Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hardest Post Ever

          Note to Reader: The following post is a very long and a detailed account of the events in my life on the evening of my daughter's recent boat accident and the days that followed. It may be disturbing to some and is no way the humorous posts I try to include in this blog.  There may be more posts on this topic later but this will be the only one concerning the actual accident. This event was a tragedy in our community and devastating to our life but I needed to share it. Thank you for allowing me to share it with you.

This may be-- NO-- it WILL be, the most difficult post to date. My friends and family, and those who follow me closely on Twitter or Facebook, will know exactly what this post is about. To those of you who may be new to this blog, or only follow me here, need an intro. Here is the topic:

My daughter's recent boat accident, in which she was injured, some of her friends were injured, and four of her friends were killed.

         While this accident shook our town, angered some, devastated others, and opened the eyes of many, it was more than that to me. I will not discuss how or why this accident happened. I will not answer questions anybody has about how or why this accident happened.
         I am not God, therefore I do not know. And that is not what I am here to do. 
     It happened. End of story. 
Nobody was at fault. Nobody is to blame.
 It was a freak accident that could have happened to anyone. 
To your son, your daughter, your sister, brother, friend, or even, yourself.

        I am writing as a mom. And, as a mom, I have made many mistakes. Mistakes that I struggle with daily. But, some of those same mistakes are also choices. Choices, I make, fully aware, they may not be what "most moms" would do. Things like, let my children live at home after 18, without going to college, without paying what some would consider "fair" rent, and allowing them to stay out to all hours of the night, and basically taking all the brunt of the struggle, as a single Mom, to stay afloat financially, and stay balanced mentally, while my kids, "do whatever they want".
        My doctor recently told me to start saying "No" and rid myself of stress. HA! To me, it is more stressful to say "no" and wonder how they will get what they need or who they will get to babysit (yes, a couple have kids of their own), or where they will end up for the night, what they will eat, and who will befriend them.
     As a mom, I am a worrier. I worry about whether they oversleep, get laid off, go without a meal, or run out of gas. I worry whether they have a cell phone they can afford, a car to drive or cable to watch. I worry about everything. I worry about things that are, considered by some, NOT my responsibility anymore.

       I have friends and family who say I shouldn't do it. I should make them fend for themselves. I should make them take responsibility. And that I should take care of ME.
     They say I am not teaching them anything.
     That I am not "helping" them.

       I tell those friends (and sometimes family) that it's okay because I have rules, too. They are good kids. They KNOW what I expect. They text me when they are home safe; call when staying with friends, but more than that, they are good people. Kind to others, thoughtful of each other, and loyal to our family and to their friends. That is more important to me than having them give me half their check.
       Do I want them to go to college? Of course, I do. Do I want them to have more than I have had and wish they wouldn't have to struggle? Sure. But, I want them happy. Able to talk to me about anything and know that I am always here for them and believe in them. I want them to know I love them and am proud of them, under any, and all circumstances.

      Do I get angry with their choices? Sometimes. Do they hurt my feelings? Yes. Do I hold it against them? No. Do they cause me undue stress and worry? Everyday. Do I regret the way I have raised them? Not at all.

This is why...

