The facial expressions of pain and human weakness I have read about for years in literature and could never really visualize, I can see now on the face of my friend. The mixture of fear, regret and barely controlled hysteria is too rich. It nearly makes me sick. Her freckled and pale face is deeply wrinkled and drawn and her normally green eyes have been swallowed by the black of her pupils. She looks her age. Her chin and neck are stretched in a constant state of cringing. She is afraid or unable to make eye contact and just as well. Her pain is raging in there and it’s easier for me not to look. Her back is humped like an old woman’s as if protecting the soft center of her chest, where I imagine her heart beats and aches in a perfect, stabbing rhythm that is too deep to think about for more than a second. Tiny hands curl toward her center and she appears to be hanging on, barely. She is an old woman. She is my age.
Bleary eyed and still heavily drugged, her son turns his head toward her voice and may even recognize it. This is ‘tracking’ we are told. We don’t know. We know nothing. The brain is clearly functioning on some level. He can turn his head. The legs on this six foot-three-inch boy thrash randomly, violently. This is ‘neurostorming’ we are told. He squeezes our hands. But what does he know?
A month ago he knew everything. Now his eyes are blank and dilated and he responds to questions with simple answers: rote memory. What is missing from this child’s brain and what is just bruised for now? We don’t know. It is a waiting game and nobody is guessing. Anything could happen.
The decisions that ultimately created this scene for my friend is a conversation for later. For now, we wrap his fingers around a fork and encourage him to navigate the food toward his mouth. And chew. And swallow. And, ‘do you want a bite of carrots or potatoes?’ Is he really hungry? We don’t know. At 20 years-old he must be hungry often, we reason. So we offer food. But we don’t know.
Occupational therapists and speech therapists and physical therapists and nurse’s aids rotate in and out and speak to him as if he is three years old. I cringe when I hear them. He is not three years old. He is a junior at Kansas University. A 4.0 Dean’s Honor Role student. A future defense attorney. A month ago he would have beaten them all handily in a game of chess. A gifted musician. Brilliant. He is not a three-year-old. He is handsome and humble and passionate about his world. He commands a long line of young women who are completely disarmed by his perfectly white teeth and brutal charm.
Two months after his accident, he is finally able to smile and laugh. It may be the most difficult part of his progress to see him affect what was once normal. His bald and scarred head is too heavy for his shoulders. He sits slumped and slack-muscled, drool suddenly rushing down his chin. He knows to wipe it off and the corners of his mouth are cracked from the constant drooling, wiping, drooling, wiping. But he laughs. I tease him about President Obama, his hero, and threaten to bring my bowling ball and take advantage of his situation by finally beating him at it. He laughs hard, his head bobbing. His teeth, now too big for his head, still beautiful and white, are fully exposed behind his grin. My friend beams from across the room. Her son is alive. He is smiling. It takes everything I have to not cry.