September 6, 2001
This new school year, all seven of my children will be attending classes full time.
After 16 years of staying home taking care of my little ones, I finally will be free to contemplate life without interruption, to possibly pursue some of my own interests. I had been so passionately immersed in the everyday of bottles, diapers, and chaos that I never really thought of my inner ambitions. Maybe I could redecorate the house? I had always wished to rekindle my love of art, drawing, and being creative. Perhaps, I could take up racquetball or tennis again? I enjoyed the exercise, competition, and the way the ball had effortlessly glided through the autumn winds during my college years. I could even get a part-time job. Before starting my own family, I had worked at a small school helping mentally, visually and hearing-impaired children. What job with “mother’s hours” could challenge me now?
I craved an opportunity to find out who I really was or wanted to be. I yearned to embrace my forties, to seek adventure and the opportunity to wear a different persona. I was looking forward to a new way of life, one without interruption from nine until three.
This particular morning I had pampered myself by staying in my pajamas, making my cream-filled coffee last for hours. I loved the solitude, the soothing background vocals of James Taylor, and savored a mystery novel, indifferent to the stacks of dirty dishes and piles of laundry surrounding me. I had a hair appointment after lunch and would be home to greet my children when they returned from school. The house would once again be filled with commotion, laughter, and familiarity. In the afternoon, many children from the neighborhood were playing street hockey and kickball in our big yard. The carefree spirit of childhood could be seen in their smiles. They enjoyed running, poking, and nudging one another. My son Paul had a couple of buddies visiting; they were goofing around out back in the dense woods. I recall seeing their sly and grinning expressions as they emerged from the pine needle forest, which told me they were probably up to some adolescent prank. Our eyes locked for a split second before my son abruptly turned and grabbed his bike, while still conversing and joking with his co-conspirators. I no longer existed. Paul, my thirteen-year-old son, was growing up. He was becoming way too cool to want to have anything to do with me. A pang of hurt briefly swept by, but growing up is inevitable; he was going to be an amazing young man. He was already an amazing young boy.
Around five o’clock when the phone rang, I had just started to prepare dinner; as usual, something processed, quick, and kid-friendly. Before the receiver touched my ear, I could hear my neighbor talking rapidly and loudly. It was hard to understand her words. “Dixie, hurry, come to the end of Farrar Road, Paul is hurt.” I thought that is what I heard. I did not react right away; I had just seen my son. My neighbor must have been mistaken. I needed details. “What happened, is he okay?” “Dixie, get down here, Paul has been hit by a car; the ambulance is on its way.” The phone fell from my hand, slapping and cracking the hardwood floor. I could not move. Blood emptied from my head, forcing a sharp, tingly sensation rippling, stinging through my nerves. My heart started to beat uncontrollably. My limbs went cold, then numb. A stifled scream surfaced. Eventually, I stumbled outside the door into a neighbor’s waiting car. Everything was spinning. My throat was closing.
Paul’s broken, twisted red bike lay by the side of the intersection. A black SUV idled on the other side of the road. The rush hour traffic, at a standstill, looked like a parking lot at a funeral. Commuters were getting out of their cars. A crowd of people began to hover.
My first instinct was to cradle my son’s lifeless body on the hard pavement. Dirt and blood matted his face. A deep, red liquid oozed from the corner of his lips. “Oh, my, God…is he alive?” I touched his dark brown hair. Thick, ruby blood seeped from the back of his head. He had not been wearing a bike helmet. Intense panic ripped through the air and into my lungs. The woman beside me said, “Don’t move him.” She told me she was a respiratory nurse, and she was attempting to keep his airway open so oxygen could flow to his brain. “Is he breathing?” I demanded. Slowly she nodded yes. “Is the oxygen getting to his brain?” Her eyes did not meet mine. She did not answer. I quickly asked if my son was unconscious; she hesitantly nodded, yes. I was relieved to know this, wanting to believe that my son could not feel or experience the pain and had no knowledge of this horrific moment. I wanted to change places with her. I wanted to be the one holding my son’s body. His handsome body, which I had watched grow from infancy, to childhood, to puberty.
I was not hysterical. Strangely, I was behaving calmly, and I only slowly became aware of the disbelieving crowd that was looking on. I stood up and pleaded for everyone to start praying and praying. “Don’t stop,” I ordered.
