Christmas is really about remembering others. For over 10 years I have volunteered at Holland Bloorview Kid’s Rehab hospital. I run a support group for people who have a member of their family with a brain injury. I volunteer to give back. My sister has a brain injury from a car crash. When she was in the hospital the staff there saved her life. The following is a short story I wrote about the day I found out she was going to live.
“Normally we only let two family members in at a time”, the nurse says with quiet efficiency, “but today, if you’d like, all three of you can come in”. I wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing. According to the sign in the waiting room, only two family members at a time are allowed in the ICU. As we left I felt a little superior to the other families waiting. Like I was back in elementary school and the teacher had just said everybody in pairs but the class was an odd number so I got to be in a group of three because I was so well behaved. As my parents and I approached my sister’s bed I soon realized that our grouping was a consolation prize. Something meant to console us. My sister was in such bad shape that the rules didn’t apply to us. Death breaks the rules, so we can too.
The doctors said the crash was bad. Lungs and liver damaged. Spleen removed. Brain damaged. They called it a closed head injury so I assumed the tube running from her head was draining fluid. It had nowhere to go as the brain swelled. I looked at my sister and tried to figure out if a closed head injury was better than an open one. Maybe I was still hoping for something to feel superior about or maybe I needed to believe I could control this situation. Once I knew where things stood I could do something to make it better. I think I learned that from my mother.
Actually looking at her this time was surprisingly easy. She appeared comfortable. The bandage around her head was neatly wrapped and the mass of machines that kept her alive seemed to function properly. Bells and peeps constantly sounded. I began to study the ventilator. The information on the display changed every few seconds telling me whether her last breath was taken on her own or made for her by the machine. Then I noticed the tube leading to her mouth. It was filled with fluid again. The alarm sounded. Like the kind you hear at McDonalds when the fries are ready. That’s where she worked years ago. She met her husband there too. He was the manager and she was the fry girl. Last year, for their 10th anniversary, they went to McDonalds. Not the one where they met. That one’s long gone. Like most things in the small town where I grew up. There’s not much that I recognize when I go home now. “Move aside please” the nurse says, this time her patience a little forced as she drains the fluid out of my sisters breathing tube.
“How is Susan doing today” my mother asks hopefully.
“Oh well she didn’t have a very good night” the nurse replies with newfound compassion. A look of failure floods my mother’s face. She took responsibility for the accident immediately after the 2 AM phone call last week.
“I should never have let her grow up so independent” she told me one day in the car on the way to the hospital. “I pushed and pushed. I made her finish university. I talked her into buying a house. I even gave her the car she was driving when she had the accident. That old K car without the air bag”. I looked at my mother in amazement. In just a few short sentences she managed to make herself responsible for the failed safety standards at Chrysler. “She never had an air bag” she tells the nurse, worried that she might finish her shift without knowing who’s to blame. The nurse smiles and changes my sister’s IV bag. The IV pole holds another key to Susan’s recovery. A small photo of her that one of the nurses told my mother to bring in. Apparently it helps the nurses see her as more human.
“She wore size 8 jeans when that photo was taken”, my mother proudly announces to the nurse. In the photo my sister is thin. My mother gives her full marks for that. Weight is a constant battle between mom and sis. “You should get more exercise” is usually how the fights open.
“I do get exercise” my sister would yell back. Then things would escalate until one of them left the room crying. Today it’s my mother who’s crying. But she quickly recovers and smiles back at me.
“Only positive thoughts honey” she says and turns to Susan whispering, “We love you very much and you’re doing really well”. Another lesson mom learned. A nurse told her that you shouldn’t assume your daughter can’t hear, especially when she starts to come out of the coma. My mother unties Susan’s arm and gently strokes it. Yesterday we were told about the restraints.
“It very common to restrain a patient once they start to surface from a coma” the doctor said during our family meeting.” It keeps them from pulling out their IV’s”. While not the most pleasant thing to witness we took the news as positive. But then we were told about Susan’s lungs. “They’ve started to fail” the doctor reported. “The condition is usually fatal”. My sister’s husband cried for a while then wiping away his tears announced that he wasn’t going attend anymore family meetings. He refused to give up. My mother refused too. In some strange way I think the accident validated all those years of worrying. She was right to worry so she’s right to believe that her daughter is going live. My father just sat there quietly saying how proud he was of me. It seemed strange at the time but that’s all he could say. Over and over again. I guess when faced with the loss of one of his children he realized how little time he had to tell the other one how he felt. He’s a man of few words. He unties Susan’s other hand and puts a golf ball in it. Another tip from the nurses. Give them familiar objects to hold.
Golf had become a recent passion of Susan’s. Perhaps she got tired of fighting with my mother about exercise. For the last few years she spent every summer on the driving range. I think golf also renewed her relationship with Dad. It gave them something to do together. Whenever she went home for a visit the two of them would get up at 6 AM to go hit a buck of balls. Susan was his first child, and the only girl, so it was “father daughter” day all over again.
“She’s quite a fighter, Mr. O’Keefe”, the doctor says to my father as he enters the room.
“Oh we know that” my mother interrupts.
“I wonder if we can talk about her condition” he asks.
“Perhaps we should step out into the hall” my mother says walking towards the door.
“Oh I think this is something you’re going to want your daughter to hear Mrs. O’Keefe” the doctor said smiling. “A piece of tissue was caught in the tube inside her lungs. She coughed it up last night. It was rough going after that, but since then things have started to take a real turn for the better. Congratulations”
My mother cried again. This time she didn’t mind if my sister overheard. My father held Susan’s hand and told her how proud he was of her. And me, I just sat there feeling superior.