He really loved her. Delicately he loved her in his own way. Intimately so he could pull her pants down in the store for fun or dump ice water on her in a shower. But loved. You can see it in his eyes when he looked at her, straight at her. Getting married by the waterfall near the old home in full dress array and then fly off to Paris. Time off, time away. He was 6 feet 3 inches tall and so broad I could not give him a hug with my hands engaged.
But Chris felt tired one Saturday morning while mowing the lawn, tired like a cold coming on. He had been working hard getting the business going and working on the house. Overtired. A vet, he went to the VA for a checkup. They took a blood test, loaded him into an ambulance and sent him to Roswell. What? He drove ambulances in convoys in Iraq and wiped up the blood of soldier suicides and he is in the ambulance?
Roswell takes a blood test, a marrow biopsy. You have AML leukemia. Chemo. What? “Hit me with whatever you got and let’s get this over”. But first, I will marry Robyn (he is dressed in hospital pajamas). We go to the chapel in Roswell and they call in the preacher. Some of our family, some of his. He is smiling, looking straight into her eyes. Robyn forgets a line, he laughs, slides on her ring. She stares at him with eyes so full of love and respect it’s a classic picture of true love. Hug, kiss, hug, kiss, hug. They cut the little cake and pass pieces to us. After a few minutes he has to sit down. Has to sit down? He is a weight lifter, big and strong! This must be much worse than I thought. He is taken to the fifth floor to begin chemo. Oh well, he is at least young and strong.
There is something out of whack. You don’t get cancer in a day. It’s months or years. A day? Is this a cancer hospital going apeshit, misdiagnosing and bushwhacking what they know how to do? But there must be some reason the VA sent him over.
“He’s in the ICU”, came the phone call. What? The ICU? Must be a convenience issue. Go to the hospital. What am I doing here? Park, go through the lobby, ask where is the ICU, up the elevator, find the waiting room. Call the ICU number for permission to enter. Go to the ICU, room 1. He’s there in a big bed surrounded by perfusion stands, bags upon bags of liquids, multiple tubes going into his mouth and nose, tubes entering holes in his arms and chest. His eyes are taped shut. Jesus, what a mess, I can’t wait for this to end. At least he’s asleep. Talk to him they say. I read a Kindle book out loud. “They can often hear things even though they are paralyzed and anesthetized.” The ventilator counts out the time. We check the blood pressure, the EEG for a sign of activity, a response to the reading, but don’t see any change. Maybe we did? I’m not sure. After a while it must be time to go. Do you do this all the time? What are you supposed to do? Visiting hours are over so I leave.
The next day is the same cycle. From the apartment to the ICU waiting room. Wait, call for entry. Read Time magazine. Is that what you are supposed to read while your kid is unconscious? Certainly I can’t read the National Enquirer. You can’t read about Lindsay Lohan’s affairs while he is in the ICU. So read Time. But it’s not interesting; it’s not possible to interpret the text. Just stare at the text. The phone rings and I can go in. He looks the same. Eyes taped, tubes, dripping bags, the ventilator clock. Occasional beeps. I take out the Kindle and start to read. Speak loudly. He must have trouble hearing with all the anesthesia and paralysis. I wonder what happens to the inner ear muscles with paralysis. Could he hear OK? I read more. Then someone shows up, Susan(?) and I have company. I read some more then someone else, Robyn(?) has a turn. I stop the book and wander amidst the desks, cleaners, buckets and mops and beeping monitors to the distant exit door, which will become so familiar.
He’s young and strong. Cancer therapy is a mess, but Chris is big and young and strong. Just wait it out. And so it goes.
Then the call, the first of many such calls. In the evening, probably a Friday since weekends proved to be the times for the worst. “He had trouble breathing and we had to replace the breathing tube with a tracheotomy. It looks bad but it’s really better”. My son. His neck is cut open and a plastic plumbing fitting attached to a plastic vacuum cleaner hose is stuck into his neck. The tubes are transparent. There are streaks of blood around the adhesives holding the tube. The racks of tubing are still there poked into his arms and chest and the ventilator still keeps time. Beep. The sign over his head says, “Paralyzed”. Jesus, this is my kid! I can’t wait till this is over. Lean over the bed, squeeze and shake his arm looking out for the tubes and yell at him, “Come on kiddo, let’s go. Let’s get this over with.” I don’t expect a response but some of it may leak through the anesthetic mist. I massage his leg and can watch the blood pressure rise on the monitor as venous blood is squished up to his heart.
