Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Eight Days: From Times Square Naked Cowboy to Mark’s Death

This post is inspired by Rosamund Lupton's novel, Afterwards. As a member of www.fromlefttowrite.com, I received a free copy. Lupton weaves a skillful story of a parent's love and criminal mystery in a medical setting. There was no question about the memory this novel provoked for me. 

After the conference dinner, John and I walked back to the Edison Hotel via Times Square. Neither of us had been in New York for a while and it was great fun to just walk among the crowd on a Saturday night. The Naked Cowboy in his tiny tighty-whiteys strummed away and we stopped to buy a t-shirt for Mark. I have no idea what that t-shirt said or whatever became of it.
            When we walked into our hotel room the phone was ringing. Strange, I thought. Everyone calls us on cell phones these days. My niece’s voice sounded anxious from the start. “Bren, Rebecca has been trying to get hold of you all evening. Call her immediately. Mark has had some sort of accident.”
            I didn’t panic right away. I’m a glass-half-full person who thinks every problem has a solution. “Don’t worry. I’ll call Rebecca right now.”
            Rebecca’s voice sounded twice as anxious. She was driving with a friend from Huntsville where she and Mark were in school at Sam Houston State University to a hospital in Houston. A helicopter ambulance overhead was taking Mark.
“They wouldn’t let me ride in the helicopter with him because I’m not related to him! We don’t know anything except he fell off the back of an ATV and hit his head. I was right behind him on another ATV and I thought he was joking when he got up. You know how he can be. Then he got very angry, almost violent and we knew something was wrong. The emergency vehicles came and they decided he needed to be flown to Houston.”
After exhausting all questions and answers I could come up with, Rebecca said through her tears, “I’m so sorry, Bren. I hope he’s going to be okay.”
“Don’t worry, Beck. I’ll get on the phone with the hospital now and stay in touch until they know something.”
Mark and I in 1996.
The next few hours stretched forth as the eternal nightmare no parent ever wants to experience. I finally reached the neurologist who had already done surgery on Mark. He said Mark’s brain was swelling and they did surgery immediately to relieve pressure. He would give me no further prediction of how Mark was or would be and said he would be in touch as they knew more.
Scared but still telling myself, Mark would be fine, I decided to call an old friend who was a neurosurgeon in Lexington. When I got him on the phone and described the situation, he said, “Get a flight and get to Texas as fast as you can. Yes, I would have agreed to the surgery to relieve pressure.”
I made the call thinking he would give me reassurance, now my panic soared. John began working on his cell phone to get me a flight and a taxi to the airport while I returned calls to Rebecca and family to update them. I shook with fear and chills as I dialed each number. John wrapped me in blankets with one hand as he held his phone with the other.
The taxi drive in the middle of the night through strange parts of New York City would have scared me on other nights. Now I had far greater fears. The driver deposited me safely at the airport. I took a sleeping pill on the plane to force myself to get some rest on the flight. The realization had set in that I would need all the strength I could muster.  
I arrived at the Houston airport about the same time as Rebecca’s mother coming in from Lexington. A friend of Mark’s from Sam Houston State picked us both up and delivered us to Memorial Hermann Hospital. I didn’t have a choice of hospitals and would not have known how to choose, but I learned later that Memorial Hermann is one of the nation’s best and the place where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords will rehabilitate in the coming years. No parent wants or deserves to spend eight days by their child’s side and ultimately lose him but the staff at this hospital made the experience as bearable as they were able.
We scrubbed up to enter the ICU. Only two or three of us could go in at a time. Being very familiar with ICU, I walked in knowing what to expect. And yet. This time my dear Mark was lying there with tubes coming out of every orifice of his body, his head wrapped in bandages and multiple machines attached to him. I swallowed back the hot spit and willed myself not to vomit. I resisted the urge to climb into the bed with him and use every mode of comfort I knew so well from twenty-five years of parenting him.
Others arrived hour by hour. Sims flew in from Oregon, Leah from Philly, college friends drove over from Hunstville, his best friend Patrick Wallace from Kentucky, an elementary school friend and my step-grandson who both lived near Houston. My sisters Ashley and Margaret, Rebecca’s sister Hunter Quinn. And, of course, my dear husband.
John had flown back to Lexington, performed necessary duties with work and house and got to Houston as soon as he could. We had just married in January, this was April. From the moment the phone call came in New York until this day, John has been my tower of strength. Who thinks they’re signing up for death and grief and catastrophic change in their wife three months after they say, “I do?”