On Friday, May 18, 2012, I came home from work and fell asleep on the couch. I woke up around 1:40 am went to bed. Around 15 minutes later, around 2 am on Saturday, May 19, 2012, I received a phone call from a number I didn't recognize. Somewhat groggy from sleeping, I answered it.
My daughter's voice was distraught and while I was not clear as to why, she said needed a ride. Just a ride.
     "Mom! I need a ride. Now! I need to go!"
     "Where are you?"
     "I don't know but I need to go." She is known in our family as being dramatic. And I, thinking there had been a disagreement at a party, asked again, "where are you?"
     "I don't know. Mom, I need a ride." she seemed angry-frantic even, "and I'm pretty sure I broke my leg."
     "Okay, I doubt you broke your leg" I rolled my eyes at the phone and felt annoyance at her unnecessary urgency. "but where ARE you?"
     "I don't know!" she said to me, "Where are we?" she said to others with her.
     Nobody answered her. She said it again, more frantic. Again no answer, yet I could hear people and commotion. I was getting more annoyed and even angry. Fully awake now and realizing I would have to drag my 2 year old granddaughter out of bed to go get her, I demanded to know her whereabouts.
     "WHERE in the hell ARE you, Jennifer!?"
     "I don't know, Mom." and again to someone else, "where are we? Tell my mom where we are."
     More commotion. More inaudible voices. Rustling. A male voice. A voice I did not know and one that did not identify. I didn't want to talk to him. I was angry that he wouldn't tell my daughter where she was and wouldn't tell me who he was. I heard him say to others,
     "I can't talk to this woman. She won't listen to me."
      Imagine the anger in me then. The nerve of him.
     Suddenly a woman...
     "Ma'am. There has been a serious boat accident!" Clarity. I knew my daughter was on the river. Her unknown whereabouts, a broken leg, her voice, her need to come home. It made sense.
     "Oh my God. Where is she? Where is Jennifer?"
     After directions were given and I knew the proximity, I told the woman I would head that way.
     I called my older, married son to stay with my granddaughter, I grabbed my keys and paced. I paced waiting for him to come. I called my other daughter who was 20 minutes away. She also thought her sister was being dramatic at first, but called back as soon as she realized I didn't say how her sister was. By this time, she had realized, she knew others on that same boat. Several others. I told her I had no details, but there was an accident and they ended up on shore at someone's cabin. She said she was headed home.
     The woman called back.
     "Jennifer wants to talk to you." I stopped her and told her how dramatic Jennifer can be and could she tell me what was really going on.
     "Oh, this isn't dramatic. This is serious. It's very bad. Water rescue is here looking for the missing and-"
     "MISSING?" I interrupted her. "There are people missing? WHO is missing?"
     I was frantic to know which of my daughter's friends were not accounted for. Why, I still do not know. And, I still have guilt over if it mattered. One was not more important than any other but I wanted names, nonetheless.
     "I don't know, Ma'am. They just woke us up. It's bad. She's wet, you know, so she was cold, but we got her a blanket. We are keeping her warm."
     She fell in the water? I thought. Did I think that as if it hadn't yet occurred to me? Yes, I did.
     Thinking back now, the fact that she was wet almost gave me indication that it was bad. I realized she had gone in the water and, for an instant, I realized the impact, but it didn't stay with me. Not at all. I told my son who came to stay with the baby,
     "I'm gonna go get Jennifer. I will be right back."
     As I left my apartment and drove toward Main Street, which borders our riverfront and would take me to the highway leading to my daughter, about 10 minutes away, my phone rang.
     "They are taking Jennifer to the hospital in the ambulance. They are loading her onto the stretcher, now."
     "Oh." I said, surprised as if I had forgotten why I was going. "well, I will meet her there then." as if it were just a simple change of plans.
     I drove a block closer to the river so I could turn around and head the other direction. I was taken by surprise at what I saw. As far as I could see along our riverfront were lights. Ambulance, fire, police, red cross, coast guard. All of it. I pulled into a parking stall to call Jessica, now frantically en route home.
     "Jessica. I am by the river. There are lights and sirens everywhere. The helicopter is spotlighting the river. People are missing! They are taking Jennifer by ambulance. Go to the hospital. People are missing!"
     She already knew. Her boyfriends cousin was on the boat and possibly missing. A co-worker was either missing or in bad shape at the hospital, according to a friend. She was driving 80 mph trying to get to her sister. I told her to meet me at the hospital. She said she was stopping at the scene first as she would be passing it soon anyway.
     I went to the hospital.

