This isn't an easy letter to write, especially since I've judged you so harshly for so long. What I've come to realize is that I hadn't fully appreciated you until you almost killed Henry last weekend. I need to get this off my chest though, so just keep reading, even through the hard parts. I promise it gets better.
You may think I'm condescending when I say that I'm just a mom and you're just a sport but, quite frankly, I often wish I was more of a sport than a mom.
When we first met, I was so young and naive. I'd always been a mom who adhered to the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations and judged parents who used bargain brand diapers. My children and their safety meant (and still mean) everything to me, so I was woefully unprepared to deal with your easygoing style and unpredictability. I only saw you from the outside: laid back, loose and letting it all happen.
I looked at you as a horrible influence on my impressionable boy. He'd never had a problem with how flat our Midwestern town is until you came along. He'd never talked about going to college out West until you showed up. I felt like you were stealing my son from me, and I was jealous as hell.
In my eyes you had him under your spell. You were everywhere: magazines, Facebook, YouTube. He was obsessed and I was hurt. Every Christmas and birthday wish list became about you and how the two of you could spend time together. He wanted new trucks. New wheels. New bearings. A new deck. A new bag. New pads. A new helmet. A travel bag as long as our bathtub. When he wasn't checking the weather for the next skating window he'd be cleaning his equipment or watching videos on technique.
I loathed you, but I didn't understand you.
Rarely have Henry and I discussed you without a conflict. I couldn't understand why he wanted more speed...more hills...more thrill. Why wasn't he satisfied with the small driveway on Northwestern University's campus? Why did he want to drive to faraway places with hills and secret roads to ride and slide? Why did we bicker about the legality of longboarding on open roads? Why did we take such opposing, emotional viewpoints about that Canadian cop who stopped longboarders racing through a residential neighborhood by turning his unmarked car perpendicular in the road? I'd shake my head every time Henry came home covered in sweat and road rash. He seemed proud and it made me hate you even more.
What I hadn't appreciated was the deeper relationship you offered, a deeper relationship with himself. You gave him a focus. An outlet. A positive and healthy way to vent. You offered escape -- something he needed -- most of all from me.
What I hadn't stopped to appreciate was that my son was in the midst of figuring out his life, and you were figuratively (and literally) his foothold.
But Henry is my oldest child. He is my first. The one I "practice" with. And though you've left him physical wounds, I've left my share of scars on his psyche. I've said things I wish I hadn't. Pushed too hard. Fought with too much confidence. And in many of those moments, you are the first one he's sought for comfort.
And so, in November 2013, when he asked to skate Maryhill for his 16th birthday, I shouldn't have been surprised.
"Maryhill?" I said. "What's that?"
I listened with a closed heart as he described the course: something about an epic hill on a mountainside in Washington state in June 2014.
"If you're going to go, we'll have to save up for it," we said.
"It's in seven months," he said. That's how much he loved you. He was willing to wait for you at 16 years old. Who at that age waits that long for anything?
"Dad should really take you," I said. "Besides, that's Father's Day weekend."
Flash forward to schedules colliding and my husband's new job interrupting the plan. You can just imagine how well that went over with me. I dragged my heels as Henry dragged his skate bag through O'Hare, eager to conquer one of your most internationally recognized events: The Maryhill Ratz G-Ride for Groms, Girls and Geezers.
I tried to be a sport and look at all the positive things, I swear.
We shared a breathtaking drive along the Columbia River Gorge from Portland to Goldendale, WA. We stayed at a crappy place called The Ponderosa Motel where I poked fun at the fact that, when I stood on the toilet to look out the window I could see a tire graveyard. I even volunteered at the event so I could plant myself at one of the horseshoe turns and get some action shots that Henry could post on his Facebook page. I stood with dads who'd done this before, dads with names like Tom and Tarzan (?). Some were even EMTs. I liked the sound of that. Someone's Dalmation roamed the registration area as an EMT named Cody walked the volunteers through procedures:
Wave a yellow flag if a rider's down; get a thumbs up from the rider to confirm he/she is okay.Wave a red flag if a rider creates a hazard for incoming riders.
