The care conference was like being in a college classroom again, only this time I was the ill-prepared student. The social worker was kind enough to tear a piece of paper off for me to jot notes, the only natural way I can sit at a table with people talking jotting notes. My comfort zone. Whiteboards, nondescript carpeting, acoustic tile ceiling: it could have been the community college where I taught.
Think about a time, I would say, when everything changed. The one moment after which nothing was the same. We all have them I would say. What was yours? I often began the semester that way talking about the personal essay — quoting Lopate and Dillard and Montaigne, each one more eloquent than I could ever be.
My favorite essay was Scott Russell Sanders Under the Influence — it begins: My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food–compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. I use the past tense not because he ever quit drinking but because he quit living. That is how the story ends for my father, age sixty-four, heart bursting, body cooling, slumped and forsaken on the linoleum of my brother’s trailer. The story continues for my brother, my sister, my mother, and me, and will continue as long as memory holds.
Moments after which nothing was the same. The memory of my father banging at every glass door of our condo, drunk. Watching him shave in the mirror at the motel. His murder. Feeling my heart pounding in my chest after my aunt tried to kill my grandmother by hitting her over the head with a cast iron skillet in the narrow kitchen of my grandparent’s cottage and I ran the waist high grasses to the neighbors sure she was behind me. I was not yet in the second grade. Subject to both my mother’s rages and depression I had a stomachache every day. The 80s in Minneapolis I was a wisened and wandering child propositioned and alone with my friends on the streets at night.
The moments certainly weren’t in the phone calls from the state run asylum where my aunt was housed for years, those were routine after she succeeded in severing my grandmother’s spinal cord.
Circling around in my life a little knowing there was something out there that I was supposed to be but had no way to know how to get there. My mother helped, even in her grief she could see the writer in me. She said that. She gave me a path. She set me on it. She always told me I could succeed.
There was a moment when I left my first love. When I was drinking beer on the rooftops of Boulder apartment buildings across from the neon signs of the clubs. I was waitressing and drinking too much. Another moment when I got eight stitches in my Irish chin and was putting restraints by the emergency room doctor. A moment when I got into graduate school. Moments when the beauty and poverty of Montana almost broke me. Brokenhearted when I drove 21 hours across the plains with a songbird stuck in the grill of my Subaru. I left it behind and never came back. The moment when I fell in love. A moment when W put his small hand in mine. A moment when Z was conceived. When I looked up on the ultrasound screen and was told that it was the girl of my dreams. When I felt my father’s presence lift from me like the fog suddenly burning off… The sun in my Prairie garden, the clouds moving fast above me. Watching my husband cast from the dock. The moment I crawled into bed with my best friend. Tears were streaming down both of our faces. She wiped the tears from mine. I told her how I had always loved her and that my life had changed the moment she entered it. She would never ever leave my heart or me. That we would meet again. A few days later I was there at her bedside when she died.
July 7 the day after Gerry’s birthday when I’d been so proud of myself for making a strawberry cake with pastry cream. He was having a sword fight with Zoe and I was taking a bath and Willi was at a friends down the street. What we didn’t know is that he had taken his longboard for a ride on a normal suburban street on a beautiful sunny evening. Sometime between 7:39 PM that evening and 745 he fell. Without a helmet. When Gerry burst into the bathroom and told me that Willi was hurt and that he needed to take him to the hospital I immediately just thought he was concussed. I saw Willi on the couch bent over unable to put his shoes on or follow the directions to do so. I saw them walk to the truck.
I waited for a text. When it came he was being transferred to another hospital he was belligerent. Gerry wrote three words which I will never forget: I am scared.
I parked in the wrong part of the hospital. The doors were closed it was after hours I walked along Jackson Street frantically searching for the emergency room doors. One person directed me to the ER and the security guard at intake level to look at me while giving me my ID tag and said don’t worry ma’am they’re going to take good care of him here. I remember a sea of blue scrubs and Willi hooked up to ventilator underneath the lights and I heard someone say “is this Mom?” And I collapsed into Gerry’s arms as he stood there and the whir of the machine breathing for him. And the stillness. Everything was moving around me but it seemed so still. The neurologist came in and asked us to leave and closed the curtain. I kept saying to nurses “I am just his stepmom ” because I felt like I was usurping his mothers place somehow that I didn’t have a right to the grief that I felt that was about to overwhelm me, that I wanted them to know that I was somehow an interloper there and a kind nurse said to me “You are mom enough”. It’s okay she said. You’re his mom too. I tried to get Willi’s mother on the phone. We conferenced her on Skype with the neurologist who was telling us that she had to do a craniectomy. His mother, pulled over to the side of the road on a rural Wisconsin Highway, her daughter in the backseat in the middle of the night with a 4 Hour drive ahead of her. The neurologist was talking about the CT scan and how they weren’t sure it would warrant craniectomy but his responses were so poor she was certain that they had to. I caught a nurse and she was about to swing out of the emergency room doors and I said frantically what can we expect in terms of recovery what can we expect and she looked at me and she said “there are always the miracles” in my mind spun and spun and I thought wait, wait, we need a miracle? We sat there for hours waiting.
After the surgery his mother had miraculously arrived in time for the surgeon just out of the room to tell us. I don’t remember all the words but I do remember what I said “wait a second, wait a second, is she telling us that he may die?” And I said as I had said 10 times before that night “but it was just a stupid little skateboard accident”
And your love poured in. And I met that singing man in the park. And I felt the presence of my best friend beside me in the car. And he woke up. And today we had his first care conference. Three things stand out for me: when I asked the doctors about a traumatic brain injury support group for families he looked at me and very tactfully more or less said that it might not be what I was looking for. That many of these young people who suffer these kind of injuries are nonverbal/very little movement/Communication for the rest of their lives. He said very kindly that I might be asking how to deal with the fact that my son has impulse control or slight cognitive issues when they are looking at a son who will never be able to speak again.
My husband always asks the best questions. He said what of course we really want to know is that it is he going to have a good quality-of-life.
And a mild-mannered doctor with the most beautiful Kentucky drawl, leaned back in his chair and said if you mean graduating from college, getting married, having kids, holding a job, there is nothing about this injury that is going to prevent him from doing that.
And I tried to hold back tears. But today driving home some dumb country song on the radio, Zoe in the backseat I could barely keep it in.
It is a goddamn miracle and I don’t believe in miracles.