Then the fever. The call comes in, a Sunday night, always a weekend. He is in sepsis with 105-106 degree temperature. He is covered with blankets of tubes pumped with refrigerated water, wet blankets, ice packs in the armpits, fans and air conditioner are running, along with the ventilator and dozens of drips. The edge of the cliff. At 8:30 visiting hours are over and we have to leave.
“You what?” “We have to put him on a dialyzer, his kidneys have failed and his potassium is so high it would have killed him if he had been older”. What is this all about? This was just chemo and now he has lost his kidneys? I’ll donate a kidney, although I don’t really want to. “It will take 4-5 weeks for them to recover if they do”. Are these guys competent? How can I tell? “He had muscle breakdown and the myoglobin clogged his kidneys”. Why did his muscles break down? “We don’t know”. What the hell is going on here? This could get serious. Everything seems to be going wrong. He is young and strong, let’s get this over with.
The next day the fever has broken. He lies there tubes in all orifices and stuck through holes in his skin in his arms and legs. Multiple antibiotics added to the drips. Thank God he is big and strong. His chest is so large that I can’t get my hands around him for a hug. He is beginning to turn a grayish yellow and is edematous so his forearms and ankles are tight and look inflated. “The liver is not working well.” He lies there not moving. I weep against the bed. “Chris, Chris come on! Come back! We can beat this! Come on”. More tears. Tears as I write this. Oh God I miss my son. Why did this happen? What is happening to the world? I don’t know where to stand anymore.
Some days later they remove the paralytic and lighten up on the anesthetic to see how neural function survived. His eyes, which have been taped shut, or just glinting through protective gel, begin to open. They are blue eyes but they aren’t his. They are bulging, blurred and unfocussed and don’t recognize anything. “Talk to him and ask for simple commands like move your finger or toe, “says the doctor. I talk to him but he can’t move a finger or a toe, but he does wrinkle his brow. Success! He can hear me and interpret what I say. I can see him trying to talk but the tracheal tube won’t let him. He gets confused with the ventilator’s demands on when to breathe, and he slows down again. I try to imagine what it would be like to awake and find yourself paralyzed, unable to talk or to breathe for yourself, dizzy, unfocused, pain in your throat, unable to see anything but light and dark. No idea where you are, how you got here, what happened to your life. Panic, panic, only panic, and no way to express it. Trapped.
Weeks go by and he becomes more and more yellow. Not a bright yellow but a grey yellow and inflated. There are bruises all over his body from needles and even around were they had place the ice packs in his armpits. His left arm is swollen and is leaking light yellow plasma from a hole in his arm. His eyes are taped shut with gauze pads. Jesus, rehab from this will be a production. Robyn will have her hands full – he is three times as big as she is. We have a conference with the doctors.
“He can’t stay this way”. “What do you mean?” “If he remains in this way, at this level of recovery, he will die. He will get infected from all the catheters. We removed as many as possible to reduce the chance but we need him to start getting better day after day”. Need? What kind of need? He is in a hospital. He is supposed to be cured! “All we can do is to maintain his conditions and wait for him to cure himself”. I’m calm. I’m his father. I’m strong for him. Ominous anxiety begins to break through. I feel there really is no chance but for him to die. I know what the docs mean about needing to see a positive trend. If the liver gets a bit better it helps the lungs and the kidneys and back and forth between the organs. But it’s not happening.
In desperation Janna says she has a friend who does energy healing. What the heck it can’t hurt. A couple days later a middle aged woman shows up in the evening. I ask her what effects she can produce or how will she know if she is successful. She says, “Its nonlinear”. Oh well, so what does the language mean. She is in the ICU with Chris for about an hour with Robyn and quietly comes out. She sort of whispers that she saw things like a dark figure, a priest, standing by his head. She says there was a green light suggesting a cure. Robyn told me that they, whoever “they” is, paid the healer to come. When I mention that to the group sitting there Susan jumps. She clearly doesn’t want me to know about the payment. I’m not loud about it. It shocks me but I keep it to myself. I am raging internally. What kind of friend would charge $150 to save your brother’s life? How could you ever tell a healer con artist from a real one, if in fact, there is a real one? How many people did she cure? Of what? Do you know any of them? Well maybe it will make Robyn feel better anyway.
