One week ago today I had to call 911 for my son. One week, exactly, before his 8th birthday and it was the longest phone call of my life.
It was a typical Saturday, the kids and I were at home while their father was working and I decided that we should go for a bike ride to get some exercise and get out of the house. My son wanted to stay home. He wanted to play a game on his phone but I insisted we all go.
Taking all three kids out on my own isn’t uncommon, in fact I do it a lot because their dad’s schedule is unpredictable and I would say that the four of us do it quite well. So we got our bike gear on and headed out. My oldest two ride their own bikes and the youngest gets strapped into a seat on my cross-bar. We all wear helmets and the rule is that they ride ahead of me but need to be able to hear my voice. I do it this way because I want to be able to see them and provide guidance as we’re riding. My two bike riders learned how to ride over the last two summers. They know how to use their handle brakes and, for the most part, are good at listening as I call out instructions. One of the biggest challenges when we’re out is the sibling rivalry that often overtakes safety and common sense while my oldest two jockey for the lead position as we ride. They are also still learning the rules of the road and because of their age, lack the ability to understand why following those rules is critical for everyone else around them.
When I bike on my own with my little ones we stay on the trails in the park across the street from us. The trails go for miles and we’re able to ride for as long (or as short) as we want. That day we rode about 20 minutes to a park where we stopped to play before continuing on. My son balked at riding further and wanted to go home. Selfishly, I persisted in extending the ride to try to squeeze in a little more exercise, I hadn’t made it to gym much that week and my body craved the exertion. He then insisted on taking the lead which caused my other little bike rider to indignantly kick it into high gear to keep up with her brother. As I called for them to slow down so we could turn around, my daughter set her bike down on the grass beside the trail and plopped down in exhaustion beside it. She said her legs hurt and she couldn’t ride any longer.
Exasperated and knowing we had to get all the way home I told her she was going to have to keep going even if it was slowly because there was no other way for us to get back to the house. Grudgingly, she got back on her bike and my son took off ahead of us. I had to call to him to pull over and wait a couple times as we went. A little further along he wanted to stop and climb a rock wall we passed under a bridge. I said no because we’d have to unbuckle my littlest and it was way past lunch time at that point. He didn’t like that. Then, we spotted a little green snake in the grass beside the bike trail. We stopped to try to get a picture and I left my son in charge of holding my bike with his sister on it. But when I looked up to check them, I could tell he was more interested in the snake than keeping the bike steady (which 7 year old boy wouldn’t be?!) and had visions of the whole bike tipping over and her little strapped in body hitting the ground so I abandoned the snake picture. This was the tipping point for him and he had a full meltdown.
Still, we rode. One child crying out of frustration and anger at not being able to do what he wanted. Another child riding so very slowly that it seemed like we might never reach our destination. All the while I encouraged the slow one and expressed understanding and sympathy for the angry one but I could feel my patience thinning with every minute that passed. That patience came to abrupt end when a friendly biker passed by and said “Looks like you’re having fun!” to which my son rudely muttered “yeah, yeah, yeah” in response. And that was it for me – I can tolerate a fair bit but rudeness makes my blood boil and my tone stopped being gentle and turned into the voice that makes my kids cry. And then my son was done. His tears stopped being angry ones and turned into sad ones because his mom got mad. Then he took off ahead of us and I felt awful. So I gave him his space, only calling out when he was so far ahead that I couldn’t see him around the bends.
Finally, we reached the section of the trail where I could see the turn off that would take us back to our house. I could see my son ahead of us and I started calling to him to pull over but in his sadness and the distance between us, he couldn’t hear me. Then I saw him reach the turn off which is at the base of hill. And I saw him start to turn left as a biker coming in the opposite direction came flying down that hill toward him.
Time slowed down.
I felt myself hope that my son would turn back to the right, but he didn’t.
I felt myself hope that the biker would veer away as he saw a child turning into his path, but he didn’t.
Then I saw my son get hit.
I saw him fly off his bike and spin in the air before his body landed sideways on the ground.
I felt myself pause for a second, hopeful that he would move and get up.
Unable to process what had happened, I couldn’t ride to him so I got off my bike and started running beside it as I screamed in terror at the biker “What did you do?” “Didn’t you see him?” “What did you do?”.
