As I Stood at the Top of the Hill

My dearest, darling Rachel, my heart, my soul –

This was not supposed to happen.

You and Daniel were supposed to take one more slide down the tubing run, and then, exhausted from the climb up, we would say our goodbyes to Camp Awana for the day, and we would drive home.  Maybe we’d pick something up from the A&W on Caledonia on the way for dinner – we always did love their cheese curds.  Then, we’d stay up watching YouTube – Lets Players of one stripe or another, or one of the latest batch of Reddit memes, or something like that – until I fell asleep in the recliner, or decided I needed to head off to bed before falling asleep in the recliner, and you and Daniel would stay up, doing whatever it was you two did that late at night, before taking the dog out for one last time and joining me in bed.

Instead, as I sat near the top of the hill, Megan approached me, saying “Rachel’s hit a tree.”

The day had gone so well up until this point.  You had seen the email about our church’s camp advertising that weekends were open for cabin rentals and day trips, now that their toboggan run and snow tube hill had been upgraded, complete with brand new snow maker and groomer, and had suggested we check it out.  We had spent several weeks up there during the summer, but you particularly wanted to see what winter activities they had there.  Daniel, great indoorsman that he is, was less than enthusiastic, but I was fine with the suggestion.  In fact, the day before, I’d gotten a question from Ingrid, the wife of the camp director, about an accounting matter, and I figured I could also help her out in person along with the winter camp fun; business and pleasure, as it were.

We could see the hill as we approached the camp entrance, complete with kids (and adults) sliding down it.  It certainly looked like fun.

But first, we needed to head to the dining hall to check in – and sign a waiver.  Standard boilerplate stuff, it’s never really an issue, right?  I signed for all of us.

Larry, the camp director, gave us a ride in his pickup over to the tubing hill.  I mean, it wasn’t a long trip, we could have walked, but today was the coldest day this winter thus far, and the sooner we got to where we were to be so we could keep moving, the better.  For whatever reason, the bed of the pickup was lined with hay bales, and you were reminiscing about the hayrides we used to go on with your hometown church when we would visit your parents in the fall back in the day.  A pickup truck wasn’t exactly the same, but it brought back a few memories.

We got to the hill, and marveled at it.  They’d groomed it so that the main slope was as smooth as glass.  Sure, there were weeds out in the distance, but how likely was it we’d go all that way?

Pretty darn likely, as it turned out.  It was actually quite the trudge back to the tow line, where you rode on the inner tube back up the hill.  I made the mistake of just carrying my tube up once, and I was all that much more tired by the time I got to the top.

Not so tired that I didn’t try again.  And again, this time going down on my stomach.  And one more time, although this last time – for now – I realized my phone had fallen out of my pocket as I rolled out of the tube.  Ah, but never mind – there it was in the bottom of the tube.  I brushed it off, and repocketed it more securely.  But that was enough sliding for now, as it was just coming up on noon.

Back at the dining hall, there were a few staff people, but very little else.  They weren’t serving lunch here; we’d need to get some snacks at the canteen.  It was a bit of a hike, but otherwise no big deal.

It wasn’t crowded when we arrived, and got ourselves a couple of hot dogs, a couple orders of nachos, and an extra container of cheese sauce, as Daniel prefers his dogs with cheese rather than the standard trimmings.  It was… okay, although the hot chocolate was the one thing really worth writing home about.  Seriously, they could run rings around McCafé – and it was free!

Daniel wandered over to the other side of the canteen to play a little on the piano.  He hasn’t taken a lesson in years (and the one we have in our house is all but inaccessible, from all the stuff in the house), but he still can play by ear fairly well.  Still, I decided to head out to the lakefront: I’d never been here in the winter, and wanted to see what they had as far as activities on the lake proper.

The beach area – the part generally designated for swimming, surrounded by two piers – had been segmented off into three small rinks, with hockey goals at either end of each of them.  While I waited for you to come out, I played goalie for an ambitious seven- or eight-year old.  I’m no Nikolai Khabibulin, but I stopped more of his shots on goal than he made.  Then again, he missed a few shots, too, so those shouldn’t count.

You came out with a pair of ice skates, commenting about how long it had been since you had done this.  It seems a lot of people think this was your first time on ice; not so.  First time skating on an actual lake, yes, but we’d done Skate on State downtown back in the early years of our marriage as part of a singles’ group outing with church.  And we’d also skated at an ice rick in an industrial park in Rolling Meadows around that same time frame.

