It happens in a flash. A tangle of legs and arms in a tussle over the ball during a high school girls' soccer game. My daughter takes an elbow to the head that makes her stumble, but she pushes on for the remaining few minutes of the game. No one — coaches, teammates or spectators — notice she's been hit. She comes off the field at the end of the game complaining to me of a headache. Unbeknownst to me, she later complains to her father of nausea. At the time we are unaware these symptoms are signs of an injury that will last for six months. Little do I know of the grief that awaits me as her mother, heartbreaking moments such as:
1. When the school nurse calls to deliver the news that our teen is complaining of tunnel vision and feeling foggy-brained. Troubling symptoms. Yet I have sent her to school for three days thinking it was her usual headache. I regret not taking her to a doctor sooner, especially when a concussion test administered by the school trainer conclusively diagnoses the injury I missed.
2. Realizing I misinterpreted the pediatrician's follow-up instructions as the doctor chews me out the next day when I call to ask what medication to give our teen for the headache after school. Because why did our teen attend classes when she should be at home in a dark room with no light, no sound, no mental stimulation of any sort?
3. Seeing the empty chair at our table when our family gathers that night for dinner as usual. And the lack of stories about advanced placement class agonies and overdone rolling of eyes and groaning at Dad's wry jokes. Our youngest manages to complete a full sentence without her gregarious sister there to interrupt. A small consolation for our teen's absence.
4. When friends text our daughter their reports of school antics and weekend plans two weeks into her isolation, hoping she'll join them soon. But our child appears to be no better, still curled up in her hushed bedroom, fleece blankets draped over windows. She sleeps most of the day, emerging only at night to shower in a dimly lit bathroom. I ache to see her regain her normal teenage life.
5. When we visit a neurologist five weeks after the concussion- causing bump and the nurse practitioner describes our teen's condition as a mild traumatic brain injury. I gloss over the ter- minology until I have to relay it to my husband. Then it hits me with a shudder: brain injury.
6. When the same nurse practitioner looks me in the eye and instructs that if my child exhibits symptoms of depression I am to ask her point-blank, "Are you feeling suicidal?" I hope beyond hope that I will not have any cause to ask this. But the nurse's insistence makes me fear that I will.
7. Working on a plan with support staff at the high school to help my child finish her freshman year while attending half days. The school nurse assures me that during my teen's scheduled gym class there will be a bed reserved for her in the health office so she can rest her brain. As I check out later at the attendance window, I chat with the receptionist there who has become familiar with my voice over the past few weeks. And I realize my daughter and I are discovering a side of the education system we never expected to experience.
8. My child breaking down sobbing at the slightest provocation for the third time in a day. When I ask her why, she says she does not know. It happens again the next day and the next. Until one day she spends an entire evening in her bed crying. I ask the dreaded question: Do you feel suicidal? She does not answer and I spend the night curled up beside her, hand gripping her shoulder. The following day I call the doctor to ask them to switch her medication. Soon after, the uncontrolled crying stops.
9. When my ordinarily bright child slumps at our kitchen counter, weeping because she cannot understand math. I recall recent cognitive tests run by a neuropsychologist indicating her abilities have been compromised by the injury. But she does not get what those results mean. And she does not get math right now either. What she desperately wants to get is an A in the class, injury or no.
10. When we are hosting our annual barbecue with a backyard full of our favorite people and I notice my daughter following her friends around in a daze before quietly retreating to her room to be alone. I watch the teens having a water balloon fight later and wonder again how long until my child can take part in the fun, uninterrupted by pain.
Certainly worse injuries or illnesses could happen to our child. And I find reassurance along the way that she will recovery fully, without lasting effects — eventually. But a sense of vulnerability and helplessness still catch me off-guard at times. Because this is my child. And she has a concussion.