A Love Letter To Longboarding: Swells of Passion For The Sport That Nearly Killed My Son. Part 3

A Love Letter To Longboarding: Swells of Passion For The Sport That Nearly Killed My Son. Part 3

Click here to read Part 1

Click here to read Part 2

In the hospital, the last thing Henry could remember about the accident was taking a turn too wide and having to make a choice: stay left and hit the hay bales or cut right into a pack of riders. He wasn't wearing leathers and wasn't used to pack riding -- so he chose the hay bales. The problem, we now know, is that he didn't stay low. When he flew over those hay bales, he also went over the side of the road, down a 40 foot drop. He was found unconscious and in a partial fetal position with his back against a boulder.

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Once tests confirmed he didn't have a broken neck (and for an hour it looked as though he might), doctors finally removed his backboard, neck collar and restraints. As the hours passed and he slept deeply, Maryhill riders kept coming into the E.R.: A broken collarbone; a dislocated shoulder; severe road rash; another severe concussion.

I heard their moans. I heard all the doctors' questions. And I heard the concerned tone of the staff talking in the hall about the riders' injuries.

My time in that Pacific Northwest hospital changed me forever.

Every time Henry woke up, he needed reminding about where he was. He'd shift slightly in his sleep and cry out from the pain throughout his upper body -- particularly his left shoulder -- then open his eyes and stare at me, confused and searching.

"Hi," I'd say. "Do you know where you are?" It always took several seconds for him to respond, but he did. He remembered he'd been at Maryhill. Remembered he'd taken a turn too wide and too fast. Remembered flying. And then nothing.

Throughout the afternoon and evening I paced and sat and typed on the laptop I'd retrieved from our rental car. I hadn't eaten anything all day but I wasn't hungry. I kept thinking about Natasha Richardson slamming her head while skiing then dying later from her injuries.

The doctor told me Henry would be admitted if he kept sleeping so deeply. She also knew how nervous I was and recognized that I was there alone with an injured child. She knew I didn't want to leave because I'd told her as much.

"Let's reassess at 6pm. If he's still sleeping, we'll admit him. Don't worry. We won't kick you out."

When Ali Johnson, one of the Maryhill Ratz organizers, brought another injured rider into the E.R. (there weren't enough ambulances available that day...which tells you something about the tail winds), I went out into the hall to see her.

"YOU!" she said, pointing directly at me. "I'm so glad to see you. Talk to me. Tell me how Henry is."

"I think he's gonna be okay," I said. We embraced.

"You won't believe me," she said, wiping her forehead, "but we have NEVER seen this many injuries during an event. Ever." Between the record number of newbies (groms) on the hill (like Henry) and the extremely high tailwinds, the injuries added up. Ali asked if there was anything she could do. She told me riders were asking about Henry and wanting updates. We hugged again and I appreciated having this brief moment to smile before going back into our room. I could tell Ali and others cared deeply about Henry, and that gave me strength.

I used the hospital wi-fi to friend some of Maryhill's riders and organizers on Facebook. After talking with Ali, I knew they must be worried. I wanted to reassure them Henry hadn't broken his neck or worse. I could only imagine how freaked out they might have been. They'd stopped the race when Henry went down and it took forever to get him off the hill. The riders had plenty of time to consider themselves in Henry's shoes. I was sure many parents also recognized it could have been their kid.

One of the people I friended was Cody Shea, the EMT. We started messaging and he offered whatever help we needed. He said he knew we were from out of town and that he was thinking about us. Other EMTs stopped by our room to check on Henry and to ask how I was doing. And, though I was prepared to hear it, not one person said, "I think this longboarding business is a bad idea."  If they had, I wouldn't have disagreed.

What I did keep hearing all day was how lucky Henry was... and that raising teens is a roller coaster of emotions...and that I was a brave mom. The truth is, I was scared to death. You hurt my son, Longboarding, and in the process, you hurt me. How scared was I? So scared I couldn't eat, and for a 46-year-old woman going through perimenopause, that's unheard of.

