"Christine Wolf! Christine Wolf! Christine Wolf!"
"Yeah? That's me!" I'm standing on an incline looking down at the crowd below. Did I seriously miss Henry coming down the hill? He probably wants to get into the rental car to get the lunch we packed. Jesus. Settle down, everyone. He's a teenager. He won't die if he has to wait a minute until I--
"Has anyone seen Christine Wolf?"
"I'm Christine Wolf!" I shout. "I'm right here!"
I have no idea what you've done to him.
“CHRISTINE WOLF! WE KNOW SHE’S HERE! SOMEBODY FIND CHRISTINE WOLF!”
“I’M CHRISTINE!” I yell to everyone in the world.
“THERE she is!” someone shouts.
“What? What happened?”
People below me wave furiously and point to Dean, the race organizer.
I am no longer Christine Wolf. I am Henry’s mom, running through a rocky wheat field toward the group gathered below. They’re all staring at me and using full-arm waves to rush me down the hill.
The rest is a blur:
Henry's down. He's unconscious. Where is he? Somewhere between Turn 2 and Turn 3. Where is he? We're trying to get to him. What do you mean? They...have to...extricate him. Extricate? What do you mean, extricate? From where? He went off the road. He went down. They found him. A boulder. Get me to him. I'm not sure about that. Get me to him. I'll find out. Someone give me a car. I need to get to my son. He's down. He's down. Okay we're getting a car.
Dean puts his hand on my shoulder and pulls me away from the crowd. He's clearly shaken, which is terrifying me.
“He…they’re trying to get to him.”
“Where is he?” I ask. I will be calm. I am NOT “that” mom. People are staring and gathering.
I cannot feel my body. I imagine Henry twisted in a small crevasse, a helicopter lowering an orange basket as riders shield their eyes from the debris flying into their eyes. Extricate?
“What do you mean by extricate? Where is he?”
Dean hesitates for a nanosecond and that's all it takes. I go full-on Shirley MacLaine.
“I need to get to him. Now! NOW!”
“I promise...they’re working to get to him…”
“WHERE. IS. HE.” These are not questions.
“He went over the side of the road…”
I just look at this man and stare. “WHERE did he go down?”
“Near the top, between turns 2 and 3. He was unconscious…but they’re telling me he’s talking now.”
I never should have left. I never should have left. I never should have left.
“I need to get up there.”
“Well…I’m not sure if that’ll –"
I shout out to the crowd. “I need a car! I need to get up to my son! He’s down!” I do not care if I’m seen as hysterical because I know that I’m not. I need to be with my injured son. It’s that simple. I text my husband. I feel out of control. I need to stop thinking in movie snippets.
I’m typing fast on my phone, trying to write to my husband that Henry has fallen and is in an ambulance. I don't realize I’m texting on a thread that includes 3 other sets of friends back home:
H’s fiwn ambulance Down
Please good thoughts
I’m about to lose it out here at the bottom of this mountainous “hill” as my son’s being extricated and I have no way to get to him.
“Okay, I’ll get you up there,” Dean says, understanding I’m not backing off.
“Now,” I say, almost whispering. I am looking inside other peoples' cars for keys. I know I look ridiculous and I don’t give a shit.
“Are you Henry’s mom?” a kid in a purple t-shirt asks. His hair is blonde. He looks worried.
I can only look at him.
“I was with him all day. I hope he’s okay…” He is pale. He looks scared. But he is here and my son is up there and this is not happening.
Before I can say anything, a pickup materializes and I’m in it. Another organizer, Ali, is driving, and she’s awesome. “Hey there,” she says, as if we’re about to head out for a drink. “How’s it going?” If I were in Ali’s shoes I’d be talking the exact same way: chipper, upbeat and positive. Today I am not Ali, but I desperately want to be.
“I’ve been better,” I say, fighting tears. I say a few choice swear words because I’m scared to death of what I’m about to see. Is he bleeding? Is he mangled? Is he paralyzed? Why have I let him do this sport? Why didn’t I stop him after I saw those two wipeouts? In this moment I hate you, Longboarding, more than I ever have. I swear there will be no forgiveness ever for what you're putting Henry through. For what you're putting me through. Yet I also feel safe with Ali, cursing and crying and repeating myself over and over.
