No birthday should be spent in a hospital. Instead of a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday”, we are serenaded by a symphony of machines. Each beep is the sound of my son’s heart beat-rhythmic and strong.
We tried to celebrate as normal; decorating his room with colorful balloons, streamers, and even a party hat with a pom pom on top. Anything to keep our minds from the fear that plagued us since our arrival. Despite our efforts to bring life to his cold, sterile room, the decorations look frivolous and flimsy. I couldn’t help but inwardly smile at the idea that if he could see our feeble attempt at a birthday party he would have groaned and rolled his eyes. At sixteen he was much too mature and cool for such childish things.
Plates of uneaten cake are piled onto side tables as family members stream in and out of the room to visit. Each tries to smile, but the sight of Collin lying in bed hooked to a mess of lines and tubes is difficult to swallow.
I sit on a worn, lumpy chair next to his bed. I feel hands squeezing my shoulders in sympathy. People may have even tried to speak to me, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Everything seems distant and muffled, like I am lost in a swirling fog that causes everything but Collin’s face to disappear.
He doesn’t look like himself. His face, hidden by breathing tubes and monitors, is swollen and bruised. Superficial cuts and scrapes cross his arms and legs like roads on some grotesque roadmap. I hold tightly onto his limp hand, willing him to open his eyes and give me the sheepish grin and shrug that always follows the dangerous situations he puts himself in.
Collin has always been the adventurer, pushing the boundaries of his physical and mental strength since he was three years old when he first began climbing out of his crib. As a mother I could only watch with my heart in my throat as he raced dirt bikes and climbed mountains. Inevitably, he did injure himself from time to time, a broken arm here and a sprained ankle there, but he always healed quickly, promising me he’d be more careful in the future. My husband assured me that these misadventures are what it takes to become a man; a boy had to learn his limits in this world.
This accident hadn’t been his fault, though. We had been on the lake for a day of relaxing and fun. It was just after lunch, after we had finished gorging ourselves on hamburgers, hot dogs, and potato salad, when the boys had begged to go tubing. I remember the humid July sun on my shoulders and the pull of sleep making my eyelids heavy.
It was his scream that had awoken me. A passing boat must not seen the tube trailing behind ours and had crossed between. Before Collin could jump into the water, the tube smashed into the side of the other boat with a sicking thud. He was dragged under the water as we struggled to stop.
He was unconscious and face down in the water when we found him. The rest of the day passed in a blur. Eventually, he was air lifted to the hospital where the EMT’s had to revive him twice. The doctors stabilized him, unable to answer if he would wake up.
We’ve been at the hospital for a little over two weeks now.
A sharp knock on the door rouses me from my thoughts. As I straighten and turn towards the sound, I realize the room is empty, our friends and family have gone without me noticing. Dr. Nelson, a haggard, serious man, enters. He nods to my husband and I, and settles onto a stool beside Collin.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hunt,” he begins softly, a grim expression on his face. “As we discussed earlier, Collin’s condition is very precarious.The swelling around his brain has dramatically decreased, which in itself is good. However, we had thought the swelling was a major contributor to Collin’s coma. Unfortunately, there is still little to no brain activity. The machines that we have placed him on are keeping him alive. I’m afraid to report that Collin’s chances of survival are less than one percent.”
I inhale sharply as my husband takes my hand.
Dr. Nelson hesitates before continuing. “This is not the kind of news I enjoy delivering to families. You have my deepest sympathies.” He pauses, his gaze finding mine. “How would you like to proceed? We can certainly give him some more time if you wish. Or we can take him off life support.”
“How can you ask me to give up on my son?” The words slip from my mouth with venom. My husband’s grip on my hand tightens.
“I want you to take all the time you need.” The doctor glances at Collin’s vitals flashing on the monitor beside the bed. “He is stable for the moment but I warn you he could deteriorate quickly. I-I want you to consider all the options.” He pulls a pamphlet from his white coat pocket. “If you decide to stop treatment, there is some good that can come out of this terrible situation. Collin may be able to help other sick children.”
I take the pamphlet, my eyes instantly catching the words “Organ Donation.” Immediately, my heart begins racing and the room becomes stifling hot. Feeling claustrophobic, I stand and back towards the door. My husband reaches out to implore me to stay. Shaking my head, I stumble into the hallway, tears blurring my vision.
