Tour de Life: Excerpt

Immediately after finishing each of his bike races in Europe, pro cyclist Saul Raisin always sent a simple but comforting text message to his mom in Georgia: “O.K.” On April 4, 2006 the message never arrived.

Tour de Life
From Coma to Competition

Saul Raisin
with Dave Shields

Copyright © 2007 by Dave Shields
All Rights Reserved


Part I: Into the Fog

Day 1 – Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Yvonne Raisin stepped around her kitchen island and dropped into a chair at the table beside her husband. “I have the worst feeling inside, Jimmy, like something’s trying to tell me it’s a bad day.” Uncomfortable premonitions were unusual for her. She tended to see the world from a sunny perspective.

Jim laid aside his Dalton Daily Citizen sports section. The headline celebrated the Atlanta Braves opening day victory in Los Angeles. He patted his wife’s hand. “Worrying won’t accomplish anything. Put your mind on something else for now.” He spoke in his usual, calming drawl.

“You feel it too, don’t you?” Yvonne heard even more desperation in her expressive Southern accent than she’d intended.

Jim patted her hand again.

She appreciated her husband’s show of strength, but Yvonne knew him far too well not to see right through it. The calm, workmanlike approach he brought to everything from paying the bills to riding his bike was slightly off kilter. Today his sturdy frame had a bit of uncharacteristic sway. His mind was obviously racing.

Jim was so different from her in his approach to the world, though their vision was very much the same. Maybe that’s what made them so strong together. To strangers his exterior could be deceiving. Where she was emotional, reactionary, and gregarious he was collected, introspective, and quiet. Jim tended to stand back from the crowd, arms folded or hands in his pockets, watching. Yvonne, on the other hand, was a small and agile woman, always in the middle of things, whipping others into a frenzy and livening up the party. At fifty years old his hair had grayed a bit, while hers was still jet black at forty-nine.

Reaching into her black, leather purse, she grabbed her cell phone. She flipped it open, hoping to discover the text message she’d been waiting for. Maybe her attention had been distracted for a moment and she’d missed the ring tone announcing its arrival.

She looked at the display, just the familiar photo of the two of them standing on either side of their son Saul with their arms comfortably draped about each other. Jim’s face glowed with pride, while Saul looked striking in his Tour de Georgia “Best Young Rider” uniform. At the age of only twenty his time had been better than every rider in the competition younger than twenty-three. That day in April 2003 had been a watershed moment for Saul’s burgeoning cycling career.

For one thing, it was the first time his extended family accepted what he was doing for a living. Many of them imagined him as a playboy who was simply avoiding college. He stunned them by proving himself at this major international event that just happened to travel through their own back yards. As Saul stood on the stage receiving his giant check along with kisses from the podium girls, even longtime acquaintances stood with mouths agape.

Saul’s grandmother said, “All this time I thought he was just avoiding college. I didn’t realize Saul was this good. I’m so proud of him.”

It also earned him a spot on the USA Under 23 Development Team, the break that led to him being noticed by the elite Pro Tour teams. Saul’s contract with Crédit Agricole, one of France’s most prestigious cycling squads, had been the ultimate result.

Bicycle racing had opened up such a world of possibilities to him. Along the way he’d blossomed as a young man. But oh, the risks. At times like this Yvonne wondered if they were worth it.

Below the photo the time stamp rolled over to 4:00 PM. It was ten at night in France where Saul was racing in the Circuit de la Sarthe.

“It’ll never ring if you sit there staring at it,” Jim said.

Yvonne looked into her husband’s deep brown eyes. “Saul should have texted us hours ago. He ought to be in bed by now. Why doesn’t he return my messages?”

Jim put a comforting hand on her cheek. “He will, Mom. Obsessing won’t make things happen sooner. Maybe he dropped his phone and it broke. Now quit worrying.”

Yvonne nodded. Still, Saul had never been anywhere near this late before. After every race he always sent the two letter note: “OK.” Only now did she recognize how much she’d come to depend on it.

