December 27, 2012
I had gone to a nearby college town to spend the day with some lady friends. After an enjoyable lunch downtown, we decided to stop in at Hearts of Fire Tattoo parlor just a few blocks away (because that’s what all ladies do for entertainment after an enjoyable lunch, right?). One of my friends wanted to schedule an appointment, and she suggested I might talk to one of the artists about my idea for a possible tattoo while we were there.
As we approached the storefront, we were surprised to see her son and one of his friends sitting in the waiting area inside–what a coincidence! And as we walked through the door, the boys looked up and then looked away, laughing sheepishly. I remember thinking it was odd to see them there because I thought they had come to town to visit my son, but I didn’t see him with them.
And then I looked in the other direction.
There, on one of the tables, lay my youngest son Lucas (my 20-year-old baby!) with his back bared to the tattoo artist who was injecting tiny pinpricks of ink into the skin just above his jeans. Whatever pain Lucas was feeling was probably minimal compared to the momentary panic of seeing his mom walking toward him and the accompanying embarrassment of seeing her friends not far behind. (It probably isn’t the worst of any young man’s nightmares, but I’ll bet it’s on the list.)
Admittedly, I was a little disheartened to see him lying there, but I couldn’t be angry–both of his older brothers have tattoos, and I had talked in front of him about possibly getting one myself. So instead of yelling or crying or yanking him off that table by his sweet little ear, I did the next best thing–I pulled out my camera and snapped his picture (embarrassing him even more). And then I peered over his shoulder to get a better look at the tattoo. I asked him what it meant, and when he told me, I smiled and turned away. I didn’t want him to see the tears forming in my eyes as the memories I try so hard to suppress came flooding back . . .
April 25, 2008
It was 8:40 a.m., and I was in the front office talking with one of the secretaries when the bookkeeper informed us she had just received a call that one of our buses had crashed on the Tecumseh curves. It didn’t make sense; the school day had already started, and we had no late buses. We also had no activity buses that would have been traveling in that direction. Then she called back and said it wasn’t a bus–it was the school van with one of our teachers driving and six of our students on board.
My heart dropped.
My son Lucas was in that van.
I was the only administrator in the building at the time, and as I ran to grab my car keys, the bookkeeper received another call indicating the other students were out of the van and were okay but that Lucas and his teacher were still inside. One of the secretaries insisted on driving me to the scene, and as we ran for the door I asked one of the others to call my husband and tell him what had happened.
As we neared the crash site, the traffic was backed up, so I jumped out of the car and ran. I rounded a curve, and then I saw the van–horribly mangled but upright–in the bottom of a steep ravine, and all the other students sitting on the edge of the highway. Ambulances had not yet arrived, but I could see first responders inside the van, and I could hear Lucas’s anguished yells. I couldn’t get to him, though–the hillside was too steep for me to get down by myself, so for several agonizing minutes I restrained the mom in me and let the administrator take over, checking on the other students while waiting anxiously for more help to arrive.
When the superintendent and a couple male teachers from the high school showed up, they helped me get down into the ravine to my son. The first responders were trying to calm him and to keep him from moving because they were concerned about his back–he had been sitting in the middle seat in the middle row of the van, with only a lap belt restraining him. One of them quietly pointed to the huge bulge in his lower back, and her look told me something was terribly wrong.
I’ll never forget the sweet sound of sirens as the ambulance crew arrived, the sound of tearing metal as the Jaws of Life pried the doors off the van, and the whirring overhead as the Air Evac helicopter landed. And just as Lucas was strapped to a board and was being carried up the hillside, my husband came running down the hill. He ran to Lucas and helped the ambulance crew carry him down the highway to the waiting helicopter where one of the helicopter nurses asked him what his pain level was on a scale of 1-10. My tough, never-complaining son said “15.”
After the helicopter took off, my husband and I jumped in our car and raced toward the hospital, an hour and a half and three thousand prayers away. When we got there and were finally called back to Lucas’s room, he was calmer than when we had left him thanks to the miracle of IV painkillers. He was upset, though, because somebody had cut all his clothes off of him, including his underwear, and his 16-year-old modesty was highly offended. He was also upset because someone had cut off his brand new tie–could they not have just untied it?
