It was over a month between writing the first and second chapter of this book, despite the constant urging in my soul to tell our story. I don’t have to think too hard as to guess the reason for my procrastination—reliving that night is exhausting, and so I find excuses to avoid writing it down. Even though I know better, Blake’s story—our story—should be told. It deserves to be told.
The night I first wrote this chapter was the culmination of a particularly awful week, month, year. Our heater—and backup heater—decided to quit on the first truly cold night of winter. Something about it had a “last straw” kind of feeling to it. And then I stumbled across a post from a friend on Facebook, mentioning the hospital in Washington, Missouri that Blake was first taken to that night. She and I got to talking and realized she worked there at the time. On top of being a “wow it’s a small world” kind of moment, it was the reminder I needed of the amazing things God has done in my life. Had I really been feeling unloved and forsaken just hours ago? Had I really forgotten so quickly what God has done in my life? So, I will wade back into the memory. Perhaps it’s time.
Some nights, my mare Sassy would be a total heifer and make me earn any good that came from our rides. That night was not one of them. She’d moved like a dream all evening long, responding to the slightest pressure from me. We were so in sync that I could think left and she’d feel it and move left. When kids are about four, they go through a real “look at me” stage when they want to show their loved ones every single thing they accomplish. I remember feeling about like that as I told Adam “Look at how beautifully she’s moving! She’s such a good girl.”
I could tell my kiddos were beyond ready to go. They lined the gate of the arena, trying to be patient, but not really—dinner at Culvers was on their minds. Blake begged to be the one to cool Sassy down after her workout. He’d ridden her a hundred times before so I obliged, sliding off the saddle to hold her while he mounted. The smile on his face as he slipped through the gate is forever etched in my memory. It was that smile that would replay through my mind over the coming days, taunting me with the question “Would it be his last?” I remember worrying in the days to come that I might forget it. Perhaps that’s why I can still so vividly recall that smile even now.
As Blake settled into the saddle, I tied his reins to create a continuous loop—just in case he dropped them—before handing them to him. We ambled around the arena, me walking just slightly in front and to the side of Sassy. My darling girl could sometimes be a doll for me and a brat for lesser riders, so I stayed close, watching them interact and offering feedback as needed. That night, it wasn’t really needed. He was every bit as in sync as she was.
When my kids are on or near a horse, I watch the animal’s body language closely. I always have – even more so now. That night, her body was relaxed, her ears loose. She didn’t seem to have a care in the world. We’d just walked passed one of the gates leading outside when it happened. I’ll never know what caused her to spook. Was it me, walking in the wrong spot? Something outside? Did the barn dog yank her tail without me noticing? (He was notorious for that kind of thing.)
Whatever the cause, my calm horse morphed into a creature running for its life in the blink of an eye. She spun on her hindquarters and bolted, causing Blake to tumble backwards. About the time I breathed a sigh of relief because he’d landed in the sand, seemingly unharmed, her hoof connected with his forehead hard enough that it flipped him. I screamed and fell to his side, turning him so he was no longer face down. I cleaned the sand out of his mouth in preparation for CPR, but it felt hopeless. He wasn’t breathing. He was completely limp in my arms.
In the days since that one, I’ve encountered death more than once on our farm. It’s only served to strengthen my conviction that in that moment, I held my dead son in my arms. I vaguely recall the look on my other children’s faces as they watched with horror. I remember Sassy, coming to a halt in the corner and dropping her head, much as a football team would take a knee while waiting for word on the condition of a fallen teammate.
The hopelessness, the disbelief, the complete lack of acceptance welled up in me. I placed my hand on Blake’s forehead and begged with every fiber of my being, “Jesus, bring him back to me.”
He took a breath. I could feel it, the breath returning to his body. His eyes didn’t open, but he was most definitely breathing again. In the chaos to follow, I clung to that: God gave my son breath again. It would not be for nothing.
That’s when my family sprang into action. Adam went to call 9-1-1. Dylan went to get Jack. Chris asked what he could do—I asked him to come pray with Blake. Dylan, who was 11 at the time, had returned to retrieve the horse and took her to put her tack away, check her over for injuries, and put her in the stall so she’d be out of the paramedics’ way when they arrived. Chris, who was 6, fell to his knees beside his brother in the sand, took his hand and prayed. Fervently.
The paramedics came, after struggling to find the farm, and took him to the nearest hospital. I called my dad, though I was sobbing so hard it took three tries for him to understand what I was saying. And all I could think about was that smile. I was so scared it would be his last.
The first hospital stop was a bit of a blur. They cut his clothes off—jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. I still have them. His face was mangled and swollen. His eyes still had not opened. It was there they stabilized him in preparation for the medflight to Cardinal Glennon, a nearby children’s hospital. Just before the helicopter arrived, they cleaned Blake up as best they could and offered us a chance to bring the boys in to say goodbye. I knew from the way they didn’t quite meet my eyes they didn’t expect him to survive the flight.
Christopher hadn’t lost his look of stunned disbelief. Someone in the ER gave him a stuffed puppy and asked him to take care of it for his brother. He clung to that puppy the rest of the night. It got him through. Even in my own shocked state, I noticed the kindness and was grateful for it. That’s the thing about kindness—you never know when your simple act will be the very thing someone clings to just to get through the night.
Blake was loaded onto the helicopter and we were told to meet him at Cardinal Glennon. As we were leaving, we were met by one of our friends from the barn. She’d heard and had come to check on us. Another kindness.
The ride to the hospital felt infinite. Adam drove. I rode in the back, a son tucked under either arm as we cried. My favorite praise CD was playing in the background. To this day, Third Day’s Cry out to Jesus takes me right back to that car, that moment. I can’t listen to it.
We arrived just after the helicopter. There was a line at security, but the guard took one look at us and knew we belonged with the child that had been flown in, so he waved us through. Another kindness.
After Blake had been transferred to the care of the ER staff, one of the gentleman from the medflight came to find me. There were tears in his eyes as he said “I’m so sorry, ma’am. We did everything we could for him.” He wasn’t telling me Blake was gone, but I knew he didn’t expect the little boy who had been in his care to live. His seeking me out was yet another kindness, one of many that was keeping me from drowning in the enormity of it all.
I would later find out that the doctor sought my family out just before we arrived to tell them to brace themselves; they did not expect Blake to live. At one point, the doctor came in to tell me his initial CT scans weren’t showing any brain activity. I just kept shaking my head no and repeating to people, “That will change. God didn’t bring him back to leave him a vegetable.”
For a second time that night, Blake was cleaned up and we were ushered in to say goodbye. He was unrecognizable with his swollen, bruised face and the tubes coming from his mouth and arms. The hospital chaplain was there. As I gazed down at my son, so many emotions swirling within me, he patted my hand and said, “Maybe now you realize you should have had a helmet on him.”
I blinked and looked at him. It wouldn’t be the last time I heard that sentence, but it was definitely the least appropriate. I don’t remember responding. I wasn’t arrested or anything, so I’m pretty sure I only imagined inflicting bodily harm on him. The man had the audacity to want to lead a prayer after that. I didn’t want him to pray for my son. I didn’t want him to touch my hand. I didn’t want him anywhere near either of us. Now, years later, I remember that moment as a lesson in the harm we can cause when speaking our opinion matters more than speaking grace and love into someone’s life. I learned from his mistake. I can only hope he did as well.
To be continued...
Miss the beginning of the story? Here's the prologue and here's chapter one.
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.