Friday, 2 p.m.
“His spinal cord’s severed,” the voice on the phone says. “They helicoptered him to Emergency in Birmingham.”
My legs crumple, and I land on my butt. I’m in Panera Bread, behind the order counter, on their phone. Moments ago, I joined my writing group for our weekly meeting, and Jamie handed me a phone number. The hospital called the restaurant, seeking me. Gary’s been in a car accident, Jamie said. She and the two other members of my group sit in a booth ten feet away, oblivious to the words I’m hearing.
Gary, my husband of twenty-five years.
Still on the floor, I turn my back to the restaurant patrons and hunch into a ball, clutch the phone tight in my fist. “Is he going to die?”
My writing group suddenly appears around me in a huddle. I tighten my body, clamp down on my throat. I’m trying to hold in my sobs. I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself. But my body wants to wail.
“Gary’s not in any danger of dying,” the man says. Is he a doctor? He says something about the level of injury, about paralysis.
Oh, God. “He’ll never walk again?”
“He won’t,” the man says.
Not play his beloved golf. Not pace to and fro beside his desk while he thinks about mathematics. Not stand hugging me, my cheek nuzzled into his chest, my head tucked under the curve of his neck.
A hot fear slices through me. “His brain. Is it damaged?”
I snatch the “no” from the air, clutch it to my middle and curl myself around it, a precious nugget in all this thick, black, tangled horribleness. He’s still my Gary, his Gary. That’s the important thing.
“He told us where to phone you,” the man says. “He’s worried you shouldn’t drive to Birmingham because of your back problems.”
I laugh, a brittle, jagged sound, immediately embarrassed by what my writing group must think. But I’d laughed at the bizarreness, and in affection: he’s lying there with his spine snapped in two, and he’s worried about my back.
“As if that’d stop me,” I tell the man.
He says to pack for the weekend, which is nuts. Where’s he think I’m going after the weekend? Gary surely won’t be discharged. Maybe he thinks I have an outside job. I don’t—eleven years ago, chronic fatigue syndrome forced me to take disability retirement from my math professorship.
The worry flits into my mind that Gary too might be forced to retire from his math professorship, but it flits right out, inconsequential. Despite the man’s reassurances, I’m terrified Gary might die.
“Do you have someone to drive you?” the man says. “You shouldn’t yourself.”
“I’m okay.” I’ve never been less okay.
He insists I shouldn’t, so through choked sobs I ask my group if someone can take me. Surprise and gratitude surge in me: Eve, by far the youngest of us, a college junior, pipes up and says she will. We leave my car in the parking lot and drive to my house, where I race around and throw supplies into boxes; Eve hauls the boxes out and loads them into her trunk. CFS, chronic fatigue syndrome, has made me high-maintenance, my guts intolerant to all but a few foods, so I must bring my 10-pound bag of Basmati rice, grocery bag of zucchini, rice cooker, vegetable steamer. CFS has also made me overly sensitive to cool temperatures, so I must bring my electric bed warmer. And I need my own pillows. And I must bring my laptop and the manuscript I’m working on because God knows how much the hospital will let me see Gary and I’ll go crazy just sitting around worrying and—
Oh, the cats!
I run around to several neighbors until I find Sylvia at home, and I tell her Gary’s been in a serious accident and would she please feed Blackjack and Tigger, and here’s the house key, and their food’s in the cupboard, and I hate to burden you maybe you can get other neighbors to take turns I don’t know when I’ll be back goodbye thank you.
Eve and I are off, and I’m soon regretting having Eve take me. How am I going to get around without a car? But Eve insists I shouldn’t drive, and I don’t really want to turn back. Oh, why didn’t I just jump in the car and go? What if I never see Gary again because I just had to pack every last thing? I want to yell at Eve to drive faster. Time has slowed, and the mile markers move past us like tombstones marching in a cemetery. I try to relax. But my muscles and nerves strain and push against each other, as if to physically shove my body’s molecules forward in time and space.
I curl up in a ball against the passenger door. I try to meditate. Then I simply try not to think. I keep bursting into tears. Not too loudly, I hope. I’m scared the stress is going to knock me into a CFS relapse, and then what good will I be to Gary?
