I turn and see my nine-year-old daughter on the ground, her hands clasped around her knee, blood tricking from between her fingers. The large root protrudes from the earth immediately below the boulder from which we’ve just descended. It’s Alex’s first fall of the day; the trails of New Hampshire’s White Mountains are littered with chunks of granite and errant bits of forest. Most assuredly, there will be another spill before we reach the car. Neither of us is clumsy and both of us are careful, but the trails are never smooth. There’s always an abundance of natural obstacles to catch a shoelace or twist an ankle.
The instinct to comfort Alex isn’t as strong as it used to be. Spills like these are common – for both of us – and anxious hovering does nothing to help. I purposefully refrain from going to her and, instead, wait for her to look up. I’ll know from her face if this was a break or a sprain. She’s broken her leg once before, in gymnastics, after landing the wrong way from a routine jump. She didn’t cry or make a fuss when that happened, but I could tell something was wrong. It was the way her forehead creased and her eyes squinted. I had to go to two different hospitals before I could convince a doctor to order the MRI.
After a quiet minute of holding herself, Alex raises her head.
Only after her eyes meet mine do I ask the question, “Are you alright?” My voice is kind. She knows I care, and that I stay where I am out of respect. I treat her as I would a peer, which is what she prefers.
Indeed, on the trails, she is my peer. She and I began hiking together in 2008, when Alex was five and a half years old and I was forty-one. We’ve since made our way up and down each of New Hampshire’s 48 highest mountains, repeating favorite peaks multiple times, and we’ve summited taller peaks throughout the country. At this point, it would be insulting for me to make a fuss over a routine spill. Of course, she is my child, and I am responsible for her safety and well-being. This doesn’t mean I should rush over and throw my arms around her, though. It’s a mother’s duty to instill a sense of toughness in her children, to help them realize that minor cuts and bruises are a part of life. The world will not stop turning when you fall. You have to pick yourself and keep moving.
“I think so,” she answers.
Hiking has been good for Alex. As she’s explored the forests and mountains, my daughter has discovered just how strong and capable she really is. She knows, first-hand, that she can get just about anywhere if she’s willing to work hard, sweat profusely, and, every once in a while, bleed. The climb might be rough, but the views from the top are gorgeous.
Now that Alex has had the chance to assess her knee without my interference, I step forward and extend my hand. She takes it and pulls herself up. After a few hesitant and testing steps, she declares herself fit to continue. I bend and look at her injury. The small cut has stopped bleeding. I douse my bandana with drinking water and wipe the dirt from her skin. She’ll be fine.
“Hey,” I exclaim as she takes the lead and carefully clambers over the next heap of rocks. “You just made this a real hike.” She smiles.
“Yeah, I know. It’s not a real hike unless there’s mud or blood.”
We continue our descent, Alex’s eyes carefully scanning the ground as she makes her way forward.
About Patricia Ellis Herr
Patricia Ellis Herr is a mother and a hiker. She’s also the author of the recently published memoir, Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure (Broadway Books). Check out the website http://www.trishalexsage.com to learn more about Trish and her daughters, Alex and Sage.”