The first time I went to Winnipeg was in the back of an ambulance in the pouring rain.
I was with my family working at a camp near Kenora, Ont. On our day off my wife and two sons and I went into town to pay bills, do some banking, that sort of thing. On our way out of town we were all munching away on apples from a local farmer when my then-11-month-old son started to choke.
This was not regular little-guy choking. This was face-going-purple, excessive-drooling, eyes-rolling-back-into-his-head kind of choking.
I wrenched the wheel around and drove frantically back to town looking for the hospital. It was only a three-minute drive but it felt like it took the rest of my life.
It wasn't raining yet.
I burst through the hospital doors with my son in my arms. I was as panicked and anxious as the day he was born. I found my way to the emergency department, where doctors and nurses put him through a series of tests and X-rays to determine that a piece of apple was indeed stuck somewhere in the wrong pipe.
I found myself pacing through the lobby of the Kenora hospital drinking vending-machine coffee and waiting for a medical team to decide if they'd have to operate or send him to the children's hospital in Winnipeg, where they were better equipped for this sort of thing.
The next thing I knew I was leaving my wife and older son behind and climbing into the back of an ambulance with a doctor, a nurse and my baby boy strapped to a hospital bed. He was kicking and screaming and flailing and wailing. It was bad enough that he was choking – now he felt like he was being tortured.
It started to rain.
As soon as the ambulance started driving he fell asleep. I don't know if it was thanks to the movement of the vehicle or the hum of the motor. His silence helped calm things down. But when he was screaming at least I knew he was breathing.
We flew down the Trans-Canada Highway at well over 100 kilometres an hour – lights flashing, sirens wailing. It was late, it was dark, it was pouring. I was nervous and scared. My hands were sweaty, my mouth was dry, and it would have taken an act of God to get me to let go of his fat little hand. All of a sudden the doctor broke into my nightmare.
"So what brings you to Kenora?"
"I'm doing some work at one of the camps," I said.
"What kind of work do you do?"
"I'm a storyteller."
I think what the doctor meant by "great!" was that I could entertain them, tell them stories. But I was in no mood to tell tales.
As a matter of fact, I think "great!" might have been the last thing said on that trip. I spent the next three hours staring at my son and listening to the downpour.
When they got us to the hospital in Winnipeg, staff fast-tracked us to the front of the line, probably because he was an infant and we had radioed ahead. They put us in a room and there were more X-rays, more tests, more waiting.
Twelve hours after this whole torturous ordeal began, I found myself in this lifeless hospital room – 200 kilometres from where I was supposed to be, 2,000 kilometres from where I'd rather have been.
My son slept peacefully. I felt completely undone. I had nothing in me but peanut M&M's and vending-machine coffee. I was absolutely exhausted. Physically, emotionally and spiritually drained, wasted, spent.
Then, all of a sudden, my son opened one eye, then the other. He looked at me and smiled.
It's important to understand something about my son Porter. When he smiles, things change. He is one of those kids with a big, round, white head, and when he smiles it is like the first stroke of colour on a blank canvas, or like stirring cream into black coffee.
So he's lying there staring at me with this big beautiful grin and all I'm thinking is, "Do you know where we are?!? Do you know what you've been through? Do you know what you've put me through?"
But he just kept staring and smiling, like he wanted to say something, like he was trying to tell me something or teach me something. But he was only 11 months old and he didn't have any words and all I had ever done was listened with my ears so I had no idea what he was trying to say or how I could possibly understand him.
He just kept smiling, and I kept trying, but it was driving me crazy and I couldn't figure it out, I couldn't figure him out, and it was beginning to frustrate both of us when all of a sudden it hit me.
He was smiling because he was okay. He was smiling because somewhere along the way, he either coughed up or swallowed down that little piece of apple. He was trying to tell me that it was time to move on, to get back on the horse and ride, to stop and smell the roses (or whatever it is they grow out there in Winnipeg). He was saying to me, as clearly as anyone has ever said anything, that unless you are hurting, you need to be the one who is helping, even if that is only by smiling.
So that's what we did for the rest of the night in that room – just stared at each other and smiled.
It's hard to learn how to listen without your ears, and it's humbling when you learn it from an 11-month-old boy.
Brad Woods lives in Guelph, Ont.