Michael Skaggs sat in his hospital room Thursday afternoon, his broken arms heavily swathed in bandages as he reached for photographs of his two sons.
“I want to look at these,” he told his wife, Jennifer, as he took the photographs from her hand.
Skaggs focused on the smiling and goofy faces of his sons, Sam, 10, and Ivan, 6, as he remembered the last day he spent with Sam before the boy died after a Monday night car crash on Colorado 94. Father and son were driving toward their Yoder home, blasting classical music while Sam doodled in a notebook, when their car struck a black steer in the road. Skaggs saw the animal seconds before their Hyundai hit it. Sam, who was air-lifted from the scene and treated for severe head-trauma, never saw what was coming.
As they sat in the wrecked car, Skaggs could hear the unconscious boy taking steady breaths.
“I thought, ‘He’ll be O.K.’,” Skaggs said on Thursday. Sam died early Tuesday morning.
Sam was the Skaggs’ wise, kind-hearted middle child, always eager to please and entertain his 12-year-old sister Olive and 6-year-old brother Ivan. Sam was a main ingredient in their family, the kind that no one could imagine doing without, Skaggs said.
On July 2, the Skaggs family moved from Seattle, Wash.,, where Skaggs had been stationed in the Navy, to the plains of Yoder to be closer to family. While Olive struggled to adjust to the bare, unfamiliar farm house and equally bare landscape, Sam and Ivan plunged into the wildness of the new territory.
“The boys went outside every day. They found bugs, wasps and spiders, a queen ant,” said Jennifer, their mother. “They would get up, get dressed, skip breakfast and go find more bugs.”
Sam was an explorer and a recorder — about a year before he died he started keeping journals, where he wrote down his daily doings, his parents said. He was quick to correct anyone who asked about his “diary” — those were for recording crushes, journals are for what you’re doing right then and there, he said.
When he wasn’t scrounging for bugs, playing with Legos, or writing, Sam was drawing. He frequently sat his younger brother down for tutorials — how to draw a dragon, for instance — and the boys would sit on the family couch and go through the steps of dragon-drawing one-by-one.
On the Sunday night before he died, Sam was struggling to fall asleep. He wasn’t used to his new room, in the new house, and so his father stayed up until 3 a.m. reading aloud from J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit.” The two overslept the next morning, and Sam missed a family trip for supplies for their new school in Miami Yoder School District. He lamented his loss when his brother and sister returned with new shoes.
Skaggs decided it was not too late to save the day — he and Sam went to run their own errands, and he bought Sam some more journals while they were at it.
They cruised back toward Yoder Monday evening, listening to a classic music radio station while Sam sketched in one of his new notebooks. A Gustav Holst composition, “The Planets” — odes to each of the celestial bodies — came on the radio, and as the horns thundered and cymbals crashed, Skaggs decided to play a game.
“Hey Sam, what planet do you think this is?” he asked, referring to what the music was describing.
Sam hazarded a guess. “Mars?” he said. It was a good guess.
Riding the waves of the cosmic music and the joy of their game, Skaggs decided to keep driving past their home, and further into the starry Yoder night. He told Sam they should enjoy the music while they could, because they might never hear it again. After the song ended, they turned around to head home and their car struck the steer. A second vehicle also hit the steer, which died.
Three days after the crash, Skaggs remained in Memorial Hospital Central.
On Thursday he and Jennifer recalled their favorite memories of Sam as they fingered a series of photos taken of the two boys at Fargo’s Pizza last month. Jennifer grabbed the photos on Monday night to comfort her, and to get the traumatic image of Sam’s face out of her head.
Sam’s last night at home reminded his father of a similar January night back in Washington, when Sam was plagued by nightmares and lack of sleep. The 10-year-old had an unusual nightmare, his father said, in which he feared that he fell asleep years ago and never woke up. He was afraid that his entire wonderful life — his parents, his siblings, their lives together — was all a dream, he told his father.
“Sam, you don’t have to worry, it’s real,” his father consoled him. “We’re real.”
After that talk, Skaggs said, Sam could sleep in peace again.
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