11:24--call from a woman, Hi this is Lauren from the SA Hospital. I’m calling about Austin ----.
what the fuck? Fears explode, a hospital, a call, another social worker. What’s happened? I stop breathing.
Her voice is just short of perky. “Your son was brought in by EMS this morning. Oh, wait, you are his mom, did you say that?” Her lack of awareness notwithstanding, she cannot know that this call has triggered a PTSD reaction in me. I go numb, protective, into the shell of a person moving as though she is real.
“But, what happened? Is he okay?”
“Oh sure, he’s sleeping. We gave him some fluids. But if you can come in, we’ll talk about what should happen next.”
I slowly walk to the back of the house. “Austin is in the ER at SAH. He’s okay. I think they picked him up because he was drunk,” I say woodenly. I can’t answer any of my partner’s questions because I don’t know any of the answers.
The doors to the ER make a silent whooshing sound. There are hardly any people in here, one woman coughing up lungs. One man limping around in a circle.
Almost two years ago to the day, I went running into the ER at another hospital. That ER is always full, it takes indigents and there are always homeless people milling about. Their many bags and dirty clothes, the blank, defeated looks in their eyes give them away. This ER is also where the mentally ill are dumped for 72 hour assessments but there are never enough beds and so they wander away. Many times they wander outside of the ER doors to look for a cigarette.
And so, I find myself trying to avoid an actively hallucinating man shaking his fists yelling at whatever nightmare he is seeing. In the background, the trauma helicopter lands and the thump thump thump of the blades blends seamlessly into the cacophony of this man’s nightmare. “You shit ass!” Thump. “--care! And you just--” Thump. My nightmare too. Thump.
I run past my son’s friends and into the waiting area, desperate, anxious, scared. My face is hot but I am cold. His father turns around from the desk and I know that this is Bad. This is not a broken bone. This is an invitation from Death.
The doors whoosh close. In these 5 seconds, I have been thrown back into trauma.
We walk down the hall where the examination rooms are lined and numbered. We walk in to the room number we’d been given and there is an Asian family there. I feel weak, are there people praying over him? Oh god no oh n--
”Come on, he’s over here.” My partner pulls me away by the elbow and points. “There.”
Austin is laying on his side. He sits up as we enter and says, “Hey, I’m really tired.” His words liberate my anger. Invectives not as bad as I want them to be unfurl. Any restraint I have is hiding from me.
“What were you thinking? Oh you weren’t, were you? What were you, oh my god! I can’t, you are--” I stop myself.
“Mom! Stop making this a big deal. Nothing happened!”
Nothing happened? Did he just say this? EMS picked him up after a report of someone sleeping next to an intersection was called in. He was incoherent and reeked of alcohol. They checked him in to the ER, inserted an IV and left him to sleep. The social worker called me 6 hours later. And, now, this defiant child-man is telling me I am only pointing out the negative; that I should be happy that he had a good time and nothing happened.
A nurse shuffles in and makes hearty noises about my son’s clothes which apparently are missing. No, not all of his clothes, just his pants.
“Can you tell me what his Blood Alcohol Content was?”
“Yep.” He stands there grinning. My anger pushes me to say, so you think being obese and lazy make you a good choice for being an ER nurse? You think that fake smile helps me to look past your unkemptness? but I don’t. I simply ask pointedly if he would get the lab results for me.
There is a dry erase board with the date and names of the tech and the nurse on duty. The date is yesterday’s. I pull off the cap and mark today’s date thinking how a person who is already confused might be tipped into hysteria with this groundhog day set-up. I sit back down.
Silence thickens the room. Austin hops out of bed and writes client: and fills in his nickname. He then walks over to his backpack, pulls out a camera and takes a picture of the board.
“Oh, that’s great! That will be a big hit at your next party. You can tell them all about getting so drunk you got taken to the hospital!” I hiss.
“Mom, you’re just being sarcastic. Do you think that is helping this situation?” he says as he places the camera into his backpack. He changes the TV station to something loud and annoying. Across the room, my partner’s eyes narrow.
