I had told Nick I would do whatever I could to get back up, and I meant it. Knowing Mason needed me was all the motivation I needed. The problem was, I literally couldn’t do anything but lie in bed.
“When will I get my wheelchair?” I asked the physical therapist who had started coming in to help me stretch. This was supposed to keep my muscles from weakening or tightening too much.
“That will take a few weeks,” he answered, as he bent my arm at the elbow, then extended it straight out. “You’ll find out more at the rehab center. They’ll have to measure you and assess your abilities first to see what kind of chair will be the best fit for you.”
“Oh.” I was disappointed. While everyone else was still discussing whether or not I would ever walk again, I just wanted to be able to get out of bed. I was tired of lying down all the time. Tired of staring at the white ceiling and walls of my hospital room, which had started to seem more like a prison cell. Tired of feeling trapped.
The days had begun to blur again, one stretching into another. I kept track of time by the shift changes. When a new nurse came in to turn me, I knew it must be morning or night. The exact hour and minute didn’t matter much. It wasn’t like I was going anywhere, and the only thing I had to look forward to were visits from my family and friends.
Brian dutifully drove my mother to the hospital every morning and spent most of the day there with her, while Howie, AJ, and Nick dropped by on a daily basis. I appreciated them being there, but their presence was a painful reminder of my old life, the life I had given up and was never going to get back.
Kristin’s parents had also come to see me a couple of times. Their visits were the hardest of all. They were in the process of planning a private memorial service for Kristin and wanted my opinion. “We thought we would keep it small, just close family and friends for now,” her father told me with tears in his eyes. “We’d love to have a larger celebration of life for her sometime in the future, when you’re better and able to be a part of it.”
“That would be nice,” I agreed. I knew Kristin wouldn’t have wanted the kind of funeral where everyone wept over her open casket, but I felt guilty for not being there to say my final goodbyes to my wife. Then again, maybe I already had. Maybe our dance in my dreams was my way of honoring her memory.
I still had recurring dreams of her almost every night, but they were often interrupted by the nurses who had to turn me every two hours. This made it impossible for me to sleep more than a couple hours at a time. Just when I finally managed to fall asleep, I would wake to find my body being moved again. I felt like a pancake being flipped over to keep it from burning - or, in my case, from getting bedsores. After a few days of begging my doctor to give me something to help me sleep better, she finally agreed to prescribe a sleeping pill, which a nurse would place under my tongue to dissolve just before turning out the lights at night.
One night, a week after the accident, I woke to find two nurses standing next to my bed, getting ready to reposition me. I felt groggy and kept my eyes closed to block out the light as they carefully rolled me from my back onto my side. “How does that feel, Kevin? Are you comfortable?” one of them asked, after they had finished adjusting the placement of my pillows.
“Yeah… it’s fine,” I mumbled. I was never completely comfortable with the cervical collar around my neck, but there was nothing they could do about that. Dr. Bone had said I would have to wear it for at least eight weeks, until my spinal fusion finished healing.
“Okay. We’ll let you get back to sleep then. Do you need anything before we go?”
I opened my eyes briefly, glancing up at the nurse who had spoken. “Nah, I’m good, Dee. Thanks.” As she reached up to turn off the light over my bed, I caught sight of something behind her that made me gasp: a large, black bird perched on top of my IV pole.
Hearing my sharp intake of breath, Dee looked down at me with a concerned expression on her face. “What is it? Are you okay?”
“How did that bird get in here?”
“Bird?” She frowned, her look of concern becoming one of confusion. “What bird?”
Wondering if my eyes were playing tricks on me, I blinked, but the bird didn’t disappear. “Behind you… on the IV pole. Don’t you see it?”
Dee turned around to look, but shook her head. “There’s no bird. It must just be a shadow. Try to go back to sleep.”
She shut off the light before she left, but I could still see the bird’s silhouette by the faint glow of the monitor above my bed. It wasn’t moving, but there was something vaguely threatening about the way it loomed over me as I lay there like a piece of carrion, paralyzed and vulnerable. I could feel its beady eyes fixed upon me, watching me in the dark, as if it were waiting to swoop down and start pecking at me. But it didn’t do anything.
