How We Are Brave

Yesterday I pulled a splinter out of the heel of my boyfriend’s five-year-old son. Hardwood floors and bare feet…somewhere in here lurks a learning experience.

Splinters were unavoidable when I was a child. Raised on a farm until the age of nine, I ran around barefoot all summer, climbing over fences, running across gravel and lawn, playing in sheds and barns. I spent a lot of time clenching my teeth as my mom dug around in my flesh and pulled those little suckers out with a pair of tweezers, then poured hydrogen peroxide over the point of entry. The always-fascinating bubbling and fizzing were only minor consolations for the pain. When I was old enough and brave enough, I dug those splinters out myself.

Coincidentally, I also pulled a splinter out of the heel of my boyfriend last summer. He laid on the front porch, leg in the air and foot rigid in my hand, while I performed surgery on him with a needle for a good 10 minutes or more. The poor guy was in agony and we must have presented an interesting tableau to anyone passing by. But eventually I got it out. I didn’t have a lollipop to give him, but I would have if I could have.

I’m not sure what the deeper meaning is here, with me extracting foreign objects from the feet of both father and son. It’s also funny that the father happens to be a medical professional and I was doing the procedure. But the benefit of my splinter-extracting experience (not to mention the ability to see well at close range) meant the task had to eventually land on me.

While we’re at it, splinter-extracting tip #1: use a fingernail clipper. If you can clip out the top layer of skin over the splinter, the splinter will usually come out along with it. If you’re clipping someone else’s skin, try numbing the area with some ice first, otherwise you’re getting a kick to the head and a lot of four-letter words.

I think it comes down to bravery. For example, my boyfriend’s son was understandably scared when he realized what it was going to take to get the splinter out—namely, a sharp object. He cried a little and even tried some psychology on us: when we mentioned that he needed to be brave, he said, “But I’m just a little kid and I’ve never had a splinter before.”

Can’t really argue with that.

So we offered to use a blunt-edged pair of tweezers, which he approved of, but it was clear after a minute or so it wasn’t going to do the job.

Splinter-extracting tip #2: if at all possible, once extracted, show the object to the subject. Seeing that the splinter was, in fact, removed quickens the healing process.

And then, all on his own, seeing that all attempts up to that point had been futile, my boyfriend’s son agreed to a needle. Hallelujah! Somehow the talk about “being brave” had snuck into his head. He clutched his dad’s hand while I applied the needle. He hung in there, taking lots of deep breaths, and shouting “Pause!” about every 15 seconds. But he didn’t put up a fight, didn’t dissolve into a full-on freak out, and didn’t try to escape, even when we realized—shit—that the needle wasn’t really working, either.

Last resort: the nail clippers approach. We numbed up his heel with ice, and then I went in. A clip here, a clip there, a final strategic clip, and doink! Out came the splinter. He hardly flinched. I showed it to him: a little black sliver in the palm of my hand. I could blow it away with the slightest of breath.

“Now you have a story to tell at school on Monday! Your very first splinter,” I said to him. He smiled, a little in awe of himself.

Watching a child have a moment of maturation is poignant for me. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t have children of my own, nor do I want them. My reasons for this are many and I’ll save them for another time. But being part of my boyfriend’s life, which involves being part of his son’s life, has allowed me to look at childhood in general through a whole new lens.

Trust me: there were times when I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I never liked kids. I love my nieces and nephews, but other people’s offspring were always distasteful to me. I didn’t like the screaming and crying and tantrums and messiness and round-eyed staring and deplorable behavior and lack of understanding and weirdness and blunt commentary and extreme neediness. I judged all children through adult eyes. It’s laughable to others, I realize, but it’s really how I saw it; there’s no way to soften it. (Plus, I read somewhere that Sagittarians have a particularly hard time relating to the young, so there you have it).

And yet, somewhere along the way, as my boyfriend and I were getting together and he was slowly and carefully introducing me to his child, I made a decision to open to it. Having this little person in my life has made me slow down, crouch down, sit down, get onto his level, drag my hand through the dirt and look up at the sky, hold his little hand and see the earth under his fingernails, look into his eyes and see the clouds reflected there. It’s allowed me to see the world as I once saw it when I was small, and even make peace with my own childhood and all its many lessons.

I’m not his mother, nor am I trying to be. He has a mom, and a dad, and aunts and uncles and cousins and doting grandparents. There are all kinds of people who fit very neatly and securely into the required roles in his life, and that’s the way it should be.

But I’m something else.

I’m a toy-builder. A sometimes story-reader. A seashell-gatherer. A moisturizer-applicator. A clothes-buyer. I drive him to school. I pick him up from school. I warm up chicken noodle soup and cut up peaches and apples for him. I buy him banana bread when I go to Starbucks on Sunday mornings. I watch countless games of football and soccer and baseball with his toy football and soccer and baseball players. I trade jokes with him. His favorite: “What did the potty say to the other potty? You’re looking a little flushed.” I introduce him to obscure islands in the South Pacific when we watch Globe Trekker on PBS. We have long, involved conversations about scientific experiments, cactuses, snakes. I help him fill his treasure box. I worry if he’s eating enough vegetables.

I love his father with all my heart, and try to show him an example of a healthy relationship.

And at the end of the day, I tell him goodnight and give him a hug (he’s in a phase of wiping off kisses).

Splinter-extracting tip #3: acknowledge that you and the person with the splinter are a team. You’re in it together. Emotions will run high. But in the end, there’s only one goal: remove the splinter and get on with life. You’re both better for it.

No, I’m not a mother. But I’m something more than a caregiver.

I’d like to be a confidante one day when he’s all grown up…keep having long and involved conversations with him.

This is what it is: I love him in my own way, and know that he loves me in his way, too.

I also hope he remembers his first splinter—not the pain of it, but who removed it for him. And how he was brave.

How we were both brave.