Tony Woodlief | Author

The weak link

Six days ago: an ambulance ride with my 11 year-old to a trauma center near the South Carolina coliseum where he and 2,000 other youngsters have been wrestling. His neck braced, a board under his back, tears trickling from the corners of his eyes as he chuckles at the paramedic’s dad jokes. I am not thinking about the other kid, who sent a child to the E.R. before wrestling my own child, with a move even more blatantly illegal. I am not thinking about the kid’s coach, who taught him to run shoulder- and neck-endangering moves and let the ref decide whether to stop it. I am not thinking about the lazy and incompetent ref, who whistled to signal for the kid to stop, but who couldn’t be troubled to kneel down and intervene.

I am not thinking about them because then I will think about what I will do to each of them if this child’s neck is broken. The world is filled with thugs and uncaring people. Ironically, that’s the chief reason I pushed this boy into wrestling in the first place. This shy and unassuming boy who now lies neck-braced on a gurney in an ambulance the size of a tank. Maybe this isn’t irony. Who knows, anymore?

Instead I think about his older brother, who I told to stay with the team and keep wrestling his own bracket. The older brother who picks on him sometimes, but who held his hand right up until they strapped him to the gurney, and who then walked away quickly so his little brother wouldn’t see him crying, and who would be really mad if he knew I told you about that.

When we arrive they wheel him to the WHALE room. “Do you know what that stands for?” says the dad-joke paramedic to his younger partner. “We Have A Little Emergency.”

Examinations. A CAT scan is ordered. I inwardly groan. How many hours before we know if there’s a break? But technology has advanced since I was a kid. They wheel him into a room with a big ring of a machine. “Hey buddy,” I say, “it’s a time machine. We’re going to send you back to right before that kid shoots an ankle pick, and I want you to clock him.”

Another dad joke, another polite chuckle. They run him through the machine, and the scan appears immediately. I love technology again, for awhile. No fracture. A neck brace for a couple of weeks, until they can decide whether to do an MRI in search of ligament damage. Because with severe ligament damage you can actually break your own neck, which I didn’t even know was a thing. I thought I knew all the things I should worry about. Now I have another thing.

And part of me is wondering, as we wait in a little bay for his discharge: Is this is a sign of weakness? Do some boys just get broken-necked and ligament-stretched more easily? Are some boys just destined to get slammed and bent and crushed by the thugs of the world?

Then I think on the fury in his face as he wrestled, right up to that vicious move. How instead there used to be fear there, during matches where he was outmatched. Then he asks, neck brace on, me dabbing ketchup from his lap because he can’t see the mess he’s making with these cheeseburgers we grabbed in celebration of him not being paralyzed, if he can wrestle up into a higher age bracket in the next tournament, because that’s how you get better.

And I think: The kid is going to be okay. Please, God, let the kid be okay. This one and his tender-hearted brother and his brother the future Marine and his too-handsome brother and his baby brothers. Let them be okay if not for them then for me, because I’ve begun to realize that I’m the weak link here, and the truth is I wouldn’t have it any other way.

ER photobomb.

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