At 6:45 Henry started waking up and by 7pm he was asking to go back to the motel. I knew he'd sleep better outside of a hospital but I really didn't want to leave. I was more nervous taking him home than I was with my three newborns. Still, I wanted him comfortable and to truly rest his brain. The doctor's discharge papers listed followup for a severe concussion, contusions, a sprained neck and amnesia. She said the fact that he'd been hostile while on the backboard was an encouraging sign -- that nuns are brought in on backboards swearing like sailors because backboards are torture devices. When the doc saw Henry fighting the board, she had a sense he'd be okay. "It's when they don't fight the backboard that you really worry," she said.

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Getting ready to leave the E.R.

The nurse removed Henry's IV and gave him a hospital gown to wear back to the motel. I carried his helmet, his torn shirts, his elbow pads (not a scratch on them) and some painkillers to get us through the night. Henry asked to stop at the Subway near the Ponderosa Motel. As I left him in the rental car, holding his shattered helmet and looking dazed, he said, "I'm sorry, Mom."

"It's okay," I said.

I just wanted to get dinner and settle into a dark motel room.

"You scared me to death," I said, "but I'm so glad you're okay."

"I know. I was really scared when I woke up on the hill. I thought I was dreaming."

I returned 20 minutes later with our sandwiches. Henry was sitting in the exact same position.

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The last thing Henry said before he passed out in his motel bed was, "Thank you for taking me here. Those 3 runs before the accident were the best I've ever skated in my life." Then he added, "Will you wake me up at 8? I want to get to the hill to take pictures. And there's a guy I skated with who I want to see." He said he admired this kid's technique. I hoped he'd fall asleep and spend the whole next day in bed, because I had no intention of taking him back to that hill where it all happened. I didn't say this out loud, though. What I actually thought was, "There's no fucking way in hell you'll be getting anywhere near a longboard as long as you live."

I wanted to book the next flight home and get some more tests. I wanted to call my family to share and reassure and (most certainly) cry but there was no cellular service. The motel had no long distance, and the wi-fi was spotty. I spent the night wide awake, listening to Henry's breathing. I felt farther from home than I'd ever known. Henry moaned in his sleep all night. He had multiple nightmares. I'd felt my way through the pitch black room to reassure him, then reread the hospital discharge instructions by the light of my iPhone.

Our marching orders: Limit mental stimulation. Limit activity. Limit exposure to light. No screens. No phone. No reading. Bland foods. Note any changes in personality, behavior or mood. Call hospital immediately if severe headache or persistent dizziness returns. Patient will be irritable. No strenuous activity for 6-8 weeks. Don't say you feel good when you don't.

I forced myself to eat half my sandwich, then wished I could throw it up in the bathroom overlooking that stupid tire graveyard. I don't think I'll ever be able to eat Subway again.
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The next morning, I gave Henry a painkiller at 8am. He couldn't even sit up.

"What time is it?" he asked. He looked like a little boy.

"It's 8, but I don't think we should go back to the hill," I said.

"I'm down with that," he said, and I felt a wave of relief. He adjusted his left arm with painful concentration. "It's cool if we wait until 10."

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He woke up on his own at 10:45 and I had to assist him into a sitting position.

"What time is it?" he asked, wincing.

"Almost 11" I said and his eyes widened.

"I screwed up my shoulder pretty bad," he said. "I don't think I can use my left arm."

"They said you'd hurt worse today than yesterday."

"Or my neck..."

The neck's not broken, I thought. Suck it up. I'm surprised by how irritable I am. I want to baby him and smack him all at once.

Clearly I needed some sleep and thank God I didn't say what I'd been thinking. Instead, I offered my standard mom-reply: "I'm sure it's soft tissue damage from the impact. That's gonna hurt for awhile. Soft tissue injuries can hurt more than broken bones."

"I'm pretty sure I did something to my ribs." He looked surprised by how bad it all hurt and I yearned to hear him say this just isn't worth it anymore.
After the accident I made myself a promise never to utter the words I knew this would happen. I knew enough that, once I said it, he'd only want you more. Still, I wanted him to hate you just like I did.

