By Donna Brooks
You went down on August 26—my 29th birthday. That’s what the doctors and nurses kept calling it, anyway. It didn’t take long for me to understand that this is one of many ambiguous terms medical practitioners use to speak without saying anything.
Jack and I got the call around 9 p.m. and drove through the night; buzzed on the champagne and bottles of beer we drank to celebrate the last year of my twenties, despite it being a Wednesday. In the middle of nowhere Iowa, your doctor called to ask my permission to use life-saving measures while they transported you from the VA hospital in Des Moines to the neurotrauma unit at Mercy. I gave it, even though I promised you eight years earlier that I’d never let you live in a vegetative state. DNR you had me repeat to you over the phone. Do Not Resuscitate.
I found you drenched by the rising sun, entangled in a menagerie of machinery. Fate found us together again at Mercy, as we were on that very day 29 years before; the hospital I was born in.
Black circles of dried blood ringed your nostrils. When I asked why they hadn’t bandaged your engorged, bleeding ear, which had nearly tripled in size, a blonde nurse said, “She was down for a long time. Maybe eight hours. The blood coming from her ear is the least of our concerns.”
I had an overwhelming impulse to slap her, but buried my fingernails into my palm instead. My little brother is on his way for God’s sake. I moistened a paper towel and eased the blackness away.
A machine blew air into your lungs. A machine cleaned your kidneys—the first organs the body lets go of in an attempt to preserve the lungs, heart, and brain. Your body was the most impressive machine of all.
The neurologist and nephrologist told me to go get some rest—I’d need it for making big decisions. Big stroke. Big sister. I drank instead.
Your MRI showed what they called Shower Emboli; twelve strokes at once. The glossy photograph of your brain looked like a series of constellations mapped in a wrinkled galaxy. The doctor said your heart collected these shooting stars for years, maybe decades before the big bang. Blood pumps in quicker than it can pump out, sloshing and coagulating in the meaty basin of your left ventricle. Atrial fibrillation, he called it, a result of habitual drug use.
His tone carried a tinge of delicate inquiry, just in case the news he was delivering might come as a surprise. As if we could have possibly overlooked the last twenty years of our lost childhoods. Or maybe missed your propensity to, repeatedly, choose meth over motherhood; prison and halfway houses over our upper-middleclass suburb; crime over comfort. Dallas and I nodded. He looked relieved.
I wanted that image—my brother and I sitting there, hunched and raw, on the couch in your hospital room—to be used in D.A.R.E. programs across the country. Particularly in the Midwest where methamphetamine continues to turn mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends into the poison it’s made of. The message: Meth will come back to bite you. Sometimes, years after you quit using it. It destroys everything, inside and out.
Meth changed the beat of your heart.
I prayed for the first time in years. Prayed for your recovery. For your forgiveness. For relief from my opaque guilt for casting you out of my life. Jack read to you from your worn and heavily annotated bible Cousin Angel brought from Spring Hill. His voice was low and soft, a relief from the sterile, rhythmic reminder that you were not breathing on your own. Your bookmark was a picture I’d sent you from the night Jack asked me to marry him. It held the place of Corinthians 13:4-8. Love keeps no record of wrongs.
For ten days this went on. Sooner or later, the doctors said, this stroke will kill your mother. Don’t talk to me like I’m a child, I snapped, and immediately felt guilty, because I am a child. Your child. We agreed to extubate.
She may not breathe on her own, they said. You did.
She will be paralyzed on her left side of her body, they said. You are not.
She will have substantial brain damage, they said. You do.
You’ve lost your ability to create new memories—anterograde amnesia—which is pretty much on par with the cruelty life has shown you. What if, I thought, you awoke with a blank slate? Unburdened by the abuse of your childhood. The suicides of your brothers. The manic depression. What if we could meet between the wrinkles of time and start again.
Donna M. Brooks holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She was a 2013 finalist for the Iowa Review Award in nonfiction and a finalist for the Santa Fe Writers Project Award in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Mamalode. She lives in Sioux City, IA with her husband and daughter.