The army can be a heartless organization. It’s not in the business of enhancing personal relationships and catering to the needs of the family unit. Its goal will always be the mission, and the mission can only be accomplished by soldiers who are detached from the distractions of everyday family life.
Then again, individual soldiers can be surprisingly compassionate.
(NOTE: Each weekend I’m posting a new chapter of this book as a free read. Subscribe to my Newsletter for updates. To begin this book from the beginning, go to the Publications link where you will find a list of posted chapters.)
I was summoned to battalion headquarters about a week after David’s accident, and the major was resolute as to what I must do. I was ordered to man my post. The post assigned to me was the hospital. I was put in charge of looking after only one individual: my son.
The major’s wife had baked our family a spinach quiche. Wearing his camouflage battle dress uniform and spit- shined boots, he handed the quiche to me as we stood in his office punctuated with flags and army paraphernalia. I didn’t know whether to salute him or hug him but erred on the side of protocol. He informed me that his wife had personally taken on the assignment of ensuring that my family was not troubled with making food rations for the foreseeable future. Within a short period of time, we received more foodstuffs than we could possibly consume from individuals I never knew and would never meet. Provisions piled up on the kitchen table at the hospital and filled the refrigerator in our apartment.
Days were passing in a blur. The intensive care unit became our second home. The unit didn’t have any kind of a visitors’ area or lobby, so we took over the kitchen area as though it were our own place of refuge. The nurses, Dalia and Stephanie, made sure we were comfortable, but it was difficult to communicate with them due to the language barrier. They brought us many steaming cups of tea. We became familiar with a few of the children being treated in the rooms down the hall. I remember one young girl who had fallen off her bicycle. She was well on her way to recovery. Her mother visited often, and as she read to her daughter, the Germanic words of the story echoed through the corridor. I didn’t understand the words, but the story must have been sweet, as revealed in the mother’s endearing tone.
Another two weeks passed, and then one day David’s eyes slipped open like seeds cracking to life: a half-open right eye with the left eye opening just a sliver. His eyelids seemed heavy as though glued shut by the translucent ointment. His pupils darted back and forth, but he could barely move his head. Gena leaned over his bed to face him, and he recognized her! I waited for him to say, “Hi, Mom!” but his lips parted with nothing but silence. Instead, his eyes indicated what he wanted to say. They said, I don’t know what’s happening and where I’m at, but I’m glad you’re here.
“Hey, big boy! You’re awake. You’ve been asleep for a long time, over three weeks. Can you believe it? We’ve missed you,” Gena said.
“Where have you been, David? Have you been dreaming?
You’re in the hospital. You’re going to be okay,” I said.
His head turned ever so slightly as he looked in the direction of our voices, and his fingers twitched as he tried to shift his torso out of the crevasse his little body had formed in the bed.
“Can you move your feet?” I asked.
No reaction. Either he could not move his legs or my request wasn’t registering in his brain.
A few days passed, and the fog that clouded his mind seemed to be dissipating. I measured his progress in his smiles. It was as though his face had frozen in the coma and was beginning to thaw. When he smiled, the right corner of his mouth trembled upward and his right eyelid lifted ever so slightly. If you didn’t know David, you might not have guessed he was smiling. But we knew his face, and I’m telling you, he was smiling!
The left side of his face, however, hung lifeless as though its muscles were still frozen in a permanent frown. This was especially noticeable during the moments I joked with him, trying to get him to laugh. The right side of his face would light up, the corner of his mouth rising as it should, even exposing his teeth, but the left side of his mouth remained unresponsive.
To his credit, I’m surprised he even felt like smiling at all. He had good reason to look miserable. When he tugged on the bolts running through his leg, he’d grimace with pain. When he moved his hands and arms, he discovered he was pinned down like the fairy-tale giant Gulliver, but secured with electrical wires instead of ropes. When the pain got too unbearable, he’d twitch and tug any way he could, the alarms would beep loudly, and the nurses would rush in and pump him with another dose of morphine.