I just wanted this to shake the shit out of him. I wanted him to walk away.

Instead, he looked at the digital clock and asked, "It's 10:45? We gotta go."

I stared him down, exhausted. "You can barely move. You shouldn't be in bright sunlight -- let alone walking around the side of a mountain. This is not a good idea."

But he looked at me and I just knew he had to go back. He had to see it again. He had to face it. It was that important.

"Plus," he said, "I want to find that guy I skated with... before I..."

"The guy in purple?"

"I can't remember his name. He was a good guy."

I sat down on the edge of my bed.

"We don't have to stay long. Mom, I have to go back there."

And so I brewed myself a cup of the weakest, nastiest motel coffee ever and brushed my teeth. When I came out of the bathroom Henry was dressed and ready to go.

"Mom? Let's go. You're still in your pajamas?"

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We stopped at the IGA for sunglasses to shade his eyes. He didn't want them but I said, "Too bad." I also made him wear his MUIR Skate hat which, only a day earlier, I'd teased him about. "You look like a rascal," I'd said at O'Hare, shaking my head. And now here I was, insisting he wear it.

We drove back to Maryhill Loops Road in our rental car, a convertible Ford Mustang. The top stayed up.

Every time I asked if he was dizzy he said yes.

We got to the hill and said immediately saw one of the EMTs who'd been at the scene. He was sitting in an ambulance eating a PopTart and his name was Kevin. We thanked him. We thanked Dean and Ali. Then, as Henry walked over to a group of riders, I saw Tom Topping, the man who'd spotted Henry flying over the ledge. Tom said he was so glad to see us.

"I couldn't stop thinking about you guys," Tom said. I didn't know how to thank him properly. I still don't. I never will.

I hugged him and told him how grateful I was for what he did. "I'm sure it's an image you won't forget," I said. Judging by how traumatized I was by seeing a concussion and a possible hip/pelvic fracture, I knew what he might be feeling.

Tom got choked up again, shaking his head as if to erase the visual. Then he mentioned something I'd completely forgotten from the day before when we'd both been spotters on the course with our walkie-talkies. "I remember you saying after the 2nd wipeout that we could use more spotters at the turns. Then Henry's crash happened. After that, I had to put down my camera. I realized I couldn't watch these riders and take pictures, because it only takes a second to miss something..."

I tried not to think what would have happened if Tom hadn't seen Henry go flying off the road or how long he would have laid there or how many people it would have taken to comb the mountainside looking for him once someone finally realized he was nowhere to be found.

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Henry had no desire to see the spot where he'd crashed.

We stayed at the hill for about an hour. He sat on a hay bale and took pictures of riders with my camera, waiting for the kid with no name to come down the hill, but we never saw him.

"I'm ready to go," Henry said. His head was hurting and the dizziness was back.

Since our flight home wasn't until the next day (and storms in Chicago prevented us from leaving any earlier), we drove to the nearest major pharmacy (a 45 minute drive to The Dalles) to fill a prescription for muscle relaxants. I also got an ice bag for his shoulder (which he insisted he wouldn't need) and tried to find a sling. RiteAid didn't have one, so I called the nearest Walgreens.

"Do you have any slings?" I asked.

"Just one left," the clerk chirped. "It's all white. Is that okay?"

"I'll be there in two minutes," I said. "Thank you."

When I walked into Walgreen's, the clerk was standing at the door holding the sling.

"It's your lucky day!" she said.

I was confused.

"It's on markdown. Only 13.99!"

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During the ride, Henry relayed a conversation he'd just had on the hill:

"I was sitting on a hay bale, just watching riders come down, taking pictures and looking for that rider. One guy said he'd heard about someone who went over a ledge yesterday and shattered his helmet."

"Dude," Henry said to the guy. "That was me."

"Seriously?" the guy said. "I heard you'd died."

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We got back to the room around 2pm, closed the drapes and stayed together in darkness for the rest of the night.