“Why is it taking so long to get up to him?” I plead.
“He’s gonna be okay,” Ali says as we continue to ascend. I know she does not know this. I'd be saying the same thing.
Riders clear the road for us.
“He has to be extricated?” I ask for the 20th time. “From where?”
“Apparently he went over the side of the road and into some rocks…”
For the second time today, I feel like I'm going to throw up.
“…but he’s talking now and the ambulance is there.”
Mike calls at 11:48. We speak for 53 seconds in a jumble of words as Ali's pickup continues up Maryhill Loops Road:
What’s happening I don’t know What do they think I don’t know We’re pulling up to the ambulance now I was at the bottom I should have stayed at my post I saw other wipeouts He’ll be okay I’m so scared I have to go I love you Call me He’ll be okay.
Ali’s car stops. I jump out, scanning the ground.
Where is he??? Where is he????
The pickup stops. A man named Tom with a mustache points up into a rocky incline toward a quiet group of about 20 people kneeling. I stumble and claw and finally reach them.
As I get closer to the group, I realize there are only six or eight people crouching. The rest are boulders.
Here is my boy.
He is on his side.
Against a stone bigger than his skate bag.
He is still. His eyes are open. And he looks terrified.
And in this moment, he belongs to me and no one else, especially not to you. You've tried to steal him from me and I will not have it.
I drop to my knees near Henry's face. His eyes are wide and blinking and he is utterly still.
“I’m here,” I say, forcing a smile. I am terrified to the point of complete numbness.
“Hi,” he says, wide eyed, expressionless. His gaze is not meeting mine.
“What happened?” I ask, observing as the EMTs prepare an IV and give instructions to the people around Henry.
“Nobody move him!” someone says.
“Is transport on its way?” another asks.
“We’re not waiting for transport,” a voice insists, calm but firm.
“A little poke, here, Henry. Just a precaution.”
“Okay,” Henry says, blinking. No one’s letting him move, but he’s not trying. I’ve never seen him so still or his eyes so large.
“You’re gonna be okay,” I say, looking at him, wishing it true. “What hurts?”
“Do you know where you are?” someone asks Henry. His name is Paul. He’s another parent volunteer. He’s also an EMT.
“Maryhill,” Henry says.
“Henry, do you know what day it is?” Paul asks.
“Saturday,” Henry says.
“Who’s the president?”
“Barack Obama,” Henry says as someone pulls hay from of his hair.
“Apparently he didn’t make the turn up there,” Paul says, pointing 40 feet up. “He went airborne fully upright through those hay bales and landed down here. We found him unconscious against this boulder.”
"He was found at A&O negative times 3," someone says.
"Seriously?" I hear. "And now?"
"Postive times 1."
Is that good? Is that improvement or worsening?
I will not take my eyes off my son. I want to make this all go away, but I force myself to look into his eyes and tell him it will all be okay.
“Not sure how long he was out," I hear.
"Who found him?"
"Tom saw him flying. Didn't see him hit. Paul got to him first. Negative times 3."
I nod and smile without taking my eyes off Henry.
“Are you the mom?” I’m asked.
I keep nodding. Eyes on Henry.
“Do you give us permission to treat your son?"
I turn to the EMT, a brunette woman kneeling in the rocks at Henry’s feet. She was at the wipeout with the hip injury. How did his shoes come off? Who took off his helmet?
“Mom?” the EMT presses.
“Yes, please, of course. You have my permission.” I turn back to Henry and hear myself say, “You’re going to be okay, Buddy.” Please please please please please let him be okay.
Paul’s holding Henry’s head completely still. As I meet Paul’s gaze and try to make sense of everything, he says, “Tom over there is the one you’re gonna want to thank when this is all over. He’s the only one who saw Henry come flying upright over the ledge full speed and pointed him out to me. If it wasn’t for Tom, who knows how long he’d have been down here.”
When this is all over? Give thanks? Make it never have happened.
“Henry, do you know where you are?” Paul asks again.
“Maryhill,” Henry says.
“Do you know what day it is?”
