Monday, April 02, 2012


(Author's note: I apologize for having to share this, but it's the healthiest thing for me to do. I'm sorry you have to read it, and I'm sorrier I had to be there, but that's all eclipsed by how I feel for the family in this story.)

* * * *

And King David was much moved, and went up to the upper chamber of the gate, and wept; and as he went, he cried, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died in thy stead, O Absalom, my son, my son!"

2 Samuel 18:33

* * * *

It sounds like an old folk tale. It is not.

Far, far away from anything, up in the mountains, is a high lake, ice-cold and terribly beautiful, surrounded by steep hills, and full of trout. A great place to go fishing. Two brothers sat on the lake, in a tiny boat, while their father watched from shore. And something happened – one stood up too quickly, or the other shifted his weight – and the boat went over. Flipped them both into the water.

* * * *

We're seventy miles away when the call goes out, a long set of whistle tones, eight or ten pairs, followed by the dispatcher announcing a water rescue at a remote lake in the other end of our district. The fire department goes and the sheriff's deputies go and the closest city ambulance goes and our rescue ambulance goes. Screaming down the mountain, around the curves, listening to the chatter as everyone goes enroute and dispatch gives us updates.

"You know," I say, quietly, almost contemplatively, to my partner, as we rip past a semi, "by the time we get there – by the time anyone gets there – it will all be over."

"Yeah," he says. He's junior to me, but definitely has more water experience. Worked River Rescue in the summers before he got on the car. I jokingly call him our rescue swimmer sometimes, like we're a Coast Guard helo or something.

Now he looks out the window, into the growing dark. "Yeah."

* * * *

They swam for shore, as their father watched, urging them on, running for a rope and a life jacket, swimming out himself to meet his older son halfway across. It was maybe a hundred yards to shore.

* * * *

Dispatch updates us that a civillian truck is bringing one patient down to the ranger station. Hypothermic. One other still unaccounted for. The first ambulance says they'll meet up with the truck and take care of the patient. Everyone else – boats and cops and firemen and us – continues for the lake, up gravel roads, single lane, hairpin turns.

We get there a few minutes after the fire rescue boat. They're zipping up drysuits and getting their little zodiac put in the water. We talk to the deputy who's in charge, get the story. The second patient – the younger son – was last seen fifty feet from the boat. Well over two hours ago.

We can see the boat, half-submerged, out in the lake. The water is calm and the whole scene is eerily lit by floodlights and headlights, criss-crossing in the dark.

The deputy indicates a small SUV with a toss of his head, a forest ranger's first-response vehicle. I can just make out someone sitting in the passenger seat.

"Dad's still here. Just so you know."

* * * *

For a mercy, it doesn't take the firemen long to find him, in the clear water. We bring the ambulance gurney down to the water, so they don't have to put him on the ground with his father watching.

My daughter at home is barely a month old, and suddenly I can put myself in this man's shoes, and realize that there is no cutoff for when a parent can stop being afraid for their child. No magic age when they're safe.

And – though I am not a Christian, by any stretch of the imagination – I am reminded of the story of David and Absalom, and the heart-wrenching description of the king crying over his son.

This is far, far worse.

* * * *


Birdy said...

Congratulations on your baby daughter. I've been reading you for a long time, and I am expecting my first baby any day now. I love the stories you tell, even the difficult ones. I'm glad there are people like you in our ambulances, responding to our patients.

gwalter said...

Very well articulated.

My partner and I had a similar conversation when you were dispatched to that call. Of course I didn't know the particulars until I heard them later - knowing they were brothers, knowing he Dad was there, and hearing about his reaction - I too was heartbroken.

Yes, you develop those emotions when you're a Dad - but the older your kids get, the more you bond with them, the more you ache at the thought of losing them.

Thanks for sharing!

Nurse and Hospital Stories said...

Ah, I don't want to be in the father's position nor on David crying over Absalom. Very sad story, and very descriptive and tragic narrative. Hope the father will be alright soon.

Peny@uniform medical

penguinshrink said...

You have a gift for writing, my friend, as tragic as this story is. I worry about the brother's survivor guilt, too...

Les @ LPN Programs said...

As parents, we can only hope not to get into situations like this. Tough times for that family. Praying for them.

Congratulations on your newborn, too.

Larry Fox said...

As a father of two, boy 24 and girl 21, this really hits home. Glad my two are healthy and safe, so far.

Andy said...

An awful lot changed when my daughter was born 4 years ago. Books, movies, the news, overheard conversations - if any of them carry a mention of the loss of a child, I am too moved to stand it.

I have a one year-old son, now, to round out the brood, and I can only say that I hope nobody is ever telling this story about me.

Nicely done, and crushing.

Nessa said...

In all of my singing experience, one of the most moving and difficult pieces I've ever had the honor of performing was Eric Whitacre's "When David Heard." It so intensely covers every emotion I can imagine a parent would go through if they lost a child. This is a beautiful performance of this incredible song by BYU: