August was an emotional marathon around these parts, friends. I’ve been half dying to write about, half wishing the whole thing never happened. But it did—and thankfully, we’ve reached the finish line, so today I’m spilling it. I also felt like I've been MIA around Another Mother Runner, Train Like a Mother Club, and Many Happy Miles, so I wanted to thank you for your patience.
I’m walking the dogs, cursing my ridiculous headache that hits at the start of every period. It doesn't t abate with sleep, and Advil doesn’t phase it. The only thing that relieves it is time: at least 24 hours, usually closer to 36.
Because of the pounding, I can’t stomach any incoming noise, so I take out my headphones—no idea what podcast is even playing—and stuff them in my pocket, next to my phone, which is, as usual, on silent mode.
It’s before 7 am, and all my energy goes towards moving forward and scoping out rabbits and squirrels before the dogs see them.
Palming a dog poop into a Target bag, I promise myself if the headache doesn’t stop by lunch, I will take a nap.
At home by 7:05 am, I notice I’ve missed seven calls from unknown numbers: four in Moab, UT, three in Colorado Springs. Neither are familiar numbers. I don’t connect the fact my 13-year-old son is camping in Moab, and four missed calls before 7 am from Moab might not be the best news.
Will caffeine help or hurt? Freakin’ head. I fire up the Nespresso, and open my email.
Subject: Ben’s camping trip. Please call.
About 5:40 this morning, I got a message from our leaders saying there was a bear in their campsite and Ben woke up to it with its mouth on his ear…The counselors quickly wrapped up his head to control any bleeding and drove to the ER in Moab…It sounds like he is pain but doing as well as he can in the situation.
I call the camp director immediately, who can’t really tell me anything beyond his email. Then I talk to the Moab ER doctor, who sounds hysterical to me. He's bandying about words like “skin graft” and “pediatric surgeon” and “significant wounds.” He tells me Ben needs to be transported via ambulance to Grand Junction, about a two-hour drive from Moab and a four-hour one from Denver.
I am the hysterical one now. I ask to speak to Ben.
Just hearing him sob on the other end of the phone makes me start to cry too. Much harder than I want to. Dang it: I want to be strong for him, but that’s like asking the dogs not to go ballistic when they see a squirrel. Not gonna happen.
“I’m coming to get you,” I tell him, “It will be ok, I will come meet you. I will be there as soon as I can.”
He can’t speak. He is crying too hard. I’m crying, he’s crying. Stupid mom. Why didn’t I pick up the first call? Why am I not on the road already?
He eventually squeaks out, “I am going to be ok, Mom.”
“I know, Pie. I know.”
I throw random things into a bag, not sure if we’ll be in Grand Junction for a night or a week. A pair of shorts, a book, my laptop. I think about exercise gear, but that feels too indulgent. I do pack my running shoes, though, so I can at least go for a walk. I forget tampons.
I go to Ben’s drawers to get him clean clothes—he’s been camping for two weeks—but all of his gym shorts and undies are with him. I’ll go to Target in Grand Junction, I tell myself.
We decide Grant will stay home to be with Amelia, currently at school for some orientation workshop, and to work the phones.
Backing out of the garage, I listen to a long message from a park ranger. He wants to keep Ben’s shirt for a DNA sample of the bear. All I can picture is Ben’s shirt in shreds, and I’m hysterical again.
I have four hours until I can see my boy.
I haven’t eaten anything, but am far from hungry. Still, I know zero calories will not serve me well. So I stop at Starbucks, grab some egg bites and another latte, and merge onto the highway.
I can’t listen to a podcast. I don’t want to call anybody. I’ve never driven for more than 15 minutes without some kind of audio stimulation, but even classical music feels awkward. Everything feels awkward. I force the egg bites down.
The quiet drive gives me something to focus on. Climb into the mountains, drive down from the mountains. I drive fast, but not dangerously so. Plus, if a cop stops me, I have a story that guarantees a get-out-of-jail pass.
Along the way, I hear from Grant, who has talked to the ER doctor Grand Junction and has a much clearer picture of the situation. Ben has major wounds on his ear and temple area, as well as more minor scratches behind his ear. He assures Grant that we will be able to get Ben back to Denver tonight.
Ok, I can deal with that. I also notice that my headache has left the building. Phew.
I call a friend who works for our insurance company. Being two self-employed parents in a healthy family, we opted for a plan that might have more holes than we’d like in a situation like this. I’ve heard about how expensive ambulance rides are, and I can’t lie: The cost of all of this is swirling in the back of my mind. Which makes me feel shallow and crappy.
My friend reminds me that our mutual friend is a pediatrician at our insurance company, and loops her in. They’re both on the case, and their immediate support makes me cry again.
I arrive in Grand Junction and want to be annoyed by the security guard in the ER who makes me spread like a starfish so he can wand me, but I don’t have the energy.
He clears me and leads me back to Ben. The ER doctor is in the process of stitching back on the top of his ear. A nurse, holding Ben’s hand, immediately stands up so I can slide in. I’m crying again. I kiss the top of his hand and then sandwich it tightly in both of mine. I look down at his feet poking out of the blanket. Dried blood is splattered all over them.
To ease the pain, Ben squeezes and sings. Hums. Squeezes harder. Whisper screams. Digs his fingernails into my palm. He’s been a nail biter for as long as I can remember, but his stubs feel like talons.
As he endures and I do my best to soothe, I wonder how moms of chronically ill kids do it. Do they just have a hospital bag perpetually packed? How can they mentally handle watching their kiddo undergo procedure after procedure? Where do they sleep? How do they have any energy left for themselves?
Once the ear is back together, they bandage the rest of him up and send us on our way to Children’s ER in Denver, where we’ll meet with a plastic surgeon for the next steps.
