the days you don’t forget
i remember the lemon-poppyseed scones. i remember tucking cellophane just under the edge of the plate. i remember the phone ringing, thinking nothing of it. i remember the voice.
on the other end of the line, there was a woman i didn’t know. she had my son, she was telling me. they’d found him. lying under his bike on the trail where he’d gone, just an hour or two earlier. a crisp autumn day, columbus day. a day when a boy and a bike saw nothing but promise and a golden-leafed trail that seemed not to end.
i remember the woman, a mother she told me, she said he was fine. but really, she urged, i ought to come get him. ought to come now.
so i did. not any more worried than a mama set out to pick up a boy with very skinned knees.
i remember pulling into the train station lot, where we’d agreed they would bring him. i remember the moment when my brain fell apart. when what i was seeing and what i had heard no longer matched up. there was a child quite bloodied, an arm held at the oddest of angles. and once he knew i was there, moaning i’ll never forget.
i remember driving and shaking. i remember trying to stay calm. i remember him asking, “mom, am i going to die?” i remember the wails, muffled, and trying to be brave, from the little one i’d strapped in the back, long long before, back when we’d thought this was just an unscheduled errand suddenly stuck in the day.
i remember the alarm with which we were met at the hospital door. i remember a stretcher, a head board, being whisked down the hall.
i remember the fingers of the little one, clawing my chest. holding on for dear life. and then some.
i remember how we all laughed when the boy taped to a stretcher, the boy who’d been out like a light, then foggy and blurred, suddenly perked, “oh, i remember. it was a chipmunk.” a chipmunk, it seems, had darted, and the boy on the bike had swerved, hit a pile of leaves and gone flying, face first over the handlebars, smack into the asphalt-paved trail.
i remember, not long after, after much peering under sheets, asking the boy to squeeze, to wiggle, to push as hard as he could, i remember the doctor with the boots and the gold dangly bracelet.
i remember the words: “we have a window, an eight-hour window, and we need to move now.”
i remember the electricity in the room suddenly changing. and every conceivable hope being sucked down some hole in the hard-tiled floor.
the neck of the boy that i love was broken. less than a fraction of an inch from the cord in his spine. his feet were tingling, were numb, were losing their muscle. so were his arms.
there was talk, insistently, urgently, of mega-dose steroids. and airlifts and scans to look into that place where the nerves run, where the thoughts are sent down the tubular highway. where a crack in the pathway spells out disaster.
not long after, when a one-hour scan turned into a three-hour scan and the technician who’d peered in through the MRI screens didn’t realize his whispers were heard by me, the mother standing just around the corner, right by her child, there were 45 minutes when we thought the news was impossibly bad.
when it seemed the crack ran through the cord. when i stood and i paced in my clogs. rewriting the script of our life.
only 10 days later did we see, in a black-and-white image, how close we had come. and then the words of the neurosurgeon, telling us what would have been had the crack in the vertebrae jiggled just one tiny bit: “quadriplegia.”
not one of those limbs, not even a finger, moving again.
no wonder each blessed time i see those strong legs, or those hands twice as long and as wide as the ones that once held him, once nursed him, once cradled him wherever i went, no wonder i whisper a prayer of deepest thanksgiving.
today is the day, the warm autumn monday, when our world brushed terribly close to disaster. to a life i could barely imagine.
we escaped by a hair’s breadth. that crack in his cervical spine was as close as the distance it takes to spell out this word, to the unparalleled bundle of nerves that controls every move, every flinch, every breath in his body.
it is impossibly hard, just one year to the day after the fact, not to feel the hairs on my own back standing at serious attention. it is hard not to walk in his room, run my hands over those toes dangling well over the end of his bed.
next year i might not retell the story quite so vividly. i might forget the poppyseed scones. might not remember every red light of the ambulance ride.
but for a very long time, i think, columbus day, that october monday when school is closed and bike trails are scattered with leaves, i will keep my own private vigil.
will mark the day, at least in my mind.
we all have days we’ll not soon forget, days whose details only fade over time. days we mark rather alone. days not sealed with a cake. or candles. or even a prayer shared aloud wherever we pray.
they are the days that belong in our own private shadow box. the day of a miscarriage. the day our mother stood at the sink, and mentioned in sort of a whisper, something about a tumor, and how it’s malignant, an oh-by-the-way that leaves you gasping for air. the day we buried a stringbean of a baby whose DNA had been horribly scrambled.
the day our firstborn fell off his bike, nearly was sentenced to an immobile life.
they are the days that rewrite the scripts of our lives, that for a spell bring on the gloom and the heartache. but that don’t forever twist the plot. they are the days, the moments, that add shadow and depth to our story. but don’t blacken it. eclipse whatever comes next.
we recover. move on. put one foot in front of the next. but the story lingers. it fades slowly. it lasts long enough to remind us something or someone we love was lost, or nearly lost. and what wasn’t lost is held dearer, closer than ever.
we mark the days in ways only we might notice. we open a book. run our hand over words etched in a moment of heart-piercing sorrow. lift the lid of a box. pick up the white plastic square that once told us we were having a baby.
or we walk in the room of a sleeping manchild. we tickle his foot. watch it flinch, jerk, pull under the sheet. and we stand there marveling. imagining if it had never once flinched again.
we stand there, for a moment, on the morning of the day a whole long year later, and we thank God for the ticklish toes. and the whole rest of the story that ended so blessedly whole.
do you have days that you’ll not forget? did it ache to mark it alone? or did you relish the remembering? do you marvel at the healing power of time, how the sharp edge of a story softens, and only the few strong paint strokes remain on the canvas? how do you mark the days you won’t forget?
the photo above is simply that of the arms and the legs of my firstborn, in action, one year minus one day later. strong, capable, crossed. pulled up to the table in a plain old chair. for a good chunk of an hour last year, i thought i might never see such a simple sight ever again. i don’t take it for granted. not one blessed bit.
i must add one thing: because of the boy whisked by ambulance from the ER near here to the children’s hospital downtown, to the ICU, where they poked him with half a dozen IVs, there came to my bedside a gentle-faced woman who said she was the chaplain on call. we dove deep into sacred conversation. she brought me a carton of milk, and a blanket. she whispered a prayer over the bloodied, broken body of the boy who still managed to smile. that chaplain, through a long series of links, is today one of the most sacred souls in my life. you read her here often. she is slj, and she came into my life on the day that could have been a disaster. God works in mysterious ways. and for that, i want to say thank you. and to slj, you brought so much more than sustenance and comfort in the form of milk and a blanket. you bring, every time we share words or thought or a piece of our hearts, food that will feed me forever. and you wrap me in a cloth that can only be divinely woven.