“Mom, don’t freak out but…”
Over the years, I have come to appreciate this effort Jackson makes to calm me before delivering bad news.
“…I fell. And I think it’s bad. There’s a woman here who is a nurse and said I need to go to the ER. Where are you?”
Less than five minutes had passed since I’d left Jackson at the skatepark. That’s all it took for him to hurt himself. In that time, I had walked from one side of the soccer field to the other while listening to a podcast. I imagined I’d have a good thirty minutes to myself before I’d have to convince him to leave. The fact that it was 85 degrees was in my favor, he’d be covered in sweat, wanting to take a break. I felt my phone vibrate and saw that I had two missed calls from him. I called him back, heard his news, and started running to the skatepark.
I was out of breath when I arrived. As soon as I saw him, though, I slowed my breathing, gave him a smile, and swallowed the fear that he was bleeding internally. He had a shiny yet scuffed pink bubble on his forehead the size of a golf ball. The pregnant Mom nearby, who happened to be a nurse, said he hit the ground and as soon as he got up, there it was. Jackson is just over six feet tall and thin framed. His head is the biggest and heaviest part on his body. And he went from moving fast on a skateboard, to falling headfirst on concrete. The way a tree falls in the forest, but moving horizontally at the same time. Like a tree on a skateboard.
And no, he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“Mom, I’m 17. I stepped on my first skateboard when I was three, I don’t need to wear a helmet anymore.”
“Why? Because you’ve acquired a certain skill set? Because you’ve been accepted into the skate community and it’s not cool? Because you’re not on a motorized scooter, for god’s sake?!”
We’d had these conversations before. The problem was that he reasoned like a 17-year-old and I reasoned like a Mom. He knows that the skate community can behave like a bunch of morons sometimes, epitomizing the way they are perceived culturally. He knows he doesn’t speak for all skaters and they certainly don’t speak for him. And he knows that skating can be dangerous. That being said, he would be hard pressed to cite a time when any injury caused him to wonder if he should stop. He is loyal, to the core. But why did he have to fall, so hard and fast?
Skateboarding is often listed among the most dangerous sports for kids. Bicycling is on that list, as well, and conveniently, Jackson has also raced both cyclocross and mountain bikes. So, it’s not as if I couldn’t predict the inevitability of trips to the ER. We had a non-negotiable helmet rule for both his bike and skateboard but when he was 13, I moved from NY and no longer monitored him leaving the house, nudging him to put it on. Apparently, he was at an age where kids stop wearing their helmets while skateboarding. Skateboard culture doesn’t seem to consider safety a top priority. It’s intention is to be anti-conformist, to set trends, to go big or go home. Wearing a helmet is just not cool, he’d tell me.
“Skateboarding is an art, an expression, Mom. I feel free when I’m riding my board. Free. Do you get that?”
Jackson brought his board everywhere he went because given the chance, he would skate before he’d walk. When we were on our way out of Sonoma to San Francisco when we spotted the skatepark at Maxwell Farms regional park and decided to stop. Getting out of the car, Jackson jokingly mentioned not having the right ‘gear’ with him.
“I’ve got my longer board, I’m wearing cords, and I’m in my Converse – not normal skate shoes. This should be fun!”
“Do you want to skip it?” I didn’t want to force anything but I knew releasing some energy before sitting in Sunday traffic for hours would be good for him.
“Nah, it’s cool.”
Turns out that on top of Jackson not having the right gear, we chose a park that had been described as a ‘lumpy mess’ by some skaters online. Unfortunately, we didn’t do a skatepark review before entering. Maintenance of skateparks rests with the city or town it resides in. Depending on the public’s support for the park and skate culture itself, upkeep can be inconsistent. Cracks in the pavement, trash and debris, and rusty rails are all issues that can create an unsafe environment for skaters.
