I wanted to be a saint when I was little. I watched a movie about Saint Bernadette, and I was up for the challenge. It was my greatest ambition at age five to be canonized. I did not understand the concept of martyrdom. I imagined myself performing miracles, healing the sick with a touch of my pure, sweet, intensely good hand. I could see the Pope bending down to me to look into my eyes and marvel at my virtue.
I was unlike any other child in the world. I had an inner light, a goodness that came directly from God. I wore a beautiful winter coat with fur on the collar, crème-colored tights and patent leather Mary Janes. I was a god-damned movie star saint, a cross between Heidi and Joan of Arc.
At our Catholic mass, I was in rapture for the first fifteen minutes. The smell of incense, the dim, smokey air cast shafts of light through stained glass windows. The sounds of the chants, the Latin phrases and the beautiful swell of a full church singing together in a familiar, if incomprehensible song filled me with love and adoration for all mankind. I loved God, Jesus, Virgin Mary, and all the saints with a fervor that left me breathless.
After the spiritual pinnacle of the first quarter hour, my attention dropped off dramatically. My initial devotion to a Christlike life of suffering and worship of God drifted away like a puff of incense. I would begin to think of my Barbies’ missing shoe, what was for lunch, or how my report on frogs was coming along.
But the absolute worst part of church was the way that my brothers, who were my best friends and playmates, turned into sharp elbowed, irritable demons whose only purpose was to annoy, irritate and perturb me into bad behavior.
I was sandwiched between Mike and Dave. The church was usually packed with the faithful, so we often had to squeeze in closer and closer to each other. Our little bodies smooshed into each other. Arms and elbows became weaponized.
Dave began kicking his legs up and down. Slowly at first, in time with the music. And then building up more and more speed, a wicked grin on his face. He kicked sideways, into my legs. I gave him my meanest look.
“Stop kicking me!” I whispered.
“Make me!” he said, sticking his tongue out at me.
“I mean it!”
“Make me!” he laughed.
Finally, when I could take it no more, I kicked him back with the sharpest part of my heel so hard that he gasped. Fat tears welled up in his eyes. There was no love in my heart at that moment.
As I put the key in the door of my apartment, I heard the phone ringing inside. It was an early evening in June and still warm as the light faded from the day. I fumbled in my purse for my keys and opened the door. As I reached for the phone, I dropped my jacket and purse on the floor.
“Hello?” I said.
It was Mike, he was breathless, “John had an accident. He broke his neck in a diving accident. They don’t know if he will survive the night. Mom is on a plane right now going to Oregon.”
“What? Wait. Slow down. What are you even talking about? I just talked with John on the phone yesterday at Mom’s during the BBQ.” I said.
“John…broke…his… neck. He…might…die.” He spoke slowly, painfully enunciating each word.
“Oh my god.” I sat down on my bed. My keys slipped from my hands to the floor soundlessly. My eyes filled with tears. “Mom?”
“On her way to Oregon. On a plane right now.”
“Right. You said that.”
“I don’t know anything else.”
“I can’t believe it. How can this be happening?”
I hung up the phone softly, as if my caution might make everything go back to the way it was before. I fell onto my bed and sobbed. I felt like I was floating on the ceiling above my body looking down at myself, like a movie.
Such moments in life seem to slow down, fall out of time altogether. There is a Before and an After. We were innocent in the Before. I had spent the day on a date wandering through Balboa Park watching street performers and looking in museums. We did not know what true despair and pain were. We tromped through the world like reckless children not knowing such treachery awaited us. We thought we were in control of our lives, that we were masters of our fates. But we were so wrong. The punctuation mark for me was that phone call in 1978. The After marked a long period of grief and sadness.
Over the next few days, I moved like my head was wrapped in cotton, sorrow washing over me in waves. Tears fell from my eyes at these moments. I had no control of when I might be hit by a swell. A song on the radio, a memory, and I would succumb. Tears leaked from my eyes. At times, I would suddenly notice that I was crying, almost an unconscious response. At other times, I would sob and cry, loud and angry, “No, no, no! Why God?” I used lots of Kleenex in those days.
Mom called from Oregon.
“Well, he is stable. The surgery worked.” Mom said.
“Does that mean he’ll walk?” I asked.
“No. “she laughed bitterly. “He shattered his spinal cord at C7, so he’s a quadriplegic”
“What the hell?”
“The surgery fused some vertebra and cleaned up the bone fragments. He was in the operating room for nine hours. He’s lucky to be alive.”
“Oh my God. What happened? Mike said it was a diving accident.”
