It is a November day so warm and summery as to verge on the surreal. Driving past a stretch of greenery, I glimpse a girl in a bikini sunbathing, as orange and yellow leaves flutter down around her, and half-expect to see a melted clock draped Dali-style over one of the tree trunks knocked down by Hurricane Isabel.
”I am…the runner …of the world….”
Violet is serenading us all from her booster seat in the back of the car.
“I am the runner …”
“What am I?” Paris calls from the way-way back of the car, where we have jumpseats.
“Paris…is the climber …of the world…” Violet sings obligingly.
Molly joins in, “I am…the reader …of the world…”
“Psst, Violet,” I ask over my shoulder, foolishly, “What am I?”
There is a pause. Then comes her soft alto, “Mummy…is the making supper …of the world….”
We arrive at a park where another family joins us with a picnic lunch.
“Molly and Sarah, let’s play a princess game,” Violet cries, catching the hem of her dress and twirling with an ecstatic intake of breath, “Oh, prince!” The presence of not one but two older girls is almost too thrilling, and Violet’s eyes are round with joy.
Paris is a blur, hurtling with his friend over the climbing frame, down the slide, up over an arc-shaped set of monkey bars, whipping around the carousel (with a careful check for stray babies even at this speed: good boy!), and back over the climbing frame.
Phoebe stumps over to someone’s poodle in her rainbow rubber boots and crouches down. “Hello, puppy,” she says, and tucks two fingers into her mouth. She and the dog study each other in a friendly, noncommittal way.
My husband and I and the other parents drift into conversation about the children’s school, and talk turns to the Capable Mother, an impressive figure who puts ordinary mothers to shame. During a recent school vacation, the Capable Mother printed up a detailed itinerary of activities to occupy selected acolyte families. Ice-skating! Indoor rock climbing! Star gazing! Lunch-and-movie at the mall! Day after day planned out for maximum pleasure and convenience (pre-purchased parking permits available), all so perfect and admirable and so like the sort of thing we garden-variety mothers wish we could even approximate, even once, that a small voice inside can’t help but ask, my, but isn’t it a little too much? ” Naturally, I’m just asking that out loud when–
The older girls rush over with faces of alarm.
“Phoebe ate some berries!” they cry, pointing in anguish towards a small plant with green leaves, reddish stems, and evil-looking purple fruit.
Phoebe’s cheeks are smeared with dark juice and her eyes are twinkling. She is amused at the instant consternation.
“Did you eat some berries, Phoebe?” my husband asks carefully.
“Were they yucky?” I ask.
“Were they yummy?” I try.
She nods. So much for the reliability of toddlers under questioning.
My own inclination in such cases–whether a child has fallen down a couple of stairs, or swallowed a Playmobil beer mug, or crashed off the monkey bars onto his head, as happened once to Paris–is to assume the superiority of the human body over mere accident. I am not, in short, about to spend the day at the hospital because Junior fell down and went boom. So I look at Phoebe and I think: Here is the latest in humankind, who may have eaten some foul little fruits of an insignificant, poky-looking purple plant. Tens of
thousands of years of evolution, and countless primitive encounters with poky-looking plants, surely–
“These leaves don’t smell good,” says Sarah’s father, who has been rubbing the plant and sniffing deeply in a knowledgeable way. He and my husband each pluck berries off the plant and pop them into their mouths.
“Bleah,” grimaces my husband.
Our eyes meet, and I know he is thinking, as I am, that no child would eat something so bitter. But there is Phoebe, smirking, and there’s the evidence of berry-crushing around her mouth, and the girls swear they saw her swallowing, and so off I go with her and a sprig of the plant to the emergency room, leaving everyone else to play outdoors on possibly the most beautiful day, ever.
Some time later, a pair of automatic doors go swoosh. Phoebe and I enter the hushed, carpeted precincts of a Sunday-afternoon emergency room in a nice part of town. A smattering of tired-looking individuals sits not looking at the TV. We wait. I am conscious of the vigorous working of Phoebe’s two-year-old digestive system, and wondering how long it takes for poisoned berries to start poisoning a small child, if indeed they were poisoned berries, which I doubt, but, really, what if–”Phoebe Gurdon?” calls a nurse.
