I am dozing in the bland, pretend recliner in BoyChild’s ICU room when J and my parents enter. They take their places around his bed, murmuring words of love and encouragement. BoyChild might appear rude in his lack of response but the tubes running in and out of him provide an excuse. Before this accident, he was rarely still so the blanket silence covering him seems abnormal.
GirlChild comes in a few minutes later with her dad. They also take up station around BoyChild’s bed. The five people gathered around his bed acknowledge one another but only GirlChild and J really connect. Their bodies lean in towards one another, touching, supporting. I remain seated in part because I am exhausted and in part because the small room does not lend itself to 6 people hovering around the bed.
The Friendly Nurse comes in. Although we have only been here 4 days, she has proven to be the most efficient and most friendly. Tonight, she meets my parents, acknowledges the rest of us, and then sets about her duties. As she checks the tubes and machinery leading into and out of BoyChild, she educates us about the function of each tube. She is matter-of-fact but not impersonal. She makes eye contact as she explains and invites questions. Finished with her medical tour of BoyChild, she removes her latex gloves with a snap and stands at the door.
“If I were a family member, I would want to know the truth and so I tell families the truth. When EMS got to BoyChild, he was unconscious and in our view, that is a bad thing because we cannot measure certain things that help us predict recovery. One eye did not dilate at all when presented with light and the other eye barely dilated. He was immediately intubated so we do not know if he can breathe on his own.”
I listen to her as I scan the others in the room. J has her frowny look on as she diligently takes in the information. My parents look like proverbial deer in headlights, standing still in shock and fear. His dad continues to mess with BoyChild in small ways, brushing his hair off of his forehead, adjusting the tubing running from his mouth. It is GirlChild that jerks me into the enormity of the present. Her eyes are wide, her face pale. As the nurse talks, GirlChild inches her way around from the head of the bed where she had stationed herself initially. She seems to be creeping around the bed in slow motion.
“He had a hematoma at the base of his skull, the place where the brain stem is. The brain stem controls all involuntary behaviors such as breathing and swallowing. One concern in traumatic brain injury is that the swelling of the brain will in fact push the brain into the brain stem.” She pauses, “if that happens, death will occur.”
I am sitting but I feel as though I am falling. I feel a rush of breath leave me involuntarily as though a weight has been shoved onto me.
“We don’t know if this will happen. But if it was me, I would want to know.” She turns to leave the room, pausing to pump anti-bacterial lotion onto her hand. “Call me if you need anything,” she says as she leaves the room.
When I was eight, I developed a chronic cough. Sitting in an examining room with the doctor and my mother, he stated, “It will probably go away eventually but our current option is to put her in a room filled with water”. My anxiety mushroomed as I imagined myself trying to breathe in a room of water, wondering if they left a little room at the top, wondering if I would have to use a straw to suck air from the space between the ceiling and the water. Not breathing would surely make me stop coughing but I began to cry at the thought of enduring such a treatment...
I feel that way now. No one moves. No one except GirlChild. She is making crab-like movements around the bed until she is standing next to my chair. I lift my arm and put it around her waist. In one fluid movement she goes from standing next to me to being in my lap. Once secured there she pushes her face into my shoulder and then begins to cry.
Her tears begin slowly, a sniffle, a hiccup and then she is sobbing. She wails with the grief of the room. She grieves her brother, keening and wailing her mourning to the world. She and I clutch one another and I take her in as though she has returned to my womb. I hold her with my soul. I believe she is crying for all of us, that her youth knows not the need for denial, for pretense, for hopes that may be false.
I had called her counselor and her favorite teacher at school, telling them of the accident and asking them to look out for her. She came to the hospital that day in a fury because she felt her privacy, her right to deal with this in her own way had been compromised. “This is my life!” she insisted. But now, she has been hit with the brutal truth that families are connected in primal ways. Threaded together, we are dependent on one another for survival. GirlChild now sees that survival threatened and the crush of reality washes over her.
I feel her hot tears. Her sobs are slowing, losing their steam, but she remains pressed into me. I do what any mother would, I hold her and I rock back and forth in a bland, pretend recliner.
This is a continuation of BoyChild's story and his recovery from TBI.