She switched the ringer onto vibrate and wrapped her fingers around the phone. No way was she going to miss her son’s call.

Jim sat beside her, now leafing absently through a real estate magazine. He tapped his finger on a floor plan. “I keep coming back to this one.”

Yvonne glanced at the page. Her heart accelerated. He was pointing to the model she’d already fallen in love with. Last night she’d dreamed of watching sunsets from that wonderful balcony and of entertaining friends in the adjacent great room. She’d even imagined where all the furniture would go. She hadn’t told Jim her feelings because she was hesitant to suggest spending more than they’d agreed.

The sale of the family business, Raisin Textiles, had been finalized December 31, 2005. That left them both unemployed, thrilled at the prospect, and enthusiastically adjusting to early retirement. They’d worked long hours for many years, and though they weren’t quite as secure financially as they’d hoped to be, they were comfortable. Now they could travel when they wanted to, and they could choose to live wherever it suited them.

They’d already decided on the neighborhood. A condo on the Chattanooga River Walk would merge the best of all worlds. It would give them fantastic access to bike paths, shopping, and lively downtown events, plus they wouldn’t be too far from either of their extended families in Dalton. Most of all, though, a condo meant freedom to visit Saul in Europe at the drop of a bicycle helmet. No lawn to mow, no pets to feed, no worries at all. Until tonight, it had only been a matter of finding the right property.

“I can tell you love this one. Want to make an offer?” Jim asked.

“Really! You’re serious? Of course I do. It’s my favori—” The cell phone’s vibrating ring coursed up her arm like an electric shock.

Yvonne flipped the cover open and looked at the display. An incoming call from a number with a European exchange. Why wasn’t Saul using his own cell phone like always? He knew as well as she did that the toll on this sort of call would be three times more expensive. “Hello?”

“Bonsoir, Yvonne.”

The voice belonged to Saul’s team manager, Roger Legeay, the top man at Crédit Agricole Cycling. He had only called Yvonne and Jim once in the two seasons their son had been on his team. That was two months ago to congratulate them when Saul won the toughest mountain stage in the Tour de Langkawi. Yvonne knew the team boss called only if the news was big. “How are you, Roger?”

“It is Saul I am calling about. He has crashed.”

Yvonne felt a wave of nausea. “Oh no.”

“Don’t panic. It is maybe not as bad as you imagine,” Roger said.

“I hope not.” Yvonne trusted Roger because Saul had only good things to say about him. Still, Roger’s English was weak, so communication could be tough. “What’s he broken this time?”

“A collarbone, a rib, and a shoulder.”

“Oh Lord.” It surprised Yvonne that her first thoughts were of Saul’s disappointment. She knew by now that broken bones heal, but he must be incredibly upset with the fitness he’d lose. He’d trained so hard through the winter and spring, and now all that effort would be wasted. Several weeks earlier Saul had called her to promise that the best was yet to come. He’d been putting out 410 watts sustained on climbs more than an hour long. He’d recently undergone fitness testing with remarkable results. A trainer measured his lactic threshold on the slopes of the Col de la Madone. Lactate is produced by every exercising muscle. The threshold is the point at which absorption can no longer keep up with production. Pain is the result, and this pain eventually forces the exercise to stop. Unlike VO2 Max which measures a person’s ability to consume oxygen and is fairly stable over time, lactate threshold is highly trainable, though natural ability also plays a critical role. It’s one of the best measures of physical fitness.

The drill was to climb a specific section of road at a set effort level, prick the finger, and measure lactate, then increase the effort by twenty-five watts and climb again. At 200 watts Saul measured only half a millimole of lactate per liter of blood, a reading far below average. At 250 watts his lactate climbed slightly but didn’t rise in subsequent tests until he put in a 375 watt effort. That time he measured out at two point five millimoles. The tests continued with suprisingly little increase. With an amazing 525 watts of effort, Saul rose to only four millimoles. The trainer had never seen results like these. The lactate should have climbed more steeply and then peaked. He expected measurements in the teens at minimum by this point. Even setting lactate aside, few athletes could maintain such high wattages over a test of this length.