“Does anything hurt?”
“My back…and my head. Can I just close my eyes?” He looks to me for approval.
“Not right now. Just keep your eyes on me, okay? They're here to help you. I'm here. It's gonna be okay."
“Gotta stay awake, Buddy,” someone says. "Do NOT move him."
Then I see Cody, kneeling across from me, working on Henry. Cody, who, just earlier this morning, instructed us in the volunteer meeting not to move anyone with a possible spinal injury.
Someone hands me Henry’s helmet. It’s splintered and cracked. The back is crushed. He’d saved for months for it.
“My God,” I say, holding my hands out to cradle it.
“Where are you from?” Paul asks Henry.
It takes a long while for a response. “Chicago.”
“Chicago, huh? You a football fan?”
“I... am...not,” Henry responds.
“Can you read what this says?” Paul asks, holding up his baseball hat for Henry to read. “You see what team is this?” he asks, pointing to the logo.
“The Packers?” Henry asks with uncertainty.
Paul smiles a wicked, Green Bay smile. In a playful, stick-it-to-you dialect heard frequently between Bears and Packers fans Paul says, “That’s right, man! It’s the Packers! Atta boy! You're doing great!"
“Yeah,” Henry says. “I get it.” He is expressionless.
Henry will have no memory of this conversation. Seven months later, he'll remember little if anything of this day.
“You’re doing great, Henry," someone else says.
“A little poke in your left arm.”
“We’re giving you some medicine so you won’t throw up, Buddy, okay?”
The IV is started.
A bright orange backboard appears.
Henry's squinting. Is this pain? Can he feel anything?
We exchange a look that I will never forget. His eyes say, "What is happening to me?" A neck brace stabilizes his head. My eyes go straight to the cutout space for a tracheotomy.
I hear my voice: “Can someone block the sun in his eyes?”
A bag of IV fluids is held in the air. The backboard is angled against the boulder. Someone urges the group to wait…let’s talk about how we’re going to move him. Henry repeatedly asks to close his eyes as I keep watching his fingers and toes, which move in slow motion. On the count of three he’s on the board.
“Uhhhh. My head really hurts,” he says.
“It’s okay, Henry. You’re doing great.”
Black Velcro straps secure him everywhere. His head is wedged between two triangular white foam blocks, all held fast with a white Velcro strap across his forehead. If he throws up he will choke, so antinausea medication called phenergen is administered through the IV. I will learn soon enough that his mental state alters drastically with this drug.
“Can I please go to sleep now?” Henry asks again.
“Not yet, honey,” I say. “Squeeze my hand.” I need to feel it more than anything in this world. I place my hand in his and squeeze. There is nothing in return.
“I’m really tired,” he says.
“Henry?” an EMT asks. “Can you tell me what’s hurting you now?”
“My head and my back,” he says. “I just need to sleep…”
“Does he have any allergies, Mom?”
“Penicillin, sulfa, cipro, cefalaxin…”
“I’m just gonna close my eyes.”
“Stay with us, Henry,” Paul says.
“We’re giving him anti-nausea medication now. His head injury and the ambulance ride could make him vomit and we definitely don’t want that since his airway’s compromised.”
I cannot believe this is happening. I hate you and I hate myself for permitting this. I knew this would happen.
“My head really hurts on this side,” H says, but his hands are strapped down. He opens his eyes as wide as I’ve ever seen them. I am convinced his brain is swelling.
“It’s almost time,” I say. “We’re getting you comfortable.”
One of the EMTs says, “Listen up. On the count of three, let’s lift…but watch out, everybody. Watch your steps. It’s rocky.” Sun beats down again on H’s face.
“Do you want some sunglasses?” I ask him.
“Sure,” he says. His body lies before me yet he is so far away.
Cody hands me his sunglasses. I put them on H. “I promise I’ll give these back to you,” I say but Cody waves me off.
“Henry?” Paul says with mock sternness, “you’ve gotta keep those eyes open behind those sunglasses, now that we can’t see them. Got it?”
“I’m down,” Henry says, something he’d normally say. There he is, I think. He’s in there. Please let him still be in there.