So a “crowd of witnesses” had gathered in Houston. By Monday, the neurosurgeon gathered everyone present around a big conference table outside of ICU. The surreal atmosphere hung heavy around us. The people around that table loved Mark unquestioningly. But as the doctor asked and then listened to each person weigh in about Mark’s life and death, I fought the urge to scream, “No! No! Nobody gets to decide about Mark’s quality of life and pulling some plug except ME! I gave him birth! He is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh! Stop it!”
Some shred of humanity or pastoral identity choked those words back. I knew the doctor was allowing everyone to have their say for multiple reasons—I suppose most compassionately to aid in the grief that was ahead of each one of us. Still, I wanted to cling to my baby boy with every scrap of maternal instinct in my being—primal ferocity.
The beeps and blips of the machines attached to Mark became familiar to us. His heart pumped on—young, healthy. His brain activity declined. By Wednesday, my intuition knew the boy I gave birth to was gone. Mark was so identified with his intellect. He once told me the curse of being smart was that “no matter what I become, I cannot exceed anyone’s expectations. If I’m president, my elementary school teachers will say, ‘I’m not surprised. I knew Mark would be something great.’” All that potential gone—forever.
Still, there was my son’s body—a big, beautiful, healthy body. We could not layer waste upon waste by burying his healthy organs with him. I wanted every usable piece of his body redeemed, reused, giving life in someone else’s body. Thus began days with hospital ethicists, doctors, chaplains and social workers. In order to donate Mark’s organs, he had to be brought out of the induced coma to verify brain death. I was scared. What would that mean? Would he feel anything? Would he know anything? My gut stayed tense for days as we each took turns standing by his side, talking with him, touching him, reminding him of stories and place and people we had shared. I couldn’t help but wonder if bringing him out of the induced coma would reveal changes. Could he possibly surprise the doctors? Was there an ounce of hope? So many questions, such medical answers but this was not their next patient, this was my Mark!
Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we continued to take our turns standing by Mark’s bed saying our good-byes—long, surreal, mind-numbing, gut-wrenching good-byes. We stared at the brain monitor—numbers that determined when they could declare the end of my baby’s life. Numbers! Leah and I were the only two in the unit at one point and we both used that moment to sing to Mark the songs we each sang to him as an infant and toddler. Each person’s grief and loss seemed to bury me under another layer. How can anybody, even me, go on with the weight of this grief?
John’s resourcefulness never takes a vacation. He got the idea and cautiously presented it to me that we might want to save some of Mark’s sperm.
“You never know what the future will present, Bren. Will Sims need to use that sperm? Will Rebecca one day want to have Mark’s baby? You never know.”
            The cruel twist is that John knew the pain of multiple miscarriages from his previous marriage and I was too numb to have ever thought of this step. The hospital officially said, “No, we do not perform that service.” John was tenacious. He found a urology intern who was willing to harvest the sperm; John found a sperm bank listed in a free local paper and the potential for future grandbabies toddled off to the bank. In 2006, after the birth of Sims’ son, Tristan, and Rebecca’s marriage to another, we made the decision to discard the sperm. I have never regretted that we saved that piece of Mark for four years.
            Even the cremation plans were complicated. The medical examiner asked John, “Do you mind if your loved one is cremated by an African-American crematory?”
            “Of course not,” John responded.
            “Well, then, it will be a couple of thousand dollars cheaper.”
            Would customer service in a white-owned funeral home have asked if we minded if our son was cremated by white people? Another hidden injustice in our society.
Sunday morning arrived and John and I were in a car with some folks who were taking us to church. Who were those people? What church were we going to? How did this come about? I suppose I knew then, but my memory fails me as I try to reconstruct. The eight days had taken a toll and I began to move robotically through the days. As we drove through the streets of Houston, my cell phone rang. The hospital. “Mark’s brain activity has declined, please come now.”
Saying that last good-bye with Mark’s heart still beating haunts me. The number by which experts make such calls about life and death mean nothing to a mother walking away from her son’s beating heart. As we walked out of ICU for the last time, Sims and I turned to each other and grabbed hold. The agony on Sims’ face etched itself into my brain. Mark, the younger brother, had become the older brother in recent years. Now Sims would live the rest of his life without those phone calls, without the UK basketball trash talk to each other, without sharing wives, children and Christmases to come. The grieving began a new stage.
    We returned to Lexington and started plans for Mark’s service. I’m doing the tasks. I’m walking, talking and sometimes sleeping, but feel strangely numb and removed.
Then my son arrived in a box one day. Just like Amazon or Overstock.com, a package came in the mail. I signed for it; accepted it into my hands and stood there unknowing. What is the next step when I’m standing there holding my son in a box?