I think about the chain of events the moments before Jackson hit his head. While waiting to cross the street to the park, furniture started flying off the back of a pick-up truck driving through the intersection. We waited until the walk sign lit-up and decided to help the woman collecting her drawers from the middle of the busy road. She was gracious and we gave ourselves a pat on the back for doing our good deed of the day. Ten minutes later, we were on our way to the ER. Life’s funny like that.
Sonoma Valley Hospital was staffed by volunteers at administration that day. A flustered, older woman took one look at Jackson, scribbled our names on a scrap of paper, and hustled to get a nurse. We were informed later that they’re trained to respond immediately to head injuries, but at the time her nervousness was comical. We were joking that we must be very important people to skip the form-filling and insurance process.
“Wow, that is one massive hematoma,” the nurse said with a smile. She proceeded to ask the general questions we’d come to anticipate. Did you lose consciousness? Has your vision changed? Do you feel nauseous? Are you feeling pain here, here, here? Jackson’s responses were all negative. Despite the pain that comes with growing a horn out of one’s forehead, he said he felt fine. While we waited for the doctor, I texted his Dad a photo of him smiling in his hospital bed, giving a ‘hang loose’ hand gesture.
“My main concern is internal bleeding. I recommend a CAT scan. There is concern about x-ray exposure in children but given his velocity when he fell, his height, the fact that he hit concrete, and that the hematoma is enormous, I don’t feel comfortable letting him leave without one.”
The first time Jackson fell hard while skating, he was about ten years old. I’d taken him to Potrero del Sol skatepark in San Francisco, where he’d go on to skate for the next seven years. He was geared up with his big yellow helmet, adorned with Spitfire and Independent stickers. Even by then, he’d discarded the elbow and knee pads I’d made him wear when he was smaller. He saw his scrapes and bruises as badges of courage. Jackson was always a naturally curious child but he was also initially reticent to try new tricks. He’d observe, sometimes for months, before trying something on his own. If he didn’t nail it, he’d give up for a while, and then start the long process over until he did. He built his skills slowly, with consistent determination.
That day, he told me he was going to ‘drop-in’ from a ledge that he’d been eyeing. I’d learned to stand just far enough away that I could see him but not close enough for people to know I was his Mom. So, when he fell, I’d been sitting on the grass, reading a book.
“Man down!” I couldn’t tell from the yelps and hollers if someone was hurt or if they’d done something spectacular, so I got up to look. And there he was, splayed on his back, muffling his cries. Some of the older skaters helped him up and brought him over to the grass, where I met him. He was dazed but wiped his tears away quickly.
“Mom, can we go home? My head hurts.”
“Can you imagine how badly it would have hurt if you didn’t have a helmet on?! You are so smart for wearing it.” This was always my response in these moments, and they have been plentiful. So when the ER doctor in Sonoma asked why Jackson hadn’t been wearing a helmet while skateboarding, there was a part of me that thought, “See??!! This is what happens when you’re dumb!”
Then I realized that technically, since he’s still a minor, maybe I’m the idiot that’s responsible for his injury.
“Everything looks good. His skull isn’t cracked and we can’t see any internal bleeds. Lay low the next 48 hours, making sure to not re-injure the head, and the swelling should start coming down.”
Because we’ve been through stitches and broken bones and hematomas, I’ve learned to stay calm during crises. On our way to the pharmacy, though, after the adrenaline had made its way through me, I told him the truth.
“I gotta tell you buddy, it is hella unsettling to take your offspring to the ER. To just sit by and watch while doctors and nurses perform tests, to wonder if things will get worse when you get home – away from the safety of those experienced professionals. It is even scarier, though, to think you’re going to be an official adult soon and I won’t even be able to do that!”
Jackson just sat quietly with a melted ice pack in his hands, staring out the window. I thought about the natural evolution of parenting, and that ultimately, it was good for him that I didn’t have control over his actions. He can’t help but not listen to his Mom, he’s searching for his own independence. And I can give all the advice in the world, but as he becomes a young man, he’s got to make his own decisions. Good and bad.
I can only hope one of those is to wear a freaking helmet.