Christmas night, 2007. I was curled up on an L-shaped sofa, watching the flickering lights of a movie on an old console TV in a borrowed apartment.
It was a white Christmas in Vancouver. Buses were running slower than usual on the slushy streets and there was almost no foot traffic outside. Lights strung up on houses illuminated the snow on the sidewalks.
Conner was tilted back in his borrowed power wheelchair, asleep. It was a challenge getting the chair up to the second floor in the tiny elevator. There was just enough room for him to clear the narrow hallway and enter the apartment so we could all have time together somewhere other than GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre, which had been his home since the air ambulance flight out of Saskatoon in October.
Eighteen is a cruel age to have your neck broken in a random act of violence. In July, 2007, my son was robbed by a group of young people and left for dead. He had been on an adventure away from home, working at a summer job as a security guard and living with family.
It was supposed to be a gradual progression to independence after graduation from high school. He made phone calls home to ask at what temperature to cook chicken and the etiquette of what to do with someone else's clothes in the dryer. And then I received another phone call, early in July, telling me to sit down because my sister had bad news.
Time compresses after a shock. Dog and daughter temporarily boarded with friends, house locked up and on a plane, all in less than three hours. My husband was driving across the country, coming to Saskatoon that very day to join Conner at the start of a boys' road trip to Ontario. He found a note on the door of the house to call the hospital and the journey ended right there. Instead of meeting up in Ontario for our annual holiday, Chris picked me up at a different airport. No holiday this year.
There is a rhythm to spending time in crisis that is hard to explain to people who have never been through it. It's like a convention without the name tags. We met other people and heard everyone's stories. They became family over six days as the lights and noises flickered and buzzed to an ICU symphony. Ten minutes every hour, we stood by our son and hoped for a miracle.
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The police had no leads so we went public. Conner began remembering more about what happened that night. He was trying to make new friends after working his last evening shift before a stretch of days off. The anticipation of a holiday kept sleep at bay, so he hung out and chatted with nice kids in a nice park just across from the house. Then blackness and cold.
He was lying on a sidewalk half a block from the park with no memory of how he had got there and unable to move. Regaining consciousness, he gave a frightened papergirl the number to his aunt's and uncle's home less than a block away.
He remembered the ambulance ride, and the doctor telling him the myelin sheath surrounding the shattered bones in his neck had been badly damaged, likely from being picked up and dropped a few times. The no-pulled-punches diagnosis was quadriplegia. Then he was unconscious again.
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I had to steel myself to walk through the park and stand where Conner last stood, come to terms with the assault, face the fear. It was a safe neighbourhood but the very air felt violated. Despite the summer heat, teenagers avoided hanging out at the park for several weeks. They closed ranks. My son was the outsider so the code of silence prevailed.
A spinal cord injury is the most serious injury you can sustain and still live through. Silent night, hopeful night. We spent hours on end in the ICU, not knowing what future awaited us.
I couldn't believe the kindness of strangers who sent encouraging words of prayer and recovery for Connor. Neighbours, friends, family, church groups, Rotary and Kinsmen stepped forward to offer help. Homemade soups and casseroles were dropped off at our front door. Paperwork, victim services, police, insurance, medical supplies and government agencies spun around in a vortex of e-mails.
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Three months later, we were all back in the same province. But as Conner started to get fitted for the equipment he would need to come home, it became obvious that Christmas wasn't going to be there.
I couldn't think about our usual traditions, and buying presents was at the bottom of my list of priorities. But it was important, especially for my teenaged daughter, to maintain some sense of normal. So cookies were made, cards were sent out and presents wrapped.
I used to imagine what I'd save first if our house ever caught fire. Now I know there is no stuff important enough that I would mourn its loss. Teenagers coveting stuff almost killed my son.
Silent night, holy night. Christmas dinner was over and the dog was asleep on the rug. Our borrowed tree was adorned with some of our special decorations from home - handmade reindeer with googly eyes, school pictures in painted dough frames - all part of our family history. We were together and it was enough. It was almost time for Conner to head back to the rehabilitation centre, but not yet. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Dawn Copeman lives in Cumberland, B.C.
Illustration by Louise deLorme.