“Can you ride it at 550 watts?” the trainer asked.

Saul descended the road again and rested in preparation for the test; then he powered up the hill. When he finished, the trainer pricked his finger, ran the test and then looked at the results incredulously. “Impossible.”

“What does it say?” Saul asked.

“Three point four millimoles of lactate per liter of blood. That’s a lower number than the previous test. Lactate should always go up with effort, never down. Not only that, you’re approaching one full horsepower. Men are not supposed to be as strong as horses.”

Saul smiled.

“Ride it again. Full effort this time,” the trainer said.

With no need to watch his power meter Saul put everything he had into the pedals. Not only did he set the best time for any athlete present, but he poured out over 550 watts sustained for almost six minutes.

The trainer ran the test. “Just four millimoles. I’ve never seen anything like this. You have no lactate threshold!”

“I feel strong,” Saul said.

“You’re too strong,” the trainer said. “You’ve peaked too early. You have the fitness right now to win the Tour de France. You must take a week off the bike, maybe more.”

Saul had followed the advice, but his fitness remained high. As a result, he was slated to start his first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, in May. It was the first of pro cycling’s trio of three-week races. Saul was optimistic he could produce a great result in Italy, possibly gaining an opportunity to race in cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France.

“Just a little bit more to tell,” Roger said, bringing Yvonne back to the present. “Saul has cut on his forehead and he has much road rash.”

Road rash referred to the skin abrasions that resulted from sliding on asphalt. Such an injury was always painful, but usually not serious. Roger had said something that concerned her, though. “Is the cut bad?”

“On his head?”

“Yes.”

“I think it looks bad, but then they close it up. Staple everything shut. Maybe it is not so serious.”

“Maybe?” It was so tough to gauge the level of injury listening to Roger.

“I think it is not serious. Sometimes I do not find the right words in English. Sorry. I can ask doctors to tell me more.”

“So you’re with him?” she asked. Normally Roger didn’t attend the smaller races like this. She’d expected him to be in his offices outside Paris overseeing things.

“Yes. I drove here immediately when I got word of Saul’s accident.”

“Thank you Roger. We really appreciate the concern you’ve shown for him. Can I talk to Saul now?”

There was a long pause. “Just a precaution, but he is right now in Intensive Care. No cell phones allowed.”

“Intensive care?”

Jim had been glancing casually about the room. Now his gaze locked on Yvonne. He pointed east in an arching gesture. Yvonne knew its meaning.

“Should one of us come to care for Saul? We could catch a flight tomorrow.”

“No, no. I do not think that is necessary. Saul has been sitting up and talking with me. He is teasing the nurses. He will be better soon.”

Yvonne nodded cautiously. “Thank you, but I’m worried. Please call if anything changes.”

“Yes,” Roger said. “I stay nearby. I will call again soon.”

Day 2 – Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Yvonne lay in her dark bedroom with her eyes wide open. Shortly after speaking with Roger the previous evening, she’d called Saul’s girlfriend Daniela at her apartment in Germany.

“Have you heard about Saul,” Yvonne asked.

“No. Did he win today?” The pride in Daniela’s tone was tangible. Her English was impeccable, right down to the British diction. Saul said she’d learned from a very proper and strict teacher. He’d also told them that her French was equally refined. German was her native tongue.

Yvonne took a deep breath and then explained the situation. “You speak the languages so well. Could you call Roger and make sure we’ve communicated correctly?”

“Of course,” Daniela said.

Fifteen minutes later she called back and reconfirmed the information Yvonne already had. She also verified that a spur-of-the-moment trip to France was unnecessary.