That night the rage emerges and I scream at Susan who paid the healer bill. Not for the money but for the need of money. I would never have agreed to have a healer for hire come to attend to my son. I can’t believe everyone is returning to the middle ages or beyond. Why not kill goats and heal from the guts. Chickens? I can’t stand being conned. A day later Janna says that it was her mother standing behind Chris dressed in her church going clothes. Cindy says she talked to another healer about Chris and she said she saw a priest. So there are two independent sightings of a priest. Robyn likes the idea and I don’t challenge the conclusion since she is under such stress anything that makes her feel better is good. But I know that two “healers” talking about a dying boy could mention about a priest. This is exactly the likelihood strategy proposed in my book about cold reading, fortune telling with no previous information. Successes are rewarded and failures ignored so you can’t lose.
The next day Chris is still swollen and yellowed and his eyes are padded. The ICU has become our social center. Meet Susan and Robyn and Linda there every day. Sometimes there are others. Bobbie came a few times and I cried on his shoulder. We called Ben and he returned from his walking trip. Called Shana and she and boyfriend Jim came rushing back from Greece. Chris’ friend Wes came once, and my brothers came. Robyn’s aunt and other family came sometimes. Her mother, Linda, was there all the time with Robyn. Magnificent devotion.
Another week. More grey yellow, more swelling, forearms and calves like pine but warm to the touch. More bruises. He’s under the paralytic, anesthesia and pain killer, antibiotics, antiviral, antifungal, food. The Foley catheter for the urine had been disconnected to reduce the chance infection and there was no urine production. Continue multi-organ failure.
One evening when I come in he is there, but he isn’t. There was no vitality, a body, not a person. I can see he won’t make it, and I am in shock and I bid a silent goodbye and leave. I keep my feeling to myself avoid discouraging the others. Three days later we get a call at 6 in the morning that he is having difficulty maintaining blood pressure. We rush to Roswell and Chris is lying there alive, in a sense; his body is alive. The staff is looking dim. They have given Chris the maximum amount of blood pressure medicine and it is still falling. We stand around the bed, Robyn, Linda, Shana, Jim, Susan and I. The staff brings donuts and coffee, a sure sign of the end. We break out the tissues. There is much weeping. I have bid farewell a few days ago so I may not be as affected as the others who still held out hope. 45/35. 44/35, 43/34…and so it goes. We stare at the monitors. The heart is till beating at a regular rhythm and no ectopic beats. I ask the nurse, “Can we at least use his heart for someone else?” She says they can’t because of the leukemia and the medicines. 42/33, 41/33, 40/33…and the monitor goes out of range and flatlines. We watch the EKG. The heart is still beating. Then it begins to slow down. Then it’s mostly flat with an occasional beat, then nothing. We weep. Jim the nurse holds and hugs me as I weep. Chris’s face is swollen and yellowish grey and cooling. The nurses start disassembling the monitors and drips. I can’ look at Chris any more. There is only a body mimicking the son I knew. We wander out into the third floor lobby.
What do you do now? We stare at each other wiping tears still creeping out of our eyes. Occasionally dropping our heads on our arms to cry. What should we do? Go to a bar for a drink? Get together for dinner? Go home? We are in vast echoing room. A lone pianist, a young girl in the first floor lobby begins playing Hey Jude and a song from The Wizard that is also appropriate. It seems right. I guess that when there is a death, the staff asks a pianist to come in and play relevant music for the family. Robyn girds her energy and goes back into ICU1 to get the decorations. We are talking and crying intermittently. We talk about a wake in the spring and decide to go home.
I feel like I have been thrown about in a carnival ride. Disoriented. The space echoes, but not sounds. What is going on? Why did this happen? I grope for someone to blame; Bush, Iraq, the doctors, today’s medicine, but none of it works. I lie on the couch and look at the ceiling. We make it through the day, make calls to relatives and friends. I take lots of Ambien and go to sleep.
Robyn organizes a wake on Friday at a funeral home. My first reaction is why are we doing this now? A small family gathering seems more appropriate and we don’t need a funeral home since Chris’s body is in an autopsy and will be cremated, but she says lots of Chris’ friends and contacts want to do something now. Brother Jon is putting a slide show together for the wake and I try to send some pictures but the ftp site is broken. We decide to finish it when he gets here. Chris’ best friend from the Army, Sean Lunde comes Thursday night to stay with us. I met him only once before on a visit to buffalo to see Chris and I never know his first name, he was always Lunde. Nice guy and very hurt. On Friday I pick up Jon and Ruth and brother Dan at the airport and we cram into my small car with the red kayak on top.
