Chapter 5: When Hope Fails

Chapter 5: When Hope Fails October 18, 2020

What kinds of thoughts torment a mother’s mind when she’s racing to the bedside of her firstborn son and doesn’t know whether he’ll live or die before she gets there?

“Picking Wings Off Butterflies Chapter 4” / Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

(NOTE: To begin this book from the beginning, go to the Publications link where you will find a list of posted chapters.)

My return trip to Germany had been expedited because the Red Cross secured back-to-back commercial flights for me from Montana to New York to Frankfurt. I was at David’s bedside in less than twenty-four hours after the accident. The trip would take Gena about four days. After my father dropped me off at the airport in Great Falls, it took them two days to drive back to Oak Harbor. When they got there, Gena packed our bags, grabbed her passport, took a flight out of Seattle the next day, and arrived in Frankfurt the following day. These were the days before cell phones. The last update I’d given Gena via pay phone was that the physicians were not certain whether David would survive.

Dealing with David’s accident might have been more bearable if we had been together as a family. It seemed a cruel twist of fate that all of us were kept from each other by space and circumstance. My father was in Washington, I was at the hospital in Germany with David, Gena was on a plane over the Atlantic, and my mother was taking care of our daughter, Dana, at our apartment in Frankfurt. I was elated when Gena finally arrived, because she took over in ways that only a mother could.

I see her now like it was yesterday, bathing David as though she knew her touch would bring him back to life . . . She rinsed out a cotton cloth in a pail of warm, soapy water, and slowly lifted the cloth up to David’s plump, round face. An oily substance oozed from David’s eyelashes, an ointment the nurses had been using to lubricate his eyes while he was in his coma. Gena tenderly dabbed the cloth along his lashes until they were clean. His eyes were bulging underneath his eyelids, but they were motionless. Gena moved the washcloth over the profile of his face, and then ever so gently she pushed the cloth down and around the back of his neck as far as she could reach without aggravating his wounds. I pulled back the thin blanket covering his chest and folded it over his lower torso. His frame was tiny, dwarfed by the size of his swollen head. His bony ribs rose and fell with each laborious breath. Gena dabbed the cloth across his chest, carefully avoiding the maze of electrical wires and the patches securing the wires to his skin. She picked up his limp arm. Lifting it toward the sky, she stroked the cloth over his elbow and up to his shoulder.

David and his mother, Gena. / Family photo

“How are you doing, David?” she asked softly. “Does that feel good? My, you need a bath.”

I grabbed the pail of soapy water, and we moved to the other side of the bed. I wondered what little children dream about when they’re in a coma.

I remember our dog ripping another dog open while taking her for a walk. I remember Bobby, the biggest thief I ever met. I remember eating apples and going to a place where my dad could play on a drum set and a person named Josh who worked there and was friends with my dad. The room had a drum set and was padded with foam triangles. I remember Christmas at Aunt Cheryl’s house and uncovering dinosaur bones in a small clay kit watching Goonies during the day and eating pee soup at mealtime. I remember orientation at first grade and my teacher Mr. Campbell, and the day that changed my life. -David 

We had a German shepherd in Frankfurt, Sheeba, which David tried to ride like a horse. Like all shepherds, Sheeba was temperamental. She got away from us one day when we were walking her in the park and attacked a toy poodle. She made a mad dash over a distance of fifty meters, and in one sweeping motion she plucked that poodle off the ground and punctured its lungs while shaking it side to side like a stuffed animal. That horrible visual will be stuck in David’s mind forever. Mine too. Thankfully, the poodle survived.

Bobby was a kid who lived in the apartments directly across the parking lot from our building. I guess Bobby stole a lot of things, and David had enough sense to understand he was turning into a no-good thief.

I took David to the music room often. The room was in my army brigade’s activity center in Höchst, the suburb of Frankfurt where I was stationed. I’d practice drumming for hours while David played with Josh, an expatriate who hated a lot of things about America but worked for the US government anyway. For lunch, Josh sometimes ate a can of tuna with a plastic fork.