Still, Yvonne’s subconscience wouldn’t rest. Finally, at 5:00 AM she couldn’t stay in bed any longer. She eased herself from beneath the covers, being careful not to wake Jim, and tiptoed across the hardwood floor out of the bedroom and up the stairs to Saul’s room.

Above her son’s bed Lance Armstrong, clad in the mythic yellow jersey, charged down the Champs-Elysées at the 1999 Tour de France. Jim had given the huge mural to his son as a gift six years ago, and it had motivated Saul to train day after day. A jumbo-sized $5,000 check dated 4/27/2003 leaned against the far wall, Saul’s reward for winning the Young Riders competition at the inaugural Tour de Georgia.

Trophies, cycling photographs, bib numbers, and all sorts of other race memorabilia decorated the remainder of the bedroom. There was a sign on one wall that read, “You’re going to take my temperature where?” Could there be more plainspoken testimony to the number of times Saul had been injured?

Yvonne picked up one of the many memory books she’d put together for her son. This one had a Key to the City tied to the front cover. Moments before the cyclists headed out on the tough mountain stage from Dalton to Dahlonaga, Mayor Elrod had presented the token to Saul along with a proclamation deeming Friday, April 22, 2005, “Saul Raisin Day.” From that day forward honors and articles started pouring in in such volume that she had to switch from memory books to plastic bins filled with keepsakes. They were stacked high in a guest room closet.

Dalton High School had overlooked Saul when they named their Athlete of the Year at the conclusion of his senior season. Only a couple of days before Saul left town to ride in the 2001 World Championships, the honor was given to yet another football player. But five years after high school Saul’s athletic success had become difficult to overlook, and most of the city’s population now knew something about Yvonne’s son. It seemed particularly ironic when a school mate who had often teased Saul for shaving his legs—a ritual bicycle racers take as seriously as soldiers cleaning their weapons—asked for an autograph. Saul gave it gladly and then asked his former tormenter if he’d like to join him for a ride someday.

Yvonne sat on Saul’s bed and thumbed through the mementos but stopped when she came to an enlargement of a photo Jim had taken. It had been shot in their living room prior to Saul’s Senior Prom, the only school formal he’d ever attended. He had his arm around his date, and they both wore huge smiles. The image said so much about Saul.

He faced the camera directly. Such a posture might seem meaningless for most young boys, but Saul stood square and tall for a very important reason. He didn’t want the image to record his “defect.”

Around the time the boy turned twelve Jim had noticed Saul’s back beginning to curve. They took him to see an Orthopedic Surgeon who also specialized in Sports Medicine, Dr. J. Mitchell Frix.

“Your son is afflicted with Scheuermann’s Disease, or Kyphoscoliosis,” the doctor said.

Jim and Yvonne looked at one another.

“Kyphosis is the more common name. It’s presented as a forward curvature of the spine caused by wedging of three or more vertebrae,” the doctor explained.

Yvonne pulled her son closer. Slight differences from the average didn’t make Saul imperfect. This diagnosis seemed to suggest that he was somehow flawed. “Jim has a small curve in his back bones. His mother has one, too. It hasn’t affected their ability to live full lives.”

“Saul’s back is developing a significant curve. If the condition progresses too far, or if he begins experiencing pain, we may have to operate.”

“What do you mean by ‘too far’?” Jim asked.

“We can take x-rays to measure the angle of the curve. If it goes over forty degrees surgical intervention may be unavoidable,” Dr. Frix said.

“He’s a very active boy,” Yvonne said. “He plays little league football and baseball. He swims, plays soccer, rides his bicycle, and does karate. Would an operation affect those activities?”

“Yes. It might mean an end to them.”

Yvonne gazed down at her son. Taking away athletics would rob him of the part of life he loved most. “We don’t want that.”

The doctor nodded. “I’d prefer to avoid it, too.”

“Would a brace help?” Jim asked.

The doctor shook his head. “I don’t think that would work in this instance.”