We undergo triage.
“So, what brings Phoebe to the emergency room today?” I tell the nurse why, and show her the plant.
It seems that Phoebe has unwisely eaten berries belonging to the common Pokeweed, Pokeberry, Pokeroot, Inkberry, or Poke plant. According to the description from a veterinary website printed out by the doctor who treats her, “for humans, even handling the plant is considered dangerous.”
Disconcertingly, the document goes on to say that, “despite this, the plant is eaten as a spring vegetable in the southern U.S.”
Doctor and nurse go away, and in comes a physician’s assistant. It is a puzzling feature of hospitals that some new person in a white coat is always turning up to ask the same questions posed by the people who just left.
“So, what brings Phoebe to the emergency room today?” she asks.
I tell her why. The woman runs a finger over some red patches on Phoebe’s legs. “Did she have these before today?” she asks casually.
“Oh, those?” My voice comes out unnaturally high, as if I’m guilty of something, which I am not.
“Why, they’re from her rubber boots, rainbow boots, she insists on wearing them without socks, yes, it’s funny, you know, how children will choose the most inappropriate footwear, ha-ha.”
I imagine the physician’s assistant phoning the Child Welfare authorities: “…didn’t know the child’s weight…allowed her to eat poison berries…suspicious marks on the legs…some phony story about rubber boots….”
More time passes, and the kindly nurse returns with a tumbler of Ipecac syrup, the sure-fire infant purgative. Phoebe drinks it down dutifully. Instantly, I am nauseated. Phoebe takes a long draught from a glass of water: “Das my coffee,” she tells us, “Nice coffee.”
We wait. I am conscious of the vigorous working of Phoebe’s two-year-old digestive system, and wondering how long it will take for the fuse lit by the Ipecac to detonate my cheerfully chattering time bomb.
“Let me climb up, give me mein blanket, go for ride,” she says in stream-of-consciousness fashion as she scales the gurney, folds herself under a towel, climbs down, and tries to haul herself on to a stool with wheels. I keep checking my watch. They said 20 minutes.
“No penguins on my dress,” Phoebe says, unpeeling stickers that show stethoscope-wearing penguins with the caption, “I went to the emergency room today!” She sticks them on her knees.
“No penguins on my legs,” she decides, and pulls them off, “Ow!”
And then, devant moi, le deluge. Out comes lunch, and berries, and goodness knows what else, and the place is awash with purple juice, and seeds, and my first thought is to thank God that we came to the hospital, because look at all those seeds , just think how many berries she must have eaten, she could have been seriously ill–
And I am sorry to include such details, but the fact is the nurses rush in when they hear the splashing sounds. While I’m wiping Phoebe’s face, they are poking through the unpleasant puddles for pokeberries.
“Wow. That’s a lot of seeds,” says one nurse.
“How many berries do you suppose she ate?” asks the other.
My cell phone rings. “Mummy?” says Molly’s small, scared voice, “Is she going to be okay?”
I look down at the mess Phoebe has produced and suddenly remember the poppy-seed bagel she was chewing earlier. And the purplish cider she drank.
“She’s going to be just fine,” I say.
“Let me hello Molly,” says the spattered Phoebe, reaching for the phone.
That night, when the Phoebe has changed from hospital gown to nightgown and, with Violet, has gone to bed, I enlist Molly and Paris in illustrating place cards for an upcoming dinner party. For a leisured friend, they draw a bag of golf clubs, a bibulous one gets a martini glass, my husband gets a newspaper.
Then Paris stops, stumped. “Huh,” he says.
“Don’t worry sweetheart,” I assure him, “Just think of something that the person likes, or something about their work you know, like drawing a little television for Mrs. York.”
“But it’s you,” he says.
Inwardly, I swell a little. What will my darling boy choose? Hearts? Roses?
He thinks deeply, then brightens. “I know!” he cries, and bends over his work.
I watch him, and my smile slips a bit.
“Um, honey, what is that?”
He looks up proudly. “It’s a vacuum cleaner.”