Lazy Nurse shuffles back in with papers in his hand. “Here. Not so bad. .186, not even .200.”
Not. So. Bad? I seethe. “Thanks, but I think being twice over the legal limit is BAD for a 17 year old. Don’t you think? Especially one who has had a traumatic brain injury? Would you call that bad?”
He mumbles and backs away from my forked tongue as the social worker comes in. I mention rehab treatment and Austin practically bellows. He and I have words, none of which I remember. I break down crying.
“I don’t even feel sorry for you crying. I didn’t ASK you to cry, did I? Or TELL you to cry, did I?” he scoffs.
“Shut up!” I yell. I sit down again, stare off into space. My mind is trying to get me out of the room, it is trying to protect me by throwing pieces of movies at me like so much flotsam and jetsam. I wish desperately that I could take the bait and disappear into the ether while leaving just enough of me present to act and but not enough to feel. We get into a shouting match about how his using and drinking negates his anti-depressant.
The social worker does not know what to do and stands there helplessly. A part of me wants to yell at her ineptness, do something! This is your fucking job! My son walks over to her with his best shit-eating grin on his face. “I’m sorry, this is all family stuff. They think they should control me and all they do is point out how I do stuff wrong. You know how it is.” He shrugs and I’ll be goddamned if he doesn’t put his hand on her shoulder briefly.
“It seems they care about you. I’m hearing a lot of concern.”
“Yeah, but really what they want is to make this seem like all it is is one big problem.”
“Hey, Austin, why don’t you tell her about how you almost died because of alcohol two years ago?” I spit out my words.
“See?” He says to the social worker. “I’m alive, nothing’s wrong and she just wants to dig up the past. She is probably going to tell me once we walk out these doors that I can’t go home with her.”
“Here!” I throw two crumpled dollar bills at him. “Go. Go, just go.” I sit down sobbing.
“Uh, I’m, um, I’m sorry but I have to release him to someone.” The social worker’s face scrunches with discomfort.
“And if I say no, what happens?” I challenge.
Silence falls into the room. Time stops for a split second. I wonder if he will go into foster care. Who would take him? Do 17 year olds even get sent to foster homes? Why the fuck was he not ticketed for public intoxication?
The silence chokes me.
“Let’s go. I’ll take him. Thank you for your time.” My emotions fall away like mercury. I have left the room mentally. I stand up and ask her where the Discharge Desk is. She points and I walk away as she tries to follow me. My presence is minimal; I can’t waste it on pleasantries. I. Have. To.Walk.Away.
Once in the car, he asks if he can come home with us to take a shower and get clean clothes. I demand his phone as hostage and he readily hands it over. Headed down the highway, Austin begins telling us about how great the party was. He brags on how he was lauded for his rapping skills. He says he remembered to take his anti-depressant and wasn’t that a good thing? He says he wants us all to love one another as we are and just be accepting.
I want to throw his ass onto the highway.
At home he spends a full ten minutes loving on his dog. “Ohh, I’ve missed you so much!” She wiggles with delight. I bite my lip to not cry again. He whistles as he gets out clean clothes, raids the fridge, makes hot chocolate. Meanwhile, I feel I am in the Twilight Zone. In his mind all is normal now; he has moved on. I have not.
I fight falling into my gulf of grief. I feel the allure of letting go, giving in. My gulf is deep and wide and perhaps I can swim while drowning. This gulf contains my grief for the child I lost to brain injury wherein he lived but his personality changed. Yet I see glimpses and pieces and when I do, I feel a surge of relief that threatens to bring me to my knees. But this glimpse is always fleeting and unconnected to how he is the rest of the time. It’s almost as if the dog is his (and thus, our) only connection to who he was. He frequently mentions how devastated he will be when she dies. I fight my desire to vomit when he mentions this.
Ninety minutes after his return home, I drop him off at the bus stop. He is happy. No hangover thanks to the IV infusion. No consequences. He is invincible. I am not.