Last week I took my son to the doctor for his kindergarten check-up and 5-year-old vaccines. It was terrible. It was even more terrible because I was not prepared for it to be terrible. A friend of mine took her 5-year-old in for his check-up a month ago. She was prepared for it to be terrible. But when the big moment came, much to her surprise — and mine when she told me later — her son sat stoically still and silent, with one single tear leaking out of his left eye through the entire ordeal.
Hmmm, I thought, maybe this will be no big deal. Maybe kindergarten shots don’t hurt as much as they seemed to when my 8-year-old daughters underwent them three years ago. And since I was so calm, my son was also calm. I told him about the shots ahead of time and that it would hurt a little, but it would be fine. He sailed through his check-up: counting to ten, speaking in complete sentences and
correctly identifying stars, sailboats and flags on the vision chart. He stayed calm while the nurse carefully swabbed his leg. He remained calm until the first needle went into his leg. And then he got that horrible expression on his face, the one he gets when he feels he has been deeply betrayed by life. His body went rigid, his face turned purple, and before I had time to react we were in full-out screaming panic mode. Well, not me or the nurse, thank goodness, but definitely my little boy. As the tears streamed down his face, he begged to go home and he told me he didn’t want to do this. I, meanwhile, held down his upper body while the nice woman from the front desk sat on his shins and the final two shots were administered.
There really aren’t any words to describe how it feels to go through this experience with your child. On the one hand, you allow these things to happen to your child because you believe it will protect him from nasty diseases; on the other hand, you feel terrible that you’ve stood by and been complicit in causing him pain. And all you wish is that you could take the shots for him and that it would be your leg that the needles went into. But it can’t be. And that, frankly, stinks. So walking out into the waiting room with my red-faced, tear-streaked, hiccupping son, I felt a little fragile. All I wanted to do was escape from the room of other parents (who all seemed to be waiting with their own unsuspecting 5-year-olds) and head for the promised after-shot frozen yogurt and unlimited toppings (yes, I was feeling guilty). But of course we couldn’t leave without stickers.
Doctors get a lot of mileage out of stickers. And at our pediatrician’s office you get one sticker for every shot. After tentatively looking through the basket of stickers, my son chose one flaming red Hot Wheels sticker, one neon green Hot Wheels sticker and one big purple smiley face sticker. “Here, Mom,” he said, handing the last one to me, “this is your sticker.” I peeled the backing off and stuck it to the center of my fuchsia dress. I wore it for the rest of the day. A sticker on your chest does make you feel brave: a badge of honor you’ve fairly earned in the inevitable emotional pains of parenthood.
As a L’Arche Assistant the year after college, I attended a retreat where one of the leaders spoke of her own personal realization of the all-encompassing love of God. It was five days after her son was born, driving home from a doctor’s appointment with her husband at the wheel, she sat in the back beside the baby’s car seat — all of a sudden, a car cut dangerously in front of them, causing her husband to slam hard on the brakes. Instinctively, she leaned her body over as close as she could to shield her son. In that moment she realized two things: one, that she would die for this child without giving it a second thought and, two, that this all-encompassing, sacrificial love she felt for her son wasn’t even a fraction of the love that God felt for her, for all people.
In Hebrew, the word for God’s mercy and compassion is closely related to the word for “womb.” Sometimes I impersonalize this love of God. Sure, I know about it and, as a minister, I talk about it. But too often I don’t realize that the struggles and hurts of my life, no matter how large or small, all take place within this compassionate love of a God who feels them with me. The next time I have a really hard day, maybe I should give God a sticker.
• Katy Beedle rice is the director of religious education at the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary