For most Americans, the fourth of July is a beloved national holiday, a time to once more note pride in our “can-do” attitude as we kick back and bask in the pleasures of summer. Families and friends make merry and enjoy an age-old thrill in firework displays that remind us of our country’s hard-won independence. But for my family, this date holds other meanings.
In summer of 1997 my son, Joshua, and youngest daughter, Alexandra, had already arrived in suburban Detroit to visit family and friends. I flew from Oregon to join the clan. We gathered together my five biological and non-biological children plus three grandchildren. A photo shows five children (most in their twenties) who grew up together squashed on a couch, smiling, a motley beloved crew.
Joshua (23), Alexandra (17) and I then travelled to mid-Michigan to my mother’s. My father had passed and my mother, in her mid eighties, was considering selling my childhood home. We enjoyed one another and reminiscing. Joshua was going to visit his father farther north when Alexandra and I left. He would be water skiing, boating, doing all the things he loved outdoors and catching up with his father and paternal grandmother.
It was two days before the fourth of July. We had finished eating another good meal at the round, umbrella-topped table in mom’s pleasant back yard. I was sad to leave but my vacation days were few so I readied for the airport.
My son and I briefly embraced. He said good-bye, his engaging smile a flash in the sunshine. He was twenty-two, tan and toned like the natural athlete he was, at ease in his skin. Clear blue eyes glinted with liveliness and mischief as they had since he was born. He wished me a safe trip and I, the same for him. Then, deep within me I felt a deep quiver of fear, an alarm. I studied him, held his gaze, spoke again the words I often said to my children, a mantra, a prayer, a blessing: “Be wise, be smart, be safe.” I shook off the anxiety and left, wondering. Praying as I flew home.
Two days later in Portland, Oregon on the fourth of July, my home phone rang. It was Joshua’s paternal grandmother. There was an accident. A motorcycle accident. Joshua was riding, not even that fast –his father heard it happen from the house–but as he rounded an easy curve on the gravel road, the motorcycle had slid, hit an electrical post, then flew up so he was thrown from the bike.
In critical condition. Taken from the rural hospital by ambulance to a major city trauma center well over an hour away. He had many unknown internal injuries, had a crushed jaw, tongue bitten almost in half. But the helmet had protected him from more grievous ruin. She didn’t know more yet but it was so much it barely sunk in. I suppressed a scream.
I got on another plane, numb, trembling, then calmed as I prayed, my mind filled with images that I tried to banish. I knew he was hanging on at that time. I didn’t know how he would be if he survived.
And when I first saw him, he was my son and yet not exactly, his broken body not yet as familiar to me, while his inner spirit held on, even severely shaken. He lay in the intensive care room strapped to a bed that was in an elevated position, his lean length swollen and bruised, his jaw barely moveable. I understood specialists were waiting to see what would develop, that a clear prognosis was not offered. There were lost and broken teeth, chin and jaw; the rest of the damage was internal. His eyes were changed by pain and confusion that rolled out in waves to me. I touched his hand, shared all the love of my heart, carried in a message from my soul.
In the waiting room everyone was together again. My children but also two ex-husbands, Joshua’s oldest friends, my mother, other family members. We embraced. Wept. Mostly we were devoid of words, beyond expression of feeling. We were terribly still, then restless. Prayerful and stunned.
I thought over and over: I should have warned him. I knew something was not right as we parted ways. I thought: Joshua, you must bear this and you must recover. I thought: I will be here no matter what. The prayer was simple: Hold him close, save his body, salvage all who he is.
Anyone who has had to keep watch over a loved one in a hospital for a long period knows the contradictory features, how time vanishes yet feels like molasses. How misery takes turns with a stalwart calm. Fear runs high only to be overcome by love and hope. And when the days become weeks, it becomes a familiar routine, oddly adaptable, a pattern imprinted so all that exists is those rooms, that child, the patience you gain in order to endure and have faith can go forward. Beseeching God, accepting there are things you cannot comprehend. Each moment faced as it arrives. The soothing moments melt away in sorrow. Peace finally arrives when one more day passes without more bad news.
Joshua, the child who had boundless vigor and curiosity and high spirits, was altered partly by his own stillness. We talked a bit but often we all just sat, watching a little tv. Massaging his feet. Helping him drink water. I would read to him, hold his hand. Music sometimes played. My mother came every day she could manage to be there. Joshua’s father and ex-stepfather visited daily. No one left him alone any longer than could be avoided.
Over the next few weeks Joshua hung on, went through rounds of x-rays, MRIs, blood work, IVs, endured indignities and countless consultations. There had been damage to the spleen, a bruised pancreas, a kidney injured that was now dying. He had fractured and lost many teeth and his jaw required surgery and a metal band to hold all together. His tongue healed more quickly. But after three weeks he was wasting away, weakened, his blood sugar haywire due to pancreatic malfunctioning. He was unable to walk alone more than a few steps. If he didn’t have more sustenance, did not metabolize better, he would grow even weaker. His doctors and surgeon didn’t speak of the future, much less with optimism; they were surprised he had survived, at all.