It reminded me of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “The Raven,” which I had read and analyzed for an American literature class in high school. “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…” I couldn’t remember the rest, except for the repeated line everyone knows: “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” My teacher had told us the raven represented death and the narrator’s descent into madness after losing the love of his life, Lenore. Was my own grief making me lose my mind as well?
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but I kept opening them to see if the bird was still there. At some point, I must have drifted off because the next thing I knew, the nurses were back to roll me over again, and the raven was gone.
I didn’t mention it the next morning when Dr. Bone came by, worried she would call in a shrink if she heard I was having hallucinations. I was already tired of my body being poked and prodded; I didn’t want my mind probed, too.
“Everything’s looking good, Kevin,” said the doctor once she’d finished examining me. “The surgical site seems to be healing well, and your vital signs are stable. You’re doing great.”
“I’m not doing anything,” I argued. “All I ‘do’ is lie here.”
“That can’t be true. You’ve obviously been doing your breathing exercises, or your lungs wouldn’t sound so clear,” she said, adjusting the stethoscope around her neck. “And according to Phil from P.T., you’re ‘cooperative’ and ‘pleasant to work with.’”
“Yeah, but I still can’t move anything on my own. I just lie there and let him stretch me.”
“Recovery takes time. Try to be patient.”
“I know,” I sighed. “I am. I just wish I could get out of here and go home. I have a six-month-old baby I haven’t been able to see in a week because they won’t let kids come in here to visit. I miss my son.” Tears welled in my eyes when I thought of Mason, who must be wondering where his mama and daddy were. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to see me the way I was now; I worried the tubes and monitors would scare him. But I wished I could see him. Kristin’s parents had been taking lots of pictures to show me, but it wasn’t the same. I had to get better so I could get back home to him.
Dr. Bone gave me a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry. You won’t be able to go home until you’ve finished the first phase of your rehabilitation, but I’ll see if I can pull some strings and set up a visit with your son.”
“That would be nice,” I said, blinking back my tears. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She gave me a moment to compose myself, then cleared her throat. “Since you’re doing so well, how would you like to try sitting up today?”
“Really?” For the first time that day, I felt hopeful. “Yeah… I would love that!”
She smiled. “I thought you might. I’ll let Phil know you’re ready so he can have you try it later this morning.”
I was glad she had given me something to look forward to, grateful for the distraction. I wasn’t expecting any of my family or friends to visit until afternoon because they would all be at Kristin’s memorial service, which was taking place that morning. It killed me not to be present for it.
I had begged Dr. Bone for permission to go. “Please, just put me in a wheelchair, and I’ll get one of the guys to push me around,” I’d pleaded with her the previous day. “Or, hell, I’ll go on a damn gurney if I have to.”
Of course, she had flat-out refused. “I’m sorry Kevin, but it’s just not possible. You’re still dependent on oxygen and intravenous medications. You’re not ready to leave the ICU yet, let alone the whole hospital. You’ll have to stay here at least another week or two, until you’re well enough to be transferred to a rehab facility.”
I was disappointed, but not surprised. I hadn’t really expected her to agree to my plan. Still, I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just give me a wheelchair with a portable oxygen tank and an IV pole. I guess that shows how naïve I was at that point, how little I knew about my own condition.
I found out for myself why this wasn’t possible when I tried sitting upright for the first time since the accident. Sitting up in bed didn’t sound like a big deal to me, but it turned out to be a more complicated process than I ever could have imagined.
After I’d been fed and bathed, the physical therapist, Phil, came in. “Hi, Kevin! How are you feeling this morning?” he asked cheerfully. He was a short, middle-aged man with a shiny bald patch above his forehead where his brown hair had receded.
