Just ice cream. You said ‘my choice’ and I choose ice cream,” he looked over at me with his soft, chocolate-brown eyes, them catching the last remnants of sunlight as it set through the trees.

“If ice is what you want, ice is what you shall have. Your dad will be thrilled,” I said with a wink.

Ethan let his bike drop to the ground by the front steps of our house.

“Ahem…why don’t you park that Chopper in the garage, little man,” giving him The Look.

He gave me a toothy grin and walked his bike back to the garage. Matt wasn’t home yet, so we went inside and I told Ethan to clean up.

“I don’t want you getting cooties in my hot fudge sundae. Wash up and change clothes, please. It’s not every day we take you out in public. I don’t want people think I abuse you.”

He stuck his tongue out at me and I stuck mine out in return. He ran upstairs, tripping on the second-to-last step. He fumbled for the top, then stood up, arms raised victoriously above his head like an Olympic gymnast and he bowed theatrically.

“Grace is not your forte, kid. Wash up. No cooties or no ice cream.”
Ethan came downstairs twenty minutes later in different clothes. He walked over to me on the couch and I demanded he sit down for his cootie inspection. I rifled through his hair like a monkey and announced him cootie free.

“Oooh, oooh, monkey boy clean!” he said as he hopped around the living room. He then began throwing fake poop at me.

“Alright, alright, that’s about enough of that, Monkey Boy,” I giggled.

He picked up the television remote and began surfing the channels, scooting close to me on the couch as he did so. I wrapped my arm around him and savored this moment.

He stared at the cartoon on the screen.

“When’s Dad coming home? I’m starving.”

I reached for my phone again to check the time. Quarter till eight. No missed calls.

“We’ll give him until eight, then we send out the hound dogs. He didn’t get off work until late, E. He’s probably stuck in traffic.”

“Okay, Karen,” he sighed, then laughed at the cartoon.

I ran my fingers through his hair, stealing glances at this boy in front of me, silently loving him more than I thought I ever would.

Ethan’s show ended.

“Karen? Where’s Dad? I’m getting really hungry. And I changed my mind. Let’s get hamburgers then ice cream. I worked up a mighty hunger earlier. Plus, I’m a growing boy and I need MEAT!”

“Mighty hunger, huh? Easy fella, we’ll get you fed,” I laughed. “Let’s call your dad.”

As I reached for the phone again, it rang in my hand, startling me. I saw Matt’s number on caller ID and a smile crept across my face.

“Well, hellooooo handsome. I told you not to call me here; my husband will be furious,” I purred into the phone.

“Uh…hello?”

The voice on the other end was not my husband.

“Matt? Where are you? Your family needs you. We require food.”
“Ma’am, I’m terribly sorry to call you like this, but–”

“Matt, knock it off. Are you coming home or not?”

“Ma’am, my name is Officer Daniels and I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid I have some bad news…”

“Is that Dad? Where is he? Tell him I’m going to die of starvation!”

I shushed Ethan by holding up my hand to his face and gave him a stern look, then placed my hand on his knee.

“What’s going on? Where’s Matt? Why are you calling from his phone?”

Ethan reached for the phone, “Lemme talk to my dad!”

“Ethan,” I hissed, “knock it off!”

I stood up from the couch and hurried into the kitchen, but Ethan followed me.

“I wanna talk to my daaaadddddd!!”

He had the tone and pitch to his voice I was all too familiar with when he was ready to throw a tantrum.

I covered the mouth piece, “Ethan. Not. Now. Go to your room.”

Giant, fat tears slpped down my boy’s perfect cheekbones, landing in dark stains on his t-shirt. He ran out of the kitchen, thundered upstairs, tripping on the last step again, but before he went into his bedroom, he yelled, “YOU’RE NOT MY MOTHER, KAREN!!” and slammed the door hard enough that the house shook.

“I’m sorry,” I said with a sigh to the man on the phone. “What’s going on? What’s happened to Matt?”

“You don’t need to be sorry, ma’am. There was an accident. Your husband was involved in a pretty bad car wreck and he’s being life-flighted to the nearest emergency room.”

The officer was still speaking, but I couldn’t hear a word he was saying. My ears fuzzy, my head fuzzier, I kept repeating softly “accident…accident…accident…”

“Ma’am? Did you get that? He’s being taken to Creighton Medical Center. Use the Emergency Room entrance and someone will be able to tell you more information. I’m very sorry, ma’am. Very sorry,” and with that, he hung up.

I stood in the kitchen with the phone still to my ear, listening to no one except my own voice repeating “accident…accident…accident…”
I took a deep breath and started gathering things I thought I might need for Matt–a copy of our insurance card, his Social Security card, snacks for Ethan…I had a feeling this was going to be a long night.

