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Illustration by Adam De Souza

This week, First Person features the joys and the sorrows of mothering.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

It’s been a year and a bit since we almost lost my daughter in a freak accident while on vacation. I used to think the term “lost” was more appropriate for something you leave in the mall or misplaced keys. You lose teeth, you lose confidence, you lose weight, but a person? Far too precious for such a word.

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The Oxford English Dictionary definition perfectly describes the vast emptiness that would have ensued had things turned out differently for us in Mexico: "lost: unable to find one’s way; not knowing one’s whereabouts or denoting something that has been taken away or cannot be recovered.”

The trip was a much-needed getaway a couple of years ago over the Christmas holiday. We were burnt out from work and school and sports and the normal dramas that come from having three smart and spirited children aged 7, 9 and 11. The bitter cold of our local hockey arena was getting to us all and we finally scheduled some time away with my in-laws and sister-in-law to reconnect. We weren’t looking to do more than lie on the beach, read, sleep, swim and drink tequila. But what was supposed to be a resort vacation just outside of Cancun turned into our living nightmare.

It was a beautiful sunny day, the kind of day where you never think these things could happen to you. It still feels like it happened to somebody else.

The hotel offered a variety of water sports including hour-long rides on small sailboats guided by a local. There was not space for all of us and so we encouraged our kids to hop on and enjoy some time with their grandfather and aunt. As my husband and I sauntered back to the pool to relax, I turned to him and said I had a bad feeling about this. He rolled his eyes and asked me what could possibly go wrong.

The details of how it happened are unimportant, but they led to my middle daughter being hit in the head with the mast and knocked unconscious. Her skull was shattered and a piece of the skull pierced her brain.

I will never forget the hysterical hotel guest who came to the pool to find us. I will never forget sprinting to the beach to find my daughter on the shore, having been brought in by Jet Ski on her aunt’s lap by a kind passerby. She gained consciousness and was eerily calm while so many of us were not. I will never forget Mexican lifeguards who spoke no English running around trying to help us. I will never forget trying to communicate with them to call an ambulance and gesturing for them to stop touching her. I will never forget the nice American who ran to get his brother, a doctor who spoke English who told me what to ask when we got to the hospital.

I will never forget walking through the resort in my wet bathing suit beside my daughter, now in a neckbrace and lying on a bodyboard, to reach the ambulance waiting at the gates. I will never forget the ambulance ride to the hospital, playing I Spy and the Alphabet Game in hopes that she wouldn’t slip out of consciousness.

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After 45 minutes, we arrived at the hospital. Everything moved very quickly. A CT scan, then a conversation with the doctor in the hallway – hallway conversations are never good. She needed emergency surgery to remove that piece of skull lodged in her brain. It was risky.

I will never forget the anesthesiologist who showed up on a Harley Davidson in full leather gear. I remember my husband being calm and asking all the right questions and getting on the phone with the insurance company, and our doctor friends at home. While he “took care of business,“ I stayed with my daughter as the staff prepped for surgery and tried to keep her calm. I didn’t cry. I smiled. I wanted her to be calm and it took every ounce of strength and I had to be focused for her. Then I waved goodbye and blew her a kiss and told her I would see her soon and that I loved her.

We were told that the surgery would be about three hours, I remember every second so vividly but, at the same time, remember nothing of what happened in that time. I remember irrationally not wanting to go outside for some fresh air because I needed to be right outside the door of the operating room. I walked up and down the halls until I was exhausted, and all I could do was sit with my head in my lap in the middle of the hallway. I was still wearing a wet bathing suit.

I will never forget the moment when the neurosurgeon came out to tell us that her surgery had been a success and that she was okay. I will never forget seeing her wake up in the recovery room, head half shaved and a zillion tubes coming out of her. I gave a little thank you to God when she opened her eyes, and will never forget that the first words out of her mouth were, “Mom, whose clothes are you wearing?”

The ICU was colder than our local hockey arena, and my husband had scrounged up a few things to wear so I could get out of that bathing suit.

It has been a year and a half since we almost lost our daughter, and we are forever changed. We have fought through more surgery, endless doctors’ appointments, months home from school and an encyclopedia of side effects from a variety of medications. Today, my daughter is well. She has survived the unthinkable and her now 10-year-old brain is not your typical 10-year-old brain. She is mature and insightful and self-aware and thankful. I am, too.

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I will never forget that day, that week, that vacation, but it hasn’t stopped our family from heading off again. We’ll continue to jump in with two feet to all of the opportunities that life offers us. I will never forget almost losing a child but I intend to celebrate that we are all here and we are well. We may even go sailing.

Jessica Yaffe lives in Montreal.

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