From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Light at the End of the Tunnel

There is no paycheck that can equal the feeling of contentment that comes from being the person you are meant to be.

Oprah Winfrey

It was the telephone call that every mother dreads: “Something’s happened—there’s been an accident.” In one instant, life as I knew it changed. I stood in my office cubicle clutching the phone while my entire world plunged into a long tunnel of darkness.

The woman running the in-home day care center had been ironing clothes. She had gone to the bathroom for just a second. My precocious six-month-old baby had crawled away from the play area, and pulled on the dangling cord. The iron fell, missing her infant skull by a millimeter. But the hot water . . . They told me to brace myself for what I’d see when I got to the hospital.

There was no time for tears or hysteria. Adrenaline shot through my system as I grabbed my purse with shaky hands, dropped the telephone and dashed out the door—ignoring the pleas from coworkers to let them drive. Before they could catch up to me, I’d reached my car, jumped in and screeched out of the company parking lot. During the interminable drive to the hospital, my thoughts ricocheted between cold logic and bargaining with God.

It was just an iron. How bad could it be? Okay, she might have a dark patch on her skin when she grows up, but if it really bothers her, we’ll have it removed with plastic surgery. Lord, please don’t let it be worse than that.

I saw her innocent, doe-brown eyes first. Eyes that had cried so much there was a nurse applying drops to keep them from drying out. My baby looked up at me, too worn out to even whimper. But her eyes said it all, “Mommy save me. Make it stop hurting.”

In that moment I realized how powerless I was. There was nothing in my upbringing to prepare me for this. Nothing in my formal Ivy League education offered answers. Nothing I’d ever experienced caused the level of helplessness and pain that seeing my infant in this condition created.

I fought against the immediate instinct to sweep her into my arms as my eyes raked my child’s body, searching for the wound. This took milliseconds, but it felt like it was happening in slow motion. Then I saw it. The doctor was talking in the background, but the ringing in my ears drowned out his words. Everything he was saying sounded like the parents in the Charlie Brown cartoons: “Blah, blah, blah, waah, waah, waah.”

My beautiful, perfect baby, born just six months ago, looked like a cherry bomb had exploded in her hand. The water had run out of the iron, and her fleece outfit had held in the heat. The veins beneath her butter-soft skin had fused and imploded internally. The doctor was saying something about amputations . . . God and I had talked—He could not be allowing this! All that was left of the tiny, perfect, beautiful long fingers that used to touch my face when I nursed her was a bloody stump. That’s when the room went black.

In the minutes I spent on my knees, my entire life flashed before me—every act of vanity, everything I’d ever done wrong, came back to haunt me with the question, was this why? Then I began questioning my career as a six-figure-salary sales executive for high-tech firms. As I knelt on the dirty hospital floor in designer hose, a stunning Ellen Tracy navy-blue suit, pearls, silk blouse by Liz Claiborne and shoes by Fendi, but with a marriage that was teetering on the edge, I blamed myself for every conceivable aspect of failing as a mother. I would have traded every accomplishment in the world to have my child in one piece. That’s when the tears became blended with wails so piteous that I was sure they weren’t coming from me. The people talking to me just didn’t understand that I was having an out-of-body experience.

All I could envision was a young girl, a teenager, hiding her body beneath clothes, unable to freely go to the beach, unable to find someone who would look beyond the scars to see her beauty. My mind tortured itself until I shut down all thought of the future. I sat in a chair by the window, too numb to even cry.

Then came the lawyers. Eventually, I found out there was no legal case to be had, no settlement to insulate my family from financial burden while we suffered. The day care center had no substantial assets to claim in a civil case. Eighty percent of the medical costs would be paid for, but that left a whopping 20 percent that was my responsibility to pay—which wiped out ten years of stocks, bonds, 401(k) plans and everything I’d so-called put away for a rainy day. This was beyond a rainy day; this was a biblical flood. The difference was that Noah was prepared; God had at least warned him. I was caught off-guard in the downpour.

Next came the corporation’s executives. Their voices were consoling, but their message was chilling: They couldn’t leave my territory fallow. It wasn’t personal—just business. I could either choose to be laid off, so that I’d have some monies coming in, or I could take parental leave for a year without pay. I took door number one, the lesser of two evils.

My survival instinct kicked in while I sat in the hospital, living like a quiet ghost for endless days . . . months. It was clear—I had to get my child home. But I knew I couldn’t leave her in the care of anyone ever again. I just wasn’t ready for that. So I consolidated and reorganized all my debt. I remembered what my mother used to say, “Pride goeth before a fall.” I fell on my sword before every place that I owed money—utility companies, the mortgagor, the credit lenders—and I made arrangements. But soon, I knew my unemployment would run out, and I wouldn’t even have those revenues to fall back on.

What could I do from home? How could I make money and watch my baby at the same time? I knew how to write good business proposals, and I realized that small nonprofit agencies needed to raise money through grants. What I quickly began to see emerging within my life was a pattern of skills and support groups that I’d taken for granted. I started a home-based business as a grant-writing freelancer. My struggling marriage had finally collapsed, and divorce was imminent. Child support was spotty, at best. But after a few years I could take small adult-education teaching assignments, as my daughter’s wounds had healed and she could now tie her shoes.

Meanwhile, I scoured my dwindling magazine subscriptions, knowing that each issue would probably be the last since I hadn’t paid the bills. Then I saw a short story contest in Essence magazine. My goal was to write ten pages of drama in hopes of getting the twenty-five-hundred-dollar prize money. That effort turned into seventy-five seemingly useless pages of action adventure that I gave to my friends to edit down. We laughed at my foolishness, and they implored me to finish the story that they’d copied and passed around the office, even if for nothing more than my own therapy and theirs. Six weeks later I had 780 pages of a steamy romance with a dashing, Latino James Bond and a daring, strong African American heroine. Then I threw the story in the bottom of my closet and forgot about it for a year.

My friends, however, refused to believe this wasn’t a book, and they insisted that I go to New York City to attend a writer’s conference. That’s when my life changed again. I found an editor and an agent at the same conference over lunch. The conversation ultimately turned into a two-book deal for Kensington Publishing’s new Arabesque line, and the rest is history.

Ten years later, I have a solid reputation as an economic development consultant and sixteen novels and four novellas under my belt. I’ve remarried my high school sweetheart. My daughter is a laughing, happy twelve-year-old with a busy social schedule. No one would ever know what we’d gone through, except to glimpse her hand . . . and I’m at home, full-time, doing what I love: writing.

Mercifully, the light at the end of this tunnel wasn’t an oncoming train. It was daylight. Pure, joyous daylight.

Leslie Banks

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