I was not. I knew his fiery stubbornness and passion for life, how he felt God. And I knew God’s healing power never stopped working. Many prayed for his recovery, kept vigil. The presence of Christ was about us; I felt the warmth, that strength of love.
One day I came to visit and Joshua shared something that changed everything.
“I had a vision, mom.”
“You did? What sort of a vision? Or was it a dream?”
“A vision,” he said firmly. “I was in the desert. I met a shaman who offered me a peace pipe. We sat before a fire and he told me I needed to hunt for meat. I can’t just lie here. I have to change things. In order to heal I must eat meat and other good foods, not just what I am given. I have to tell the doctors I need meat and vegetables. I must gain strength to get up and walk or I won’t make it.”
His eyes were weary with chronic pain but luminous. He was adamant about the vision’s instructions. He had been fed via IVs, more recently had some soft food and more liquids–that was all he could manage, they said, due to damaged major organs, mouth and jaw. When his doctors came again, Joshua informed them he would now be eating what he knew he needed. Or he would leave. I didn’t say anything to discourage him. I knew all his life he seemed to display unusual capacity to heal himself and that he prayed for his own and others’ healing. He was so certain. I believed, mostly, and I definitely trusted in God’s wisdom.
He also refused surgery to repair injuries to pancreas and spleen and to remove what they insisted was a dying, shrivelled-up kidney.
He contradicted them. “My second kidney is hurt but alive. It’ll function fine again someday. No cutting. Let my body heal itself. Let me eat.”
The surgeons and internists listened. They debated and then they agreed. When do hospitals accept that a young man has a vision of healing? But they did not refuse to use regular menus. They pureed and blended ingredients and he fed himself. Each day he seemed more energized. The room lost its shroud of sadness.
Within less than a week he stood on his own, walking with difficulty but with determination, IV stand in hand. Slowly he made his way up and down the hall, longer and farther each time. I witnessed one moment as the full reality of his injuries hit him, tears coming, questions about his choices voiced. And I was overcome with my private grief about not insisting he not go up north that day. I knew I couldn’t have stoppped him but it haunted me. He was living in the present yet worried he might not manage all he wanted to do in the future. But it was clear he was on his way back.
I left when he was eating and walking more confidently. He told me he expected to be back in Oregon before the end of summer and his doctors began to see it his way. After five weeks in the hospital, he was released and after recovering a bit more at his father’s, he returned to Portland.
There were a few phone calls between us and his surgeon. She told me they had never witnessed such an event before, how Joshua simply stated his vision and what to do. The faith. His healing. She said they all admired his spirit and she expressed sincere caring and best wishes.
This is not quite the end of the story.
Before Joshua’s accident he had worked as a commercial painter at a big company. But he had also been pursuing his dream of becoming a well-known skateboarder for years. Constantly active since childhood, he was attracted to individual sports such as snow and water skiing, BMX biking and karate. He had practiced tricks on his skateboard when it was not yet a mainstream sport but considered an edgey rebel’s way of life. He had made great progress, his name ws circulated, but not as much as desired.
After he came home, he stated he was going to become an outstanding skateboarder. He planned on being sponsored by sports companies, competing all over the country and being in skate videos. It gave us pause. It seemed less than likely he could carry on with life without further health issues. He’d had a head injury. More surgery was due for jaw, teeth. He was still healing internally. (We wouldn’t know about the badly damaged kidney for years until he had a minor snowboarding injury that required an x-ray. They found both kidneys, though one was a little smaller, functioning well.) He had a great deal of strength, balance and flexibility to regain, in time.
But my son took charge of the dream and succeeded. He has competed many times, has sponsors including Nike, ACE Trucks, Roughneck Hardware, OJ Wheels, Diamond Clothing, 151 Skateboards. He has appeared in countless skateboarding videos. Photographs of him skateboarding have appeared in over forty national magazine issues. He has had nine skateboards emblazoned with his own name. He still skates today and is, yes, a residential and commercial painter. And a devoted father, a music and art maker, a nature lover. One who still prays for others’ healing, too.
So another Fourth of July is coming up, seventeen years later. We don’t much speak of it though I see him often, so I asked him if I could write about all this. He was fine with it. He has lived other interesting experiences. Life goes on. And whenever an alarm goes off within me, I pay attention. I speak of it. If I am wrong, it matters little. If I am, it might save someone regrets or worse.
My son, who goes by Josh Falk, is getting older but not slowing down much. When he teetered on that precipice above life and death he found a way back to solid ground. I know all prayers upheld him. His faith in Divine Love has deepened as it has informed his living day by day. And his heart? Strong as a warrior’s, tender when it matters most.