I’m fifty years old, and I’m not grown up enough for this.
Finally, finally, two hours later we scurry into the Birmingham Hospital Emergency Room and through a metal-detecting security door. While a guard pokes through my book bag, I give Gary’s name at the check-in desk. The man scans his list and exclaims, “His first visitor! He’s been here a while.” Anger and guilt slice through me, but I say nothing. He tells me Gary is having an MRI and to wait here. A little later, a doctor shows up and tells me that he’s taking Gary in for surgery and that it’s good it hasn’t been all that long. I want to shake him by the lapels. Not long? What’ve you been doing all this damn time? I’m told it’ll be hours before I can see Gary. Eve suggests I check into a hotel. I stare at her, having no idea how to go about finding one. Besides, I don’t want to move from this spot, in case…
A Marriot sits across the street. Eve hauls my stuff to my room. She says she must go. I want to beg her to stay. I don’t want to wait alone. Normally I don’t need much company—Gary’s pretty much enough—but now I’ve never felt so alone.
I tell Eve I’m grateful for her help, and after hugging me, she leaves.
I go to the hospital waiting room. I’ve read somewhere that writing can help you through a crisis, so I park myself in a chair, pull out a notebook, stare around me, write what I see. Two dark green couches in the corner. A magazine rack. Love seats, and single chairs, and weird chairs with sling backs: the lumpy, the hard, and the ergonomically unsound. Landscape pictures on the wall. The walls are beige. Maybe there’s a more accurate word for their color, but who cares. The lighting’s florescent, the ceiling tiled. A silent TV hangs high in one corner. A group of four people look like they’re camping out—they’ve brought blankets and are surrounded by shopping bags full of God-knows-what. Also in the room, in their own little knots, are a white couple, a white man, and a black family—three women, a man, a little boy.
I’ve sat myself as far away as possible from all of them. Hearing even a single word of someone else’s tragedy might shatter my fragile control, like a resonant pitch shattering glass.
My stomach hurts.
No desire to write more, I put away my pen and paper. I get up and read notices tacked on a wall. Many announce the meetings of religious support groups for families of patients. One is a Saint Jude prayer card. Saint Jude, patron saint of desperate causes. Saint Jude, helper of the hopeless, my path is strewn with thorns. Bring visible help where help is almost—
I stop reading. If Saint Jude had wanted to help, he should’ve prevented the car accident—not offered, if you prayed to him, to possibly show up afterwards. And for what? Gary won’t walk again. Bitterness churns through my guts. All the rotten people in the world that God could’ve chosen to do this to, and he chose the best.
* * * * *
Hours pass. My name is called. A woman leads me to a private office in Neurosurgery. I perch on the edge of a leather chair. A man and a woman wearing business suits enter. The man introduces himself and his companion, but it flies out of my head who the woman is. The man performed Gary’s surgery.
I try to concentrate, to fix his words in my mind: Gary suffered a severe spinal injury, broken ribs, bruised lungs, broken pelvis, and a broken right index finger. During surgery—a “spinal decompression”—they found a hematoma choking the spinal cord. They went in to relieve the pressure. They discovered the spinal injury was worse than they’d initially hoped: the spinal cord was destroyed at the T4 level, about nipple height. Below that level, Gary has permanently lost all feeling and mobility.
The doctor falls silent and watches me. The woman too fastens hawk-eyes on me. Worried I’m going to leap up and scream?
“He’ll never walk again,” I say, still trying to grasp that reality. The doctor nods. “But his brain’s all right,” I say. The doctor nods again. “That’s the important thing,” I say. “We can handle this if his brain’s all right.”
Again, silence. Do they expect me to ask questions? I can’t think of any. All I’m thinking is, I already knew the essential facts, so why are they eying me with pinched, sympathetic smiles as if waiting for me to fall apart? Am I supposed to fall apart now?
I feel like someone is flaying off the outer layer of my skin one small swath at a time.
The doctor stands, the woman stands, I stand. “Can I see him?” I ask.
“Soon,” the doctor says. “They’re settling him into the Neurosurgery ICU.”
He shakes my hand and leaves, and the woman directs me to the ICU. There, a woman at the desk tells me they’ll let me know when I can go to Gary’s room, that it’ll probably be another half hour or so. God, another half hour alone with my worries.
