A beautiful spring day in April 2018 marked my life into a “before” and “after.” My 12-year-old daughter was playing with seven girls in a neighbor’s backyard. I walked our puppy to pick up Evelyn with my parents, who were visiting from Illinois for my youngest daughter’s First Communion.
As we reached the driveway, Evelyn ran up with a bright smile and a quick, “Hey, Mom!” With a twinkle of mischief in her eye, she happily scooped up Winston and ran to the backyard to play a little longer.
After introductions and small talk, I said, “Well, I need to grab Ev.” I took two steps toward the backyard when “CRACK!” A tremendous sound exploded into the air like a shotgun. Time and conversation stopped as all eyes turned to the source of the unexpected, ear-splitting, terrifying noise.
In that backyard was a tall tree, and one of its massive limbs was pivoting, falling down from its connection point high on the main trunk. “NO! No, no, no,” raged my internal voice. A sickening feeling arose as the massive tree limb crashed down, thudding against the earth with the force and power reserved for things of nature.
A privacy fence blocked the backyard view and we adults stood in the safety of the driveway. I raced toward the fence and saw the frantic motion of girls scattering. I screamed, “Is everyone safe? Is everyone safe?!” And then I saw through the slats that Evelyn was on the ground in a still heap.
All thumbs, I couldn’t figure out how to undo the gate latch.“For the love of God, I just need to go to my daughter,” screamed the voice in my head in pure terror. Every second trying to open that gate felt like a lifetime, and my heart pounded as though it would burst inside my chest. I wanted to bash through the wood with my bare hands or leap over it to rescue my girl.
Once someone opened the gate I raced to Evelyn, adrenaline surging.
Time stood still as I took in the scene. She was on the ground, motionless and silent, in a duck and cover sort of tornado drill position. However, her hands and arms were not protectively shielding her head. They were wrapped around Winston, whose head was peeking out, gasping for air, panting and shaking, sandwiched between Evelyn’s thighs and chest.
Facedown in a fetal position, chin tucked to chest, her forehead brushed the ground and her long, bloody hair spilled onto the grass. My little girl. This couldn’t be happening.
Wood shards carpeted the ground. A ten-foot-long section of a major limb had crash-landed on the grass by Evelyn, the end jagged as though a monster had violently ripped it in two, and thin branches extended from the downed limbs in every direction around her. It was my duty as mother to act fast to rescue my little girl, but she lay in a jumbled, helter-skelter, puzzling mess of tree debris, and my lack of mental clarity and inability to comprehend the scene made me feel helpless.
Evelyn started barely moaning; a sign of life! Praise God! Then, she began to move erratically, writhing in pain, unfolding herself from the fetal position in sharp movements. Terrible sounds of agony, loud and primal, emerged from my little girl and depicted the mind-blowing intensity of her incredible pain. I enveloped her, held her head to my breast, and compressed the bleeding from her head.
Once I brushed the mess of damp, bloody hair away from her face, I was struck by a most horrible sight.
Evelyn’s eyes were glassy, wild, and totally unseeing. Blank. Wrong. They pointed in mad directions and lacked recognition or awareness. They registered intense pain, distress, and shock. They looked like the eyes of someone about to die, as though her precious life were slipping away before my very eyes. I was gripped with terror. Death was standing over us. Boldly waiting.
Prayer was my only hope.
“Evelyn, I love you. Evelyn, stay awake. You have to fight. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!! Evelyn, I LOVE YOU! EVELYN. EVELYN!”
My only gut-wrenching thought was that if my child were going to die in that yard, then she was going to die in the loving arms of her mother. She would feel my touch, and I would give her all the security possible under horrendous circumstances.
My heart was breaking, and I felt filled with despair at the seriousness of the dreadful situation. I held her with all my might and willed her to live but felt powerless to fix anything. All I could offer was a mother’s love, human touch, and prayer.
But there is power in prayer!
The paramedics arrived in the backyard and immediately put Evelyn on a stretcher. We were met in the Emergency Department by thirteen men and women in scrubs, gloves, and masks. I was struck by their eye contact, which conveyed competent compassion and readiness to save Evelyn’s life.
After she was stabilized a CT scan showed mandible and orbit fractures, along with multiple skull fractures. Seeing 3D images of Evelyn’s dented skull was totally shocking. She required a three hour craniotomy to relieve pressure on her brain. It seemed miraculous that her skull had not been split open by the weight and force of the fallen branch, killing her instantly. I felt there were angels among us in the yard.
After her surgery, Evelyn stayed in the ICU with no sensation in or ability to move her left extremities. Head pain consumed her. It was hard. Future cognitive, physical, behavioral, and pain outcomes were major question marks. We parents were in survival mode, barely eating or sleeping, filled with despair and simply attempting to meet Evelyn’s every need.
A longtime friend knew I needed an uplifting reminder about perspective after enduring such a treacherous and draining weekend. Her words urged me to look at all the wonderfully positive things that were happening in our lives in the midst of our crisis and to remember to count the blessings: “God will help you and give you the strength not to focus on the worst, but to believe God for the best,” she offered.
My friend implored me to turn away from doubt and despair, and instead, contemplate and cherish all the wonderful parts of my daughter’s body that were working perfectly.
She could breathe, see, and speak. Her broken bones were confined to her skull. Her carotid artery was not severed by the impact of the tree limb. She escaped spinal cord injury and life-changing, massive brain damage.
My friend suggested Evelyn’s experience could help reveal God’s glory to others if it was His will to heal her. And we prayed together for the miracle of total healing. She, along with so many other dear friends, prayed for us and reminded us to trust God with full surrender.
With belief that He would take care of everything, I could hope.
Our faith community rallied around us by praying and providing many gifts and acts of loving service. They were Jesus to my family – His hands and feet during our time of need.
Evelyn’s traumatic brain injury required six to twelve months to heal, and required avoidance of contact sports for a year. When we finally were discharged from the hospital, we were hopeful, but I entered a new parental phase of fear concerning secondary concussion befalling Evelyn and struggled to carry that heavy cross until a friend’s wise advice to turn it over to Jesus. Our hearts are always a work in progress.
It’s been two and a half years since the accident, and my now 14-year-old daughter recently qualified for state in cross country. She is thriving in 9th grade honors classes and even went out for cheerleading. Evelyn is healthy, strong, witty and determined. I thank God for the gift of her beautiful life and for the miracle of total healing.
Through the entire experience, I have come to the conclusion that although life will always bring unexpected challenges, our response to adversity is all that is within our control. And we can choose to hope even in times of great struggle. We must trust God’s holy will to bring good from everything, for He only permits the darkness so we might seek and draw closer to Him.
He is the light and is with us no matter what comes our way. I believe God intricately weaves the tapestry of our lives together so we may develop meaningful connections with everyone we encounter. When others face tragedy, struggle or despair, we may serve them with steadfast love in ways large or small. And then, with faith and trust in God, we may hope on.