“Fine,” I replied automatically, although I felt far from it. Dr. Bone said I was “stable,” but physically, I felt like a disembodied head floating apart from the rest of my body. Only the pain in my neck reminded me that my head was still attached to my shoulders. Everything else was numb.
Emotionally, I was an unstable mess. My grief came and went in waves. There were moments when something would make me smile, and I’d think, I can’t wait to tell Kristin. Then I remembered she was gone. The realization hit me as hard as the car that had crashed into us, killing her and crippling me. The pain that followed was even worse. I was mourning the loss of my wife, as well as the loss of my independence. As I lay in bed, my face burning with embarrassment while a female nurse washed and wiped my naked body, I would find myself wishing I was dead, too. It would be so much easier for my soul to be in Heaven with Kristin, happy and whole, than stuck here in this Hell on Earth, imprisoned inside a body that no longer worked. I didn’t want to be a quadriplegic any more than I wanted to be a widower. But then I would think of Mason, who had already lost his mother, and my own mom, who had already lost her husband. The last thing I wanted to do was leave my son an orphan or cause my mom any more pain. So I put on a brave face and tried my best to be strong. There was nothing more important to me than my family. They were the driving force behind my desire to get better, and without even knowing it, they pushed me further down the path to recovery.
“No visitors today?” Phil looked around, as if expecting to see one of my friends or family members hiding in a corner. He was used to having an audience while he worked with me. Unlike some of the staff, he let them stay in the room during our therapy sessions and patiently explained what he was doing and why, which I know my mom appreciated. She was always asking questions, wanting to know more about my injury and rehabilitation.
“Not yet. They’re all at my wife’s memorial service. I’m sure they’ll stop by later.”
Phil’s smile quickly faded, as his face went red. “Oh. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that was today.”
“It’s okay. I don’t really wanna talk about it. Let’s just get on with this.” I could feel tears threatening at the corners of my eyes, but I fought them back, not wanting to cry in front of him. If I let those tears fall, I wouldn’t be able to wipe them away. I was tired of feeling weak.
Phil seemed to understand. “That’s the spirit,” he said. “So our goal today is to get you into an upright position, but we’re going to go slowly to give your body time to adjust. Dr. Bone may have already explained this to you, but one thing we have to watch out for is a complication called postural hypotension, which is a sudden drop in blood pressure caused by a change in position, like getting up after lying down for a long time. Have you ever gotten dizzy after standing up too quickly?”
“I dunno… yeah, I guess so.”
“Well, that’s an example of the kind of hypotension I’m talking about. It can happen to anyone, but it’s more common in people with spinal cord injuries. That’s because you’ve lost control of the part of your nervous system that keeps your blood pressure stable. Quadriplegics tend to have low blood pressure anyway, so if you change positions too quickly, you’re likely to pass out.”
“Wow… I didn’t know that.” Every day I learned something new about the way my disabled body worked - or didn’t work. It would have been interesting if it wasn’t so damn depressing.
“Yeah - the more you know, right?” Phil grinned. “We definitely don’t want you fainting on us, so we’re going to sit you up very gradually. We’re also going to use an abdominal binder, which goes around your waist and compresses your abdomen, kind of like a girdle or corset.”
I raised my eyebrows as he held up a wide elastic band so I could see it. “A corset?” I repeated skeptically. It sounded uncomfortable, until I remembered I couldn’t feel the area around my waist anyway.
Phil chuckled. “I know - seems a little weird, right? But it works well for quads because it increases your abdominal pressure and prevents your blood pressure from dropping so drastically as you sit up. It also pushes up your diaphragm, which will make it easier to breathe when you’re sitting up. It’ll help with your balance, too. Remember, your abdominal muscles are paralyzed, so you have no core strength, nothing to keep you from flopping over if we were to sit you up right now. The binder will provide you with some support.”
“Okay,” I agreed. My nurse, Stephanie, removed my hospital gown, and she and Phil wrapped the binder around my waist. I couldn’t really see what they were doing or feel the binder at all, so it didn’t bother me.