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Sleeping off a severe concussion at the Ponderosa Motel.

I don't have to tell you that Maryhill Loops Road is spectacular. I can see how Henry fell in love with its perfect smoothness and endless curves. What longboarder wouldn't dream of a 2 mile long, 2-lane road carved into the side of a mountain? He'd never been near anything like it in his life. I believed he fell in love with Maryhill the way same way he fell for you -- you were both thrilling and daring and dangerous and different. I had no idea it went so much deeper than that.

Before our trip to Maryhill, I'd never heard the story of a Quaker named Sam Hill who'd built the first asphault roads in the Pacific Northwest as an experiment. Or that he'd tried to build a utopian community with his own version of Stonehenge (?) and that his plan failed. I just figured Maryhill Loops was another secret road the longboarders took over en masse for a weekend. I figured the Maryhill Ratz were a bunch of punks. I was so wrong.

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I met a mom named ZsuZsa just before the first run on Saturday. Like us, it was her son's first trip to Maryhill. They'd come from Vancouver, a 7-hour drive. ZsuZsa and I whispered about how nervous we were letting our boys take part in such a dangerous sport. When I signed up to be a spotter, she did the same. I'm sure ZsuZsa agrees that being on the hill kept us busy -- and closer to our sons. Being up there made us feel more protective and in control.

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But you, Longboarding, have reminded me that none of us is ever in complete control. Henry was on a controlled course with EMTs and ambulances and safety protocols and waivers and hay bales and spotters and yet it still happened.

He could have been killed.

Since the accident, I've only cried a few times, and I can still feel the biggest one coming.

I almost lost my son and, for a few moments I actually felt him slipping away. I actually started to imagine life without him and I wanted to scream. You brought me too close to that which I fear most: losing a member of my family.

I've asked myself why I've judged you so harshly and the truth is, you terrify me. Before Maryhill I never understood why anyone would choose to rush down a mountainside, whipped by wind and the constant threats of pain, crashes and unexpected hazards. From the outside it's so easy to say "Don't do it and you won't get hurt." But, that's not living.

I don't race down mountains but I'm a thrill seeker in my own right. I write words to share for all the world to see and judge. To me, the thrill is in the human connections. For me it's satisfying, gratifying, terrifying and wonderful. I love the rush of words running through my head, thinking of the best way to tell a story. I fail often and miserably. I'm critiqued, rejected and frequently on the verge of wanting to give up. I've been asked: "Why put yourself out there?" "Why go through that heartache?" "How can you not take it personally?" What pushes me forward is the passion. Passion is not a choice. It's a drive. It's an emotion, a feeling. It's from the deepest place within us. I wake up every morning and fall asleep every night to the stories I need to tell. I'm grateful for this passion, and I'm thankful my son has found one, as well.

Henry's a passionate, committed individual and you've helped bring his gifts into focus. I hadn't appreciated how much he loved longboarding until I watched him fight through his intense pain to get back to his tribe on that hill. He waited 7 long months to ride Maryhill Loops Road. He could have been shattered by the accident in every way imaginable. Instead, I believe he's grown stronger. I know he learned that he must bail low and that he needs more experience riding in packs. He's been able to see how much focus it takes to stay on course...and how losing one's way occurs in a fraction of a second.

I'm confident Henry learned that he is loved and cared for by many -- even by those he does not know -- because the longboarding community cares deeply for its members. There's an indescribable amount of passion, dedication and commitment to longboarding...and these are all the things I'd hope to see in my children.

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A much different mood on the ride back to the Portland airport.

However, before you start thinking we're 100% okay, I just have to say that our 2 hour drive back to the Portland airport was rough. Henry was an irritable, incorrigible beast. And, our flight to Chicago was a nightmare. We sat in the very last (and loudest) row on the plane. While I'd begun to see the benefits your presence offered in our lives, I wasn't entirely convinced. I was still in deep shock. Henry asked to sit next to me on the flight (unlike our flight to Portland) and didn't fight me when I insisted he use a wheelchair at PDX and O'Hare. I pushed him through the terminals dragging his bathtub-length skate bag as he cradled my carry on bag and purse. Airport Security in Portland put him through a full-body pat down since he was in a wheelchair, and one guard poked fun at him holding a purse and getting pushed around by his mommy.