A man was standing in the intersection, next to the drip of fluids seeping down the road. In an authoritative tone, he stated that he was a doctor. He repeated several times that Paul was going to be okay. He stood a mile from my son’s limp body, making no attempt to assist him. This old man, with his spotted tie and buttoned-up shirt, was adding more chaos and tension to this already terrifying situation. I wanted him to help, or to leave, or to shut up. Cars were blocking the street; the police could not get through. When they arrived, I realized they too were useless — their main task was traffic and crowd control on this quiet country road that had become a circus. I still did not hear the sirens of the ambulance. Where were they? Why was it taking so long? Paul needed help now!
Two panic-stricken teenagers were talking very fast to an officer behind me. I needed to block out their crying, their words, and their hysteria. I did not want to hear the details and to envision Paul and his buddies cruising on their bikes down the steep hill, or to picture the impact of colliding aluminum and metal, which smashed, dented, shattered, twisted, and forced Paul’s body and mangled bicycle to somersault spastically, ten feet into the air … ten feet into the air … ten feet into the air, until Paul landed with a sudden forceful thud, bouncing and skidding on the rocks and concrete not far from the black SUV.
I did not want to look at the damaged vehicle, but I noticed the wide windshield was cracked. Glancing down the road, I began to pace, becoming frantic, desperately searching for help. I began to yell, “Was anyone else hurt? Where is the ambulance? What’s taking so long?” Shouting louder, my body shook, my voice shook, “What happened?” No one spoke. People came to my side in an effort to hug and comfort me. I swung my arms and thrashed, pushing them away. I fell to the ground beside my son, sobbing. My eyes darted toward unfamiliar and seemingly familiar people standing near the bruised car, tall trees, and small flowers that were emerging from the cracks in the sidewalk. Suddenly I sensed everyone’s hearts beating and witnessed every twitch of their muscles and movements … each individual eyelash, blinking … and Paul … silenced, unmoving. Within a millimeter of a second, the magnified and lucid world around me intently began to weave and spin and whirl, until I felt entrapped, held hostage within the confining net of a harsh cocoon. Instantly … everything had changed.
Oddly, facial expressions on the people around me began to move in slow motion. Their voices became distant. The leaves on the trees even swayed as if a lazy breeze was blowing. I was positive I was going out of my mind that I was not there in the moment. I could not think. Breathe. Comprehend. I was about to black out.
I saw the blur of the ambulance pull up beside my son. I began to pray unceasingly. I was quiet but screaming to the heavens. A muffled, gruff voice was yelling into a radio, making plans to get the life support helicopter in motion. The urgency to pray intensified. I was in a deep, silent prayer, focused on the outline of my son. Had I told him I loved him today? “I love you Paul, I love you Paul … I love you Paul … I love you.” I fell into the car that would follow the ambulance to the hospital. I was limp. The only energy escaping came from my shrieking vocal cords. “Drive faster! Move! Go! Don’t stop at the red light! Go faster! Stay behind them! Watch out for that car … person … Oh my God!”
At the hospital I was in a haze. My legs were like jelly as the paramedics quickly wheeled Paul past me into an examining room. I collapsed into a hard chair. I stared ahead. I heard the scurrying of feet and witnessed bleached, colorless uniforms hovering over Paul. Emergency personnel suctioned Paul’s airway. A young doctor with thick glasses and dusty brown hair pounded on my son’s chest. A long, clear tube was inserted down his throat. Oozing fluids stained the white sheets a deep red. A medicine smell stung the air. A petite nurse came to my side. She handed me a small basin, knowing my stomach was about to empty onto the floor. I sensed that the situation in the emergency room was becoming hopeless, a true crisis, where people lived or died…how could this be happening? Was I really witnessing my son’s last moments on earth? “Dear God, do something!” I stood up and for a moment came to my senses. I somehow screamed out unimaginable, unthinkable words. “Is my son going to die?” Anxious eyes and sullen expressions suddenly darted toward my petrified gaze. I could feel my stomach contracting and vomit erupting. I yelled louder, attempting to drown out my pounding, pulsating heart, “If you think my son is going to die, I need a priest right now!”
It seemed within moments a priest arrived to give my son his last rites, his last blessing before meeting his Creator. Horror and dismay seized my being. I could not grasp what I was witnessing. The doctor in charge explained the seriousness of Paul’s condition and said my son would be taken by helicopter to a pediatric trauma center hospital in Worcester. I could not listen. I was paralyzed by the fear of Paul dying. I was alone in my terror. I was told my husband was racing through traffic. The priest abruptly grasped my hand and said, “Let’s pray.”
At that moment I needed to escape into the rapture of meditation; yet rage, confusion, anger, and disbelief surfaced. I forcibly pulled away. I wanted to scream, kick, and punch. To stop this ritual; to stop my son from dying.