When they were done, Phil said, “All right - now we’re going to raise the head of your bed a few degrees and see how well you tolerate it.” To Stephanie, he added, “Let’s get a set of baseline vitals before we go any further. We’ll need to keep a close eye on his blood pressure and breathing.”
Stephanie pushed a button on my monitor, and I heard rather than felt the blood pressure cuff inflate around my arm. “B.P. is ninety-nine over sixty,” she said a minute later, looking up at the monitor as she read off a series of numbers.
Phil had her raise the head of my bed a little at a time, slowly bringing me into a semi-upright position. They packed pillows around my body to keep it from falling to one side or the other. “How does that feel?” Phil asked.
After lying flat for so long, I felt light-headed at first, but I answered, “Fine,” figuring my body would adjust. I wasn’t used to being weak or fragile. As an athlete and a performer, I had always been physically fit. Up until a week ago, I was in perfect condition, and now I couldn’t even sit up on my own. I tried clenching my abs like I was doing a crunch to pull myself further forward. I could remember what that felt like, but I couldn’t feel it anymore. Phil was right - I had lost control of those muscles, too.
Leaning back against the head of the bed, I looked down at the rest of my body with a strange sense of detachment. Although I recognized my arms and legs, they didn’t feel connected to the rest of me. They might as well have been a pair of dummy legs, like in a magic trick. The magician could saw right through them, and I wouldn’t feel a thing.
There were white compression stockings on my feet that went all the way up to my knees, and both my calves were wrapped in some kind of padded brace. “What are those for?” I asked, with a pointed look at the braces. No one had mentioned my legs being injured in the crash - not that it mattered much, considering Dr. Bone had said I would never walk again anyway.
“Those are a special kind of compression device to prevent blood clots from forming. There’s a pump at the foot of your bed that inflates them with air every few seconds to squeeze your legs and push the blood through your veins. This keeps it from pooling in your legs while you’re lying still,” Stephanie explained. “It should also help you maintain a healthy blood pressure.”
“Oh.” My eyes moved to my left arm, where I could see an IV line taped to the inside of my elbow and a monitor clipped to the tip of my index finger. I couldn’t feel either one. They should have put that stuff on the right side, I thought. I’m left-handed. Then I realized it didn’t matter: I couldn’t move my left hand any more than I could move my right. I tried flexing my fingers, but they didn’t even twitch.
That was when I noticed my wedding band was missing. “Do you know where my wedding ring is?” I asked Stephanie.
“They may have had to remove it in the emergency room. If so, it was probably given to a family member with the rest of your personal belongings.”
I frowned, wondering if my mom had it. If so, she hadn’t mentioned it. Even though my wife was dead, I felt weird not wearing my wedding ring. My finger looked naked without it.
“Are you still feeling okay, Kevin?” Phil interjected. “You’ve lost some color in your face.”
“I’m a little dizzy,” I admitted, as the light-headedness intensified.
Phil looked concerned. “Let’s get another B.P.,” he said to Stephanie, who pushed the button on my monitor again.
“Sixty-eight over forty-five.”
He gave her a nod. “We’re gonna go ahead and lie you back now, Kevin, before your blood pressure drops any lower.”
“I’ll be okay. Just give me a minute,” I protested.
Phil shook his head. “Don’t try to fight it - you won’t win. This is your body’s way of telling you there’s not enough blood flowing to your brain. If you don’t listen to it and lie down now, you’ll faint.”
I didn’t want to believe him, but I knew he was right. Black spots had already appeared at the edges of my vision, like static on a screen. I closed my eyes as I felt the head of my bed start to lower back down. When I opened them, I was staring up at the ceiling again. I felt defeated.
But Phil seemed pleased. “That was a good first try,” he told me.
“I only made it a minute or two.”
“After lying down for a week, I wouldn’t have expected you to make it much longer than that. I’ve worked with a lot of patients with spinal cord injuries - you’re doing just as well as any of them,” he said with a reassuring smile. “We’ll let you rest for a few minutes, until your blood pressure comes back up, and then we can try it again. It just takes time and practice to build up your tolerance to being in an upright position.”