An MRI and x-rays revealed his third lumbar vertebra was broken in half, and he would need spinal fusion surgery to repair it–and that’s when my tough, never-complaining son shed his first tears. “So that means no baseball?” he asked. He was lying on his broken back in the emergency room, and all he could think of was his team was playing in a tournament that weekend–and they needed his glove in centerfield. Baseball was his passion, and this announcement was emotionally devastating for the 16-year-old boy who had only weeks before battled his way back from knee surgery to play the sport he loved. The neurosurgeon explained the long-term risks of the surgery but said that Lucas would eventually be able to lead a relatively normal life. When we asked about his ability to return to sports (not just baseball but basketball and track, too), the surgeon estimated a 9-12 month recovery period, after which Lucas’s sports participation might depend on how much pain he was willing to tolerate.
Lucas was taken to a room in the pediatric ICU, where he was surrounded by pillows to immobilize him and given a morphine drip to help control the pain. By that afternoon, the morphine was making him nauseated, and soon he started throwing up and then dry heaving, which made the pain even worse because of the strain on his muscles and because we had to keep rolling him to his side to keep him from choking. The nurses began giving him anti-nausea medication, which didn’t work, and when Lucas realized the morphine was causing the nausea and vomiting, he stopped pushing the button to self-medicate until the pain would become so unbearable that he had no choice, and then he would get sick again and the pain would be even worse–a vicious cycle.
That was Friday afternoon; the surgery wasn’t until Sunday morning. The agony he endured that weekend was unimaginable, and the only consolation (we realized later) was that the drugs that couldn’t eliminate the pain at least erased his memory of it.
At 5 a.m. Sunday we walked with Lucas as he was wheeled to the operating room and then said our goodbyes. Tears rolled down my husband’s cheek, but I would not allow myself to cry, knowing if the first tear fell, a billion more would follow.
About three hours later, the neurosurgeon came out to tell us the surgery had gone well but that he had also had to do a bone graft from Lucas’s hip to help with the fusion. He also said the muscle and ligament damage was extensive–that Lucas’s entire mid-section had literally been ripped in half by the lap belt–and that it would most likely take longer for the muscles and ligaments to heal than the vertebra. He also said Lucas was very lucky that the first responders had kept him from standing because his spinal cord probably would have snapped–in which case we would have been looking at a much different situation with a much grimmer prognosis.
After those first three days, Lucas spent another four days in the hospital, followed by three months in a restricting back brace and then three more months of intense physical therapy. There were a lot of ups and downs during those six months, but every bad day was tempered with the knowledge that it could have been so much worse. He attended his first prom in a wheelchair and a drug-induced haze, with his parents as chauffeurs–but he and his girlfriend still made a brief appearance. He wasn’t able to finish his baseball season that year or to play American Legion baseball that summer, but he was able to cheer on his teammates from the sidelines. His body was aching and slow to mend, but his mind was intact and his wit was sharper than ever.
I learned a lot about my son because of that accident and the resulting injuries. Through every hardship, Lucas showed amazing courage and grim determination. When he was finally released from physical therapy, he went on to play basketball again that year and baseball for the next two years–and even though running up and down the court was sheer torture, even though the fastest kid on the baseball team was now running in the middle of the pack, and even though every game was followed by Advil and ice packs, he never gave up. And he never complained. He tried not to let the rest of the world see his pain, and he stubbornly refused to let his injuries redefine who he was. He was a joking, smiling Superman, the Man of Steel.
I also learned a lot about the small community in which we live. We were embraced in love, surrounded by the warmth of friends, neighbors, teammates and classmates, and complete strangers–from the mother of one of his best friends who brought him St. Louis Cardinals boxers to replace the underwear that had been cut away to the baseball team that brought him a signed bat and dedicated their season to him, from the father of another friend who graded our gravel driveway to make sure it didn’t jar him when he rode home from the hospital to the numerous friends who went out of their way to visit with him over that long, boring summer, from the countless people who made the long drive to the hospital to see him to the sweet lady who asked him to be a camp counselor that summer, graciously agreeing to all my worried requests and promising to be his “substitute mom” and to take good care of him. Even during one of the worst experiences of our lives, we were reminded over and over again of how truly blessed we were.
Now, over four and a half years after the accident, Lucas still has lingering problems because of his injuries–and probably always will–but he has learned to adapt and move on. In fact, most people would never guess that he has two four-inch steel rods and four steel screws in his back unless they saw the ugly scars–the long, ugly scars that now have a small tattoo between them.
December 27, 2012
When I peered over Lucas’s shoulder to see the tattoo being inked onto his lower back, right between the two, long, ugly scars, I saw in small letters, “Ctrl + Z.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Control Z–it means ‘undo.'”
And when I realized the significance of that tattoo (or thought I did), I smiled and walked away because I still have a few of those billion tears left to shed, and I didn’t want them falling in front of him. When I got back to his friends in the waiting area, they asked if I had also seen the tattoo on his chest. Another one?!