Waiting for our flight in Portland, I exchanged Facebook messages with Cody Shea. He answered every question I asked about Henry's care during extrication, particularly about mental status. Cody, whose mom, Marina Shea, just retired from the Seattle Fire Department (he made this beautiful tribute for her here), wrote:

"So what we were referring to with Henry is called the A&O scale to measure a person's level of consciousness. Stands for alert and oriented. And you usually ask the patient 3 questions that YOU know the answer to. Do you know where you are? Do you know what day of the week it is? Do you know who the president is? If thy answer all 3 correctly we call that A&O x3. If they don't then they are A&O negative 3. Henry went from negative 3 to positive 1. So he was very disoriented when it first happened. I just have to say that (as an old skater, and as an EMT) that was a scene you never want to respond to. Henry was a very lucky kid and I'm so happy there wasn't more. Let him know we were happy to see such an amazing g recovery and to always try to skate in his limits and if you think your gonna bail always get as low to the ground as possible. This will be a big learning experience in his skate career and rest assured though it will influence his skating to be safer in the long run. So great to meet the two of you!! It was great having a strong and non hysterical mom on scene. You did great!"I wish every longboarder could read Cody's words in bold (and that my husband knows I wasn't hysterical for once).

When we finally got home, Henry slept non-stop. When he was awake, we were at the doctor for multiple followup concussion assessments and more x-rays. We bickered often over how long he'd get to use his phone. He's made remarkable progress -- surprising the doctor every time we came back -- but that wasn't the only surprise.

People kept reaching out. People we didn't even know. Longboarders who'd heard about the accident friended us...sent good wishes...encouraged Henry not to give up on longboarding...and to come back to Maryhill. A skateboard company heard he'd had his shirts cut off in the E.R. and offered to send him a care package.

Most amazingly, the Maryhill Ratz stayed right by our side. Ali and Dean stayed in close contact, tracking Henry's progress and asking how we both were. She helped me find the kid in the purple shirt when we'd given up hope (he became horribly sick Saturday night and never rode the next day). Ali put me in contact with another Maryhill rider, Jacob Kristin who, during the 2013 Maryhill G-Ride had flown off the road and slammed into a tree. (He's fully recovered). I learned Jacob has cerebral palsy who happens to longboard and quickly determined he's one of the coolest guys I've ever (virtually) met. He even agreed to a brief interview on June 26th, his 16th birthday:

Nervous mom: Why do you love this sport?

Jacob Kristin: I love the sport for many reasons. I think the strongest point I've found is the sense of camaraderie. The sport has been so welcoming to everyone regardless of who they make themselves out to be. I also simply love the adrenaline. A few years ago when I started skateboarding I didn't even think about flying downhill at 40+mph. The thrill of flying down a hill on a skateboard surrounded by your friends or even just yourself is a feeling I can't describe.

Nervous mom: How does your CP affect your riding (if at all)?

Jacob Kristin: Skateboarding with Cerebral Palsy has been quite interesting. When I started skateboarding 4 or 5 years ago I couldn't do anything on one -- let alone stand on a skateboard. In fact I almost gave up at one point. I ended up sticking with it and I don't regret a second. People ask me all the time about my CP, asking basically how the hell I managed to get this far. The only answer I can ever really come up with is, perseverance. Skateboarding has helped me overcome many mental and physical challenges in life. From a mental standpoint I always felt so isolated seeing kids play the 'regular' sports such as basketball, football, or lacrosse. Skateboarding has opened up my mind as to what I'm really capable of doing. Physically, it has pushed me to really work with my body and things like physical therapy to improve the way I skateboard. A few months ago I had little to no flexibility in my left ankle, than after surgery I worked my ass off with PT to get it into the shape I needed it to be in. Skateboarding overall has improved my outlook in life, and I'm so thankful for that.