I appreciated his encouragement, but I still felt frustrated by what I considered to be a failure. How was I going to get out of bed if I could barely sit up without fainting? I hated having no control over my own body.
We kept at it, alternating between positions, and by that afternoon, I was able to be propped up at a forty-five degree angle for about ten minutes before my body told me it was time to lie flat again. I had just asked Stephanie to raise the head of my bed when I heard my mother’s voice ring out, “Knock knock!”
“Come on in!” I called back. As the bed went up, slowly pushing me into a sitting position, I saw her standing in the doorway. But she wasn’t alone. My eyes welled with tears when I spotted my son in her arms. “Mason! C’mere, baby boy!” I wished I could hold out my hands to him, but they lay still at my sides, propped up on a pair of pillows.
My mom smiled tearfully as she brought him over to me. “Your doctor called and left a message on my phone this morning, saying I could bring Mason for a visit today. Bless her heart. She must have known you needed this as much as he does.”
The tears spilled over, and for a few seconds, I couldn’t speak. I tried to nod, but the neck brace prevented it, so I just smiled back through my tears.
“See? Here he is,” my mom said to Mason. “Here’s Daddy!” She was wearing a simple gray dress, and Mason had on a little sweater vest and bow tie over his white button-down shirt and black pants, the same outfit he had worn to Howie’s wedding a month ago. Kristin had picked it out and taken hundreds of pictures of him in it. I hoped she was watching over him and smiling at how dapper he looked today.
Swallowing hard, I managed to find my voice and infuse it with as much joy as I could muster. “Hi, Mason!”
At first, my son just stared at me. There was a slight frown on his face, as if he didn’t fully recognize me. I must have looked different with the tubes coming out of my nose and the collar around my neck. Or maybe he was just overwhelmed. I hoped he hadn’t forgotten me.
I tried again. “It’s me, buddy. It’s Daddy.” And to my relief, this time he reached for me. It about broke my heart not to be able to reach back. “Can you put him on my lap?” I asked my mom.
She hesitated. “I don’t want him to hurt you or try to pull at your tubes…”
“Aw, he won’t hurt anything. Right, Steph?” I appealed to my nurse.
“Just keep a close eye on him,” Stephanie cautioned. “Your gown will hide most of it from him, but you don’t want him grabbing your NG tube - you would definitely feel that one.”
I didn’t doubt that, but it was a risk I was willing to take just to be able to hold my son again.
My mom carefully set Mason down on my lap. He could sit up on his own now - which was more than I could do, I realized, as I watched my mom remove her hand from behind his back. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad. I couldn’t feel his weight on my legs, nor could I move my arms well enough to hug him. In that moment, I felt more like a La-Z-Boy than a father. “Could you maybe pick up my arms… and put them around him?”
“Of course, honey.” My mom took my left hand and brought it behind Mason’s back. Then she reached for my right hand and held my palm against the back of his head, rubbing it gently over his blond hair. I remembered how that hair felt between my fingertips, so silky and fine. But I couldn’t really feel it anymore. The realization broke my heart, bringing fresh tears to my eyes.
My mom was crying, too. “It’s so good to see you sitting up again,” she said, smiling at me through her tears. “How does it feel?”
“Not bad,” I said, blinking back my own. “I get dizzy pretty easily, but it’s nice to be in a new position.”
I turned my attention back to Mason. “How’s my boy? I missed you, buddy. Daddy missed you so much…”
But Mason was too busy looking around to respond. He turned toward me when I talked to him, then spotted the bundle of wires that were hooked up to my heart monitor sticking out the neck opening of my hospital gown. “No, no, Mason,” my mom warned, pulling his hand back as he went to reach for them. “Don’t touch.” She dug into the diaper bag she’d brought and found a toy to give him instead. The giraffe-shaped teether was enough to distract him for a few minutes while we talked.
“How did it go today?” I asked, watching as my son stuck the giraffe’s head in his mouth and started gumming away at it.
