Hope for the best, prepare for the emergency room

Calm parents have no imagination.

You know the ones: Parents who trust in the flexibility of young bones and the abilities of emergency room trauma teams. They maintain saint-like repose while their children swing from clotheslines or plunge into the deep end, secure in the belief everything will be all right.

I’m not one of them. I’m a high-strung, overprotective father with a vivid imagination, and sometimes it ruins the whole experience.

My sons climb high in the mulberry tree, swinging like howler monkeys, and I don’t see two boys enjoying themselves. I see broken bones and itchy casts and plastic newspaper wrappers at bath time.

They do their balance-beam number on the wall that rings the back yard, and I envision the precise trajectory that will result in a shattered elbow. They hang by their knees from the swing set, and I imagine their golden heads splitting on impact.

I spend all day bellowing, like a demented opera singer: "Get down from there!" "Be careful!" "Watch out!"

They get the inevitable scrapes and bruises and goose eggs. No broken bones or hospital stays yet (knock wood), but I don’t find any reassurance in that. It only enforces my inner fear that our time is coming.

How did I get to be such a Nervous Nelson? Memories of my childhood center around mad dashes to Dr. Irvin’s office for stitches and blood-pressure cuffs and tetanus shots. When my parents regale my wife with tales from my daredevil boyhood, they almost always end with a bandage count.

I rocketed my bicycle through a barbed-wire fence and did a spectacular end-over-end dismount. I snapped a leg when a rope swing let me down hard. I did a belly flop off a rocky lakeshore into water that was two inches deep.

My poor brother broke all his bones before puberty. He was always falling out of trees or stumbling over roots or plowing headlong into gravel. I got blamed every time.

I fondly remember my mother standing at the kitchen window, screeching, "Get down from there! Watch out!" Just like I do now.

Once my mom watched warily as we leaped off a high bank into the local swimming hole, moving her to shout: "If you kill yourselves doing that, don’t come crying to me!"

My wife, naturally, is cool as they come. Don’t people often pair up that way? Isn’t it a good thing? Someone has to keep her head when an emergency arises. Me, I go running to help and fall down the steps. Then two of us are writhing on the ground.

Other times, I leap into action and do the wrong thing.

Our boys used a seven-foot-long fallen elm limb as their access to the wondrous branches of the mulberry tree. They’d prop the limb in the lowest fork at an angle, then go up it like squirrels. I spent way too much time listening for a sudden scream.

The fourth time one plunged off the limb and howled, I marched out, checked him for major injury and decided he’d live. Then I snatched up the limb and broke it over the back fence and tossed the two rotten pieces onto the woodpile. This made the victim scream louder.

I felt like a heel.

The boys recovered. They found a rope ladder that lets them climb into the mulberry tree, and forgot all about the old branch.

As for me, I’m trying to learn to be patient and calm, trying not to break stuff or whine.

Sometimes now, I follow my familiar warning shriek with a hollow laugh. The boys think maybe I’m just joking, but they stop teetering on the picnic table anyway.

The other day, they were outside on the swing set, its ropes squawking like a pterodactyls. The boys shouted and laughed and occasionally landed with an "Oof!"

The 8-year-old yelled: "Dad, come see! Seth’s learned to jump out of his swing!"

"No, thanks," I said. "It makes me nervous."

He ran away, giggling. He thought I was joking.

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