We encouraged David as best we could by telling him everything was going to be all right. We told him he’d been in a serious accident, he’d banged his head, and this was the reason he felt so confused. We kept secret the details regarding his head injuries, because we didn’t know the specifics yet. What we knew was that some processes were not functioning in his brain. How much he understood, I don’t know. I suspect he was just beginning to recognize that his mind was no longer working like it used to work.
I remember waking up to a doctor drawing my blood and my dad rolling me down the halls in the hospital while I ate Teddy Grahams. That was the first time I ate those and I like them even today. I remember waking up in my bed and hearing people on the other side of the curtain. I remember my dad had gotten me every GI Joe ever made. My dad comes up with a box and dumps the GI Joes all over me on my bed. – David
I had lifted the cardboard box full of tiny GI Joes above David’s stomach as he lay on his hospital bed one afternoon. He got a kick out of me dumping them all over him and grinned from ear to ear—sort of. The toys covered his waist and legs, but a few tumbled onto the floor. I picked up the figurines one by one and put them in his right hand so he could check them out. He looked at the front packaging to see who the Joes were, and I’d flip the package over so he could read their statistics.
He started whispering about a week after he came out of his coma. He was talking! You’d think he was yelling by the way he filled his lungs and forced the words out. I had to lean over his bed to hear what he was trying to say. The words came out raspy and flat with no inflection or tone. And talking wore him out. It was as if he had only enough energy to speak a dozen words a day. This limited his vocabulary to words and phrases such as yes, no, I’m hungry, I’m tired, and it hurts.
Once he started whispering, he also got more fidgety. His mind was telling him it was time to get on with life, yet his body wasn’t cooperating. We’d crank up the old hospital bed and support his head with pillows so he wouldn’t flop over. This was a minor ordeal, what with all the wires and tubes holding him down. We had to check to see that we hadn’t unplugged all the wires coming from the EKG, make sure he wasn’t pinching any of his IV lines, and then carefully shove more pillows under his broken leg. When we repositioned him, his arms would jerk about in spasmodic gestures like a newborn infant. More than once he tried to rip the IV needles out of his arms. And he was obsessed with that stupid cup taped to his head, clawing away at it in frantic attacks, but only managing to scratch his forehead.
The numbers on the ICP monitor had been progressively dropping since the first week. The numbers still hadn’t settled into the normal range, but his physician felt comfortable that the pressure in his brain was no longer a threat.
For the first time, I heard optimism in her voice. “We are very surprised at David’s recovery.”
“It was serious, wasn’t it?” I asked without expecting an answer. I was genuinely proud of how hard David had fought to survive and how far he had come.
“His recovery has been amazing,” she said.
“Will he have permanent brain damage?” I asked.
“He will have lingering problems—”
“But he’ll be all right?” I asked.
“David’s head injuries are serious. He has damage that
will be with him for the rest of his life. But he’s still young. He’s really progressed in the past weeks, and we’re hopeful the damage has not affected important areas,” she said.
I didn’t want to hear this crap. The fact was David survived. His recovery was remarkable—like he was unstoppable. Sure, he was only whispering, but his voice was getting stronger. He seemed less confused and more coherent every day. He could read the information on the back of the GI Joe packaging, couldn’t he? He was responding to our questions and laughing at my jokes—right? Although he was still in a world of hurt, we could see his old self coming back to life.
Delusion has its merits. As much as I wanted to believe he was getting well, I couldn’t overlook the obvious. David’s left arm was virtually useless. When we spoke to him, he had a glassy-eyed expression. Instructions weren’t registering. He had the vocabulary of a toddler. There was a clear distinction between what the right side of his face was expressing as opposed to the left side of his face—and who wants to go through life with half their face not working? His left leg was a fractured mess held together with metal planks and bolts. The fracture would heal, but there was a real possibility that he would never be able to walk or run.
Next weekend Chapter 7: Sauerkraut Never Tasted So Good