We move as a group, holding the board. As we weave around rocks, boulders, and jagged mounds of earth, I think about his spine with every step. Don’t trip. Please God don’t let anyone trip.
Tom Topping approaches me. "I just saw him...flying upright through the air. I don't even know why I turned at that moment. I don't know why. He was going so fast. And then he was just gone."
I am speechless. I nod. I want to say thank you, but I don't know where any of my words have gone.
"He just...I don't know..." Tom continues. His lip is quivering and tight. "As soon as I saw him disappear, I flagged down Paul. I said, 'Get over there and find him.' I didn't know what else to do." He looks at me like he's done something wrong. I touch his arm then head to the ambulance where Henry's being loaded. "Thank you," I call over my shoulder. At least I think I did.
I step onto the back gate but an EMT gently pulls me back.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Am I allowed to ride in front?” I ask.
I call Mike on the ride down the mountain. I tell him I know very little except what I’ve seen. That Henru is talking and tired. Was unconscious for several minutes. Found against a rock at the bottom of a ledge. Being transported to the local hospital.
“Do you think they’re just taking extra precaution with the backboard?” Mike asks. “Just to be on the safe side?”
I find little comfort in this optimistic viewpoint and wish he could be here.
“Yes,” I say. “They don’t know what he hit or how hard the impact was.”
“Then that’s good they’re being so thorough, right?” Mike asks. “It’s gonna be okay.” He’s 2,000 miles away. What more can he possibly say? And still, I want to ask him how he knows it will be okay. I want to say You haven’t seen the kinds of wipeouts I’ve witnessed today. The riders I saw earlier were in horrible shape and they never flew off ledges. They never lost consciousness or slammed into boulders. I feel so frustrated with Mike but I am actually furious with you.
At the bottom of the mountain, I ask the ambulance driver if I should get out and follow in my rental car. I don’t want to leave Henry but I don’t know what’s going to happen later. I don’t know a soul here. There’s no one to go back and get the car for us and the gates to the course could be locked later. I can’t remember what I’ve left in the car. I want someone to make the decision for me. I think the ambulance driver agreed with my rationale for jumping out but I don’t remember our conversation. I jump out and run to the car. I make eye contact with no one: not the riders, not their parents or the organizers. Dirt and dust fill the air as I leave them behind, following the ambulance toward Klickitat Area Hospital – a name that, in itself, terrifies me.
I call Mike on the way, putting him on my speakerphone. He lets me cry as I describe everything I’ve seen. He knows I need to process this…and that I’m scared. As I talk through everything, he listens and offers words of support I can no longer recall. I just remember his last words: “Call me when you get to the hospital.”
Henry's wheeled into the ER where doctors see him immediately. I am asked to fill out paperwork but I do not want to leave him. I ask him if he knows where he is.
"Maryhill," he says.
"And now you're in the hospital," I say. "You were in a bad accident. You went over a ledge."
He can't turn his head but his eyes widen as he looks sideways at me. "I'm in the hospital," he repeats. "A ledge."
"You were unconscious. You flew 40 feet," I say.
"Forty feet. That's badass," he says. No expression. I'm certain the doctors want to call protective services.
And to this day, no memory of the conversation.
"It will just take a minute to sign the papers," I am told. I can see the two other riders from Maryhill in exam rooms down the hall.
I sit and watch a woman tap on her keyboard. Birthdate? Insurance? Signature? You're from out of town? What brought you here?
I have no time for small talk. I do not want to tell her I am a bad mother who's allowed her child to skate down a mountain. The doctors will judge me enough for that. And I blame you for all of this.
When I can't sit any longer, I stand up and say, "Are we done? I need to go back there now."
When I walk into the trauma room, Henry's shirts have been cut away.
"How is he?" I ask.
"CT and Xrays are ordered. Just hold tight."
"Ow...ow...ow....my head..." Henry says, trying to touch it. His arms are in restraints and he can only lift below the elbow. He looks to me with terror.
"I know," I say, then turn to the staff. "Can we get something for his pain?"
"I'm sorry. We'll need to wait until the tests are done."
When they step out, Henry looks at me.