Before we leave, I hit the cafeteria. I buy him a Sprite. Pretzels. Sun Chips (Garden Salsa flavor, our collective favorite). A Naked Juice. A blueberry muffin. The vigilant security guard will not let me bring my full bag of groceries back as I fetch him. That does annoy me.
Right before we get on the highway, I spot a Freddy’s. Custard shake. He needs that too.
“That was really scary, Mom,” he says, unprompted. I tell him I’m sure and pounce on the opening.
“If the bear wouldn’t have happened, would you want to go back to camp?” He answers yes.
“Even with the bear, would you want to go back?” Yes, he says. I don’t know if that’s for real or not, but it makes me feel better.
He eats a few pretzels, takes a few sips of a shake, then covers himself with a beach towel. The sun is shining on his legs, and he falls asleep. I turn on my beloved Avett Brothers, and feel calmest I have all day long.
Four or so hours later, Ben is at his third ER for the day. An article is already up about him, so I text that to friends, hitting on the high points: no damage to his hearing, his eye, his neck. It could have been so much worse.
Best case scenario for a very scary day: a phrase I type and say many, many times over the next few weeks.
Each time I say it, I say it slowly, emphasizing it, allowing it to soak deep into my bones.
I wish he didn’t have to tell the story over and over—what’s going on inside his head as he relives it?—but everybody understandably asks.
The basics: He and five of his eleven campmates decided to skip their tent on the last night of a two-week trip that included backpacking, rock climbing, and canyoneering. They're in their sleeping bags near the banks of the Colorado River and had no food out in the campsite. (In fact, they had eaten at a restaurant in Moab that night as a celebration for their final night together.)
Around 5:40 in the morning (read: not full light yet), a black bear came rambling through the campsite. Ben was the bookend of the row of sleepers. She was likely curious, and he likely smelled interesting. (Although I’m confident he did not smell like shampoo, a theory tossed out by a ranger in one article. Over the course of two weeks, he admitted he barely brushed his teeth.)
He woke up with his ear in her mouth, and one paw over his body. He asked his best friend, sleeping next to him, what he should do, and his friend replied, “Play dead.” (Later, Ben said his friend was having a panic attack, and the friend said Ben was having one. I'm guessing they both were.)
In the meantime, the bear moved to Ben’s feet, so Ben stood up, yelled to his counselors, who then yelled to everybody to stand up, make themselves big, and make noise. They did, and she ran off.
Back at the Children’s ER, we get news from the ranger that the likely bear, a three-year-old female, has been “euthanized.” Her paws match the same size print near the bite. Understandable protocol, but it doesn’t sit right with me. She was just being a black bear, and for the record, black bears rarely attack.
We also get news that we don’t have to spend the night at the hospital, but before we go, Ben has to get a brutal infectious disease protocol: a series of more than 20 small shots right near his wounds. It’s after 11, Ben is still covered in blood, my adrenaline high has finally evaporated, and the ER feels like the loneliest place in the world.
As he digs into my hands again and I want to scream, “Stop hurting him!”, I wonder how other moms can do this. After the treatment is done, I ask the nurse if she can clean up his face a bit before we go—I don't want to touch anything near the wounds—and she's on the case immediately. Maybe that's part of how they do it.
[Random sidenote: The next morning, filling his prescriptions, I run into a #motherrunner at the pharmacy. I am bursting to share this story, this story that is going to have a happy ending, so I just blurt it out. I can’t remember your name, but thank you for obliging me, friend.]
Later that day, while talking to a ranger who came from Salt Lake to interview Ben in person, Grant and I decide to not release his name to the media. I joke that it’s because I haven’t had my hair cut and colored in months, but really, I can’t stomach the idea of hearing him repeat the story over and over. What kind of mental effect will that have on him?
Ben, a performer who loves the spotlight, is justifiably bummed, but we don’t relent.
Still, he gets plenty of local celeb moment at the pediatrician, at the plastic surgeon, at his new school, where he’s the tall kid with white gauze around his head who was bitten by a bear. Meanwhile, I have plenty of at-home nurse moments, changing his bandages daily. But I'm on duty only after the best nurse, my mom, comes to do his first hair washing (hallelujah!) in the kitchen sink.
Ben folds up his long legs on the counter and does his best keep his wails at a suitable level, while her gentle touch—something I didn’t inherit—goes on my grateful list.
He starts school, snags a part in the fall play. His marching band takes first in the State Fair competition, and his wounds heal amazingly well. (I’d share pics but there’s a limit to TMI.) That said, he needs one skin graft to cover up the divot in his temple. The outpatient surgery is scheduled to be performed by Dr. McDowell, whose name makes me trust him instantly, for the last Wednesday in August.
“I’m surprised at how many butterflies are in my stomach,” I text my mom that morning.
“Remember, it’s always harder on the mom than anybody," she shoots back. Amen to that.
Amazed at how pliable the skin is, Dr. McDowell is able to stitch up the divot instead of skin graft it. “If he was 70 years old, then yes, I would’ve known I could stitch it. But this was unexpected,” he tells me post-op. The best-case scenario continues: One wound continues healing instead of two new ones that need to be healed from scratch.
Ben eats a bag of animal crackers and sips on a Sprite, and we're leaving the surgery center less than five hours after we arrived. He falls asleep next to me again on the ride home.
I'm just calm and relief.
We crossed the bear-bite finish line today when Ben's stitches were removed. A few more mornings of antibiotic lathering to go, then this will simply be the ringer for Ben's future rounds of Two Truths and a Lie. He'll win every time.
Thanks for reading, and for the love and support I know you would've shared with me during the ordeal had you known. xo