My mom gave me another sad smile. “It was a beautiful service,” she said. “The boys sang the song you wrote about Dad - ‘Never Gone.’”
“I know. I gave them my blessing.” Brian had come to me a few days earlier, wanting my permission to perform that song after Kristin’s parents had asked him and the guys to sing at her service. I could never have gotten through it without crying, but of course, it was more personal to me than it was to the others. I had written it for my late father. From now on, it would remind me of losing my wife as well.
“There were lots of tears,” my mom went on, “but also some smiles and even a few laughs. I wish you could have been there to hear the stories and memories of Kristin.”
My throat tightened painfully. “Me too.” As Mason shifted, I saw my left hand lying limply on the bed behind him, and my thoughts returned to my wedding band. “Hey Ma, do you know where my wedding ring is?”
She nodded. “I have it right here.” She reached down the neck of her dress and withdrew a long, gold chain. Dangling from the end were both Kristin’s and my wedding bands. “Sorry - I had to hide this from Mason so he wouldn’t pull on it as we were walking up here,” she added, as she took off the necklace to show me. “Susan still has Kristin’s engagement ring. She said you can have it back whenever you’re ready - she thought you might want to pass it on to Mason someday - but she wanted to wear it around her neck today. She gave me Kristin’s wedding band to wear with yours.”
“That’s real nice,” I replied, my voice thick with emotion. I remembered placing that ring on my wife’s finger like it was yesterday. In reality, it had been almost eight years since I had married her in a beautiful outdoor ceremony at Cathedral Domain, the church camp in rural Kentucky that my father had run when I was a kid. I had many fond memories of growing up there, and on our wedding day, I had looked forward to starting a family with Kristin and making memories of our own. I’d always assumed we would have several children and grow old together. I never could have imagined I would only get seven more years to spend with her.
My mom cleared her throat. “Would you like me to put your ring back on your finger?”
I opened my mouth to say yes, then hesitated. “How long did you wear your wedding rings after Dad died?”
She looked down at her bare left hand, bending and flexing her gnarled fingers as she pondered my question. “About a year,” she finally answered. “I decided to take them off on our first anniversary after his death.” She paused, then added, “But honey... there’s no time limit on grief. There’s no rulebook either. If you want to wear your ring, wear it, and if you don’t, then don’t.”
“It feels weird not wearing it,” I admitted. “Not that I can actually feel my fingers, but… my hand doesn’t look right without it.”
“Then I’ll put it back on for you.” She unfastened the clasp and slipped my ring off the chain. Then she picked up my left hand and straightened my fingers so she could slide it back onto the fourth one where it belonged. I couldn’t feel it, but it made me feel better inside to see my wedding band around my finger. In my heart, I was still married, even if my wife was in Heaven.
“Would you like to wear hers too?” my mom asked, as she closed the clasp on the chain. “I could put it around your neck.”
I considered this. “Will it fit over this stupid collar?”
“Well, let’s see here...” She put her hands on my shoulders and carefully pulled my upper body forward, just far enough so that she could loop the long chain over my head. Then she lowered me back against the bed and adjusted the necklace around my brace. “There. It fits perfectly.”
A hard lump rose in my throat as I looked down and saw Kristin’s ring resting on my chest, right over my heart. “Thanks, Ma,” I whispered. I was starting to get woozy again and knew I would need to lie back down again before long.
“You’re welcome, honey.” Her eyes glistened as she looked at me. “I wish you weren’t going through this. Any of it. The only thing worse than losing a spouse would be to lose a child,” she said, shaking her head. My eyes dropped to Mason, who was still sitting on my lap, happily gnawing his giraffe. “I can only imagine what Susan and John must be going through. I thank God every day for sparing your life.”
Hearing her gratitude made me feel guilty for my lack of it. I was angry at God for taking my wife and leaving me like this. The only thing I had to be thankful for was my son. At least he hadn’t been in the car with us that night. The fact that Mason was alive gave me a reason to go on living, too.