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Nicholas raced out to the sandbar to catch the waves. What a perfect summer day. I’d gone fishing in the bay earlier until I caught my limit of trout. Now I was on the sea side of Matagorda Island with my friend Mark, his two teenaged sons and Nicholas, my 12-year-old.
I stood with my feet in the water and looked out at Mark and the boys bodysurfing. For years we’d been coming to this spot on the Texas gulf, our family getaway, the perfect break from the hectic work of running my small plumbing business back in Fort Worth.
Alisha, my wife, was still with our fishing boat on the bay side of the island. Today would be a scorcher walking back across the sand. All the more reason to cool off in the surf.
Nicholas waved from the sandbar. He was growing so fast, tall, broad-shouldered, quick with a football. Running my own business took up a lot of my time but I always tried to be there for Nicholas, as much as I could. I waved back and watched him dart toward the surf.
He fell. Scrambled up and then fell again. It was like someone had yanked him underwater. I held my hand up to block the glare of the sun. Was there something wrong? I felt my heart start to race.
Mark splashed through the water and picked Nicholas up. Next thing I knew he was racing back, carrying my son. A stingray, I thought. He must have been stung. But no, this looked worse. Blood gushed from Nick’s left foot.
“Bull shark!” Mark hollered.
I staggered forward. Panic seized me. Blood spurted from a gaping wound in Nicholas’s foot. Blood was dripping everywhere. Mark carried him up to the beach and I ran after, looking on in horror. “Help me, Cecil,” Mark yelled. “Make a tourniquet.”
I whipped off the old baseball shirt I was wearing and prayed I remembered how. An artery must have been severed, the blood was coming so fast. Ugly tooth marks were visible in the flesh. I wrapped the shirt above the wound and pulled it tight.
“I can’t believe I got bitten by a shark,” Nicholas said, dazed.
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“You’ll be okay, buddy,” I said. “Just hang on. Stay calm.”
The bone was exposed. I moved a flap of skin across it. Nicholas groaned. The blood kept coming—my shirt was already red—and we were so far from help. None of us had a cell phone.
“Daniel,” I yelled to Mark’s 13-year-old. “Tell Alisha. Run across the island. Tell her to find the fastest boat that can get us back to the mainland. We need help. Hurry!”
Daniel raced to the dunes before I even finished. Now we had to keep Nick alive while we made the long trek back to the bay. Only a third of a mile, but it seemed like crossing the Sahara. Mark and his other son, 15-year-old Kevin, lifted Nicholas up.
“You stanch the wound,” Mark shouted to me. “Don’t let up on the pressure...” Or he’ll bleed to death. I didn’t even want to say it out loud. My son’s life was literally in my hands. Could I do it? Could I save him?
We started across. Flies buzzed around our faces. Sweat dripped down, blurring my eyes. Dune grass slapped at our ankles. The sand burned our feet. Nicholas was heavy. Mark and Kevin struggled under his weight. I dug my fingers into his wound to hold back the blood his heart was pumping out.
Up one dune and back down, we trudged. Please, please, please. Help, help, help. It was all I could think to pray. No other words. I looked to Nicholas’s face. His eyes rolled back in his head. He was going into shock.
“No, buddy,” I shouted. “Stay with us. You gotta stay with us.” I squeezed harder on his wound until my hands trembled and ached. Please, please, please. Help, help, help.
I searched the horizon for the blue waters of the bay. Daniel must have gotten there by now. Had Alisha found a boat? Had she called 911? Every moment counted. One last dune to climb.
Mark and Kevin were panting. “Hold on,” I said to Nicholas. “We’ll get a boat. We’re almost there.”
We trudged downhill and I glimpsed Alisha. She saw the blood on Nick’s legs and covering my hands. She rushed forward. “I found a boat,” she said. “EMTs are waiting on the other side of the bay. They’ll take him to the hospital.” But her eyes asked, Is our son going to live?
People stared at us. The news had spread. Shark attack! Alisha led the way to the boat. We lifted Nicholas up and lowered him into the back. Alisha cradled his head in her lap. I kept pressure on his foot, pain shooting all the way up into my shoulders.
Lord, I am weak. Keep me strong. The driver revved the engine and shot away from the dock. “Ten minutes,” he shouted. “We can get across in ten minutes.” What if 10 minutes was too long?
The boat pounded against the water. Nicholas’s face went ashen and his eyes rolled back again. With my free hand I splashed water on him. But I felt so weak, like a man who had lost all power. I looked at Alisha. She saw my fear.
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Nicholas opened his eyes. “Mom, you need to pray for me,” he said.
“Your dad and I will both pray for you,” Alisha said. “Dear Lord, be with Nicholas. Give him strength. Let him be safe.” Her words rose over the noise of the engine.
I looked down at my hands, clutching my son’s foot, slippery with blood, and I thought of God holding me in his hands. A Father holding on to a father holding on to his son. Lord, I’m so weak, but I trust you.
Nicholas turned to me. “Dad, do you think I’ll still be able to play football?”
Hope surged through me. “Yes, buddy, you’ll play ball.”
“Squeeze my hand as hard as you can and don’t let go,” Alisha said.
We made it across the bay in eight minutes. Record time. A helicopter touched down to fly Nicholas to Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. EMTs surged around him, but I didn’t want to let go.
“We’ll be there real soon, buddy,” I said to my son as they rushed him into the helicopter. “And we’ll be praying for you the whole time.”
We changed out of our blood-drenched clothes, then drove to the hospital. Alisha texted friends and family the whole way: Pray. Pray for Nicholas.
He had an excellent surgeon and team of physicians. They reattached his nerves and arteries, applied skin grafts to his foot. It took five separate surgeries over a couple of weeks and I prayed over Nicholas each time.
Doctors, nurses, technicians, orderlies, hovered around my son. They came into his room, took his vitals, checked his bandages, changed his IV. They were the experts, but I never lost that sense of who was really in charge.
Nicholas didn’t lose his foot. In fact, after hobbling around on a crutch at home and undergoing one further operation and weeks of therapy, he was as strong as ever. He was able to play football on the junior high school team. My promise wasn’t an empty one at all.
But then, I should have known. God hears our prayers, no matter how frantic we are when we say them, no matter how weak or how afraid. That’s just when a father is ready to help a son.
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