Leaning against the wall, I slide to the floor, silents sobs shaking my shoulder. I feel my husband beside me but I refuse to look at him.
“We need to discuss this, Miranda,” he murmurs, stroking the top of my head. His voice catches and he has to clear his throat before continuing. “I hate this as much as you do, but we need to be realistic about Collin’s prognosis.”
“I can’t.” Struggling to stand, I stagger away. “I can’t be in that room. I need to think.”
My husband’s hand falls limply to his side. He doesn’t try to follow me as I go.
Oblivious to the bustle of the hospital, I follow the hallway blindly. My mind cannot comprehend that Collin won’t recover. He is strong. He is healthy. He’s a sixteen year old kid who has his entire life ahead of him.
Anger boils within me, replacing the sadness that had rooted deeply within me since arriving here. Why did this happen to Collin? Why did the driver not see him in the water? How can we move forward with our lives without him?
I find myself in the hospital cafeteria. The noise and movement was slightly comforting; maybe I could drown out the questions in my head by focusing on the white noise of people going about their day.
Collapsing into the hard, plastic seat, I lay my head in my arms. I feel weak. Exhausted. I want to wake up from this horrendous dream.
“Excuse me,” a soft voice whispers as I feel the weight of a light hand on my back.
Realizing I must have drifted to sleep, I look up, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. A women holding two styrofoam cups of coffee, smiles down at me. She looks to be about my age, but her chestnut hair is streaked with gray and there are dark circles under her eyes.
She sets a coffee in front of me. “Thought you could use this.”
I smile, inhaling the rich aroma of the dark roast. “This doesn’t smell like the usual coffee they serve here.”
Laughing, she winks and says with a slight southern accent, “You get to know the right people when you are here every few months.”
Taking a sip of the delicious coffee, I sneak another look at the women. Though tired, she doesn’t look like she’s a chronically ill person.
“My daughter,” she explains, pulling out the chair across from me. “She’s got cystic fibrosis. It seems like every couple of months she’s got some new infection. We stay about a week or so until she’s better to resume her treatments at home.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“There’s a group of moms I’ve become close to. We’ve all got chronically ill kids, but knowing I’ve got support from other women helps me get through the hard times.” She pauses and stretches out her hand. “I’m Stacey.”
Stacey leans in closer. “Good to meet you Miranda. I’ve seen you around the last couple of days. May I ask why?”
My throat tightens as I croak, “My son. He was in a boating accident.”
“Aw honey, I’m so sorry. How is he?”
“He’s not going to make it.” It was the first time I allowed myself say the words. “He’s on life support, and the doctor’s say he’s braindead.” I can feel hot tears slipping down my cheeks. “But I don’t know how I can say the words to let him go.”
Stacey takes my hand, her kind face full of sympathy. “No mother should have to make that choice. I feel for you, honey.”
“How do you do it? How do you stay strong?”
“This life is not in my control. I was once filled with so much anger that fate had dealt me these cards. It consumed me. But after therapy, and maybe one too many drinks, I realized I was expending too much energy fighting something I couldn’t change. I leaned in and accepted that I had to make the most of the time I had left.” She squeezed my hand. “I’m sure your son knows you love him and that you will do all that you can for him.”
My thoughts drifted back to Collin lying on that bed. He hated staying still. As soon as the sun was up, he was moving. Always hatching up some half brained adventure for him and his friends. He wouldn’t want to waste away on a bed.
“The doctor brought up organ donation.”
Stacey nodded slowly. “That would be the greatest gift he could bestow on someone.”
“But I don’t want to give him up.”
“Darlin’ nobody wants to say goodbye to their loved ones. But he’ll live on through the lives he’s saved.”
My phone chirps. A text from my husband wondering where I am. I wipe my cheeks and smile at Stacey. “Thank you for the coffee, and the company. I have to get back. I hope your daughter feels better soon.”
Stacey pats my hand. “Good to meet you, Miranda. Take care.”
My heart is still heavy as I walk away. I dread to conversation I will need to have with my husband. Saying goodbye to Collin will be the hardest thing I will ever have to do. But Stacey is right about one thing, Collin will die a hero, blessing people who have been praying for a miracle. Maybe knowing that his death is not in vain will be the first step toward healing.