I woke up in a room filled to the ceiling with colorful balloons and flower arrangements and a beautiful bandaged girl sitting up in the bed across mine. Both of her legs were up in slings and she was surrounded by family and friends. I looked over at my mom and asked “where’s the hundred dollars you promised me?”* Then the girl told me her story. She broke both arms and legs as a result of pushing her little brother out of the way of a speeding truck. He only suffered a small scratch. She was lucky to be alive.
“How’d you break your arm?” The hero asked, sincerely interested and attentive. I felt heat rise to my face as everyone’s eyes turned to my cast, reminding me of my clumsiness.
“Oh. I just tripped”.
The summer of ’92, I tripped over an exposed tree root and broke my elbow. In school, the kids with broken bones got the best of everything: they got to leave class early, got to be first in the hot lunch line, and best of all, they were always surrounded by other students oohing and aaaahing at their story. Then we went on summer vacation.
We had just immigrated to the United States following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, my birth place, and after a series of serendipitous events, my grandmother, mother, and I landed in the town of Johnston. People assumed I was a native speaker even though I had only been here for a year. When a classmate described a math problem as “a piece of cake”, I took it literally and demanded loudly, “where’s the cake?”
My mom was incredulous- I had the tendency towards dramatics as a child. Breaking a bone is searing rawness. The pain took my breath away, for that long moment of silence my lungs stretched to catch up with my body, my mom thought I was still playing a game. Once the air was released, my throat squeezed out an animalistic guttural sound reverberating throughout the parking lot. My mom ran over to where I stood and demanded answers.To her, I was disturbing the peace of a quiet suburban park on a sunny afternoon.
“I broke it” I stammered.
“You didn’t break anything, let me see”, she demanded, forcing me to let go of what was once my intact limb. After seeing the unnatural fall and bend of my arm, her face turned white. We rushed to the emergency room less than a mile away. My mother, who a year previous confidently kidnapped me from my father during a war, defying her family, was now so panicked, she forgot which direction to drive to the urgent care. The waiting area was a dimly lit room lined with empty chairs, save a few moms shielding sniffly children. The seen-it all-before woman at the window responded to our pleas by flatly asking us to find a seat and wait. After the x-rays confirmed the obvious, I was sent home with a temporary cast and instructions to get myself to a real hospital. Once back at the house we shared with my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and baby cousin, I leapt through the house showcasing my temporary cast, nearly tripping over myself in excitement. I heard a loud thud as my mother fainted, the weight of our fall catching up with her.
The summer before, bombs were falling on Kuwait City, and I just happened to be at my mom’s house. My parents divorced when I was too young to remember, the details of domestic unrest and emotional abuse still hidden from me, but I went back and forth to their houses. My dad’s house was fun, but the best part of being at my mom’s house was the nearby toy store and my favorite art supply shop, both of which were damaged when the bombs fell.
A few months into our new life in Rhode Island, my mom found me in the kitchen feverishly dialing random numbers into the phone.
“What are you doing?”
“Calling baba” I snapped, pounding away numbers while pressing the receiver even harder into my ear.
“I am ready to go home now”
“Going back? Why do you want to go back?”
“I want to see Baba! All the other kids have their Baba but I don’t, I want my Baba!”
This must be some misunderstanding. To me, America was a cold place with mean kids that I was just visiting, the fact that this was my home now went against everything I believed. After all of my struggles with learning a new language; bundling up in the snow, coloring with crayons instead of markers, I was supposed to be rewarded with going home. If I could’ve formed words in that moment, I would’ve said that it wasn’t just about my dad, but about my grandmother, who was particular about how a girl is supposed to act, my grandfather, that would look the other way when I cut off all my barbie’s hair in protest. You know what mama? I snooped in the cupboard and there was a brand new art set that grandma said she was saving for my birthday…and it had watercolors…I know it’s still waiting for me.
That night, my aunt and uncle were called down to my bedside. My uncle is so tall he needed to drop down on to his knees to face me. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said “I can be your Baba habibti, please don’t cry.”
When the bombs fell, that was the end of family picnics at the beach at dusk, the end of sharing chocolate bars with friends outside of class that were half melted from the midday heat, the end of playing outside our high rise apartment building with the children of neighbors my mom grew up with. This dank basement of my uncle’s house couldn’t possibly be where we stay.
The journey out of Kuwait took place after weeks of driving through desert check points, navigating armed guards, waiting in endless lines at embassies, staying at beat down hotels, the homes of friends or extended family. The only routine being the lack of routine, each night laying in a different bed, beside my mom or other children, surrounded by mosquito netting in compete darkness, hungry buzzing at my ears lulling me to sleep. I remember feeling the distinct sensations of vertigo, falling and floating upside down while my body lay still, spinning while falling, falling, falling.
I needed surgery to set my elbow. The break was millimeters away from being a compound fracture. Compound fractures are terrible, bloody affairs when the bone breaks and also exits the skin….so close. That summer passed slowly with an itchy cast up my left arm, covering everything from knuckle to shoulder. I wasn’t allowed to get it wet, because the fancy water proof cast was for people who could afford it, and I was a recent immigrant whose tourist visa ran out with a mom who worked under the table. My developing swimming skills put on hold as my arm lazily floated around in my uncle’s pool while tightly wrapped in a plastic stop and shop bag. The weeks turned into months of sponge baths and my grandmother tightly braiding my hair. I fell backwards into a more helpless version of myself.
That summer, I learned that when expectations, families, or bones fall apart, they won’t ever go back together the same way. There are three bones that form the elbow joint: the humerus of the upper arm, the paired radius and ulna bones of the forearm. I needed three thick metal pins to hold my bones together while it set back in place. When I finally got the cast taken off, my skin was pale and wrinkly. My arm, thin and limp. The doctor said the procedure was called a realignment; when extra cells are sent to the site of the break to actually make it a denser area of bone. Stronger.
Although my cast had been off by the time school started up again, I had a raised scar in the shape of an L marking where my forearm and upper arm meet.There is also a cluster of scars at the base of my elbow where the metal pins once were. Over the years the scar shrank and flattened out, eventually becoming another part of my skin’s landscape.
- According to my mom, I was nervous about going under for surgery so she reassured me by saying “when you wake up, I’ll give you a hundred dollars”. She assumed I would be too drugged up to remember. The first thing I asked for when I came to was “where’s my hundred dollars?”