When I reached my son, I had to ask someone who stopped beside the trail to hold my bike with my daughter. I couldn’t manage the task of getting her out of her seat because the only thing I could focus on was getting to my little boy. I could see blood coming from his nose and heard him whimpering. Then I did everything you’re not supposed to do. I scooped him up and carried him off the bike path. I sat down with him on my lap checked his head and body to see if there was blood coming from anywhere else all the while asking him where he was hurt. He didn’t respond for the first 30 seconds I had him in my lap. He just cried with his eyes closed.
I turned desperately to the people who saw what happened and asked if he’d lost consciousness. The kind man who took my bike from me said that he heard him crying on the ground, so he didn’t think so. I sat there cradling my boy and realized he wasn’t going to get up and walk away from this. I needed to call for help. Hands shaking, I called his father. Voicemail. So then I made the call no mother ever wants to make, I called 911.
By this point my son had started answering my questions through his tears. He didn’t remember what happened. He had lost consciousness. He said nothing hurt other than his head and his knees. As the dispatcher got our location and the details of the accident I felt the rational part of my brain kick back in. I knew that the franticness that first set in wasn’t what my child needed from me at that point, nor would it benefit the emergency responders who were going to help us.
I hadn’t paid any attention to my two girls since arriving at the scene and I looked up to see both of them squatting calmly in front of us on the grass, interested in their brother’s well being but un-phased by the chaos. I felt a wave of love wash over me for these incredible little girls and I started to breathe. I felt the weight and heat of my son in my lap with his head resting on my shoulder. I saw the redness in his cheeks and the beads of sweat forming on his brow. I asked the dispatcher on the phone with me if I could take off his helmet but she asked me to leave it on until the ambulance arrived. That made me realize that if he had a spinal fracture, I might have made it much much worse so I asked him to move his arms and legs. He could. And I felt the beginning of a sense of relief that whatever injuries he had weren’t going to change his life forever.
A group of people surrounded us. One man with his bike kept the trail clear around us to give us space. Another bystander passed me a roll of toilet paper to clean up the blood on my son’s face left over from the nosebleed. A man who had heard my first anguished screams looked at me painstakingly and said “I saw everything and your son was the one who turned into the other bike”. Fighting back my impulse to defend my child at all costs, I thanked him and told him I saw the same thing. Then he offered to go to the parking lot and flag down the ambulance so they could find us more easily.
I heard a choked voice above me say “I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.” and I looked up to see the man who had hit my son. He must have been standing behind me the whole time, waiting anxiously to see if my boy was going to be ok. I could see how upset he was, the remorse he felt was palpable and I said “I know you are” with as much empathy as I could muster. It probably wasn’t what he needed but it was all I could give him until I knew for sure my child was going to be ok.
As I sat there in the grass looking at my boy I thought about all the parents who have had to call 911. What if my son’s condition had been critical? That initial sense of terror wouldn’t have gone away. The anguish of needing to help your child but having to wait for someone else to get there would have been unbearable. As it was, that 20 minutes on the phone were the longest 1,200 seconds I’d ever experienced. I felt a sadness so deep for all those parents who have had and will have to helplessly hold their child while they wait for help. And then I felt the deepness of their grief, just for a moment, as I had a flash of what I would have been feeling if the accident had been fatal. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare but I knew I couldn’t dwell there so I pulled myself back to what was in front of me and allowed myself to feel grateful instead.
The ambulance arrived and took us to the nearest hospital. The EMS team was incredible. Compassionate, empathetic and kind as we sorted out how to get the bikes and three kids transported where they needed to be. We were in and out of the emergency room in just over 2 hours, record time in my opinion. As for my son, he walked out with two small scrapes on his knees and a headache that lasted until the next day.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the accident. I’ve gone over the events preceding him getting hit, wondering if I’d let him climb the rocks or if I’d just given him the camera to take the picture of that darn snake or if I hadn’t lost my temper when he was rude or whether I’d been more insistent on him staying close when he felt upset whether the whole thing wouldn’t have happened. And the answer is maybe. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened. But what I keep coming back to is that maybe this happened for a reason. And maybe it will be the catalyst that will save his or one of his sister’s lives in the future. A future that involves driving on real roads and living as an adult. A future that doesn’t have mommy behind them watching to warn them of the danger ahead, so I stopped beating myself up over the what ifs and am focusing on the maybes. I’m also talking to them about how scary things sometimes happen but it’s how we pick ourselves up, learn and get better from them that matters most. That’s not advice I’m just giving the kids, it’s how I’m trying to look at it too. You can live in fear and bubble wrap your kids or you can accept that sometimes things happen and our job is to educate and prepare our children so they have the tools to avoid the danger on their own. So maybe, just maybe this happened for me too.