The priest began to make the sign of the cross over my son’s bloody forehead. I desperately wanted and needed concrete proof that there were angels surrounding my son. I craved the knowledge of the theologians and proof that God existed. I needed to penetrate the supernatural.
Death was real. As I slumped into my chair, an image of my father appeared; he was smiling gently. He did not look sick, just peaceful. I wanted to hold tight to his likeness, for he had died two years earlier from cancer. I wanted to hug him close, to hear him reassure me that the angel’s wings did make a noise. It comforted me in an odd way, to know if Paul died, my father would be the first to greet him; he would bring his grandson to a place where the angels played. As a child, I sat on my father’s lap, mesmerized by his eloquent words. He often read to me from the Bible. I was not sure if the characters in that book were real or fictional. Yet, I had been fascinated and awed, especially when he spoke of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I had always wanted to be like her, a simple mother, doing God’s will. Sometimes, to bring meaning and purpose to my days, I would pray to her, as if she was sitting beside me. Often I asked her to guide me to her Son. To His secrets. To understand the world around me.
Every night, my Dad finished his stories by reading a poem written by his mother, Mary Dixon Thayer. Without thinking, I started to mumble and to recite the prayer.
Lovely Lady dressed in blue,
Teach me how to pray!
God was just your little boy,
Tell me what to say!
Did you lift Him up sometimes,
Gently on your knee?
Did you sing to Him the way
Mother does to me?
Did you hold His hand at night?
Did you ever try
Telling stories of the world?
O! And did He cry?
Do you really think He cares
If I tell Him things,
Little things that happen? And
Do angels’ wings
Make a noise? And can He hear
Me if I speak low?
Does He understand me now?
Tell me—for you know!
Lovely Lady dressed in blue,
Teach me how to pray!
God was just your little boy,
And you know the way.
My husband’s presence as he entered the emergency room startled me, and my Dad no longer existed. Our son was unresponsive. Though my legs were unsteady, I somehow stumbled to Steven’s side. I needed comfort, but Steven was impatient for information. “What’s going on? Is Paul okay? Why is a priest here? Dixie, tell me what’s happening.” Tears were unceasing. I just stared helplessly, without speaking. My husband, usually calm, was frantically pacing and pleading, “Is he okay? Is he going to be alright?” He embraced me, but his confused, shocked eyes were on Paul. With the priest just leaving and anxious doctors and nurses hovering over our son’s body, I knew my husband was terrified. Before I could respond, the doctor in charge interrupted, “The medical transport helicopter is ready to leave.” Without giving my husband a chance to take action, I said, “I’m going.” The doctor informed us that it was against the rules to bring civilians on board the helicopter. They were not able to add any more weight to the chopper. I was adamant and begged for mercy. The doctor hesitantly asked if I weighed 130 pounds. I nodded my head yes; we both knew I was lying. Her strong features softened as she witnessed my overflowing tears. I knew they would not let a hysterical mother on board. I tried to hide my fears, pretending to comprehend what was going on around me. I prayed the doctor had children of her own and would know I needed to be with my son. Reluctantly, she said, “Only one of you will be allowed on the helicopter.” I exhaled, thanked and gently hugged her, as my husband stared at me, knowing he would be the one racing through traffic, unaware as to what would be happening in the sky.
Steven would not leave Paul’s side as the paramedics quickly wheeled our son into the hall and outside to where the helicopter was waiting. Not wanting to be separated, Steven and I fiercely held onto one another. I quickly kissed him as he pried my fingers from his arm. Through the twirling air and howls of the engine, I heard Steven crying. The propellers could not drown out our hysteria. “I will meet you in the emergency room … hurry … oh, my God, Steven, how will you drive, you’re shaking … tears are streaming.” “Dixie, stop yelling, take care of Paul…get into the helicopter, now!” My heart kept pace with the noisy, fast, roaring, beating engine of the craft. Terrorizing my thoughts was the unknown.
The glass doors opened like the Bat Mobile. The pilot spoke simply, making no demands. He explained all of the confusing instruments and explained what to do in case of an emergency. I thought this was odd. Wasn’t this an emergency? Aboard the helicopter it was deafening but muffled. I wore huge padded earphones. It was as if I were listening to the outside world from underwater. I was drowning, while Paul could not even tread water in the rear of the craft. Without the effort of trying to pick up speed down a runway, we lifted up and up, gliding across the cloudless sky. I felt weightless, timeless, lifeless, as if I were trapped inside a polluted bubble. Through tears and the clear glass surrounding me, I was in a haze-like trance, stunned by the changing day.
