The rush over, the news relayed, decisions pending, I peered over at the sack hanging on the side of the bed that held the blood leaking from my son’s kidney and felt helpless. I looked down at his body on the hospital bed, the size of a man now. As a teenager, he hadn’t really wanted me near him for a couple of years, but there lay his hand, so small to me now, though an adult size. I reached out to take it, afraid for a moment that he might recoil from me, but I did it anyway because I loved him, regardless of how he felt about me. There was little I could do for him in that moment but let him know that I was there. With hesitation, I placed my fingers into his and to my surprise, he took them and held on; I held on too. For the first time in a long time, I felt connected, permitted to love him openly again.
It was on a sweaty July evening during a folk festival that I got a phone call from a family friend. My son had been in a dirt-biking accident and was being flown by helicopter to a trauma hospital in the city. I hung up the phone, mind racing, and came up with a plan. I would bike home from the festival, grab the family van, drive to the city on my own and meet the helicopter there. Upon arriving home, while racing around changing into clothing for an evening in hospital, my daughter caught my attention and demanded she tag along with me. Although my new husband had been in my life nearly a decade at that point, the way my daughter looked at me in that moment, the way she begged me to listen to her, I was drawn back to a time when I was in survival mode, just three children and me. We were a team. We were there for each other, no matter what. When we couldn’t depend on anyone else, when we were afraid, when we were alone, when we met challenges, we always had each other. It had been years since we had last held on to each other like that. I had almost forgotten the bond. “Sure, get in.”
The two-hour drive to the city that night would have appeared from the outside to be one van driving to one destination, but inside that minivan was a series of thoughts taking me to a multitude of different destinations. Head injuries. Were there head injuries? How will I support him if his head is injured? I will figure that out. Spinal injuries. Please don’t let there be spinal injuries. How is he broken? Can I mend him? I was lost and in constant motion inside my head. But I sat there, driving because it was what I had to do to get to him. I needed him to know that I was there. No matter what we faced, we would do it as a team. My daughter had been right to come with me. We needed to meet this moment together, the original four. She knew the power we had when we came together, and she knew that I had forgotten that for a moment.
My older son met us at the hospital. He had been with his brother when the accident happened. Not only had he been with him, but Noah stepped up, stepped in for the father who should have been there, and he saved his brother’s life. Immediately after he witnessed his brother’s body fly off the dirt bike, hit the rock and land on the ground, he began the long process of getting help. Recognizing that daylight was running out and their chances of being found were getting slimmer, he guided first responders over the phone, rock by rock, bush by bush, to the exact location where his brother lay. It took two hours from the time of the accident to the moment the rescuers bounded through the woods on ATVs toward the two boys. In those twilight hours, Noah had the wherewithal to take the shirt off of his own back and place it over the head of his injured brother to protect him from the hordes of mosquitoes that had now descended upon the frightened, sweaty duo. For two hours they waited for someone to help. For two hours he wondered if they would be found and if his brother would be okay. The adult responsible for them that day had let them down. For two hours...
My daughter and I made it to the hospital within an hour after the helicopter had touched down. As we hurried into the ER, we were afraid and our hearts raced. There he lay, quiet, bruised, pale, in a neck brace, asleep. The doctor explained his injuries, the worst being a broken shoulder and two tears in his kidney. We would wait to see if he could keep his kidney, and the shoulder would heal on its own. We would wait...
My older son arrived by car at the hospital an hour after my daughter and me. He had watched his brother placed onto the helicopter, got the dirt bikes back to the cottage they had been staying at, and started the three hour-long drive to the hospital to be with his brother. He looked calm, but I could see the ocean of uncertainty that lay just below the surface. We were all good at keeping calm and stepping into big things together. We would gather up all of the information available, and we would make decisions. Like a team of superheroes, each with a unique ability, our individual fortitude magnified tenfold once put together on one task. Looking at their faces, thinking about the roles they had played in our shared trauma that night, I was filled with gratitude. Thankful for a broken child who would heal, thankful for a broken child who would heal and thankful for a broken child who would heal. They would all heal. We would stumble through, but we would all find healing together.
What started off as a day or two in hospital ended up being exactly a week, to the hour. Each night I would fall asleep in the chair beside my son, holding his hand until there had been enough physical and emotional healing that he no longer reached out for me. Bittersweet. We watched the bruises turn from red lesions to dark green and then yellow. After several daily applications of cream, the bug bites began to heal too. We knew that if we could see healing on the outside, there must also be healing on the inside. During the course of our stay, we learned that my son would get to keep his kidney but would be prone to kidney disease for the rest of his life. It was worse news than he had woken up with the morning of the accident, but better news than we expected after the helicopter ride.
While the healing continued in my son’s bed, sharing the same room was an elderly woman who had also not planned on an extended hospital stay. Her two adult sons came regularly to visit her. Our families shared stories back and forth across the little room and celebrated with each other when doctors came in with tiny pieces of good news for each patient. She was there because doctors had discovered a brain tumour just a few days before we arrived at the hospital. Without knowing it, we played an unusual role in helping one another heal the injuries to family. We watched them accept an unbearable situation and we felt lucky. We heard the stories of cottage visits, and the giggles of grandchildren Facetiming regularly to check on Grandma. They listened to us talk through family circumstances that led us, once again, to work through old wounds inflicted by someone who was no longer a healthy member of our family.
Before the accident, I had been planning a large 50th birthday party for my husband, so my daughter and I came up with a playlist for the dance portion of the evening as a welcome distraction during the long, emotional hospital stay. As we flitted about from one musical era to another, we chatted and laughed and reflected on shared memories, sparked by the music we were listening to. Unbeknown to us, lying quietly in the bed beside us, alone for the first time since we met, our neighbour was listening and wandering down memory lane along with us. They were not shared memories, but they filled her with joy and a sense of a life she had once fully participated in. Unlike the new life that she now faced. For one short week, our lives intersected long enough to affect one another’s journey. We shared, we cried, we wished one another well, we said good-bye, and we never saw one another again.
When I look back on that emotional time when we arrived at the hospital that night, I reflect on the Japanese practice of Kintsukuroi, or “golden repair,” where focus is placed on adding beauty to mended pieces rather than trying to hide what is broken. Our family that night was a piece of delicate porcelain, fractured and lying in separate little pieces. But instead of remaining individual fragments, ugly and vulnerable, in darkness and alone, we reached out to one another, lifted each other up, and with tremendous love, put ourselves back together, stronger, more beautiful than we were before.