“Besides, kids are so cruel. A brace could leave bigger scars than surgery,” Yvonne said.

Dr. Frix made a note in his chart. “All right. Let’s just monitor things for now. I want to be careful that we avoid complications.”

“What sorts of complications?” Jim asked.

The doctor took a deep breath. “Every case is unique. Some patients experience diminished sensations in the lower extremities, lack of deep tendon reflexes, and even muscular atrophy. As he gets older he could be at greater risk for back injury, arthritis, and other conditions. He—”

“He also might live a completely normal life,” Yvonne interrupted.

“Yes. Anything is possible. If the curve reaches forty degrees, though, it could have a significant impact on his life.”

Dr. Frix couldn’t possibly have imagined how prophetic his words would become.

Saul returned twice yearly for checkups. His back kept curving until the angle reached forty degrees when he was sixteen. Through two more years of checkups the curve increased by another five degrees, but that’s where it stopped. The curve had gone beyond the preset threshold, but Saul had decided he didn’t want the surgery, at least not until later in life. His back didn’t seem to be causing him any physical problems, so Jim and Yvonne supported his decision.

Even if others saw Saul as deformed, Saul never would have. He’d been curious, determined, and fearless from the day he was born, and the diagnosis did nothing to change him. Once Saul set his mind to something he never gave up.

Eventually what he set his mind to was racing bikes, but officials of the sport discouraged him once they got a look at his back. Unfazed, Saul cleared the hurdle with a letter from his doctor:

November 22, 2000

RE: SAUL RAISIN

To Whom It May Concern:

Saul is a 17-year-old gentleman who has a diagnosis of Scheuermann’s kyphoscoliosis. This should in no way impair his ability to ride bicycles or to race them competitively. From a medical standpoint, he is cleared for that type of activity. If you have any questions regarding this young man, please feel free to contact me.

Sincerely,

J. MITCHELL FRIX, MD

If Saul made up his mind not to do something he was equally impossible to sway. When Dalton High School administered the SAT tests Saul read only a couple of questions before deciding they were a waste of time. His focus was on becoming a pro bicycle racer, not on getting into college, so he laid his head down on the desk and took a nap.

Jim, Yvonne, teachers, councilors and others were horrified. He was a B student with a smattering of honors classes. He ought to do fine on the examination if he’d only take the time to answer the questions. They explained to him how important this test was to his future. Saul argued that spending time on such an exam didn’t benefit him or his goals in any way, and furthermore, tests like these seemed like a lousy way to judge people’s lives.

After much begging and prodding he showed up for a make-up examination, but by now he was entrenched in his decision not to take the test. He refused to pick up his pencil, and eventually walked out of the room.

Jim always said Saul got his tenacity from Yvonne, and Yvonne always said it came from Jim. In reality they both knew Saul had received a genetic double dose of bull-headedness. He never once allowed physical limitation or any other excuse to stand in his way.

Yvonne returned her gaze to the prom photo and memories of the intervening years flooded back. To her, the picture clearly showed the ways in which Saul’s spinal condition had affected his life. She was both saddened and proud of the results. Saul’s date was a shy Pakistani girl named Hira Rana. Cultural differences made her integration into their small Southern community challenging. Like the majority of Saul’s close friends at the time, she was on the marginalized fringe of high-school society. Yet to Saul—and you could see this so clearly in his expression—she was perfect. Her smile proved that she was just as thrilled about the evening as he was.

When Saul came home that night he couldn’t quit jabbering from excitement. He told Yvonne how Hira’s favorite song came on as they entered the ballroom.

“C’mon, let’s dance!” she said.

“It’s too early. There’s nobody else on the floor,” Saul said.

Her eyes pleaded. “If you don’t dance to this song with me you’ll ruin my night.”

Reluctantly he followed her onto the floor. He hadn’t planned on showing off his dancing skills to everybody at Dalton High quite like this. He wasn’t even sure he had any dance skills to show off with, but pretty soon he figured out that she did. He just stood there and let her make him look good with her incredible moves. The stunned student body watched in awe as Hira dazzled everybody. After the song ended the rest of the students joined in, and the prom went on to be a roaring success.