You won't need your green flag. They all keep going. FAST.
Listening to Cody's instructions, I had no way of knowing he'd be working on my son's motionless body two hours later.
Just before the first run, the riders looked excited and nervous, huddled in a U-Haul driven by an EMT up to the top of the "hill".
Henry had his helmet, his pads, long pants, and a long shirt. He didn't have a full leather body suit like many other riders but he'd paid his $20 "road rash surcharge" to defray the cost of supplies: bandages, antibiotic ointment, etc. I was proud of myself for NOT fretting about the inevitable bloody elbows, knees, shoulders and forearms because I'd seen them all before. It made me happy to see Henry nervous. Nervousness, I figured, would make him cautious -- and that, to me, was a good thing for a kid from a flat town like Evanston.
The last thing I needed was my son racing down a Pacific Northwest mountainside and breaking his neck.
The first run started and, as the winds whipped riders down your course, I juggled my camera and my red/yellow/green flags to alert riders of hazards (wipeouts) in the road. One rider smashed headfirst into a hay bale and I had to stop the race and call the EMT. She had blue hair and I immediately recognized her from the ride up. She screamed as her helmet slammed then skidded against the asphault, a sound I will never forget. When I reached her, out of breath, she said she was fine, just dizzy...then said she was still healing from a concussion and whiplash and that her neck hurt something awful. I cursed you under my breath, not yet aware that the tailwinds were pushing riders up to 47 mph. Cody arrived in the U-Haul and took the rider down to a waiting ambulance. I felt guilty for stopping the race.
The second run proved less eventful and I snapped more shots of Henry. He looked so happy and my frustration with you dissipated.
The third run nearly killed me when another rider wiped out right in front of me, but this time, the body did not move. I waved my red flag and yelled into the walkie-talkie, "Rider down!" All I could think was, Why am I here? Why are we here? Who allows this? When I approached the rider, a cascade of curses poured from under the helmet. "I think I broke my hip," I heard. "This hurts like a motherfucker. Jesus motherfucker. Please, please help me." I tried to speak slow and clear into the handset. "Rider down. Pain in hip. Stop the riders. Send an ambulance now." I crouched with the rider until the paramedics arrived with a clamshell lifting device. When I stood up, I was so overcome with nausea and fear that I had to sit down with my head between my legs. I'd never felt that way before -- not during three deliveries or the worst stomach flu. When I look back now, I know that my body realized what you were about to do before I did.
It took a long time to get that rider into the ambulance and down the hill, so while we waited, I spoke with a dad from Vancouver.
"I just don't get it," I said, fighting the urge to vomit. "Are we insane letting our kids do this?"
"I hear you," he said. "There was a kid who lived near us...maybe 12 years old. Just messing around on his board. He wasn't wearing a helmet and fell backwards on his driveway..."
"Don't tell me," I said, taking a deep breath.
"Yeah. He died," he said. We both looked down.
"God," I said, hating you again. "I'm sorry."
"A lot of us believed it might change our kids' thoughts about doing this stuff." He pointed to the vast mountainside dotted with jagged rocks, dropoffs and boulders. "But they just can't stay away."
Between the two wipeouts and the story of the 12-year-old, I'd had enough of you for a lifetime. I had to get off that mountain. I took a U-Haul down to the finish line and, as my truck came to a stop, I watched Henry load into another one heading back to the top.
I told several people what I'd seen at Turn 3 and how I needed to clear my head. The morning's two wipeouts happened right in front of me. I just needed a break from the mayhem. As I walked up a small incline to watch riders finish the course, I felt less strangled by you. I felt more in control.
Henry should be coming down pretty soon. Look for his tie-dye shirt.
And that's when I heard people shouting my name. Urgently.
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