Cheryl is Gena’s sister. She and her ex-husband happened to be stationed in Augsburg, Germany, when we were stationed in Frankfurt. We would occasionally drive down to Augsburg on the Autobahn to visit them. I drove a Buick Regal that we shipped from the states. The Buick had a digital dashboard. When I flipped a switch, the speedometer changed from miles per hour to kilometers per hour. The speedometer topped out around 130 km/h, which is pretty much what it read all the way down to Augsburg. Yet, even at this speed, it felt like we were crawling, because I often had to pull into the slow lane to let other cars pass. Every once in a while a motorcycle would fly by reaching speeds that must have been pushing 200 km/h.

David would also remember eating pea soup, apparently because it tasted like pee to him. It’s one of the few words I’ve seen him misspell. And he’d recall his teacher Mr. Campbell on the day that changed his life.

I want to believe David was thinking happy thoughts while in his coma, but he recalls nothing but dead blackness. His memory of life before the accident is fragmented. He was young, however, so I expect him to have difficulty remembering events that transpired twenty years ago. I’m surprised he can still recall many of his friends’ names and the things he once did back in the days before the accident.

Two different versions of David

Some experts say that our personalities are formed during infancy and up to age six. I’m not an expert in the field of child psychology, but if this is accurate, then David was born twice. I have memories of the kind of person he was before the accident at age six and live with the memories and realities of the person he would become. He was born on April 2, 1983 but we also celebrate his rebirth on October 12, 1989, the day of the accident. It’s like we have two sons, the son who was born to us and the estranged lad who emerged after the accident. But the differences in these two Davids are blurry and at times indistinguishable. It’s not like there was one David one day and a different David the next. It’s more like there’s some semblance in our second David to the first David. When I think about the person he is now, there are times in which the characteristics of our original son pop into my awareness. These events play out like flashbacks to me, as though I am watching a scratched DVD version of his life. As he grows older, the flashbacks have become more pronounced, presumably because David’s mind is still in the process of healing back to his original self. Yet we will likely always have to fill in our dreams of what David might have become through our imaginations. Most painful for me as a father is that I remember the potential I saw in David’s future before the accident and the expectations that I settle for today.

If left up to me, I’d make sure that children would not be subjected to experiencing the horrors of life. Someone should nudge them away from danger when they’re about to step into harm’s way. There should be a mechanism in place—a default switch for fate—that prevents the cars that are going to hit them from starting. Actually, any intervention from the cosmos, which might alter the random role of cause and effect, would suffice. The woman who plowed her car into David could have been delayed by a red light. Just moments before impact, David and his friend could have stopped for a few minutes to play on the schoolyard swings. Perhaps they might have even given chase to a butterfly, which just moments before had alighted from its cocoon and was fluttering towards a new life. Because we all know how fascinating butterflies are to little boys! Any kind of delay could have shaved thirty seconds off the time it took David to walk from the school to that busy street.

Children should be prevented from experiencing any kind of trauma. They should be immune to all diseases. They should never go hungry. They should have loving families, a cozy home, plenty of animal crackers and pancakes to eat, and a comfortable bed to sleep in. They should have clothes to keep them warm and shoes to protect their delicate feet. Children should not be allowed to experience terror, grief, fear, or all the other evils that prevent them from knowing happiness. Children should only laugh and never cry. They should be wrapped in a forcefield of protection.

Embed from Getty Images

While I’m standing on this box . . . corn and rice should grow in places like Sudan and Darfur. Tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes should not be allowed to wreak havoc. Spearheads, guns, cannons, and nuclear bombs should never have been invented. Madmen should not be allowed to rule. People should not be subjected to tyranny. Prisons should not exist. Nice guys should finish first. A pill should be invented that kills AIDS and another pill that cures cancer. And there has got to be a way to help people with Alzheimer’s remember their names and who loves them. When our brains get sick, there should be a store where we can buy a new mind. Everyone should have a roof over their heads, shoes on their feet, clothes on their backs, and food spilling out of their cupboards.

I could design a better plan for life on a napkin

If it were up to me, I would have designed another plan for this world that did not include human misery. I could easily sketch out several possibilities on a napkin while sipping a cup of latte. But I’m only human, and supernatural conjectures are pointless.

But you’ll have to pardon my philosophical ruminations. I had a lot of time to think about David’s predicament as I sat by his bedside, and I’ve spent two decades thereafter working through my anger at the injustice of him being robbed of a normal life. And what I know is that if something created this world, It could have done a better job. And if something did not create this world, then we—as humans—have enough collective compassion and foresight to build a better one.