     Have you ever had to go somewhere quickly and it feels like the world has stopped? When your car just won't go fast enough. And, a few miles seems like across the state? In the 8 minute drive to the hospital, all the worst possible scenarios went through my mind. All the horror of what happened, how scared she must be, how awful it was and that there were missing kids. I prayed they were not missing but that it was just dark and they couldn't see them in the confusion that must have been happening.
     As I arrived at the hospital, my daughter, Jessica, called from the scene, unable to get close enough and frantic her sister was in the helicopter she saw taking off for Iowa City. Anyone from here knows that is not good. The Med Vac is NOT something you want to see. I told her that Jennifer was not there yet. No information about the helecopter's occupants could be given.
     "How will I know if my daughter went to Iowa City?" I asked the first ER attendant I saw.
     "When she doesn't show up here." the nurse said and ran to another room to prepare for the chaos about to befall them.
     "Jessica, I hear sirens. An ambulance is coming. Please get here."
     "I need to know if Jennifer is in that ambulance!" She was frantic. I swear she thought she could follow it, by car, if her sister was in it, and probably would have tried.
     I waited and tried to see who came out. Between the neck brace and blankets, I could not tell. I ran into the building once again. The same nurse who rushed away, now rushed toward me.
     "It's her!" she said
     Jessica heard and said she was on her way and I ran after the nurse.
     "Stay calm", she said as she led me to my daughter.

     They were already cutting off her clothes by the time I got to the room. A large pear sized bump on her ankle proved to me she had indeed broken her leg. Scared, crying, wide-eyed, wet, cold, and complaining she didn't need a neck brace, she called out.
     "Mom? Is that my mom?" I could hear movement in her voice. Without seeing her under and amidst the medical team working on her, I could "hear" her move her head and try to sit up. They stopped her and stressed to her not to move.
     The smell of river water and mud came from her as she reached for my hand. I took it and it was cold and clammy. Medical personnel worked on each side of her. Cutting her hoodie, her jeans, her shirt, her panties, her bra. She worried about them cutting her jeans. They were new. And her bra. Her only one. (If that didn't send guilt pulsing through me...only one bra? What kind of mother, am I?)
     She looked at me, finally. Not knowing what happened or being clear about what happened, she said she remembered hitting the water. She covered her face.
     "Mom, I'm so sorry." she looked at me with tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry for scaring you."

     The rest of the events that unfolded are a blur of events, out of order and overlapping. We knew there were missing kids and, by eliminating who we had seen in the ER, we soon knew which ones. There were four. One girl and three boys. All good friends. Close friends. Jessica's boyfriend's cousin was one; as was their good friend and co-worker. Jennifer did not know about her four friends. She claimed early on that nobody was missing. We couldn't tell her she was wrong. The injured came one by one to the hospital. Soon, their progress and whereabouts; X-ray, CAT Scan, MRI, was openly talked about. One by one they were treated, kept, released...and it didn't take long for my daughter to start asking questions. Questions about the ones we weren't talking about.
     "Where's Katie? How's Katie?!" her eyes were pleading with me to answer and I did. I explained Katie had been taken to Iowa City but, said there was no room there when she asked why. She would forgive me for that fib later.
     I made sure anyone entering her room knew she did not know her friends were missing. I did not feel she was in any shape to hear that news yet. She needed to be strong until her own injuries were assessed and treated.
     In the hours that followed she continued to remember.
     "I really thought I was going to drown. You know how you start to run out of air but you blow it out a little? I was doing that-I couldn't feel the top. I was running out of air. My leg wouldn't work. But, I used my arms. Then I came up." she stared at the ceiling. "But, I couldn't swim. I don't swim good anyway and my leg wouldn't work." she looked at me then, out the corner of her eye. "Michael! Michael was there. He saved me. Him and Jed. They got me in the boat cause I couldn't do it. Jed pulled me into the boat. And Joey. He carried me to land. And he put me by the tree."
     I could tell she was remembering as she talked. "They saved me, Mom." she cried then.
     She went for her own CAT Scan to eliminate internal injuries. She went to X-ray to see the damage to the leg and check for other broken bones. She came back tired, with a need to sleep. Only her leg was broken. Her neck brace came off and she was indebted to the medical staff member who did it.
     More results of others' injuries came to light. Shattered shoulder, whiplash, and a couple treated and released. The friend who helped her into the boat did so with a broken pelvis. Her friend in Iowa City, it was reported, may or may not lose an arm, but would survive.
     But, sadly, no word from the riverfront. Nothing but rumors, that is. Rumors began pouring into the hospital waiting room, via facebook and texts. Rumors about injuries that didn't exist and deaths that had not occurred. There needed to be a spokesperson to set people straight or inform those who didn't know, but, we did not have one so the rumors continued to grow.
     On the riverfront, many friends had banded together, in their private vessels, to go search for their missing friends. Searching islands and the shore, hoping that they had chosen a different bank for safety. In my mind I just kept thinking the coming daylight would find them jumping up and down on an island waving to the many boats searching for them. My hope faded when I realized it had been daylight for an hour and a half.
     While my daughter knew of her friends in the hospital with her and their conditions, and she knew the condition of her friend in Iowa City, she noticed she hadn't heard some names. One by one, she asked for all her missing friends. Not giving me time to answer, she rattled their names off twice, with a "Where are..." in front.
     I looked at her sister Jessica and even though she shook her head "No", I could not knowingly keep it from Jennifer. I could not lie. I knew she would know and would not forgive me. I had to tell her.
     "Honey, they don't know where they are." I looked right at her. "they can't find them." I sensed she didn't understand."They are still in the water."
     I will not write about the devastating heartbreak that caused her. I will not describe the sadness, the anger, the guilt or the frustration in her. I will not provide any more details of the events that followed.
Her friends were missing. That's it. And as a mom, there was nothing I could do. I couldn't make it different. I couldn't make the hurt stop. I couldn't do a thing, but cry. I cried with her. I agreed with her that it was unacceptable. I agreed that it wasn't fair.
     The chaplain was nearby and came into her room.
     "Let me pray for you." she said to Jennifer.
     "NO! Don't pray for me. Pray for my friends."
And, they did.

