Five years ago today a ski accident changed our lives. At the time, these changes were painful. Five years later, I realize they taught us lessons we needed to learn.
The accident involved our oldest son, who was then 11, but we were all affected. As everything seemed to be falling apart, our younger son suffered in silence, his questions, doubts and fears going largely unspoken and thus unanswered. My husband and I suffered from guilt, anger, remorse and finally, acceptance.
Each of us had our worlds rocked. Our assumptions about people, society and truth were shaken. And yet, five years on, we’re still skiing, we’re still a happy family and, as cheesy as this sounds, we’re wiser, too.
It was a Sunday, and we did something we never do. We let our boys ride up to race training with another family. My husband and I needed to go to a meeting at our church, so we didn’t arrive at the mountain until lunchtime. When our oldest son failed to come in with the rest of the ski team, we began to worry. Soon, we heard there had been an accident at an intersection on the mountain where an intermediate trail crosses the access to the bunny slope.
Sure enough, our boy was involved. He was dazed, shaken and scared. Two other skiers, an adult and a younger boy were also on the snow. The younger boy had a broken arm and leg. After the injured boy was stabilized, our son was directed to ski patrol for questioning. Although we didn’t know it at the time, this is when the lessons began.
Remorse. The first lesson we learned was never to express remorse, sorrow or offer an apology. Although we had spent our young son’s life teaching him to be sympathetic, empathetic and to apologize for hurting someone or when someone else is hurting, in a legal context, an apology is a big mistake.
Since my husband and I didn’t witness the accident, we let our son make his own statement. Being only 11, our son’s statement was filled with emotion, apologies and subjective details. We read it and we were proud of him. He expressed sorrow and he apologized for what he thought was his role in the accident.
What we didn’t realize is that this statement, subjective as it was, would be turned over to law enforcement. We also didn’t realize that our son could have remained silent. In letting him express his remorse, we unwittingly let him express guilt. Since no one else apologized and the ski patrol couldn’t assign blame in what was clearly an accident, our son took the fall.
I still feel guilty about my naiveté. I wish I had been a stronger advocate for my child.
Responsibility. This lesson goes hand-in-hand with remorse. As a parent, you try to teach your children the importance of personal responsibility. You forget your lunch, you don’t eat. You forget to feed the dog, you lose some of your allowance and you still have to feed the dog. And so on.
Well, in the context of an accident, taking any responsibility is a huge mistake. By writing down what he thought, and assumed, was his role in the accident, our son’s statement provided a damning context for what had occurred.
We have no idea what was said by the other parties to the accident. They may not have made statements. Being responsible people, we assumed that when one is asked to make a statement, one makes a statement. It turns out, that this is wrong. Sometimes, it’s better to just keep your mouth closed and your pen still.
Innocence. If you had to state one of the basic tenets of the American legal system, what would you say?
Before this accident, I would have said “People are innocent until proven guilty.”
After our son’s accident, I realize that our society assumes guilt and expects innocence to be proven. Learning this lesson stripped us of our innocence, but also taught us tolerance.
Because our son apologized and voluntarily accepted responsibility for his role in the accident, he was assumed guilty. By May, we were looking at either going to trial or accepting a plea which would have our son doing community service. And yet, the investigators from both ski patrol and the sheriff’s department said he was innocent, that the collision was an accident, pure and simple.
This experience, the experience of being caught in a nonsensical legal web with no way out, was hell on earth. Prior to the accident, I used to question how defense attorneys could defend their clients. Now I know. Some of their clients are caught in the web, just like we were. During this time, our attorney was our rock and, often, the foundation of our sanity.
Faith. About three years after the accident, our younger son, who was eight when all of this took place, confided in me.
“I don’t believe in God,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because after my brother’s accident I prayed every day that it would be all right. I prayed for him and nothing happened.”
“Yes it did,” I responded. “Do you remember how it ended?”
When the end came, it came fast and unexpectedly. It involved an ethical mistake on the part of the prosecutor. He was removed from the case. His supervisor picked up the file and within 36 hours everything was dismissed. Within 72 hours, we were eating ice cream with the other boy and his family. He was whole and healthy. He was playing baseball and running track for his elementary school team. He’d even gotten in a few days of spring skiing.
While the younger boy’s healing was physical, our sons, both of them, had emotional wounds that took a long time to salve. Our older son went to counseling for PTSD, he broke out into stress-related shingles and his behavior changed. He had a lot of anger, that I believe was borne of fear.
Five Years On
Today, as a young driver, I actually think the experience serves our son well, for he knows how quickly life can change and how a simple accident can become a crime. He wants nothing to do with accidents or the legal system.
As for his younger brother, his needs were neglected. Not only did he feel God was ignoring him, but his parents did ignore him. We didn’t mean to, but we were on the ragged edge of emotional disaster and just barely hanging on.
Recently, he came to me again. “Before my brother’s accident, I thought everyone in the world liked me. I thought everyone was nice. Now I know that’s not true,” he said.
My heart broke. I hugged him and assured him that although bad and confusing things happen, the world is still good.
It IS Good
I believe that. I really do. We were lucky. Our son was involved in something terrible, yet in the end it wasn’t that bad. No one was critically injured. Everyone healed. We learned some lessons we would have preferred not to learn, but they’ve made us smarter and inform who we are.
We can wish that the accident didn’t happen. But it did.
And that’s okay.
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