Yeah, we got along better in those days with the singles than with other married couples.  I don’t recall why.  Maybe there was less structure in the lives of single people that appealed to us; none of the urgency to settle down, have a family, raise kids, that sort of thing.

Of course, all that came to us in short order regardless, whether we really were aiming for it or not.

Camp Awana, January 23, 2021. An hour or so before the accident.

I really don’t know why I filmed you skating.  Back in the summer, I had filmed you using the blob at just about the same spot (you looked upon that as a ‘bucket list’ item you simply had to do), but since I eventually was the jumper who really sent you flying, I certainly didn’t get any footage of that.  You seemed dismayed to realize that I was filming you this time – you probably figured you were displaying all the grace of a newborn giraffe or something, but you looked so cute out there.  And how often do you get to skate on a lake, after all?  This was a moment for posterity.

I just didn’t know how much.

Once you completed a pair of turns around the makeshift rink, you took several minutes to unlace yourself, and walked me over to the storage room where they kept the skates, in case I might be interested some other time.  Yes, some other time.

I could see a cabin near the group where we had attended as part of Family Camp a couple of years ago, and suggested we walk across the lake.  You were happy to do so, and indeed outpaced me for most of the hike across the lake.

I wish I could remember what we talked about.

We found ourselves in the meeting cabin for the clutch of smaller sleeping cabins, and sat down to rest, as it was something of an exertion to keep one’s balance while crossing the ice.  I took a quick shot of the lakefront area through the window, and we promised ourselves we would most likely be back here, once they updated their septic system (which they are currently working on, albeit slowed by the effects of the coronavirus shutdowns).  Maybe not necessarily 2021, but later on, who knew?

Who knew, indeed?

We crossed the lake yet again, and I went with Ingrid to go over her questions on the books, while you went to collect Daniel at the gymnasium.

It turned out that, had this been purely a business trip, it was a wasted effort; the wi-fi at camp today was, for all intents and purposes, down.  So Ingrid and I couldn’t run the report she needed, and I couldn’t show her the new features of the software.  Fine.  We’ll talk on the phone about it come Monday.

Back to the tubing hill, then.

The toboggan run had been mostly unused all day, and I was curious to see what it was like.  I fetched one of the longer toboggans for the three of us – although, considering how we had to scrunch together to stay together on it, it probably wasn’t needed.  It was a fast, bumpy ride – I called it ‘bone-rattling’ at the time – and we concluded that, while it was nice to have experienced it, one time was quite sufficient.

I was tired from the number of times we had climbed the hill after each slide down, so while you and Daniel opted to go back to the tubing section, I decided to stay at the top of the hill, and watch over our stuff.  The two of you went down once, and then again…

And that was when Megan let me know: “Rachel’s hit a tree.”

I thought she was kidding at first.

I should have known better.  For the fairly short time we’d known her since I started working for camp as their accountant (and we had been coming up to clean the place in preparation for holding Sunday services there since Wisconsin was so much more open this past summer than Illinois), Megan knew when to joke around, and knew when to be serious.  She was serious.

So I scrambled to my feet, and stood at the top of the hill.

“Everyone, the hill’s closed,”  Megan announced.

There were already several people around you, and others running toward the scene.  First responders and EMTs, I later learned, were both there and on the way by the time I saw you.

Daniel did not see what happened any more than I had.  He had slid down at about the same time as you had, so I’m sure each of you was focused on your own run.  He did realize, as he begin to collect his tube and make for the tow rope that

  • Someone had wiped out on the other side of the hill, and
  • You weren’t there, climbing the hill with him.

It took a bit for him to put two and two together.

From the crowd of responders gathered around you, it looked like you had run across a couple of fairly small saplings, as opposed to having walloped an actual tree.  Someone was telling me that you had struck them with your chest, to which I thought, with some relief, that, “well, at least she didn’t hit her head.  She’ll be banged up, and it’s going to take a while to recover, but she should make it.”

I even thought I saw someone walking away from the crowd in a white-and-black jacket, and thought “oh, she’s up.  That’s a good sign.”

Somewhere along the way, though, an ambulance had arrived, and someone had also spray-painted an X, or a cross, on the smooth portion of the bottom of the run.

As I stood at the top of the hill, I debated heading down to be by your side.  I determined that I would only be getting in the way.

I saw someone performing chest compressions.  This did not strike me as a good sign.

Eventually, I made my way down the section of hill that would normally be for the tow rope.  The last few stragglers were making their way up as I gingerly picked my way down.

Daniel was still down there.  He asked, “What are we going to do about church tomorrow?”

