What do I say to the woman who saved my three-year-old son’s life? Thank-you doesn’t even skim the surface of my gratitude. Do I tell her about the shimmering light that floats between our eyes sometimes or the way he laughs so hard until I’m doubled over too? Do I tell her about all the ways he’s taught me how to love or the contagious way he has of finding wonder in the most unsuspecting places? She’s a mother of three grown children — she already knows.
My son, Tobin, and I were sledding down a hill at a neighborhood park. A sturdy-wood-board fence stretched two-thirds of the way across the bottom, leaving plenty of room for sledding. My good friend, Meghan, and her mom, Anne, met us after we’d taken a couple of runs. Tobin clapped his hands in delight – he’d known both women since he was a baby and we’d spent holidays and vacations together.
“Want a go?” I asked Anne, her small frame huddled against the freezing temperatures and her spikey blonde hair poking around a wool headband. She was one of the most adventurous people I know, quiet but with an up-for-anything attitude. In the past two years she’d been stand-up-paddleboarding, surf kayaking, and ziplining.
“Sure!” she piped back and jumped in behind Tobin in the blue kayak we were using as a sled.
“Lean to the right if it looks like you’re getting too close to the fence,” my friend told her mom. “You won’t be anywhere near, just in case.”
I lined up the kayak in a trajectory to miss the fence by a safe margin and sent them off with a push. Thirty feet from the bottom, the kayak hit a bump, spinning it to the left. My friend and I stood at the top, some 100 feet above, paralyzed, as we watched them speed toward the fence.
Before we could scream to lean left, they struck the fence, shattering it to pieces that flew into the air. We ran down the icy hill. As soon as they came into focus, I scanned Tobin for blood. His face was spotless, but he wasn’t moving so I thought he must be scared. “You’re okay Tobe.”
Meghan cheered. “Yeah, you broke the fence! That’s hardcore sledding.” We were used to Tobin’s hesitation, waiting for our reactions to decide whether to cry or not.
Still he didn’t move or say a word.
Then Anne in her usual calm voice said, “I broke my leg.”
I was still a few feet away and I sprinted toward them. It made sense – her leg had broken the fence and in turn the fence broke her leg. I was untangling Tobin from her lap, trying not to bump her leg, when I saw it.
Squirting like a geyser out of her right leg. Blood dripped down the kayak, dying the snow crimson.
“I’ll call the ambulance,” Meghan said as she climbed up the hill to figure out the cross streets and determine our exact location.
I took off my neck warmer and pressed it against the blood, trying to figure out what to say. Tobin ran around in circles repeating, “Ms. Anne broke her leg. There’s blood.”
Anne spoke. “We were going so fast toward the fence. All I could think about was Tobin. I stuck out my leg. It’s broken.”
The shrill of sirens distracted me from responding. The firemen came first, then the ambulance. They loaded Anne onto a stretcher and carried her to the ambulance and I scooped Tobin into my arms and watched.
I spent the afternoon in remorse, with a list of “should haves” drilling me over and over. I wished I hadn’t offered her a turn right off the bat. Maybe this would never have happened if Meghan had gone first.
I wished that I had held my son back, letting her take a solo run first, then she would have easily been able to bail.
I wished I’d never texted my friend to meet at the sledding hill. We could have eaten a warm meal and caught up over lunch, safely tucked inside a restaurant.
That evening my friend texted an update – double compound fracture, Anne was going into surgery that evening and the surgeons would insert a steel rod into her leg.
More than anything, I wished that Anne hadn’t broken her leg. I wished that Anne hadn’t stuck out her leg.
Then my mind stopped. What would have happened if she hadn’t? It sunk in – Tobin’s. face would have been the first thing that hit the fence, taking all that force full-on. I shuttered thinking about his face bloodied and broken, or worse, him dead.
In that split second when the future is determined, Anne put Tobin’s safety before her own.
After I read my son a bedtime story, he asked me about Ms. Anne and started crying. “Ms. Anne where are you, where are you? Come back Ms. Anne, come back.”
I soothed him and he asked me to hold his hand. “Mama, will the firemen fix her?”
“Yes,” I whispered. When I was certain by his soft breathing that he was sound asleep, I crept out of his room and started reading to distract myself from ruminating on the day’s events.
I came across my favorite Mary Oliver quote. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.” I thought about how because of Anne’s courage, Tobin would have the opportunity to decide that for himself. He can shape his own life, making it as wild as he desires. And I thought about how Anne answered that question today not with words, but with action. When the kayak was flying fast, when so many others would have hesitated too long or prioritized their own safety, she stuck out her leg.
So what words do I have to express my deepest gratitude?
Anne, in the coming days as your leg heals, I can’t imagine the pain and drudgery you’ll experience, and all the life events you’ll miss and for that I’m so sorry. I still wish there was a rewind button, a possibility of making different decisions that afternoon. But no matter how bad it gets, I hope that your mind always lands on the fact that you saved Tobin, that he walked away untouched because of you. I hope you know how much you’re admired and respected, how so many notice the way you always consider everyone else’s needs before your own. You’re such a badass in that subtle and modest way of yours, which makes you all the more of a badass. You are my role model as I grow as a mother – in turns courageous, generous, and adventurous. You are my hero.