All Saul had ever really wanted was acceptance. At the 2001 Dalton High School Senior Prom he and Hira simply accepted one another for who they were. Afterward she was transformed, like a butterfly emerged from her cocoon. She bragged to the other girls how Saul had “treated her like a lady.” Somehow the experience seemed to free her from shyness, and her confidence soared. Saul’s reputation did, too.

A shadow at the door startled Yvonne. She looked up. Jim stood there staring fondly at her. “Oh, Mom. I wish you’d gotten more sleep. Roger said Saul is going to be fine.”

“I know, but Jimmy, the Head Hoorah doesn’t rush half way across France to visit a hospital for no reason. Roger’s a busy man.”

“It shows how much he cares.”

“I agree, but it also proves there’s reason to be scared. Besides, I’m Saul’s mom. Worrying is in my job description. Any mother would be upset to learn their child had a list of injuries like that.” She fell back on Saul’s bed, looking up at the constellations of glow-in-the-dark stars her son had pasted on his ceiling a decade earlier.

Jim sat down beside her and moved her hair away from her eyes. “Yeah, but Saul’s been banging himself up daily for twenty-three years now.”

Yvonne couldn’t help smiling. “Sometimes I think that boy was put on earth to give me a heart attack. What was it Roger said? Broken left clavicle—”

“That’s his fifth collar bone break,” Jim interrupted.

“Broken rib,” Yvonne said.

“He’s done that before, too.”

“Broken left shoulder.”

Jim scratched his temple. “I believe that’s a first. He’ll be proud.”

“A big cut on his forehead.”

“Lost count of the cuts a long time ago.”

Yvonne glared chidingly. “And road rash everywhere.”

“Skin abrasions don’t count as an injury for a cyclist. That’s like saying a mechanic got grease under his fingernails.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “I never expected to give birth to Evel Knievel the Second.”

Jim lay down beside her. “That’s the spirit. You raised one tough kid. Roger said he was making friends with the medical staff as usual last night, acting like the injuries were no big deal. Saul’s proven it many times before. He’s a quick healer.”

That was true. He’d recovered from so many injuries that she couldn’t remember them all. The bad ones stuck out. In last May’s Four Days of Dunkirk he was hit from behind by an inattentive motorcycle driver. He flew over his handlebars, and suffered several broken ribs, a fractured collar bone, a cracked hip, and a shattered bike. Saul couldn’t get out of bed for days. The doctor told him not to touch his replacement bike for six weeks.

Not only did he touch the bike before then, he finished in the top forty of 160 starters at the Tour de Suisse. Saul passionately hated hospitals and just couldn’t stay in bed recuperating. He needed to get on his bike and race.

The ringing cell phone startled Yvonne. Who would call this early?

Jim picked up the phone and handed it to her. He had a tough time both hearing and being understood on cell phones, particularly when a foreign accent was involved. As a result, Yvonne nearly always did the talking. She looked at the display before answering. It showed the same number as last night. Her stomach knotted.

“Hello Roger. How’s Saul?”

“Good news today.”

She tilted the phone away from her ear and motioned for Jim to listen in. Her husband leaned closer.

“Saul’s condition has stabilized. I receive the doctor’s slip for him to start riding in one month. Start racing in two months.”

Jim patted Yvonne’s leg. He’d been more anxious than he let on.

Yvonne’s gut relaxed. “Wonderful. Can I speak to him?”

Roger paused. “Sorry. He is still in intensive care. They have to be cautious.”

Yvonne put her hand atop Jim’s to prevent him from patting any more. “You’re sure we shouldn’t catch a flight?”

“I think it is not necessary. Besides, what could you accomplish? I promise to watch after him. I feel obligation to stay near him because he has no family in France. I will make sure Saul is well.”