     The next 12 hours were a blur. A barrage of calls, texts, rumors, falsities, tears, hugs, nurses, visitors, questions...the list is endless.
     Friends and family came and went, giving their love and support. Some giving updates of the reality they knew was going on at the river. Saturday night was restless. She was in pain, both physically and emotionally. I was in a fog. Reality wasn't even an option for me at that point. I slept next to her bed in the chair. I woke each time the nurse came in, each time she moved, and each time the light of the TV changed.
     Morning came quickly. I woke first. Coffee was needed and the nurse made me some. The first call came in around 11. They had found two of the missing. I called Jessica so she wouldn't hear the news and think it to be rumor. This, I knew, was truth. I woke up Jennifer.
     One of the two was their friend and co-worker, Caitlyn. Both of my girls had known her for years as they all worked together and became good friends outside of work. Jennifer told me how much alike they were. Their love of animals had bonded them and just the week before they had gone on a drive in the country and stopped to look at some horses. She was Lil' Caitlyn to them and their love for her was eternal. The sadness was unbearable. The other found was the cousin of Jessica's boyfriend.
     It wasn't long that word came that the remaining two friends had also been found. Officially, all four had been found by afternoon on Sunday.
     None of them survived.

     That day, as the day before, was full. The emotional pain evident and unconsolable and the physical pain, while somewhat controlled by meds, was constant. She slept often. Sometimes, in mid conversation, she would sleep. Memories emerged. She remembered and she talked about them.Visitors came.They brought flowers, cards, cookies, candy, balloons, and stuffed animals. Our family came, one by one, to give encouragement, love and sympathy. She laughed and she cried.
     And, as she received love and support from family, what she received from her friends amazed me. There is a bond with these kids that I have not seen in all my life. A love for each other that goes beyond regular friendship. And, each time I excused myself to take a break, I would come back to a room full of more love and friendship. They laughed. They cried. They talked. Sometimes they just sat there without saying a word.
     And they were faithful. Everyday. They came or called. Brought her things or asked what she needed. Young kids. These kids are in their 20's. That selfish age that often says,  "I don't have time for you. This is all about me." Not these kids. They didn't care what she needed-they would have brought her the world.  They didn't care she slept while they talked. They still came back-every single day. They inquired about her surgery on Monday. They reported to each other details of her progress. They encouraged her, made her laugh, let her cry, supported her and told her they loved her. And they meant it. Each and every one of them.

