When Brennan Hawkins, 11, disappeared into Utah’s Uinta Mountains June 17, his mother, Jody, 42—who has four other children with husband Toby, 43—says her family endured the harshest ordeal of their lives. She talked to PEOPLE’s Cathy Free about the moment it ended in joy four days later—and how her son managed to pull through.
When we were reunited with Brennan near Lily Lake June 21, the family crowded around and hugged him. He said, “Hi, Mom. I have the best family in the whole world. Did my Pokémon cards come yet?” He had ordered the cards a week earlier on eBay. I swear, that’s what got him down the mountain. Once Brennan gets something in his mind, that’s all he talks about. His obsessing drives me nuts, normally. But now I think it helped save his life. It gave him a focus.
Brennan told us he thought that he was going to die three times, and he said a prayer asking God for directions. His biggest fear was being abducted, so when he spotted rescuers on horseback, he stayed hidden. When we brought him home, his voice was different. Brennan said he was hoarse from yelling for help. He saw a helicopter one day and yelled to be noticed. At night he tucked his legs under his sweatshirt and curled up next to a tree and cried himself to sleep. He drank water from the creeks and found some wild mint he carried with him because he remembered putting mint leaves in lemonade at home. He said he found some lamb’s ear—a plant with fuzzy leaves—and rubbing it brought him some comfort.
We’ve always been very protective of Brennan. He was born nine weeks premature. The doctors told us he wouldn’t live through the first day. He was in a coma for 14 days, but he was a fighter. He’s always had some special needs: He has a lot of trouble with short-term memory and a hard time socially. So when he got invited to Scout camp, he really wanted to go.
We were preparing for a relaxing Friday night at home when we got a call from his Scout leader: “We’ve lost Brennan.” I said, “Don’t waste time calling me—go find him!” I didn’t realize the severity of it until he said he’d been missing for more than two hours.
I dropped off my younger kids at their grandmother’s house and headed for the Boy Scout camp. I held my cell phone the entire two-hour drive, thinking, “They’re going to call any minute and say they found him.” I mean, how can you lose a child with 1,400 people around? But when the sun started to go down, I felt panicked. I thought, “He can’t be out there alone after dark. They’ve got to find him.”
By 6 a.m on June 18 the mountain was teeming with search-and-rescue teams.
The police needed me to stay in camp—if they found a sock or a shoe, they needed me to identify it—which was hard. I wanted to be out there looking for him. I learned to hate the moon because when the moon was up, he was out there in the dark, all alone. Even though it was 55°F, it was cold. We were wearing coats and sweatshirts up there all the time.
We explored every possibility with the sheriff for hours. By the third day, when they still hadn’t come up with anything, I started realizing there’s a lot worse things than death. But really, I was at peace from the beginning. I just knew that he hadn’t been abducted and somebody wasn’t torturing him. I started every day with a flood of peace. But it was so frustrating not to have any answers.
Now that he’s back at home, he wakes up each night around 1 a.m and is afraid to go back to sleep. I think he worries about falling asleep and wondering where he is going to wake up.
With him, it’s going to come out slowly. We probably won’t know all the details for a while. There was no logical explanation for him to survive on that mountain—a little boy in shorts. I truly believe it’s a miracle.