"I'm bleeding. Get this off me. It hurts so bad. I need a pillow or something under this thing. It's digging. Please help me..."
I cannot see any blood anywhere but I'm convinced I just can't see it.
He begins a rapid, furious attempt to move his arms and I am panicked. "Hold still," I say, touching his hands. "Please. They're taking care of you. Please don't move."
Tears well in his eyes and I feel more helpless than ever. "Please please please get me a pillow or a towel or something. I can't take this. Please!"
I am brought back to the time he was a toddler in the ER. He was dehydrated from a virus with sores inside his mouth. They tried to find a vein for an IV, poking and poking and poking. All he could say through his tears was NO THANK YOU NO THANK YOU NO THANK YOU.
"Henry, they need to take some pictures to make sure you're okay...and then..." And then what?
"If you don't help me I'm going to get up and do it myself! Get me OUT of this thing. God dammit!"
I push the help button and a nurse appears. "What can I do to help you?" she asks.
"He's in pain. Is there anything we can give him? He's trying to move and--"
"Would you like something soft under your head?" she asks.
"Thank you," he says, staring me down like I'm the devil.
The nurse atempts to slide a thin towel between his head and the backboard but there's no room for it. She takes a pillowcase and eases it under Henry's head as he winces.
"How does that feel?" she asks.
"Magical," he says flatly, and she smiles. I, however, am more worried than ever. I don't think he can feel anything.
CT scans. Xrays. Waiting.
The pain is back and I've had enough.
She adds another dose of phenergen antinausea medication into his IV and he starts thrashing, reaching for the ceiling, complaining about needing to rip his helmet off and wanting to get out of a taxi. I'm convinced his brain is swelling.
"Please help him," I say. "This is not right."
"Henry," she says, "you're in the hospital. We're taking care of you. You're going to be okay." She turns to me. "Sometimes patients can have a reaction to phenergan, and I think that's what you're seeing. They get agitated...a little paranoid...feisty...this is normal. We'll use something else for the nausea, though."
The Physician's Assistant comes in. "We've had a chance to look at the CT and we notice an area on C2."
I have no idea what that is but I know I don't want it to be true.
"We're getting another opinion on what we see."
I need more information than this. Tell me more.
"What does that mean if it's there?"
"That's his neck. And if he's got a fracture or a crack, that's not good."
A broken neck. My son has a broken neck.
"Please," Henry says to the P.A. "Can I take this off now? It hurts so bad. I just want to take the straps off. I won't move. I promise."
"What does that mean for him, then?" I ask the P.A.
"We're consulting with the orthopedic department. He'd need to be fitted with a halo. Do you know what that is?"
"Yes," I say looking at Henry clenching his fists and biting his lip.
"I'll let you know as soon as I hear."
"How long will it take?" I ask.
"No more than 45 minutes." Then he leaves.
"Mom, can you move the pillow? It's folded weird under my head."
"Ah, it's digging. Please. Hurry. I can't take this another second."
"Honey, I can't move it. I don't want to touch your head now."
"DO IT!" he shouts.
I hate you so desperately, do you hear me? I hate you, longboarding. I want to rip the restraints off my son. Rip the neck collar with the opening for a trach in case he needs it. Rip the pillowcase from under his head. I want to look inside and see the broken bones, the torn muscles, the bleeding, the swelling. I want my son back the way he was before he met you.
Half an hour later, the E.R. doctor comes in.
"We've looked at the the slides. There's no break. His head is on the board at an odd angle but we think that's just the way he's on it. His xrays are clear. Let's take the restraints off."
Now I don't want them off. I'm not convinced they're 100% sure. What if there's something they can't see?
The backboard is removed. Henry breathes deeply. He turns on his left side then yelps. Turning onto his right side, I can see that his left shoulder is swollen and scraped. His neck is bright red. I touch his left arm and he moans. He slides completely over onto his stomach, asks for a pillow and falls immediately into a deep sleep.
As the nurse turns off the overhead lights and partially closes the door, I take a picture of Henry.
He is not paralyzed. He is not dead. He does not have a broken neck.
I sit next to my son in this hospital room on a trip I wasn't even supposed to take.
Unlike my son, I am utterly frozen.