“He was at a Grateful Dead concert, high on magic mushrooms.”
“He dove into a footbridge over a three-foot-deep creek. He hit the top of his head, a compression injury. If someone hadn’t pulled him out, he would have died right then and there.”
“Mom!” I said her name like it was a life raft and I was sinking into a stormy sea.
“I know. I can’t believe this is real. I can’t let myself feel anything right now, because if I do, I’m afraid that I’ll start to cry and never stop.”
“I love you Mom. I’m sorry. For John. For you. For all of us.”
I looked at other people and wondered what sorrows they might have endured. Some people move through life with their damage visible to the world: the unkept, the dour and scowling, the angry, the obviously broken people. I wondered about the rest of the populace who looked normal to my eyes. What did they hide? How did they swallow the pain and suffering and go on? My heart physically hurt in my chest.
I drank wine every night to numb the pain that gripped me. I took it like medicine, drinking alone in my apartment; glass after glass of wine until the ache in my heart was lessened. It never went away completely, but it could be blotted out a bit. I thought of John in a hospital coming to the understanding that he would never walk again.
As I waited for sleep, I saw John hiking in Yosemite. His hair like a mane with his blue bandana headband. Standing at the top of Half Dome laughing, beating on his chest. I would start to slip into sleep and then I would jerk back awake. I saw John riding his bike, pulling the front wheel of his ten speed up in a wheelie, showing off. I turned on my side and pushed the blankets off, suddenly sweaty in my bed. I saw John paddling his canoe with his black dog sitting at his feet, the river sweeping past. No sleep for me. The raw physicality of John’s persona struck me as something that could not be subtracted from his essence.
Dave and I took the Amtrak train to Eugene, Oregon where John lay in a hospital bed. As the train rumbled further and further north, past Los Angeles and into Northern California, the views were stunning. The path of the train diverged from the highway and cut through mountains and pristine valleys with rivers rushing past. We went to the viewing car.
“Do you think he will be able to walk again?” Dave asked for the twentieth time. Still the baby of the family, Dave kept asking in hopes of a better answer.
“I don’t think so.” I answered. I slumped in my seat and looked out the window.
“Maybe he will be one of those people who throw down their crutches and walk, like a miracle from God. Maybe he will be one in a million.”
“He is one in a million. He’s the one sorry son of a bitch who broke his neck when he was high at a god-damned concert. He’s the unluckiest person in the world. And God hates us.” I said.
“That sucks balls.” Dave sighed.
“You know what sucks? Our family. First Dad, now this. We should win a prize for the most shit tossed at one family in the shortest amount of time.” I spat the words.
Dave looked at me for a long time like he did not recognize me. Then he sat back in his seat and closed his eyes. He did not ask again.
As I walked into the Rehabilitation Ward in the Eugene Hospital towards John’s room, it smelled of disinfectant and despair. Large ugly screws bolted into his temples and connected to weights that hung from the top of the bed, traction to pull his spine taut. His head was crowned in this metal contraption that held him like a prisoner. He was floating with supports at his head, shoulders, torso and legs. The bed flipped his body over every two hours to avoid pressure sores. My Mom was sitting with him when I walked in. He looked at me, then turned his eyes away, tears falling to the floor.
“Hi John. It’s so good to see you. How are you?”
I stood at the door, frozen. There was something so excruciating about John that I found myself unable to move. My gentle brother was gone, replaced by someone I did not recognize. His anguish washed over everything.
He snorted in reply. Angry at the universe.
“Dave and I took the train to see you. We’re so worried about you.”
I stepped closer and saw how fragile and broken his body was. Bruises covered his body, raw surgical scars bright angry pink, he looked thinner, fragile, naked under the blanket. His hair had been shaved on part of his head and the silver metal traction apparatus screwed into his temples looked like a cross between a torture device and a cruel crown. His face was puffy and his eyes reminded me of an animal trapped in a cage, panicked and raging.
Silence. The hum of the machines. The ticking of the clock. My heart beating in my chest.
“I love you. It’s so good to see you.”
Tears filled my eyes. I stood for a while, taking it all in. I thought that by just showing up, I would be able to make things better. When I learned of John’s accident, I was distraught. But seeing John in person was worse. I felt powerless. His physical state shocked and horrified me. I realized how close to death he had come. And how precarious the path forward would be. It was not clear to me that he would survive this catastrophe.
I stepped out into the hallway with my mother.
“Don’t take it personally, honey,” she said when she saw my tears. “He is all over the place. Who wouldn’t be, in his situation?”