Only now does it occur to me that I don’t have to be alone. Call Mom? No, it’s 11 p.m. Central Time, and she’s on Eastern, and she’s eighty-six. I call my older sister, who’s on Mountain Time.
“Gary’s been in a terrible car accident,” I say to Janet, and burst into tears. I don’t want to disturb the other people on the floor, don’t want to display my fears, but more than any other time this day—because she’s family?—I’m racked with sobs and can barely speak. I get across the basics—spinal cord severed, will never walk again. Whatever she replies goes right out of my head, only that she’ll call the rest of the family tomorrow and to keep her updated. I hang up and call Gary’s sister, Norma, feeling his side of the family should know, too, as soon as possible. I’m certain I can give the news more calmly, now that I’ve gotten things out of my system with Janet. But I lose it again.
Shortly after the calls, I’m told I can see Gary.
I rush down the hall, toward a single-occupancy room. Before I’m allowed in, I’m made to put on latex gloves and gossamer-thin, jaundice-yellow hospital gown and cap. I enter the room.
White, white walls. A slit of window. Chill air, like dry ice vaporizing. A huge cast running down Gary’s right arm from elbow to fingertips. A throng of machines standing sentinel around his bedside. Multitudinous tubing and wires snaking out from under his bed sheet and trailing through the air or along the floor to machines and fluid bags.
I close in, but stop, startled. A tube has been inserted into his mouth; another one goes up his nose. God, he can’t speak. All these last hours I’ve been longing to hear his voice, to gain from it the relief that he’s still him, to cling to that anchor, to receive a sign his accident isn’t an utter catastrophe, to know I truly haven’t lost him.
Flat in the bed, he doesn’t see me. I pick my way through the tubes and wires. My path is strewn with thorns.
“Hi, Pookie,” I say. And then, an inane, “What a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself in.”
He rolls his eyes, no hint of humor on his face, the mouth-tube preventing a frown, grimace, whatever. Shame flares up and burns my cheeks. Does he think I’m making light of the situation? I don’t know why I said that. To relieve my anxiety? I’ve only increased it.
“I love you,” I say. “Sorry I didn’t get here sooner.” Sorry I wasn’t riding in his ambulance, flying in his helicopter, standing beside his gurney holding his hand as he waited for surgery. Sorry he didn’t have that absolute assurance I was in this with him all the way.
He’s in the middle of a wide hospital bed, and the machines crowding him prevent me from standing any closer to his head than his waist level, so I strain to reach to stroke his cheek and forehead. Like a cat, he likes his head petted. He’s liked to be stroked that way ever since he was a little boy and he would lie in his mom’s lap and she would “pet” him. I wish I could take off the latex gloves, so he can feel my touch. I wish I could kiss him, but I can’t stretch my upper body far enough to get my face to his. What I wish most, most of all, is that I could crawl into the bed with him, and hold him, and have him hold me.
I stroke his forehead and up into his curly brown hair. The skin under his eyes is purplish, bruised. From the accident? He doesn’t look nearly as banged up as I’d feared. I’d figured that an accident that broke his spine would’ve bashed up his face and left more than one limb in a cast.
He gazes off into the distance. Or inward. He seems alert and aware, whereas I’d thought he might be out of it, with drooping, fluttering eyelids, drugged to the gills or dazed from the accident. But his expression, masked by that mouth tube, seems flat.
Oh, God, what’s he thinking? What’s bottled up inside his head? Terrible imaginings flood into that void inside me created by the absence of his words. Is he overwhelmed, hurled into depression? Will despair break him? From the years my CFS was most vicious, I know intimately that spirit-sapping sense of defeat that personal calamity can bring. Picturing that happening to Gary horrifies me. In the over twenty-five years I’ve known him, I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen him angry or down. He’s the most even person I know. Even and generous. Optimistic and supportive. Loving. Kind. Always ready with a smile…
What can I say to comfort him, to give him courage?
“I’m right next door at the Marriott,” I say, feeling helpless. “I can literally be here in five minutes.”
His eyes flick to mine, then away.