I ran upstairs to our bedroom and started throwing clothes into an overnight bag. Would Matt want this flannel pajama pants and robe? What about his slippers? Where are his slippers? I frantically searched our room for the slippers, then realized I needed Ethan to get ready, too.

I hurried down the hallway to his room and noticed the door was shut. I thought about knocking, but I went in.

“Go away, Karen. I’m mad at you,” he replied from behind a book.

“Little Ma–Ethan. Look, I’m sorry I yelled at you and upset you.” My voice was cracking. I was trying to hold back the tears that wanted to burst, and one slipped down my face.

Ethan looked up from his book and saw my red, swollen eyes. He sat up quickly in bed, throwing his book down.

“Karen? What’s wrong?” he walked over to me and I collapsed at his knees, sobbing into his jeans. Ethan knelt down beside me, his own tears now falling.

I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t talk, but I somehow managed to speak. I grabbed his hands in mine.

“Ethan, your dad…he was in a pretty bad car accident. We have to go to the hospital right now, okay?”

Ethan stared at me with giant deep brown eyes, tears welling up in the corners and falling on our clasped hands.

“Is…is…he okay? Karen? Is he going to be alright?” he asked between sniffles.

“Baby, I don’t know. That’s why we need to leave right now. I want you to pack a few things to bring with us, okay? We might be there a while.”

He stood up slowly and wiped the tears off his cheeks with the back of his hand and nodded feebly. Walking around his room, he seemed lost and disorientated, and began picking random things up to bring along: his PlayStation Portable and some video games, the book he was reading, and as he walked by the stuffed grey elephant I had given him for his birthday one year after our trip to the zoo, he stopped and hesitated, then picked it up, tucking it under his arm. He found his back pack and stuffed everything inside. He zipped it shut, sighed and looked over at me. He looked like a young soldier going off to fight in some foreign war, scared out of his mind, but trying to be brave.

“Okay. I’m ready. Let’s go be with Dad,” his voice quavered.

Ethan was clutching my hand hard as we walked through the revolving doors to the Emergency Room. He hid behind me at the front desk, his face buried in my back.

I could feel wet spots forming on my shirt and I squeezed Ethan’s hand.

The nurse in the trauma unit looked bored and barely gave us a second glance until I said Matt’s name, then she looked at me with sad eyes and directed us to his room.

“Fifth floor, Intensive Care Unit, room 543,” she said. “One you get off the elevators, take a left and your husband’s room is on the right side of the hallway.”

He sympathy seemed rehearsed, like she practiced acting sympathetic while outside on her smoke break.

Ethan and I rode up to the ICU in silence. We stood in the doorway before entering Matt’s room, unsure of what we’d see. I knelt down before Ethan and tried to prepare him for what to expect.

“Okay, baby. Remember, your dad was in an accident, so he’s going to look pretty banged up. Try not to be scared, okay? Don’t be scared…”I don’t know if I was saying this for Ethan’s benefit or mine.

Ethan blinked rapidly and tears fell again. I grabbed my son and hugged him tight. He hugged back tighter.

We walked hand-in-hand into the room and saw Matt laying in the hospital bed. Tubes coming from his nose, mouth and both arms. The soft beeping of the heart monitor and the “ssssssshhhhh” sound from the respirator were the only sounds in the room. Both of Matt’s eyes were swollen shut and deep blue and purple. An angry cut snaked down the left side of his face and was held together with gauze strips. His right arm was in a sling and his fingers were swollen; almost comically so. They reminded me of clown gloves. His right leg was suspended above the bed in another sling and his leg was encased in a plaster cast that went up to his mid-thigh.

I glanced at the machines next to Matt’s bed and saw a bunch of numbers that I had no idea what meant. Some where high, some were low and every now and again, the machine would make its own sound and the blood pressure cuff around Matt’s left arm would inflate. There was an IV stand next to the bed and dripping what was no doubt some sort of pain medication into the plastic tube that wound into Matt’s arm.

I heard Ethan gasp softly. He stared at the broken man before him, his father lying in the hospital bed.

“Ethan, tell him you’re here. Let him know,” I whispered. He looked up at me with terrified eyes. “It’s okay, Ethan. I’m here. Just let your Dad know you are, too.”

Ethan inched to the head of the bed, leaned over slightly and said, “D-d-d-d-dad? It’s me, Ethan…your son. I’m here now, Dad.”

My throat started swelling shut as I fought back sobs, and I had to remind myself to breathe, Karen, breathe. Ethan reached out for Matt’s left hand and gently took it into his own.

“I’m here, Dad,” he said softly. He looked back at me.

I offered Ethan a sad, small smile.

“Dad? Mom’s here, too.”

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