The mornings were not the same. Dad was still in and out of the hospital with surgeries, and this year became a blur between dialysis and in patient stays almost every other month. Michael was still in the hospital as well for the last two weeks. The initial shock had worn off, and now senioritis became this weird, unwanted gift of guilt and shame. He was in an induced coma to reduce whatever it was the doctors said was happening. It was a miracle, they said, that his brain hemorrhage stopped, the surgery was successful, but whatever that meant was unclear to me. So, his brain was now safe? What happens now? They won't even say. They only say to pray. It's all we can do.
I already had spent the year feeling like the sun and the freedom of summertime ceased to exist, and when we got the phone call about Mike being in a car accident... my sunless sky seemed to corner me against a concrete brick mold swallowing my legs, pinning me down in some strange masterplan. I was supposed to sleep over at my best friend's house that night, but that changed once we knew he was in emergency surgery, and visitors were forbidden. Blind sighted by disbelief or what I wanted to not believe, I drove home wishing I had driven Mike home, safe to his mom and dad. I was supposed to drive both Michael and my friend back home that night, but he said he found a ride. Why didn't I just kidnap him from all the cool boys and take him safely home?
He would always refer to me as his favorite prom date. That was Sophomore year, the only time I went with an unsuspecting guy friend who I thought had taken pity on me. I grew up with my mom's neurotic aversions and cautionary tales of my cousin's tragic illegitimacy and an aunt's filial victimization that led to her doom of inhumane mental health institutionalization. So, I had those aversions firmly planted in my mind as logical consequences of human sexuality, the seemingly shameful but sacramental blessing from God burdened with atonement, as wager for painful, sweet grace.
"Oh Liz, you don't have to go stag alone this year. Let me be your date," he said one day during lunch. God couldn't have blessed me with a better date, or model of good guy behavior, to which all men would later be judged against. It was stuck in my mind. The way he was gentle, authentically kind, well mannered, and thoughtful without questionable intent. No one was like him. He bought the perfectly pink and coral flower from his parents' shop. It matched my dress and the flowers in my hair. How could he have known? It was so perfect just like him. The way he insisted that he be the one to place it on my wrist, the way he made sure I never opened any doors, the way he was so tall and towering, the way he spoke of feminism as a human condition and not of civilized uncivilized disobedience. The way he resolved that my hands couldn't even reach his shoulder when we slow danced. So, we waltzed, so that his long hands could meet with mine and my upper back, and so I could feel safe in his lead and companionship. And everyone loved him. He had no bad bones in him, except for the ones that made him extra taller than the other boys, like the ones he played sports with, the ones who hung out on the back of Sammy's truck that night, alongside him, that night when the party animals at Sammy's family orchard discovered how a tree could become a concussion of point of no return. He was the unassuming guy friend, that wittingly shared wisdom acquired with reason without the trials and failures of age appropriate mistakes. But that night, we were all thrown into the pits with the angel of darkness, that sucked Michael in and took all his dreams away. He was that platonic guy friend, innocent since the first day of grade school. And now he was in the hospital. And there was nothing I could do about it. If only I could change back time. Why did this have to happen to the one angel, so perfectly unstoppable to serve as panacea in a world of greed?
I went to his parents' flower shop. It was least I could do. They didn't deserve this. He was supposed to be the first one in their family to go to college. A prestigious college. Because he was always with honors. It was more expensive than the flowers at the grocery store, but it was worth it. I picked the Azalea's. I avoided the carnations, because they made me sick to my stomach, because of my grandmother's funeral, and the thick smell of carnations from all the legions of thanks to her humble, unconditional good will. The shop helper was there, so I knew I would be able to pay retail without his parents stopping me. If I had been in a better mood, I would have picked out some roses from my backyard. My father taught me the importance of flower décor. He was age 46 when I was born and taught me all the proper ladylike manners left over from the greatest generation. But my heart wasn't in it. I wanted to have hope, but I felt that hope was holding back on me in stinginess.
I didn't know what to expect. I was so tired of hospitals. My mother, I thought due to her superstitions, would always say that hospitals were sad places filled with death. Now I knew what she meant. The long, white hallways, which used to be my happy place of Candy Stripe days, now felt like bare tunnels heading to nowhere, but the pits of my stomach like stones hanging down from a rope anchored above from my chest. I made it to his room. I don't want to cry. I don't want to cry. Please God, I don't want to cry. My heart beat like crazy. I hadn't cried in so long since the time of my grandmother's death. That was the winter before eight grade graduation. All of a sudden, my heart welled up in so much of what I never thought I could feel again or at least what I didn't want to feel because firstly I didn't know the names of all the things I was thinking and feeling. I'm scared, but I can't say it because we all are and I can't bother his mother with this. This isn't even her son. I want my Mike back.
