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Spinal cord injury, no thanks

Nick and Eric at eight years old. Nick’s wearing the stocking hat.

When Nick asked if he could go sledding with his friends, my heart stopped a second. Of course, I said sure. He’s 16 and can well manage on his own. Plus, he has to have his time independent of the house and of parents. But in the back of my mind lurked a vision of a bleak world.

Back eight or nine years ago, Nick was constantly playing with Eric. He and Nick became friends because Eric’s grandmother Sherri didn’t know what to do with him. Every Friday evening, his parents dropped him off at Sherri’s, who lived across the street from us. She would immediately open the door, usher him out, and tell him to go play with the kids in the neighborhood.

We met Eric one Saturday afternoon at the park, where Eric was playing by himself. He followed us home. From that moment on, we took care of Nick on the weekends. Sherri was aging badly and had little patience for the likes of Eric, an energetic troublemaker of a boy who needed a firm supervision. She would rather watch her television shows, smoke cigarettes, and drink Pepsi.

Eric would show up on Friday night and he often stayed the entire weekend with us. He was a nice boy and we did a lot together. I used to take Nick out every weekend for some sort of outing—a hike in the park, a bike ride, a trip to the museum, and many other things that dads do with their young sons.

For years, we took care of Eric. Spring and fall, we would ride bikes or find ourselves in a different parks around the city. Summers we went to the pool every Saturday and Sunday. Winters, we played in the snow, built snowmen, and went sledding.

At this time of year, I remember most those sledding trips. We bundled the boys up. Eric rarely had enough clothes for any kind of time outside, so we rustled up snowpants, coats, gloves, hats, and scarves. Once we stuffed the kids into their clothes, we took out for one of the best hills in Kansas City at Gillham Park.

We avoided the traffic at more exciting hills at other parks and went for the long run. In part, this had much to do with me, not a particularly outgoing type. I didn’t look forward to milling around with other parents. The other part of it was calculated. A long hill meant long rides but also long hauls up that hill. I’d let the boys have fun, once in a while joining them on the hill, but most often sitting by the trashcan fire and reading books while they ran, slid, frolicked, and huffed-and-puffed themselves to exhaustion.

This particular hill ran next to an old Parks and Rec maintenance depot. The installation was dug into the side of the hill with stout rock pillars at each corner. Every now and then, a sled would go awry and head for the pillar and concrete wall then veer left and farther down the hill. To avoid this, we stayed away from the longest run on the hill. I didn’t want to deal with spinal cord injuries like that I read about in grade school when the teacher assigned us Ethan Frome. I’d hate to see a sledding accident change my young son’s life irrevocably. Selfishly, I didn’t want to have to care for a paraplegic. It would break my heart. I didn’t want to explain to Eric’s parents how he got hurt.

One afternoon, Eric and Nick were wearing themselves out on that hill. Snow was falling and the Parks employee would come around about once a hour to throw more wood into the trashcan. It was cold but not frigid and I watched the boys’ clothes to make sure they weren’t getting sodden and cold.

I sat down with my book for only a second it seemed when I looked up and saw the boys getting more bold, going for the longer run past the maintenance depot fence.

“Come on, men,” I yelled to them. “Get over here. I want you to stay over on this part of the hill.”

They complied and brought their sleds over toward me and the trashcan. I asked them to stay a while by the heat so they wouldn’t get too cold. Braced for another run, they carried on, repeatedly sledding the hill and climbing it again. About the only danger I could divine was that they might really get going and overshoot the ball diamond and wind up too close to Gillham Road traffic. But I had my eye on them and they never got past the edge of the diamond closest to us.

Again, I was reading for just a moment when I looked up and saw Nick take a running start with his sled. He was back over too close to the depot’s pillar and I watched frozen as the sled slid over toward the pillar. I started to run, yelling at Nick to roll off the sled, please get off the sled. He shot down the hill right for that pillar. I ran as fast as I could, knowing I’d never cut him off. Time slowed down. Everything moved in slow motion.

The sled ran up a stiff drift in front of the pillar and stopped short, sticking Nick in the snow in front of it. I reached the boy as he struggled to get up from the drift. He was only around five feet from the pillar. My heart raced and I felt a sob well up in my chest. I pulled him out of the snow and hugged him, carrying him and his sled to the top of the hill. He was laughing harder than I’d ever seen him. He was delighted. Getting his sled stuck in the snow in front of the pillar was about the funniest thing he ever experienced in his short life.

I didn’t chide or scold. He asked me why I was crying. I told him, hey, it was just good to see him have such a good time.

“But you have to listen to me,” I said through the tears. “You have to stay over here. You can’t go over there. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

I set him up on the sled and gave him a stout push. Then, I shoved Eric down the same path.

I learned that reading while the boys were sledding was a dangerous way to spend the afternoon. I also learned that boys don’t disobey their parents commands because they want to piss their parents off. They are just eight doing eight-year-old things. I should have explained the dangers to them. I should have made clear why I didn’t want the boys on that part of the hill.

As it was, they finished the day after that last run. They were beat. It was time to go home.

When I was up and around this morning, I found Nick on the couch. He was watching videos, waiting patiently for his day to start. “No spinal cord injuries this morning, OK?” I said.

“Don’t worry, dad,” he said. “We can take care of ourselves.”

If he only knew.



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