We're in Jamaica. Family vacation. No sooner do I flop onto a lounge chair and flip open my Vogue than I hear, "Mom! I'm bleeding!"
I look over at my 6-year-old daughter Mackenzie and notice a stripe of dark blood on her shin. Then the blood starts to spurt. Up and out, like a water fountain. Horrified, she screams, "It hurts! It hurts!"
I bolt towards her, screaming to her father, "Keith! Keith!" From across the small beach, he heads our way. If he could be walking any slower, he'd be going backwards. I choke on my fury. I press my hand against Mackenzie's shin, and crimson gushes between my fingers. Within seconds, we are both covered in blood.
"Mom, I'm scared," says my 7-year-old son, Chase.
So am I, but that's not what I say. I just start barking at everyone around me. "Call a doctor!" I yell to the hotel employees.
We're at a beach resort in Jamaica, located on the island's rustic and relatively undiscovered South shore. Great if you want to avoid the tourist crowds, but not so great with a traumatized 6-year-old who is bent on exploring. The word "stitches" is mentioned, sending both kids into hysteria; the hotel's owner offers us a lift to the closest doctor, who's about 20 minutes away.
"I'm not going!" says Chase, crying. "I'm scared she's going to get stitches!"
This is the moment. I crouch down and look Chase in the eye. "Chase, your sister is going to be fine, but she needs you to be brave," I say in the calmest voice I can muster. "You are coming, because we have to stick together. That's what families do."
Caveat: in our case, the word "family" deserves an asterisk. Keith and I separated when the kids were two and three, and we've been divorced for several years now. But that doesn't stop us from going on family vacations when triage is necessary. At these young ages, the one-on-one ratio is strictly for survival purposes.
Sally drives us for 20 minutes of rutted, bumpy road, where someone has to pull over in order for the oncoming car to pass. Finally, we pull into a gas station.
A gas station?!!?
Yes, a gas station. One that has a doctor's office in the back. We wait, alongside a 2-year-old girl who has a pebble lodged in her ear and a teenager missing most of the skin from his arm after a motorcycle accident. The atmosphere is light; there's camaraderie among the fallen soldiers.
After an hour, it's our turn. We hold Mackenzie down as the doctor cleans out the cut. She's hysterical, and Chase distracts her by playing "Angry Birds" with her on my iPad -- the perfect anesthetic.
Finally, the verdict.
Chase looks more relieved than his sister.
We pay and get bottles of pain medication and antibiotics suspiciously labeled with masking tape, and we're on our way.
"I'm proud of you, Mackenz," says Chase to his sister.
"And I'm proud of you," I say to Chase. "You were very brave in there."
But the fact is, I'm proud of us. Every family has their dysfunction. Lord knows, it claimed my marriage and the dream of a happily-ever-after family life. But despite our less-than-perfect ending, I'm still filled with gratitude. Because of our love for our children, Chase and Mackenzie are able to enjoy vacations with both parents, rather than having to choose between us. Keith and I can still give each other backup on trips -- crucial with small kids. And perhaps most importantly, each vacation is like a golden coin dropped into the memory bank of our children.
Yes, Mackenzie will always have an impressive scar on her right shin. But she'll also remember the three people who love her the most in the world, coming together to help her through it.
Melina Bellows, Chief Creative Officer of National Geographic, is the author of MOTHER'S LOVE: Inspiring True Stories from the Animal Kingdom
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