His mom was standing next to him. She was talking to him, rubbing his hand that she held, narrating the day, how dad went to pick up his favorite burger and chili fries, as if Mike was listening with query and anticipation. I knocked first, my heart shaking all the way to my palms and feet, my eyes filling up, my lips too dry for words for things that shouldn't be happening. Our faces squeezed into the tearful obvious but unsaid, our arms pulling our bodies in, wary for warmth. My head was dizzy and dazed, wishing for the morning after a bad dream. But now young adulthood was introducing me to the new world void of magical, happy wishes and endings. The safety of our hug, taped up our seams for an silent agreement of hope. Her eyes still had the light to make it feel like it will be all right; I promise. Symbiotically, I felt the creation of her first born son between us, forming and shaping from his present, unknown figure before us, lifeless in deep sleep, that was once so perfect and for sure destined for greatness, but now he lay still in his new physical body, monitored by nurses and doctors waiting to see the outcome of sedation wearing off. My heart wanted the hope, that under construction with the maker, as we all were, but only if we held onto that hope or fear of our maker's mercy, or was that my poor, superstitious fear rooted in my own doubts to my worthiness? We don't even know what will become of him even if he did wake up. It was a head injury. Why did it happen to him? A star so way up in the sky, brighter than the rest of us?
Strangely enough, and in his true character, as if God knew our thoughts and chastised us as mere beings of errancy, needing to buckle down under His commands and remember His great glory stamped on the creation that was Michael . . . and just like that . . . Michael's eyes twitched, heavily opened in attempt to gather in all that surrounded him. He saw us and then his body connected in different directions, to the machines that beeped and reported that life was here. He hardly moved, but sensed even his head bandaged up, and his face that was still slightly swollen. His eyes stared back at us. "What are you all staring at? You look like you saw a man come back from the dead," he said as he waited for our response to his first words in two weeks.
The next week was arduous. He was like a baby, waking up from the dead. Mike was a complete miracle to us like a story out of the Bible except it felt like Easter was like a butterfly that came out of our hearts once the winter melted away. He seemed practically the same, but missing more coordination and steady gate than his usual clumsy, odd footing. He wouldn't be completely back to normal, but perhaps it was good thing he had a knack for always finding a ride "with the ladies" as he would always say. He had some disconnect for his judgement or learning process for his physical boundaries, fine motor skills, or simply all the physical things I couldn't wait to conquer as I grew older such as snow boarding. But all his favorites were the same in reading. He could still carry on and debate impressively. His charming humor was unbroken and made us bashful for our sadness and fears for his struggling state of dependence. It was a bleak, unknown reach, far away from the youthful plans of graduation and moving away into dorms.
A week before his birthday, he was discharged and brought home. He was now an adult, as the facts would state in numbers on his driver's license or any other form or legal document. But in my heart, whenever I would see him, time stopped and didn't change from our senior year. It didn't help that he never forgot prom and all the small details.
That year, Mike finished his goals of no longer needing his mother's assistance for daily care and mobility. It wasn't in time for graduation, but his diploma was earned due to early accumulation of credits in AP classes. The left part of his brain was still sharp, but somehow the pathways to the body would never be the same with seizures and the medications that protected him from big falls and ever living too far from the mother who feared to ever let him leave her sight ever again. Somehow, she convened to his appeals to allow him to attend the local junior college and after a semester, the university stated that his spot was still available to him. He never could decide on the rest of his life, which is what he revealed to me even before the accident. I don't think he ever completed a major for college graduation, but when ever our core group got together, I made sure to be designated driver just like in old times, and I promised myself to always bring Mike home on time and safely to his parents.
His mother ended up planting those Azalea's in a ceramic glazed planter in their backyard. Every year on his birthday, they bloomed to its fullest. His parents never moved away from his childhood home, and I hoped they never did because of my imaginary courtship with time suspended in the past. Something in me will always be a late bloomer. My grief process was no different. Somehow, I later came to accept the metamorphosis of life, from Mike's losses in life. I had to find peace with the fact that I had one life to live, one chance to make it my best. From Mike I learned to never regret failure and learning experiences that could have soured my heart. That we are to be as a bud in the spring, fed by the light, opening up, and blooming to prove our maker's beauty. Perfection is not from our avoidance of what we fear but from our surrender to whatever is in our maker's ominous will as our keeper.