Crisp images and flashbacks to our summer family vacation came to life before me. I saw our seven children innocently soaking up the glistening rays of childhood. They played together beside the splintered deck of the summerhouse we had escaped to in the White Mountains of New Hampshire just last month. Amanda, our eldest, wore a skimpy bikini, showing off her pierced navel. She was looking forward to exploring colleges and the independence that would come with her driver’s license in the fall. Brianna, our fifteen-year-old, blue-eyed beauty, took advantage of the quiet views, thought- fully painting sailboats as they glided by. Paul had cast his rod intently into the dark water, patiently waiting for the slightest nibble so he could show off his prize, to the amazement of his younger siblings. He had appeared confident, determined, with a slight grin on his face. Caroline had been in the midst of adolescent mania. That day she looked like a peaceful Eskimo child, happily listening to the latest pop tunes, making the splashing dock sway to the beat of the music. Anna-Theresa, our angelic nine-year-old, swam like a graceful dolphin in the heart-shaped lake surrounded by the green and blossoming mountains. We heard her sweet giggles echo through the cove. Kevin and Monica, our six- and seven-year-old Irish twins, played with plastic shovels and pails, pretending to build a world all their own out of shells, rocks, and sand. I had reached for my camera to capture that peaceful day. Now, thinking of that photograph hanging on my refrigerator at home, I saw Paul’s face. His skin. His smile. I could almost smell his breath.
My thoughts were racing quicker than the propellers, yet everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. The specks of people below made me think of tiny insects beneath the dirt, under each blade of grass. The endless sky made me think of the infinite stars and galaxies in the universe. I realized God knew how many hairs were on each person’s head. I was helpless. Not in control of any- thing. The day had started out so “normal.” Now, the fading sun would be setting in unfamiliar territory.
As my heart kept pace with the beating engine, I pictured the instant Paul had entered, greeted the world. I heard my son’s innocent cry and felt his tiny rosebud lips sucking on my nipples. And when he was able, I remembered him crawling like a spider among the dandelions, taking wobbly steps, falling and beginning to walk again. I remembered the completeness in my spirit when months later he had tried to say Mama and Dada. I thought of all the humid days he jumped around with his siblings, looking for frogs in our yard, and how he impersonated creatures while playing and interacting with toys in his bedroom. I could almost feel the anxiety of bringing him to preschool and preparing him for kindergarten. There were so many cozy nights I read to him. How he loved the pictures! He was always playing with numbers, trying to figure things out. Wanting to know how a bomb was made. How electricity worked. What was underneath the hood of a car. And, oh, how he and his younger brother Kevin would avoid their schoolwork engrossed in PlayStation for hours. I thought back to the days when Paul taught Anna-Theresa, Kevin, and Monica to tie their shoes and to ride a two-wheeler. I thought back to swim lessons. T-ball, baseball, and basketball practices. Scooters, skateboards, and grind-ing the rails and half pipes. I reminisced of the evenings Amanda and Brianna and their friends spent in our yard, cooking marshmallows in the fire pit. Paul surrounded by the pretty girls, trying to fit in, wearing the biggest, baggiest jeans I had ever seen. I thought back to all the nights Caroline and Paul stayed up talking, and the advice he gave her to stay away from boys. I could almost hear the laughter in his voice as he joked with his father, challenging him to a debate about anything. Paul was always determined to win, especially when it came to parent-child issues, pushing us to the limit, then candidly bringing us back. I remembered how he loved to camp, to sail, to get ready for any adventure. Eerily, I thought: he had never flown in a helicopter.
I glanced down at the miniature earth and the blur of so many Monopoly-sized houses clustered together. I thought about the lives under the numerous rooftops. What was their purpose, destiny? How many sensuous sheets had been ruffled before the sun had risen? How many showers had been taken that morning? Meals microwaved? TV stations watched? How many children had kissed their parents in the early morning? And how many tender lives would perish, expire, and cease to exist by the end of the daylight hours?
The chopper must have hit an air pocket; the intense pressure behind my eyes and in my skull felt like it was about to explode. I was unable to move. As stunned and scared as a deer, or a little boy caught in the bright lights of an oncoming SUV. Forcing the stale vomit in my throat to stay down, I glanced at the tiny ant-like people below, who were unaware as to what had just happened to my son, to me, my family. The helicopter landed precisely on the bull’s eye. Anxiously, I waited to see if there was a corpse on the stretcher. The paramedics quickly lifted Paul’s body out of the helicopter’s Bat Cave. Paul was still alive. I sprinted beside the paramedics, never ducking from the sharp blades.