A nurse comes in and tells me “we” should let him rest; I can see him next at 10 a.m. I kiss my fingers and press them to his cheek, then I move toward the exit and peel off my gloves, cap, and gown. I drop them into the room’s metal waste can and wash my hands in the nearby sink, as the sign directs me. “Bye, Pookie,” I call. “Love you. See you tomorrow as soon as they’ll let me.” No response, not even a lift of his uninjured left hand.
My tennis shoes softly thud against the vinyl flooring in the silent corridors, as empty of people in this midnight hour as main street in a ghost town—but a ghost town lit by bright, florescent lights. I walk out of the ICU and through the waiting room. As the elevator doors close on me, without any of Gary’s words to tether me, I feel cut off, alone, adrift, an island floating farther and farther away from all other land masses.
In my hotel room, I think maybe I should eat. But lunch is still lumped in my glued-shut guts, and anything more will just lump with it. I change into pajamas, get into bed, and close my eyes. I repeat my meditation mantra over and over, and whenever I’m on the brink of falling asleep, a burst of adrenalin shoots me wide awake. Danger! Danger! my body’s systems are shrieking. You must remain alert!
I’m afraid that when I next go see Gary, I’ll find him dead.
* * * * *
Saturday, 9:50 a.m.
Now. My revved-up body finally finds release, and I rush out of the hotel room to the Neurosurgery ICU waiting room. The other people wait in their chairs, but I stand with nose nearly pressed to the closed ICU door. Soon, people drift over to line up behind me. They chat about their loved ones, but I keep my eyes straight ahead, keep to myself, tune them out.
My watch now shows 10:03, and I want to slam myself into the door and crash it open—how dare they make me wait! The door begins to swing toward me, and I squeeze through, zip past the nurse, dash down the corridors. Outside Gary’s room, dreading a repeat of his unresponsiveness of last night, I throw on hospital gown, cap, and gloves, then dodge all the tubing and wires and rush to Gary’s side. Flat in bed, he meets my eyes. He lifts his left hand with its trailing IV line and makes a scribbling motion.
A skyrocket of realization shoots through me. He can write! Of course! Why didn’t this occur to me earlier? We’re not imprisoned inside our own heads. I don’t know how I could’ve stood being locked up alone in mine much longer.
I race to the doorway and ask a passing nurse for paper. She also gives me a black Sharpie. I clamp the paper in the jaws of a nursing clipboard, slide the marker between Gary’s left thumb and forefinger, and hold the clipboard at an angle in front of him.
What will his first words be? I’m aching for “I love you.” But other possibilities claw through my mind. Will he tell me of the terror of a car smashing into his, of bones breaking, vertebrae shearing, his legs refusing to move? Will he sorrow over his loss? I’d be crying and raging my devastation, my anger—at myself, God, the other driver—
He prints, “Email Michel”—the head of the math department—“tell him someone needs to take my classes.” The thick, meandering, mostly legible letters ranging from one-half to two inches high, Gary fills two pages with his course plan for his current graduate students.
My mind does an off-kilter little flip, amazed by him: while my thoughts have been spinning off in one, catastrophizing direction, his have apparently spun off in quite another.
I don’t know how a person copes with sudden, permanent paralysis. I don’t know what it means to live that way. I don’t know what he’ll be able to do for himself, what I’ll have to do for him. I don’t know how I’ll be able to manage it, physically and emotionally, along with my CFS. But the strokes of Gary’s Sharpie prove truths as incontrovertible as the mathematics: He’s still him. His brain is fine. He’s strong, and he will deal with this new reality one moment at a time. And it won’t break him.
I won’t let it break me.
The P.A. system announces the visiting period over. Careful of tubing and wires, I manage to crane myself over that vast bed and kiss him, not too close to that mouth tube in case my germs can somehow migrate across his cheek.
Gary scribbles, “When will you be back?”
He can wear no watch because of the arm cast and tubing, and he can’t turn his head toward the clock fixed to the wall. “At 2:00. Three-and-a-half hours from now.”
I’ll get someone to drive me to Wal-Mart, so I can buy him his own clock.
As I pass through the waiting room, my glance falls on the prayer card. Saint Jude or no, a small patch beneath my feet clears of thorns.