And then they informed me that over his heart–his beautiful, smiling heart–was “Ctrl + B,” the keyboard shortcut for “bold.”
I understood “Ctrl + B,” and I thought “Ctrl + Z” was Lucas’s small way of saying that he wished he could “undo” the accident and all the pain it had caused him. It wasn’t until the next day that I learned my interpretation had been wrong.
“I don’t mean that I wish I could undo what happened,” said Lucas. “I mean that it’s been undone. The tattoo symbolizes that you could erase the scars because I have already overcome the incident that caused them.”
Yep, that’s my son, and he’s one amazing young man (just like his brothers, only different). And knowing that he has already overcome the incident may just help me, his wimpy mama, to let go of those last remaining tears and move on also.
Bold heart, indeed. Below is Lucas’s Facebook post from April 25, 2012–the four-year anniversary of the accident and, to my knowledge, the only time he has ever spoken publicly about it.
April 25, 2012
Four years ago today, I broke my third lumbar vertebra in a car accident. Risks of permanent paralysis and the most immense pain imaginable were far from my thoughts on that day. All I cared about was playing baseball on one of the best baseball teams Gainesville High School had ever seen. I was told finishing my sophomore season wouldn’t be possible. For the first time on April 25, 2008, I cried.
After being released from the hospital a week later, I was able to watch my team play in the Hartville Tournament. I’ll never forget being wheeled next to the dugout and seeing my team standing in a huddle on the field. My coach looked up at me, nodded, and shouted, “Lucas on three! 1, 2, 3, LUCAS!”(cue crying session number 2). The team continued shouting my name in every team huddle of every inning all the way to the championship round of the district tournament. Unfortunately, we lost that game. Afterwards, Coach Cole told me that the unexpected winning streak and district playoff run our team had battled through was all for me. I was “the heart and soul of the team.” At the risk of sounding girly and emotional, I had to choke back tears once again (luckily I was successful in hiding them in front of Coach Cole “By God” Suter).
Upon hearing those words–after about a month of living with an extremely pessimistic outlook on life–I decided I was going to get better so I could play for my team the next season. I started intense physical therapy with the goal of getting back into what my physical standards had been. Three months later I was walking on my own. Five months later I was running. Seven months later I was playing Bulldog basketball in what proved to be the most physically challenging experience of my life. But, I finished the season. I put myself through all of that just so I could play baseball one more time.
After all the preparation, I was finally able to play my favorite game with my best friends, and we got to fight some pretty epic battles together. Baseball season was all I lived for. At times, playing was extremely painful, but I loved every minute of it. I loved the sound and feeling of a well-hit ball. I loved the sound of my cleats in the dirt when outrunning the throw to first. I loved the burning on my chest after diving head-first into third base. I loved how time slowed down as I watched a ball off the bat travel over the infield, and I loved the way it felt as it landed perfectly in the pocket of my glove. I loved robbing a homerun in my first game as a senior. I loved going 3 for 4 against Nathan Jones in Gainesville’s first regular season victory against Mansfield in over a decade. I loved hitting the game-winning RBI against Tyler Swanson after Chad Smith pitched the best game I’ve ever been a part of. I loved watching Chad hit a homerun on senior night against Bakersfield. I loved watching Dylan Wages make miraculously acrobatic plays in left field. I loved watching Will Johnson field a short hop perfectly and throw to first base where Logan Strong would do the splits to pick the ball out of the dirt. I loved watching Clint Weldon chase down and catch an impossible fly ball in foul territory and somehow still be mad at himself. I loved watching Matthew Peter track every fly ball in right field with ease. I loved watching Jeremy Hambelton hit a first-pitch homerun only to be followed by Josh Lyman’s second-pitch homerun.
I never felt I had any right to complain about pain or lost physical abilities because I was fortunate to be playing in the only game I cared about with my team. I finished my senior season as nothing more than an average player. Anyone looking at my statistics throughout my high school career would probably see them as disappointing or anticlimactic, but I was never disappointed. I knew all the work I had put into recovering just to step onto the field again.
And as I get older and my days of being bodily able to swing a bat are coming to an end, I realize that those were the BEST times of my life. If it hadn’t been for the support from my team, I doubt I would have even cared to try playing again, and I’m certain I wouldn’t be in the shape I’m in today. I’ll never be ashamed to say I played baseball for the Gainesville Bulldogs. Love you guys.
Also, I don’t have sympathy for the majority of anyone’s bitching.
Lucas rounding third in a baseball game his senior year,
two years after the accident that broke his back.