      Our local news called on Tuesday and asked me to talk about how grateful I was and I was appalled. Just as appalled as I am now at the many people who have negative things to say and opinions about how and why this accident happened. Many people want to pass judgement on everybody involved. And, while that is human nature to want answers, and judgement will happen in any tragic event, the truth is, there is not one person who can tell us why or how. They can speculate. They can guess. They can judge.
     It happened. How or why doesn't make it any less tragic.
     Doesn't make it any less sad.
     Doesn't make it any less real.
     These kids don't DESERVE it. They don't need to hear about lessons learned. They need love and support. They need the same thing they have given my daughter.

    Someone said to me the other day,
    "I hope they learned their lesson." And I said,
  "I know I did. I have seen what true love is. In the midst of their own grief, sadness, and anger, they held my daughter up. They held each other up. All of them. They comforted family of those lost. They comforted those hurt. They comforted those sad. They worried about themselves later. My daughter has the greatest group of friends ever!"

     There were 12 kids involved in this accident. A strong group of kids who experienced something tragic that will change their life forever. The River Rats 12 is how they are known around our town. And their extended group of friends are just as amazing. In their own grief and sadness, they are there for each other, and those involved.

     Did they learn a lesson? I'm sure each one of them has learned something. But, those lessons are private and personal. They are not required to share them.

     Did they teach one? You bet they did.

     As for my daughter? She is home from the hospital. She is mad about being off work. She is master of her wheelchair and she says new, upper body strength is making her into a "beast".  Her leg is healing. Bandages came off and Dr. gave her goals. "Get that heel on the floor and apply 75 pounds of pressure by the 15th."
     She is doing well and her friends are still here, talking, texting, visiting, and helping her though it. Her friends that were also hurt are healing as well and continue to love and encourage each other.

     As for me. I can say now that I am grateful. God, yes, I am grateful she is still here. Grateful to see that smile and hear the sound of her voice. Grateful she is here complaining that I don't want to help her anymore when I make her do something for herself. Grateful she is here to sing and play her guitar. (you can hear that here.) I do not know what I would have done if I would have lost her.
     I watched her sleep the other night and the tears came. Not so much tears of sadness --I have cried those tears-- but tears of joy that I can still watch her sleep. Tears of overwhelming love for her. While many have said they can't imagine life without one of their children, I have had to. I have had to imagine what it would have been like if she would not have made it through this.

To the parents of the four we lost, my heart aches for you as my imagination is your reality and I am very sad for that. Please know our thoughts and prayers are always with you and thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for giving my daughters such wonderful people to call their friends.

     And to you, Jennifer- 
I love you more than you will ever know. I am so grateful that you are here with us, broken leg and all. I would take care of you forever if I had to. I can not tell you how devastated I would have horrifying it would have been to have you gone. I would miss you more than I could ever tell you in words. 
You are my Baby Daughter and from the moment you were born, and even nameless, I loved you.
 I will always love you, no matter what--fights, disagreements and even when I don't want to give you a shower, I love you! 
If you ever see me tearing up when I look at you, don't worry, they are tears of joy.

     So, now, are my choices as a mom wrong? No, they aren't. They are my choices. Do I regret taking care of my children? No, they are my children. Do I worry about struggling even more now with her off work? Sure, I do, but it's what I do best. I worry no matter what. 
I'm a Mom!
A "RIVER RATS 12" Mom 
and that makes me burst with pride!!

     I don't regret the way I have raised my kids. I don't regret the choices I have made. They are my kids. And I think they have turned out to be great kids with big hearts and good souls. After all, look at the great group of friends they chose. It couldn't get any better than that! My love goes out to all of them.

Thanks for letting me share.
Dream Big!
People in our community have banded together and are having benefits for those involved. I am proud of our community. For more info on the benefits planned, see the following Facebook pages June Benefit, July Benefit, or if you want to help out but can't make it to the benefits? River Rats 12 has a bank account. All proceeds will go to help the families with expenses related to this accident.
MidWest One Bank
3225 Division St
Burlington, IA 52601
Checks can be made out to: River Rats 12 Benefit