Any mother who has more than one child will admit-if she’s honest-that she has one child who worries her more than the others. This has nothing to do with love, but rather some children’s propensity to find trouble-the child most likely to get in a fight at school, or picked up by the police for breaking curfew, or, God forbid, getting into an accident.
When I got the call at work that Tuesday morning at 3 a.m., my first thought was “Alex!” But it was not Alex. Not this time. It was John.
“Susan!” my sister gasped. “They’ve airlifted him to Memorial. I don’t … I don’t know.”
Later, I wouldn’t remember hanging up, wouldn’t remember even leaving work. All I remembered was that drive to the hospital nearly an hour away, praying feverishly for my firstborn to be alive when I got there.
I was the first of the family to arrive. I burst through the ER doors and ran to the front desk. “John Andrews!” I said. “I’m his mother.”
The young nurse looked at her screen, then shot me a sympathetic look. “The surgeons are looking him over right now. I’ll send someone out to talk to you.” She came around the desk, took my arm and guided me to a chair. “I’ll get someone right now.”
I hunched forward in the chair, looking down at the steel poking through the toe of my boots. Since Mark had died, this factory job had sustained us, but led to me being away from my boys at night. What had John been doing out at 3 a.m.? Still, he’d turned nineteen last week. Admittedly, I didn’t police him as hard as I did his sixteen-year-old brother Alex. John was grown. But at that moment, he was not. He was my baby.
“Mrs. Andrews?” a voice said, and I looked up to see a balding man in scrubs. I stood on shaky legs. He introduced himself, but I didn’t register his name.
“John? Is he …” I couldn’t ask. I burst into tears.
“He’s alive,” the doctor said quickly. “For the injuries he’s sustained, he’s doing as well as we could hope for at this point. The EMTs said he was trying to sit up at the scene. He responded to simple commands. He’s lucky.” The doctor pulled out his phone and I saw he was on Facebook. “We were wondering,” the doctor said. “Does John have a profile? We couldn’t tell which John Andrews was him.”
I frowned. How could they not? But I pointed out his picture to the doctor anyway.
“John has extensive facial injuries,” the doctor said. “His head took most of the impact and he wasn’t wearing a helmet. It looks like the ATV flipped and he hit the ground like this, chin first.” He made a motion with his hands, like an arrow falling. “He may have some back injury, but that is not our main concern with this first surgery. We need to get things back in the places they should be in.”
I barely heard him after that. Two of my four siblings arrived at some point. They crowded in beside me. I felt my brother’s arm on my waist, steadying me. The doctor asked if I wanted to go back and see John for a moment before he went into surgery. I nodded and he looked at my sister. “She might need someone to come with her.”
My sister’s arm replaced my brother’s around my waist and we followed the doctor back. At least six people huddled around the bed in one corner of the curtained-off ER. They looked up and backed away when they saw us approach.
I stared at the bed, uncomprehending. I almost said, “This isn’t John.” The poor person on the bed looked like something from a horror movie. A huge, swollen head, flattened nose caked in dried blood. The bottom half of his face… oh God, the bottom half was almost obliterated. His lips bloomed huge and shiny, misshapen and mismatched. The bottom one hung almost to his collar bone. My sister’s fingers dug painfully into my side. “This isn’t John,” I wanted to say, but then I saw his tattoo, the one he’d gotten on his shoulder on his 18th birthday in memory of his father. My knees buckled.
The doctor grabbed me too, and they half-dragged me back out of the room. Someone jerked the curtain closed behind us and I wanted to stop them, wanted to speak. I hadn’t even spoken to him! But I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t breathe.
We stopped at a desk, near a computer screen. The doctor flipped it around to face me. It looked like a weatherman’s radar imaging, except it was in the shape of a skull. It was lit in brilliant oranges, reds and yellows. He handed me a paper cup filled with water and urged me to drink while he explained what we were looking at.
“John has a lot of facial trauma,” the doctor said. “He has breaks in his forehead, his cheekbones, his nose, both jaws, the roof of his mouth.”
You can break the roof of your mouth? I thought numbly.
“This first surgery is to repair his jaw, and to set his palate. It’ll all be wired shut. I don’t know if we will try to tackle anything above the jaw today. That might be tomorrow, because this is a pretty involved surgery. I’d say we’re looking at at least six hours.” The doctor patted my arm. “The emergency workers said he was conscious at the scene. He responded to simple commands. He’s strong, Mrs. Andrews. We just have to pray at this point that we are able to control the swelling.”
