Why I Stopped Teaching and Flew to Atlanta, Huntsville, and Birmingham, Alabama
Neurologists are trained to counsel a family with brain scans, and cold percentage points. We were informed this past February that my brother John had a 98 – 99 percent likelihood of remaining bed ridden for the rest of his life. He was now a victim of a massive stroke at age 48. These were the dry facts that caused my family to fall apart. Ten days after my brother’s stroke we were facing hospice, for he had not swallowed or used his tongue. He looked so healthy and beautiful, a dark tan on his muscular arms and legs, yet he was frozen, his right side was paralyzed. Everyone who visited my brother felt his courage. Somehow he was still residing inside his body because he had the ability to squeeze our hands. Since John was no longer married a monumental decision came to rest on the shoulders of my young niece, Lexi. Lexi turned nineteen the day after her father’s stroke. The hospital staff wanted her to decide whether permanent feeding tubes should be inserted into his stomach? If not, he could no longer remain in the hospital. They had done everything they could. Her father was in a vegetative state. Did I mention, we were all falling apart?
On day ten, I planned to fly back to Denver and finish teaching the last two classes of our Asian Cooking Series. I was already making plans to return and stay with John because I thought he was dying. That same morning, as I walked onto the fourth floor of the hospital, I was informed at the nurses station that John had been pulling out the temporary feeding tubes. They were a bit frustrated and wanted to tie his arms back to his bed. X-rays had to be taken to re-insert them and it was a tiresome process.
It was heart breaking, I never imagined my brother’s strong hands being tied down, and yet it felt to me that it might be an indication that his strength was coming back. When I walked into his room, he looked like my brother again, his hands were free and the plastic tubes taped to his mouth and nose were lifted.
I had to tell John one more time, that he was the best brother a sister ever had. We had 48 years together. I was twelve when he came home from the hospital as my third baby brother. I was the oldest in a family of seven. I was the “built in” baby sitter. My brother and I never fought, and maybe that was because I was the boss for a long time. Over the years we became one another’s soul mate. Our lives intersected through all kinds of ups and downs. We experienced much together. We talked endlessly. He understood me so well. You could say we had a mental and emotional intimacy. I was lucky to have a brother like John. I could talk to him in a certain way and he just got it. We had a natural connection. I missed this part immediately, this new silence. But then I would remind myself that we were so comfortable being together not saying a word at all.
As I was holding John’s IV’d hand before I left, with my choked up throat, I realized this might be it. While I was saying goodbye, standing by the side of his bed, John reached forward from his stillness and swung his arm around my neck, pulling my body toward him. He began rubbing my hair and I rested my head next to his heart. I could not believe this was happening. I began shaking, was I dreaming this? He was trying to hug me. Was he coming back to life or saying goodbye to me? I was in shock. I called the nurse. I told her, “my brother is moving, please try once more, give him some ice, see if he might swallow this time.” And low and behold, he did! That little ice chip went down his throat and his Adam’s apple moved, I saw it and she did too. The nurse wanted to give him a sip of Coke and of course that blew my mind. “No, no, think of something better”, I blurted out. “He is coming back!” She ran down the hall for applesauce and a little spoon.
From that moment, our lives changed forever. We became a tighter close knit family, as adults. My brother did not understand he had a brain injury or that he had a stroke. That reality came later. After he moved and was able to drink liquids he was transferred by ambulance, from Huntsville, Alabama to the Shepherds Center in Atlanta, Georgia. This exceptional hospital for brain and spinal injury became a miraculous shelter for us. The amazing staff, their support and deep kindness was felt by my brother and our entire family. While he was in their care he began to recover ever so slightly, day by day.
When my husband Paul and I arrived in Atlanta we entered a world that was completely different from the one we had left. We learned what full time care meant under catastrophic circumstances. Despite my intention of staying in touch, I realized I had to reserve everything I had for my brother. I had never faced anything like this before. While we were suffering, I was also surrounded by other caretakers who were shattered with their own unexpected tragedies. Their loved ones could no longer function the way they used to. I became a good listener and part of a healing community.
Hearing other family stories helped to ease my pain. Children injured from gun violence, hunting and car accidents, young men falling from scaffolds and ladders. No one signed up for these tragedies.
I found myself holding hands and embracing people I had just met. My heart melted a thousand times over. It was exhausting and incredibly beautiful. The human heart is so resilient, so loving and yes, broken hearted too. The sharing was what we did and this experience changed my life. My days were full to the brim of helping and listening and being the body and soul for someone else.
My brother is still recovering. I am brave because I feel his bravery. I see how he is re-creating his life. He learned how to get out of bed, how to use a wheel chair and then he began to walk. Helping him and watching his progress felt miraculous.