It turned out that he was referring to whether we were even going to be able to attend tomorrow – which made sense, as we would be staying up here in Wisconsin for a couple days if you were to be recuperating in hospital.  But I immediately realized you had a commitment to work in the nursery tomorrow, and no matter what the outcome at this point, that was not going to happen.  But I didn’t know who to contact to let them know they needed to find a substitute.

For lack of anyone else, I called Scott Olson.  He’s the business pastor (yes, that’s a thing – churches are businesses, as I could tell you, and they need someone to keep them organized and running smoothly.  He also worked fairly closely with me on the camp’s financials, as well), and would know who was in charge of the children’s ministry to let them know the situation.  I gave him a brief summary of what I knew, or what I thought I knew, and told him to get in touch with the appropriate people.

Meanwhile, I had remembered that you had literally just enrolled Chompers in a series of hydrotherapy sessions, and how was I going to get him there while you recovered up here?  I also called Ellen, who was watching him for the day, and let her know that we wouldn’t be home any time soon, and if she would be willing to watch him for the night?  She sounded worried as I explained what had happened, but agreed to keep him over, although she had concerns about how he would get along with Survivor, the young cat she was also fostering.

It’s amazing the trivialities your mind occupies itself with at times like this.

Yesterday, I had come home to a dark house.  The stairwell was lit, and Daniel was upstairs taking a bath.  But you weren’t home.  Neither was Chompers.  And I was thinking the worst: what if she had to take him to the vet, because it was finally his time to go?  When I called up to Daniel, he informed me that you were at Kerstin’s (and, as I later learned, she and you had enrolled Chompers in that therapy I was now fretting about), and would be home shortly – “Why?”

“Uh, never mind, son.  I just jumped to a bad conclusion.”

After you got home, I told you what I had thought happened, and you were all “oh, baby, I’m so sorry.  Everything’s okay.  Don’t worry I’ll let you know when the time comes.  I’ll need you.”

By this time, there were several county police cars on the scene as well, and in short order, I found myself giving our particulars to an officer.  The details were still sketchy, but things seemed hopeful.  Yes, you were unconscious, but you had been awake, briefly, before aspirating.  That, apparently, was what the chest compressions were about.  Again, the details were scattered, and I was in no position to be asking questions as things were still unfolding.

Then, Larry came up to us, and informed us that a medivac helicopter was going to be arriving to take you to Froederdt Hospital in Milwaukee – one of the best trauma hospitals in the area – and was I in any condition to drive to the hospital, because we would need to leave right away if we were going to get there in any way concurrent with the helicopter?  I assured him that I was, but I had no idea how to get there.  He offered to lead the way.

As I followed Larry on the way to the hospital, a thought struck me.  It wasn’t that long ago, not even four years, that your father was airlifted to the hospital in Springfield, as the hospital in Macomb was not suited for immediate stroke care.  You wondered at the time whether he was aware of what was happening, and if he considered himself being carried to heaven by the helicopter as it ascended from his home for the last time.

I wondered if, when the helicopter took off from the bottom of the hill, whether you, in turn, were aware of what was happening, and if it occurred to you: “Wow, just like Daddy…”

Considering how your father’s ride ended, this was the first time I thought that this, too, might not end well.

This was not supposed to happen.

The medivac was supposed to already be here.  The ER staff was supposed to already be working on you.  Where were you?  We couldn’t even be admitted at first, because you weren’t there, and then, as they realized you were supposedly on your way, they pointed out that only one of the three of us could actually come into the hospital.  Covid restrictions, and all that.  I protested at the admissions desk, but for the moment, I set myself down by a window next to the vestibule, where Daniel and Larry were looking in.  They told me a social worker would attempt to arrange things for the three of us, and I made an effort to text Daniel about this.

For whatever reason, my text wouldn’t go through.  I had to hold the phone up to the window for Daniel to look at, so he knew what was going on.

We must have looked like the picture of pathos.

Eventually, Ashley – I think that was the social worker’s name – let Daniel and Larry in, and escorted us into a separate waiting room for families.  Apparently, there was a problem with the medivac – something about the doors on the copter being inoperable – and they had to transport you by ground ambulance after all.

Well, better that than having you fall out of an open helicopter door, I guess.  I hoped this wouldn’t pose a problem.

Minutes went by, and slowly turned into hours.  ‘Soon’ was becoming a distant memory.  You had been taken to the Froederdt hospital in West Bend, it seems, and were only now being transferred to Milwaukee.  Mention was made of your heart briefly stopping, twice.