“Thank you, Roger,” Yvonne said. “He has nothing but praise for you.”

“So we feel about one another the same. You see? Everybody likes Saul.”

Jim nudged Yvonne happily. “Yeah, he’s really blossomed in the last few years.”

“If you have messages for him, I pass them along.”

“Just tell him that we love him,” Jim said.

“Of course. I call you if there are any changes.”

“Thank you Roger. Au revoir.”

“Au revoir.”

Yvonne moved farther away to see her husband’s expression. She still felt nervous, but the news was somewhat encouraging. “What do you think we should do?”

Jim thought for a moment. “Well, the airline would rob us for last-minute tickets, and like Roger says, what could we accomplish? Saul’s condition is improving quickly. Let’s post a message on his Web site. His fans will want to know that everything’s going to be all right. Then, I think we ought to head to Chattanooga and look at condos.”

A day in the fresh Tennessee air breathed life into the Raisins. With their thoughts and conversation constantly drifting to Saul, though, it wasn’t the right time to make an offer on a new home. Instead, they spent most of their time strolling along the River Walk and imagining life in their new city. They returned to Dalton optimistic, excited, and exhausted.

After a lingering moment in Saul’s room, Yvonne went to bed at ten o’clock.

* * *

The ringing phone pulled Yvonne from her early morning dreams. She fumbled with the handset for a moment and then put it to her ear. “Hello?” Sleep crackled her speech.

In the dark and silent room Roger’s urgent response jolted her. “I have bad news, Yvonne. Saul has taken turn for worst.”

“What’s happened?”

“His brain has blote.”

Yvonne implored Jim with her eyes. “What is blote?”

“You don’t know blote?” Roger asked.

Yvonne switched on the desktop lamp and fumbled for her English to French dictionary.

“This blote squeezes his brain,” Roger said.

There was a problem with Saul’s brain? Yvonne started to cry. Moisture from her tear-covered hands made the dictionary pages stick together. Finally she gave up and returned her attention to the conversation. “Do you mean blood?”

Roger sounded frightened and stressed. “Yes. This is what I mean. The blood puts great pressure on his brain. There is no room for it in his skull. Saul has slipped to coma.”

Coma? If there was a more frightening word in the English language, Yvonne couldn’t imagine it. Somehow, in all the scenarios she’d been running through her head, nothing seemed nearly as terrifying as the reality of that single word.

Jim was now crying, too. “It will be okay, Yvonne. Everything will be okay.”

She put her left arm around her husband and buried her face against his chest while still holding the phone to her ear. How could something like this happen to her son? It couldn’t be real. It felt like maybe if she squeezed Jim tightly enough, if she kept the light out of her eyes, she could return to the way things had been only moments ago.

“The doctors need your permission for emergency brain operation. Can you give it?” Roger asked.

His question intruded on her efforts to fix the world and her thoughts became even more chaotic. Finally she asked, “Brain surgery?”

“That’s what they need to do,” Roger said.

Yvonne leaned back so that she could look at Jim’s face. His eyes were in shock, like an antelope in a lion’s grasp.

Finally he nodded.

Yvonne spoke into the phone. “Do whatever you believe is best for him, Roger.”

“You should come to France now. Quickly.”

“We will.”

“I will stay with him until you get here.”

She took in a shallow breath. “Please ask the doctors to be careful.”

“Of course.”

Jim climbed out of bed. “I’ll find a flight. If we hurry we can catch the first plane out in the morning.” He scrambled toward the kitchen to find the airline’s phone number.

Yvonne watched him go and then mopped her tears with her sleeve before asking, “Can you do me a favor, Roger?”

“Anything.”

“Please give Saul a kiss and tell him that his mom and dad love him.”

“I will. I’ll go kiss him right now, from you.” His voice trembled with emotion. “Please come quickly. Saul needs his mama and papa more than anything.”

“We’re coming, Roger. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”