My sister asked questions, but I barely heard any of them. The white noise that began in the room with John was now a steady roar. Bile rose in my throat and I clamped my hand over my mouth. The next thing I knew, I was in a restroom, retching, while my sister held my hair back.
In the waiting room, my brother David arrived with Alex. I grabbed Alex and hugged him tight. “He’s so hurt,” I whispered. “He’s so, so hurt.”
The surgery took nearly seven hours, but the doctor was smiling the next time we saw him. “He did well. We’re pleased to be where we’re at right now. He’s a very lucky boy. We didn’t get a chance to work on his cheekbones today, or his forehead. Let’s wait a day or two on that, see how the swelling goes. Right now, it looks like he only has a small brain bleed and I think his body will absorb that. We just need the swelling to not get worse. He’s been moved up to Trauma on the fourth floor. Visiting hours are over for today, but I’ll tell them to let Mom and one person in to see him for a few minutes.”
“I’m going in with Mom,” Alex said.
“He looks rough,” my sister said. “Are you sure you want to see him yet?”
“I’m going in with her,” Alex repeated.
On the fourth floor, I had to pick up a phone that hung outside the automatic doors to announce we were there. A nurse buzzed us in. She instructed us to use the hand sanitizer on the wall, then she led us to room seven.
“Lucky seven,” she said, with a determinedly cheerful smile.
Alex slipped his hand in mine just before the nurse drew back the curtain. I gasped, and Alex’s fingers tightened around mine, but he misunderstood. It was a relieved gasp. Even though John still looked terrible, still unrecognizable, he was so much better than he’d been in that emergency room. His face was back into a shape that was human, hopeful. Swathed in bandages, but at least no longer mangled and hanging. Beeping, whirring machinery surrounded him. He had a trachea tube in his throat.
“My God,” Alex choked out, and I realized what he was seeing. He did not know how good this was.
“This is so much better,” I whispered, and moved to take John’s slack, cool hand in mine. I would not forget to speak to him this time. “Hey, baby,” I said. “Alex and I are here. The doctor said you did so good. It’s going to be okay. We love you. You’re going to get better.”
And, over the next couple of weeks, that seemed to be what was happening. John remained unconscious, but the nurses assured us that was mostly medically induced. He had three more surgeries, the worst being when they peeled back his face to put plates in his forehead and rebuild his cheekbones. But the stitches were so small and fine and I wondered if they would even scar very much. He was so lucky.
Then one day, while Alex and I were visiting, I saw a slit of blue eye through his swollen, purple eyelids. The nurse paused as she changed his IV and said, Well, look who’s awake. John,” she said loudly. “Do you know who these people are?”
He nodded yes.
I clutched one hand, Alex the other. That one blue eye tracked my face.
“Hey, baby,” I said, and he squeezed my fingers. “Do you know where you are?”
He shook his head no.
“You’re in the hospital. You wrecked your ATV. You’re going to be okay, though. I’m so happy you’re awake.”
Alex walked around the bedside, and I asked, “Do you know this guy?”
John nodded and pulled his hand from mine. He made a fist and Alex did too. They gave each other a fistbump, their standard greeting. Alex and I both started to cry. It felt like a streak of sunlight in the darkness, the end of a terrible journey. We did not realize it was just the beginning.
Along with John’s consciousness, a new problem emerged. He developed some sort of mania about all the tubes he was connected to. Relentlessly, he tried to pull out his IV, feeding tube, trach. But mostly, he tried to unwire his jaw. He could reach inside his mouth just enough to wiggle the strands of metal. More than once, I found long silver wires in his bed where he’d succeeded in extracting one. The nurses didn’t seem as worried about that as they did when he tried to pull on the feeding tube in his stomach. They put restraints on him when he tried to do that, and he became measurably more agitated.
The nurse would ask him questions every day, but now, they made him write on a whiteboard. He’d write his name, his birthday, the year. One day, she asked if he knew where he was. He wrote “Dentist.” That tore at me. In his mind, he was at the dentist visit from hell. They said it was normal for him to be so confused, that his brain had taken quite a jarring. Hopefully, that would subside in time.
Soon, he was moved out of Trauma to a regular room, where I could stay with him 24/7. I was grateful for this, but his constant fidgeting and pulling made me a nervous wreck. I refused to leave him though. He needed his mother. Thankfully, my work was very kind about this, even when days stretched into weeks.
He hated his jaws being wired. When they put a cap over the tube in his throat, he could talk with surprising clarity, though he seemed to forget he could. Mostly, he would beg for water or Mountain Dew.