I was getting calls from the folks, and Pastor Scott.  Evidently, Scott Olson had told more people than I intended.  I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone, especially since I really didn’t know what was going on, and how you were really doing.  I kept telling people, “I’ll let you know when I do; I’m sorry, I really don’t have any information.”  I mean, you weren’t even here.  How was I supposed to know how you were doing?

The three of us talked about… well, what?  Stories about Rachel, from our end, and his growing up in South Side Chicago, on his.  We didn’t know each other that well – he and Ingrid had just started working at Camp Awana near the end of 2019 or beginning of 2020, and hadn’t even been part of our church prior to that – although they had attended Pastor Scott’s old church in suburban Madison for a long time prior to his leaving for the suburbs of Chicago, and his son Jordan was on staff as the campus pastor at the Des Plaines campus.  So yeah, we were doing a whole ‘getting-to-know-you-better’ thing as we waited for news about you.  And waited.

And waited.

Finally, at nearly 9pm, Ashley let us know that you had finally arrived, and the doctor would want to see me, in particular, straightaway.  I followed her into the ER area, and the doctor met me before I went to see you.

This was not supposed to happen.

You were supposed to have outlived me.  Probably by a good two decades.  You had those genes, after all, and you took so much better care of yourself than I did.  You were supposed to come within spitting distance of ninety, like your parents and grandparents, like your great-grandfather (who, from what you told me, served with Grant in the Civil War, and was only felled by pneumonia from breaking up a logjam at the age of 92).  Sure, your mind might have left a few years back, but you were supposed to last and last and last…

But when the social worker brought the doctor, his expression held no hope in his eyes.

He was grim.

“I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances,” he said.

It turned out, I would have to make some decisions.  Some very big decisions.

He spoke of how you had, despite what I had heard earlier about impacting with your chest, snapped your neck, and severed your spinal cord.  According to him, blood had been leaking into your brain.  “She’s alive for now,” he said, “but she’s paralyzed, and for all intents and purposes, brain dead.  We can keep her alive for a few minutes, maybe hours, but… she’s essentially already gone.”

I was being asked how soon I wanted to pull the plug on you.

They brought me behind the curtain, and went to go fetch Daniel and Larry.

You looked a mess.  Your face, puffy from impact, purple with bruises – that color never looked worse on you than it did at that moment.  Tubes coming out of your mouth and nose, along with blood that bubbled out and flowed down your face to your eyes as you lay there on your back.

And all of a sudden, with little preamble or warning, there was really nothing left but to actually see you, and say our goodbyes, before everything was unhooked, and we had to watch the moments tick away from you.

Daniel poured out his heart to you, vowing to focus his efforts on reaching his friends for Jesus, to make sure that he and they would be sure to see you in the hereafter, but also wailing about how much he would miss you – in everything he did.

You two were so close, after all.

I had little left to say.  I tried to kiss you one last time, but blood continued to bubble from your mouth and nose.  The nurses would dab at your face to clear the blood, but it was a terrible sight. 

You tasted of iron.

It was not what I would have hoped for as a final embrace.  But no one dies prettily, outside of Hollywood movies.  I know you know how much I love you, and while I didn’t have the words at this moment, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t told you in so many ways and so many times, throughout our twenty-eight-plus years together.

All I could ask you was what I had expected to ask of my father two years ago when he suffered a terrible case of sepsis following a hernia operation at the age of eighty:

Helsa hemm, sweetheart.”

Say hello… to the folks at Home.

I heard the doctor announce the time – 9:32 p.m. – and you were gone.

Greet the family for us, darling.  I miss you already.

They sent me home with your personal effects in two bags, and the blanket that you had been wheeled in under – a purple quilt, appropriately enough.  They offered me a knitted quilt that was prepared for cases like this, but – as you used to crochet little shrouds for preemies as part of the Linus Project back in the day – I could not take one.  The blanket would suffice.

Larry guided me as far as Interstate 41, where we stopped to get gas before parting ways: he to the north, and Daniel and I to the south.  “Are you sure you can do this?”

“Yes, we just want to get home and away from here.”

The remainder of the drive was silent.  For all I knew, Daniel had fallen asleep for the better part of the trip.  It had been an emotionally exhausting day.

And the beginning of the rest of our lives… without you.

This was not supposed to happen.

But it has.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

11 thoughts on “As I Stood at the Top of the Hill

  1. I’m crying so hard. You have captured every detail so intricately. Your love for Rachel is inexplicable, infinite. Life is so unpredictable, but a loss like this is just as painful. No words could heal, or none of the comforting voices match. I send you lots and lots of goodwill and pray for you and Daniel. May you get the strength to live well.


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