It was a Sunday afternoon in October 2001 and I was at my grandparents’ house as usual. My grandpa and I had gone to church that morning and returned home to the breakfast of champions with rolls from the bakery and over easy eggs cooked to perfection by my grandma. I was living with my mom at the time and knew that that evening my grandparents’ would be driving me back home where I would stay during the week until they would return on Friday afternoon to pick me up again. My time was running out and all I wanted to do was go bowling. I had just seen the Disney Channel Original movie Alley Cats Strike about a bowling team that conquered the odds and won the championship game of their lives and I just wanted to recreate the winning scene in real life. So over breakfast I begged my grandpa to take me to the bowling alley. Unfortunately, he wasn’t having any of it.
As we sat at the kitchen table, the wind rattled against the windows as the sun shined in through the curtain. It’s a beautiful day my grandpa insisted, why would you want to go bowling when we could do something outside instead? After complaining half the afternoon away, I finally decided to listen to his suggestion. Doing anything–even if it wasn’t bowing– would be better than just sitting at home. Since he was in the mood to be outside, we decided to go to the local nature center.
I put on a sweater and a pair of comfortable sneakers before heading outside to wait for my grandpa. Leaves floated on the wind/road the wind, spinning around my head and I ran up and down our driveway pretending that I was a witch, just waiting to take off into the sky.
Arriving at the center, my grandpa and I realized we were almost the only people around. It was pretty deserted, probably because it was a Sunday afternoon. We went inside and looked at a few exhibits of animals that could be found on the park’s grounds. Stuffed foxes and owls peered through the glass to look at me with their marble eyes and although I was interested, I must admit, they kind of creeped me out. We talked to a man about birds of prey and quietly left the building to walk along the grounds. Despite the chill and whip of the wind in the air, we decided to take a walk into the woods where a path had been carved out for fellow hikers.
As we walked along the trail, trees lining our path left and right, branches crunched under our feet and we crossed a little bridge over a stream. Pausing, my grandpa noticed a white birch tree. I had never seen one before and he was taking the time to explain to me that some trees have white bark—they weren’t sick, it was just the way they were. Contrary to the animals, I thought these trees were really cool. Even at eight years old, I liked finding beauty in things that were a little odd. As he continued talking about the birch tree however, we heard a distinct crack. This was not a little crack either, like stepping on a twig. This was the crack of a tree that was about to lose a limb.
My grandpa stopped talking midsentence and my heart stopped in my chest. Panicked, we looked to our right and our left, trying to see where the crack came from. If a tree was going to fall, it’d be best to get out of its way. After a few silent moments, we figured we were safe and I slowly exhaled.
My relief didn’t last long, however. Suddenly, as if through instinct, I took a side step over to my right. Holding my grandpa’s hand, I yanked him toward me but he wouldn’t budge. Before I knew it, his grasp slipped from mine and I watched as a tree branch sent him flying through the air just like the way Superman flew in cartoons.
It had happened in only a fraction of a second, but the entire day had changed in immeasurable ways. What was once a nice day out for grandpa-granddaughter bonding-time-in-nature had suddenly turned into a tragedy that would surely be on the front page of the newspaper the next day. I could see it now: “8 Year Old Granddaughter Watches Grandfather Get Decapitated By Tree On Innocent Hike Through Woods”. I knew we should’ve gone bowling.
Shocked, I rushed to my grandpa’s side. He lay on the trail, still conscious and surprisingly, propped up on one elbow. The only difference I noticed in his appearance were two new holes in the knees of his blue jeans. There were no bones sticking out of his skin and his head was still safely in place. His cap hadn’t even been jostled. The brown limb that had fallen, lay across his legs. He was not crying or screaming in pain so I didn’t understand just how serious the situation was. All I knew for certain was that we needed help. And we needed help now. He was certainly not going to be walking the rest of the trail on his own.
Lying in the dirt, he remained calm and instructed me on what we had to do to get ourselves out of the situation. The first and most obvious thing we had to do was call 911 but since his cell phone was in his back pocket and the tree was crushing his legs and consequently his cell phone as well, before we could even call for help we had to get the limb off of his legs. But considering we were a bit of an odd couple–a sixty-pound eight-year-old and an incapacitated accident victim–it didn’t seem likely that the limb would be going anywhere any time soon. It didn’t seem possible that either one of us would be able to lift a forty foot limb off of his body.