He was not allowed to drink anything, and it broke my heart for him to beg me for water, or for me to take him home. Finally, one nurse gave me a cup with about an inch of water in the bottom of it and a small quarter-sized sponge on a stick. I was allowed to dip the sponge in the water and stick it in John’s mouth. His jaws were completely wired shut, but he could still suck greedily on it. It was never enough. I swore to him that as soon as he was allowed, I’d buy him all the Mountain Dew he could drink.
I wasn’t prepared for the mood swings, the anger. That wasn’t anything like John. In his entire existence, I could only remember arguing with him three times, unlike the shouting matches Alex and I sometimes had. It was almost funny, but then not, one day when I was fussing with him to stop pulling at tubes and he was telling me to shut up with his hands. There was the opening and closing of fingers to thumb, like a mouth clamping shut, the wagging of a finger in my face, then the finger to the lips, like ‘shhhhh!’
“I’ve never been told to shut up in so many ways without a single word,” I told my brother that evening.
He’d also cracked three vertebrae in his back and two in his neck. He wore a neck brace all the time and had to have a chest one whenever he was allowed to sit or stand. He developed a new obsession with getting out of bed when I was sleeping and he wasn’t allowed to do that, especially without the brace. The nurses warned him that he could still paralyze himself with one wrong move, but he was relentless. I felt like I hadn’t slept in weeks. They put alarms on his bed that would go off every time he tried to get up, which meant all night long. The most freedom he had was being able to walk to the restroom, in all those braces. He’d also cheat on the water ban. After washing his hands, he’d fill them with water from the sink and lap it like a dog. I stopped fighting him on that one. The physical therapists all said he was doing well and that he was strong. I began to worry more about his mind than his body.
One night, he motioned for his whiteboard and wrote, “Did I die? Is this hell?”
That shocked me, and I wondered what was going on in his mind. After nearly four weeks, he seemed almost normal sometimes. I’d get to a place where I thought the fingers of his concussion were losing their grip, then he’d say something off-the-wall and throw me for another loop. He asked for his father. He asked for the best friend who’d moved away when he was in fourth grade. Then, they arrived.
“Make them get out!” he wrote. “Make them leave.”
“Who? The nurses?” I asked in confusion.
We were completely alone in his room.
He paused, his frustration etched on the face that was slowly regaining its features. Then he threw the pen across the room. “The Mick Jaggers!” he hissed through his wired jaws.
I laughed. It was so unexpected, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know John even knew who that was. He got mad and threw the board across the room. It hit the door with a whack.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did you say the Mick Jaggers?”
He nodded fiercely. Emphatically.
Whoever the Mick Jaggers were, they tormented him day and night One day, I showed him pictures of both a young and an old Mick Jagger and he said, “Who’s that?”
I replied, “That’s Mick Jagger.”
John rolled his eyes and said, “That is not a Mick Jagger.”
Physically, his improvement was remarkable, but mentally… The doctors reassured me that it might take a while for his brain to recover. He might always have a few “quirks.” But they didn’t understand. He seemed so fundamentally different. He seemed so sad, pensive, choosing not to talk but to stare off into space. I thought that might improve when he finally got to go home, but it didn’t.
Friends came to visit, but he didn’t interact much with them. The beautiful girl he’d dated since his senior year tried to visit a few times, but then one day she left in tears. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Andrews,” she sobbed. “It doesn’t feel like him.”
I wanted to be angry at her for her abandonment, but how could I be when I felt the same thing? The boy in that room looked like my son more and more every day, but he didn’t act anything like him. Every once in a while, especially when he was with Alex, I saw a ghost of the boy he’d been and wondered if the John we knew was still in there, fighting his way back through all the Mick Jaggers.
I ran into a neighbor one day at the grocery store. My sister and Alex stayed home with John so I could do a few errands. The neighbor, Brenna, asked about him, and I gave her stock reply that he was doing great, considering. Happy to be home.
Brenna gave me a sad smile. “He was so lucky,” she said.
Brenna’s son, Matthew, hadn’t been lucky. He’d wrapped his car around a telephone pole on graduation night three years ago and died instantly.
That night, John went off on one of his rages about the Mick Jaggers. He smashed all his baseball pictures, threw his trophies against the wall while he screamed and cursed. Alex quietly went to his room and shut the door behind him. He did that more and more lately, and I knew he needed my attention as well, but I felt stretched so thin. Neither of us knew how to cope with the angry, sad stranger we’d brought home from the hospital.
Is this hell? John had asked, and I wasn’t sure.
Then I felt guilty for thinking that. It was all going to be okay, I told myself. He was in there somewhere. He’d be back.
After all, he was the lucky one.
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