Nervous mom:. What's the culture like?

Jacob Kristin: The culture I can't even begin describe. It's a blend of many things, almost Hellenistic in a way. There are so many good people in skateboarding. It's so welcoming and I felt less isolated or left out when I stepped on my skateboard.

Nervous mom: How do your parents feel about you doing it? Did it change after your accident on Maryhill?

Jacob Kristin: My parents have been so supportive of me skating. After seeing I had no real interest in the usual sports, I had asked them to buy me a skateboard. At first they were skeptical, because for the first year or so, I could barely go 3 feet without falling on my ass! I showed them I could keep going. 3 years later I'm flying down hills. My accident at Maryhill last year, was a little bit of an eye opener for everyone. It had been my first crash of the entire weekend. I feel it only pushed me to get better, to work past that low point. I'm so thankful my parents agreed to let me to keep going to the Maryhill Freerides. Maryhill isn't a hill to be underestimated for sure. It is my happy place, and I think about it constantly. My parents have always been supportive, even after that crash and I'm so glad that they understand my love for the sport.

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After befriending Jacob, how can I possibly hate you, Longboarding? As much as I'd love to wrap my kids in Bubblewrap, I don't want them going through their lives scared. It's futile to think we'll always keep them safe. Things are going to happen. I think Henry learned lessons he'll carry for the rest of his life.

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It's been almost two weeks since Henry's accident. He's been cleared to drive and is allowed to attend a two-week camp where he'll train to become a counselor. His injuries are healing. He's made miraculous progress.

As a mom, my "process" has been interesting. I tell everyone about what happened so they'll tell their kids to wear helmets. I look for any signs that Henry's not himself. And I cry at the most unpredictable times. During one of our concussion checks, a nurse (who we hadn't met before) asked what happened and I had to let Henry describe it as I muffled sobs I didn't realize I was holding within. It was embarrassing.

"Mom," Henry said after the nurse left. "Why are you still so upset?"

"Because I'm processing this," I said, wiping my eyes. "Every time I think back to what could have happened, I relive it all again." It's like holding your breath underwater. Once you finally break through that surface, your release valve opens and you have no choice but to let it all out.

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It worried me that Henry might feel invincible after dodging this bullet, but I don't think he takes his good fortune for granted. He's seen how serious this accident was. I have no doubt he recognizes the worry he put his family and friends through. He seems humbled by it, and for that I am grateful. Clearly, longboarding isn't for punks, because punks aren't humble.

This morning, Cody sent me someone's photos from the extrication. I knew they'd be hard to look at but I needed to see them. I wondered if I'd remembered everything as it happened...and I did.

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An EMT's bag rests on the boulder as he prepares Henry's IV. Cody Shea is in the camo hat. I'm near Henry's head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Riders shield Henry's face from the midday sun as he's strapped onto the backboard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I kept hoping Henry would squeeze my hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Henry's ICARO full-face helmet saved his life.

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It's a controversial helmet among longboarders because of its design. It was originally created for hang gliding and paragliding. In Henry's case -- flying off the road at 40+ mph and plunging 40 ft into a boulder -- it's a good thing he was wearing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After all this explanation (sorry) I want you to know that I respect you. Though I'll never fully trust you because you're too unpredictable, I can't ignore what you've done to enhance our lives. You can be a hot, complicated mess, Longboarding, but then again, so can I. You're unquestionably dangerous -- yet so is texting while driving and putting Q-tips in our ears. I never went looking for you but I'm willing to tell you publicly that I'm grateful you're in my life. Our love affair is unconventional but I think we can move forward. Just know I'll be forever stoked if you ease up on the drama.

My nerves, Dude, are Jello.

Love,

Henry's mom

P.S.  Here's a gallery of every photo we took on the G-Ride course.

P.P.S. Click here to read Part 1

P.P.P.S. Click here to read Part 2

P.P.P.P.S. Click here to read all the ChicagoNow Blogapalooza Love Letters from June 25, 2014

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