If Christmas is when Scrooges turn into Santas, then Thanksgiving is when people who normally shriek at the sight of a squirrel show up at the farm to breathe deeply of the aroma of cowshit, mud and goat. "Just plug your noses," they tell their kids, balking at the barn entrance.
The farm was packed. The second parking lot was full; they'd hired a kid to direct traffic at the entrance. An extra till was set up in the market. Happy families, ready to celebrate the bounty of a harvest normally experienced through cellophane at Loblaw's, strode to their cars carrying white plastic bags straining with produce and freshly-baked pies. It's not unusual for Frances and I to have the place to ourselves in the summer; we wander around with bags of wilted cabbage, risking our fingers to share it with the rabbits and sheep, chatting with the staff while they take us around on tractor rides.
Even with the crowds and the rarity of our visits post-separation, Frances was recognized. This has benefits. The fifty-cent bags of animal feed are handed over with a wink and a smile, for instance, while newbies count out their quarters. But there are advantages to being known that I hadn't counted on. Like what happens when something goes wrong.
Frances fed the rabbits and the goats, marveled at all the chickens, and tossed hay into the air (and into her hair). She watched as bigger kids jumped off the hayloft. "Would you like to try?" I asked her. She nodded, and inched up to the edge, looking both excited and nervous. That hayloft ledge is no big deal to the older and much larger kids plunging off the edge with a holler, but it's twice Frances's height. You imagine taking a leap like that. While you're at it, imagine if every staircase you climbed had steps as high as your knees, if the playground ladder had rungs as high as your hips. She has learned how to use the upstairs washroom on her own, and this is a big deal: she puts the stepstool under the switch, gets up, strains to turn on the light, gets down, moves the stepstool to the toilet, uses it, uses the hand sanitizer placed on the counter since she can barely reach the faucet and can't reach the soap, moves the stepstool back under the switch to turn the light off. This would be even more impressive if, at two in the morning, she could just do this in silence; instead, announcements seem necessary. "Mommy, I'm going to the bathroom. I'm going to the bathroom myself. Mommy, did you see me go to the bathroom?" Yes, sweetheart, I did.
"Would you like help?" I asked her, as she stood at the ledge. She nodded; I stood back a ways, holding her hands, and she jumped. It was just enough to slow her descent and give her a soft landing. She laughed in delight. Over and over she jumped.
You just imagine standing at a ledge twice your height and jumping, whether someone is holding your hands or not. Catch you. My girl is brave.
She went in a big pumpkin balloon tent, laughing and jumping, having a fabulous time even when a much larger boy repeatedly took balloons right out of her hands. Of course this spoiled my fun--"hey!" I yelled at him through the window. He stopped.
We went on a hayride. Normally, at this farm, they have wagon rides pulled by tractors; but for Thanksgiving they bring in horses and hay. It's the real deal, and the first time Frances has enjoyed one. She sat on the hay and talked about how much more she liked it than the tractor rides, and afterwards we thanked the horses and admired their size ("I think his head is bigger than you are," I told her) and stroke their soft noses. "Look at how big they are!" she squealed. And there was a little grey-brown bunny taken out of its cage that she got to hug and pet and squish.
It was a fabulous day. Until:
"Do you want to go look for butter tarts, Frances?"
"No. I want to jump one more time."
"OK. Up you go. Don't worry, I won't let you fall. Take my hands. Jump!"
She jumped. She slipped from my hands, and fell, and hit the ground, and wailed.
I know Frances's cries pretty well by now. There is the sleepy whimper when she's having a nightmare, the startled yelp when she trips and skins her palms or knees, the outright cry on the one or two occasions she's fallen out of bed, the despairing sob when she talks about missing her Daddy, the hiccuping cry when she is sad and scared. This--this was different. This was a scratchy, hollering sandpaper wail. "My back! My back!" she wailed.
Should I move her? I put my hands gingerly beneath her shoulders and picked her up, thinking about the man who'd driven himself to the hospital with what he thought was a sore head after falling off a ladder and then, lying down to get an MRI, he'd severed what was left of his spinal column and died. I put her head on my shoulder and one arm beneath her bum, the other hand under her shirt, my fingers running over her ribs for breaks, and carried her back to the ticket booth, where the girl who'd known us had passed us free food for the animals. "Is she ok?" she asked. "She was jumping from the hay." Incoherent, I knew. "She hurt her back." I set her down on the counter and pressed her back gently to see if there was any give, looked for swelling or bruises, thought about hospitals and how you call one from a farmer's field and ambulances and would it be faster to just drive there? "Can you move your fingers?" the girl asked. "Can you wiggle your toes?" Still Frances wailed. But having ascertained that nothing was broken, she directed us into the market where the farmer, who also knows us on sight, would fill out an incident report and make sure she was ok.
I saw her on the way and said "help," Frances on my shoulder and still crying as if her throat were full of rocks. The farmer sat us down on a bench and brought out, of all things, an orange freezie. She snipped off the top, and Frances still cried but not so loud that she wasn't fully capable of grasping that freezie with both hands and sucking. I helped the farmer fill out the incident report, and only then could I cry. I saw you on the ground and I thought you broke your back. I thought you broke your back and I didn't know what I was going to do. After a second freezie, red this time, and the promise of a hope-you're-feeling-better-soon miniature pumpkin from their pumpkin bins, Frances had stopped crying. She wanted another freezie, she said; her back was still hurting, no no, not there, not there, THERE. We'll go home and we'll get you some medicine and you can watch some TV, I told her. My back hurts when I walk, she said. I'll carry you, I replied.
Fear followed relief. She's ok; I was so scared. It struck me again how odd it is that you never feel fear when you're afraid, only after it's over; an observation so cliched it hardly bears repeating, if only I could manage to remember it between times.
She sat in her carseat and talked about sore backs and ice and being thirsty and how scary it was. I cried all the way home behind my sunglasses. I thought you broke your back. I did. I saw you lying on the ground crying like that and I thought you broke your back.
Don't worry, I'd told her, I've got you. I won't let you fall. Jump.