At the house Susan has fixed up beds for everyone and Jon sits down with the Apple laptop to compose the slide show and I grab photos from my machine on a jump drive. We are caught up in the technical side of things and every so often the big picture emerges but I swallow the pain. Bobbie comes over. We finish the slides and choose MP3 music files to play. Chris’s favorite songs by Enya, songs we like and want to play for him. Bobbie grabs the computer speakers and we all head out for Wedekind funeral home at 3 to set up. We get there first and then Robyn and Linda and the rest of her family come. Jon sets up the projector and the sound. We are gathered in two different family clumps. There is supposed to be a military service at 8 according to the obituary. I can’t imagine what this will look like.
We wander about unsure of what will happen and sometimes I sit and dab at my tears. More people start coming in. Then some faculty from school. I am surprised since I never go to funerals. They offer sincere condolences. More people. At our end school administrators show up; the chairman, the dean, the provost offering condolences. I appreciate the attention but don’t know who invited them. I guess they respond to the obits. Maybe I should start reading them. I am shocked as a weeping Vito hugs me. Vito and Jeanne. I haven’t seen them for a couple years but Vito knew Chris from the age of two to twelve when we lived across the street from one another and had kids the same age who played together. They found out from their daughter Alicia, a vet on the west coast who remained friends with Shana. Chris Watson, a friend of Chris’ form Myrtle Beach, comes up from South Carolina. Susan Hua and a group of Chinese and Korean students come in. The room is filled. The slides keep coming up randomly and the background music plays, but at a low volume so people can talk.
Shana gets up in front and the place quiets and she says that she won’t make a speech but encourages people to tell their stories about experience with Chris. Lunde gets up and reads about their experiences in the Army in Germany, travel together, and Iraq. His voice keeps breaking up and he tears. God almighty, how could this have occurred? Chris was so outgoing and so loved by so many people! Lunde drops back into the audience dabbing his eyes. Then Ben, in a suit and tie, gets up and weeping tells about how Chris always played with him. Teased him. Cared for him, taught him about the camping and the equipment he loaned him for his walk to Washington with John. Ben finishes and we hug and weep.
Bobbie gets up in his T shirt and tells how Chris never took any of his bullshit and always told him the truth whether he liked it or not. Janna tries to cheer things up with stories and a poem. Brother Jon gets up and says a few words bout loving Chris and breaks up and steps back. Dan gets up and reads a poem he wrote for Chris and begins weeping. He describes a mist, which is the same feeling I had in losing Chris in the ICU. There is a gap, and I decide it is appropriate for me to get up there but I have not though of anything to say. I just start talking. I talk about being an atheist and don’t think Chris will be reborn, but I see the same thing differently. I see Chris’ influence spreading like ripples through all of us and that is the sense in which he lives on. I break up and stop. I stand with arms around Ben and Shana.
Then the VFW troop moves to the front and the commander reads a hokey liturgy and says that we will now play taps. Taps? This is the loneliest sound of all. Scenes of the Civil War. But it’s my son! Chris. Lunde straightens up and plays taps and I can see him losing control periodically. I am weeping. I am weeping as I write this. We all are weeping.
The VFW people read some more hokey liturgy about being called by the commander but I am not scornful or cynical. It adds to the feeling of support from all these people. There is reason for these gatherings more than the formality of the affair. It forms a way to share and spread the sorrow on many shoulders. We never learned this as kids. Formal affairs were treated as a drag. I want to explain my feelings to Mom and Dad, but they too are gone.
More talking, a few tears. My back hurts from standing so much and I sit by the only pitcher of water and keep drinking. Two marine trainees appear up front and present Robyn with a folded flag. How many times has this happened to the families of soldiers? An unexpected bond with the outside world. Why does this only occur with tragedies? The affair breaks up with the younger people going off to eat in a restaurant and Susan and I head home. Not hungry. I feel more of the spaciness. What now? Will I be forever bound to sorrow? I know Chris would have not wanted that. Christ! He’s not here to say that and I can’t hug his giant chest. Never, ever ever ever ever ever ever…….