Many psychiatrists and medical professionals will testify that anger is one of the first emotions a person is likely to feel after they’ve experienced loss or trauma. The death of a spouse, a child, or a family member represents the most significant loss we can experience. Short of death, watching our loved ones endure physical and emotional pain will cause us to seethe with rage to the extent that we feel like we are going to explode. For many individuals, this anger is likely to be directed toward God.

Frankly, up to that moment in my life I thought I knew God. Sure, I’d never seen God and never heard Him speak, but I prayed. I’d been praying ever since I could kneel beside my bed as a toddler and fold my hands. I always understood my conversations with God were one-sided, and I was fine with that. But as I sat at David’s bedside, what I really needed was His intervention. Will God now intervene on David’s behalf? I wondered. And if God intervenes now, then why didn’t He intervene before the moment of impact? These questions begged for answers. We ask questions such as these not to place blame on God, but because we want to understand the basic truths about how and why things happen to us, and whether there are things we can do to control the events that occur in our lives. Ultimately, what we really want to know, is what is real and truthful. What we do not want to believe, is in ideas that simply give us false hope.

Perhaps it’s a good thing, however, that children aren’t asking themselves these kinds of questions when they’re six years old. Children don’t ask these grown-up questions, because they’re not even aware these are questions worth asking. What children do is survive. They focus on the prize of living, and if it is within their power, they pull through. Death is not an option when death is an unknown. Their little minds, free of philosophical innuendos, press on with optimism. Since I was receiving no direct responses from God, facing reality and trying to be optimistic about it were my only options.

What kids are good at doing is using their natural instincts to survive

A week passed, and there was only one noticeable sign of David’s improvement: he survived. His condition was stable, but he was still in a coma. The ICP monitor was registering slightly lower numbers, but the numbers were still high, averaging in the upper 70s. Perhaps I was being too hopeful, but I could swear David was trying to wake up. He was growing more fidgety as the days went on, and more medication was required to keep him comatose.

A different doctor visited and gave us an update. Her English was better, and she confirmed my suspicions. “David is becoming more agitated, but we must still give him medicine to help him sleep. Tomorrow we will take David in for surgery to operate on his leg.”

“What will you do to his leg?” I asked, wondering if David would have full use of his leg after they operated.

“We will have to pull his leg apart to separate the fracture and then reset the break in his femur. We will also have to add support, since the break is severe,” she said. “We’ll do this by attaching steel plates to his thighbone with screws.”

This sounded like it was going to cause David a lot of pain for a long time.

“How long do you plan on inducing the coma?” Gena asked.

“Perhaps a few more weeks. He still has high levels of pressure in his brain.”

“Do you think he’s going to have permanent brain damage?” I asked.

Her face offered no indication of optimism. Her reply was blunt. “We did an initial test of David’s brain when he first arrived. The test showed serious trauma.”

I pressed for details.

“We sent electrical impulses into David’s brain to measure reaction times,” she explained. “There was a significant gap in the time it took his brain to register the signals. There are also a few bruised areas in his brain indicating permanent damage.”

The doctor showed us X-rays of David’s brain. She pointed to dark spots in the frontal lobe area and another spot deep in the center near the hypothalamus.

“Those areas won’t heal, will they?” Gena asked.

“It’s possible, but too early to tell. Children, especially young children, can heal rapidly. Older people have more difficulty. If there are areas that are damaged, the brain can sometimes rewire itself and make new connections. David might be able to relearn functions that may be damaged.”

I wondered what parts of David wouldn’t be working when he awakened. Would he have memory loss? Would he be able to speak or walk? Would he remember me? Would he forget the mother who gave him life?

About Scott R Stahlecker
Scott Stahlecker is freelance writer and the author of the novel "Blind Guides and “Picking Wings Off Butterflies.” Thinkadelics is about discussing the benefits of being a freethinker with insightful tips, newsworthy posts, and in-depth features. You can read more about the author here.

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2 responses to “Chapter 5: When Hope Fails”

  1. Your ordeal comes through so viscerally that it hurts to read. YOu are very good at describing a parent’s worst nightmare.

  2. There are a lot of emotions and experiences people go through in dealing with a TBI, but also just trauma in general. It causes people to view life from entirely new perspectives, some of which can be very dark. It was important for me to write the book in a candid and honest way to flush out some of the experiences, so others know they are not alone, and to understand some of the thoughts they may have are normal.

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