“This is the ultimate existential crisis. “I said. “I thought I could help.”
“Showing up is helping, whether he can see that now-or not. He’s pretty banged up. You have no idea how close he came to death….”.
“Oh my God. How is this possible? Is there no hope of walking again?”
“What kind of life can he have?” I asked. “Can he even live on his own?
“His old life is gone.’
She hugged me for a long time and I let myself feel the comfort of the ultimate maternal lie: “Everything will be okay.”
Mitzi and I drove to Florence, on the Oregon coast on a bright day.
“He’s completely broken-physically and emotionally,” said Mitzi.
“He told me last year that he was never coming back to San Diego.” I said.
“Now he’s helpless, totally dependent on Mom.” Said Mitzi.
“He is such a wild spirit. So free. So beautiful.”
“When Daddy died, it was sad. But this will never heal. Lives altered, dreams cut short, aspirations stunted, John’s accident is a tragedy. Our family is cursed, like Job.”
“I can’t see how this ends well,” said Mitzi.
“Why does God hate us?”
“God is dead.”
“Why us? What did we do to deserve all of this suffering? We are good people. Kind people.”
“What makes you think that there is a reason. Shit happens. And it happened to us.”
“Well, it pisses me off!”
The weight of my grief changed me. My normal perspective was positive and hopeful, optimistic. In five years, I had lost my father and now my brother had broken his neck. I became angry. Angry at God, angry at fate, angry at luck. What did I do to deserve so much pain?
All those years ago, I wanted to be a saint. But more than that, I wanted to be a good person. Now, I walked around with a bitterness and my attitude was, “Fuck it. Why should I care?” I hated myself. I hated happy people. I hated my life. I drank, a lot. One morning, I woke up on the floor in the living room where I had passed out covered in my own urine. I slept with my best friend’s boyfriend.
Mom and Mitzi were also struggling. We went through the motions of life, but a deep depression weighed us down.
“How was he today?” I asked as we sat watching the evening news and eating our dinner.
“Quiet,” Mitzi said. “I don’t know, but he would not engage with me.”
“He is mad at the universe, but he takes it out on us..” I said.
“He told me last week that when he first had his accident, that he cried every night, all night. He couldn’t sleep. Look, he’s still not sure that he wants to be alive.” Mitzi said.
“Wow, he told you all that.” Mom said.
“But today, he won’t even speak to me.”
“We have to show up every day and give him a reason to go on.” I said. “That is our meaning in life.”
“It is exhausting.” Mitzi sighed.
“I just can’t see it, sometimes it feels hopeless,” Mom sighed. She rubbed her eyes and took a drink from her glass of chardonnay.
We listened to the newscaster. “The experimental space station, Skylab is expected to crash to earth later this week. There is some chance that debris could land in more populated parts of earth…”
“Great! Maybe a piece of Skylab will fall on our house!” I said.
I have some questions about anger if you don't mind me asking you.
When Ken first broke his neck, I started to talk to him about not letting depression set in -- to get him down. And he interrupted me. And this is what he said with a smile: "Dad, God taught me a long time ago that He is in control of everything.”
Ever since the surgery on his neck, which replaced the two crushed discs, his attitude has gone downhill. Before he left the hospital, he had cussed out his wife, me and his Mom, the nurses, the doctor, his physical therapists, and other aides that came into his room...
‘No one knows anything... everyone is stupid... pull my head up toward the head of the bed!... my nerves are vibrating and driving me crazy... move my shoulders to the right... no, that's too far!... all of this emphasized by foul language and four-letter words that no one wants to hear.
Is this normal? I hope I don't alienate you by all this stuff... I just don't know how to handle this.
It won't alienate me because I've walked down the same roads.
My family has been through it with me as well.
It's normal for that kind of anger to surface and the way
you all handled it is perfectly appropriate.
I was a pretty angry young man during the summer of 1978.
I cried at night every night for weeks and slept almost not at all.
I had done this horrible thing to myself.
I had overlooked that I was dragging my family along with me.
It takes time when something that catastrophic happens for a person
to learn to see beyond their own existence again.
Some people can never learn that.
I can tell you that the first days will be the hardest.
All of you are going through an extraordinary thing.
Detaching with love can be a very tall order
when someone we care about deeply is involved.
I think I would pull the extended family together and talk about it.
Reassure them that ultimately things will be okay.
A spinal cord injury is like being reborn into a different body.
It happens instantly and a normal response is
difficulty in adjusting.
Take the day off and go hug your family.
The next day things will seem easier.