But I guess what they say about adrenaline rushes is true. You’ve heard the stories. A mom’s baby is trapped under a car so she lifts the whole thing up to rescue the child. A man rolls a helicopter over to save a trapped passenger. And so despite my paralyzing fear, I bent down and wrapped my scrawny chicken arms around the limb, took a deep breath, and slowly lifted it an inch off of my grandpa and rolled it slowly back to the ground. Unfortunately, my adrenaline rush didn’t give me enough superhuman strength to throw the limb through the woods, which is what I would’ve liked to do.
My grandpa then instructed me to retrieve his cell phone in his back pocket and while he called 911, I stood a few feet away from him screaming at the top of my lungs repeatedly. HELP!
Since we were in the middle of the woods however, cell phone reception was poor and he could barely get a call to 911 to go through. In desperation, he even considered having me walk the rest of the trail alone until I came out of the woods and could get help. But the sun was setting and walking alone in the woods was not something I thought I could do. But if I had to, I would’ve. Thankfully though, he got another idea. He took the cell phone out again and instead, called my grandma at home so she could call 911 and have the EMTs sent to us. I was still screaming, hoping that someone would hear my cries for help. Tired, I took a seat on the limb that had fallen and for the first time since the crack, looked behind me at the trail we had walked along so happily before. The bridge we had crossed was nowhere to be found, though. It had disappeared behind the curtain of the treetop that had fallen. All I could see was a great canopy of green leaves.
The call to my grandma worked. She had called 911 and they were on their way. As we waited for them to arrive, the sun disappeared behind the hills surrounding us and it became dark. The cell phone rang and it was the EMTs. They needed our location. Since my grandpa couldn’t exactly get up and tell them any significant features of the part of the trail we were on, I had to get on the phone. The reception was poor and I could barely understand the man on the other end. But I did my best and told them we had just crossed a bridge and that we were right by a sign for a Frog Pond. Despite my efforts to have them locate us easily though, when they finally arrived they came through the brush, not even using the trail because they couldn’t find it in the dark. All they had to do was follow my screams.
They immediately went to my grandpa’s side and I watched on in horror as they quickly and methodically cut all his clothes off except his underwear. I’d never seen anyone that naked before except myself and my little sister and I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed for the both of us. They wrapped a brace around his neck and rolled him onto a wooden board where they strapped him on tight, only leaving one arm free (which my grandpa later told me he had requested so he could strangle anyone if they hurt him).
A woman approached me wearing a faded pink sweatshirt and khaki pants with two dogs. She had been walking in the woods when she too heard the crack and my screams but couldn’t find us until she had left the trail and saw the EMTs entering the woods at a different site. She followed them to meet us, hoping to help. She spoke to me in a soft voice and as they packaged my grandpa up as if they were going to mail him across the country, she offered me a piggy-back ride out of the woods. But I couldn’t accept. I could barely speak. They draped a white sheet over my grandpa for discretion (and I would assume, warmth) and six men collectively lifted him up and started marching along the trail.
I followed them until we finally reached the mouth of the woods. I took my first step onto concrete and knew I would not be returning to the forest anytime soon. My grandma and aunt were waiting for us and while they spoke with the EMTs, I sat on the hood of a police officers car, exhausted both mentally and physically.
Finally, my grandma and aunt claimed me and we piled into our caravan and followed the ambulance to the hospital. I was examined by a doctor to make sure I hadn’t been hurt and was free to go when I was found to be completely unscathed. I had escaped death by only a side step to the right.
When I left the doctor’s office, I followed my grandma to the emergency room where we waited for my grandpa who had been taken away for countless tests. A few dark twigs lay strewn across the hospital’s white tile floor from when they carried him in. And that is the last image I remember from the night.
I knew the situation was serious but I never knew quite how serious it was. The injuries he sustained were life threatening. He had two punctured lungs, two broken ribs, three broken bones in the foot that required a metal plate to be pieced back together, a broken hip socket and ball (requiring hip replacement surgery), one broken bone in his left knee, a broken femur socket, five smashed spinal protrusions and two minor fractures to the neck. His doctor told him that if he’d gotten hit by the limb a half-inch higher on his back he would’ve died. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now: my grandpa’s survival was a miracle.
Even now, twelve years later, my grandpa still credits me with saving his life that day. But what he may not realize is that he saved mine. That tree could’ve hit me instead.