Most of my mistakes were unimportant and are long gone from memory, but the incident I tell here is one that will stay with me as long as I live.
The day was gorgeous. The sun so bright the sky rippled when you shielded your eyes to look up. I am not quite sure why I got so sad watching my son from the window of our third-floor apartment, riding around and around the circular path of the front courtyard on his yellow and orange striped bike. I guess I wanted him to feel the wind in his hair and have the freedom of riding his bike in a beautiful, safe place. I had read great things about Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry, Illinois, so I loaded up our bikes and we headed for the preserve.
I parked in the first lot and we walked our bikes to the closest path leading into the woods.
I took a long deep breath to let the negative ions of the oxygen being exhaled by the leaves filter into my lungs. Everything seemed perfect. As my son and I entered the wooded area, a young couple walked out. I asked where they had been and the woman told us there was a beautiful lake on the path.
I thanked them as they passed, and my son said, “No lake, Mom. No lake.”
I shrugged his comment off as I suppose many mothers would have. I had my own agenda. I wanted to show my son something beautiful, and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to see it.
I told my son to go ahead of me and, being the obedient son that he was, he started down the path. The path was flat for only a short distance before I realized it was the top of a steep hill. My son’s bike picked up speed as did mine. I shouted to him to step on the brakes, and he shouted back at me that he was pushing as hard as he could. I watched his bike tilt and slip. I was on a Raleigh ten-speed with superior brakes and I could not stop.
Riding at an almost vertical pitch, I watched in horror as my son and his bike rolled downward at full speed. On either side of the road was a deep ravine with splintered tree trunks and huge boulders. My breathing quickened. My heart pounded so loud I heard nothing else. My bike swerved and slid as I applied the brakes, let the handlebars go, and jumped off. Hands and body shaking, I tried to run, but I could only fall and slide down the gravel slope. Small stones stuck to my bare palms and knees.
The lake came into view, and I cringed and held my breath, as, helpless, I watched my son catapulted off his bike into the lake. I reached out my arms and shouted, “I’m coming,” even though I knew that I was much too far away to pull him out.
The world moved around me in slow motion. Leaves flicked back and forth. The sun glinted through the trees. The intense calm unnerved me. A lake was swallowing my only son and I could do nothing but watch.
And that is when I saw a man in tall rubber boots reach over from where he stood in the lake and pull my son out of the muck. I scrambled down to the muddy shore, shaking so hard I was numb all over when I took my son into my arms and hugged and kissed him. The man pulled out the bike then, strings of green algae and mud dripping off the wheels and handlebars and seat. My son had on only one gym shoe. The other, stuck in the bottom of the lake, was not retrieved.
The man told us that he and his son had been fishing and they were getting ready to leave. Even more incredible than this stranger being there at the right time and place was that he was no ordinary fisherman. He was a paramedic. I supposed he had rescued many and for some he was too late.
My legs could hardly carry me back to the car, and as I lifted our bikes onto the carrier, I saw the fisherman and his son, who were parked right next to me, packing up to leave.
If the day had ended differently I never would have forgiven myself for not hearing the fear in my son’s voice. And I shudder to think I never would have known that the brakes on his bike were not working, because he told me on the drive home.
My son is now 42 years old, healthy and strong. Why that man was there at just that moment will forever remain a mystery, but our gratitude for the kindness of this stranger has never left either one of us. If that stranger happens to be you, my son and I thank you for saving us both.