Awake (and Other Moments of Reflection pt. 5)


They had pulled the tracheal tube out. Seeing him without that down his throat was one of the most refreshing sites I could have asked for.

“He’s still combative, but at this point, we figured we might as well just remove it. He doesn’t need it, and it can be more invasive than we’d like.” The doctor spoke to us in a matter-of-fact tone. “We’re going to try and wake him up again in a bit. I’d like it if you guys could be here that time.”

I put my hand to my chest and sighed relief. Finally. It hadn’t made sense to me that we couldn’t be there yet. How is one surprised that someone would wake up combative if they were surrounded by strangers, unsure of where they were or why they were there, doped up, in pain, with a giant tube down their throat preventing them from speaking? How was this surprising? I would have probably tried to escape, too. Fight or flight.

When they did eventually come in and tried to release him from wherever that deep place was that they had been keeping him, he did start to thrash a bit. He kept his eyes clamped tight, as if he didn’t want to see where he was.

“Mike! Mike, it’s Becki. Hey, big guy. We’re here.” I tried to coo as I grabbed his hand. He grabbed tighter.

And then he opened his eyes. It was the first time I had seen them in quite a while. They were Santa Claus red and glossy and moved at a snail’s pace to look at me. He squinted a little and then his whole body relaxed. He just stared at me.

“Okay, good. Cool, calm, and collected. That’s what we need from you, Mikey. Cool, calm, and collected. Are you going to freak out? We don’t know!” The nurse said. He was a burly man, large, with a long graying beard and bald head. I shot him a skeptical glance.

“He’s not going to freak out.” I said. The nurse ignored me.

“This is scary. I know, but you gotta remain cool, calm, and collected!” He practically shouted in Mike’s face. “You were actin’ a maniac last night. Whew! We don’t know if that’s gonna happen again.”

“Yes, we do know. That’s not going to happen again.” I said defensively. It was as if he was trying to will Mike to lose his cool. I tried to calm myself down. He’s just doing his job, Becki. Nothing matters unless it’s good. Stop. He’s just doing his job. He’s helping. 

“Becki,” Mike said just above a whisper and then paused. My heart stopped. He knew who I was. The doctors and nurses had kept warning us that with a head injury, it was impossible to tell exactly what kind of damage was going to occur. They couldn’t tell us what kind of memory loss would take place. They couldn’t tell us what kind of damage would be long-lasting.

He knew who I was.

“Hey, shhh. Hey handsome.” I tried not to cry. I didn’t want him to see me crying, but I was so relieved a few tears squeezed out. I smiled and tried to keep myself from crying more. It started to give me a headache.

“Becki, what happened?” He closed his eyes again. His voice was weak and forced. Each word seemed to be such a struggle.

He knew who I was.

“You had a skateboarding accident. You fell and hit your head badly and now we’re at Dartmouth.”

“Is it Sunday?” I looked up at the nurse and beamed. He had some concept of time, kind of. I was so proud, like a mother whose child had just uttered the first half of the alphabet in the right order for the first time. I looked back down at him.

“Yes, it’s Sunday.” I answered. “We’ve been here since last night.”

“Gotta keep him cool, calm, and collected. Good job, Mikey! Keep it up. Cool, calm, and collected.” The nurse interjected. I rolled my eyes and bent down close to Mike’s ear to whisper.

“Just ignore him,” I said as soft as I could. “You have to make sure you don’t freak out again. You tried to kick everyone’s ass all night.” Mike tried to smile, but ended up wincing. “Just prove this guy wrong.” I stood back up.

“Maybe you were right, young lady. Maybe he just needed to see you.” The doctor said as he patted me on the back. I beamed. You’re damn right, I was right, I thought. The doctor looked at me and smiled.

Mike was awake. He was up. He was conscious.

But not really.

In a way, this was proving even harder for me than when he wasn’t. I wanted him to snap out of it. I wanted him to start talking normally. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted him to sit up and start cracking his jokes. I wanted him to just fast forward to all better.

“Get this thing out of me, Becki. Get it out.” He scrunched his eyes shut tight.

“Get what out?” I asked. His hand seemed to grip mine tighter every second.

“This thing. Get it out. I have to pee.” He twisted as much as the soft shackles would let him. I looked over at his parents and smiled. He was talking about the catheter.

“Just pee then,” I smiled down at him. “You can just pee. I can’t take it out, but soon they will, I think.”

“Ugh, fuck this thing.” He groaned in annoyance. His parents and I chuckled.

Throughout the day doctors came in and began removing item after item that was hooked up to him. First, it was the tracheal tube. Then the oxygen that was hooked to his nose. Then the neck brace after his neck was cleared for any injuries. One by one, they took away each piece of his injury. Except for a few things, including the catheter, because they didn’t want him walking yet. He was exceedingly pissed off about that, and most of what we talked about was him asking me to remove it, and me telling him I couldn’t.

The only doctor that we saw the whole time came in.

“Well, great news guys. If he stays like he is throughout tonight, we’re going to move him out of intensive care tomorrow and try and get him eating solid foods. He’s doing well.” He put his hand on Mike’s mother’s shoulder.

“Go get some dinner, Becki.” Mike’s mom said to me. “We’ll stay until you come back. Don’t worry. And here,” She reached into her bag and pulled out a zip lock filled with toiletries. “Clean up too, if you’d like.” I took the bag from her.

“Mike?” I asked. I could never really tell if he was awake. “I’m going to go get something to eat and then I’ll be right back, okay?” He nodded, eyes still shut. I tried to pull my hand away, but he just held on tighter.

That first day of consciousness, he would never let my hand go. I had to use both hands to pry away from him. That’s how I knew that I had made the right decision by being with him, regardless of whatever issues we had. That’s how I knew that he was happy I was there. As I tried to pull away again- even though he nodded it was okay- he still wouldn’t let me go.

“He doesn’t grip my hand like that.” Mike’s mom winked at me. I grinned.

I hurried through my dinner and washed my hair and face as fast as I could in a bathroom sink. It was beginning to get late and I wanted to make sure I had a few hours with Mike before they kicked me out into the waiting room again.

The waiting room of the intensive care unit is a quiet yet loud place. They serve free coffee and tea. There is a computer you can use to get on the internet. As I said before, recliners line the wall and in the center there are benches. Upon entering there are shelves stocked with pillows and blankets. That’s all quiet.

What’s loud is the people, even though no one really speaks. You see the same people every day and night. They have the same swollen and wet faces. They have the same tired eyes. No one really ever speaks to one another, but there is still an unspoken understanding that lingers in the room. You’re all there for more or less the same reason and it sucks.

There is one man in particular that I remember. He was middle-aged with a head full of poodle curls that were kept short but sort of all over the place. He had cheap pleated slacks on, a pair of dress shoes, and a green v-neck sweater on. Most of the time when I saw him he was standing outside of the waiting room on his cell phone, probably keeping whoever he needed to updated. I wondered about him often. I hoped the best for him and whoever he was there waiting on.

When I went back up to enter Mike’s room again, that man was standing outside on his phone. I waved and smiled. He smiled and nodded back. I never actually saw him in the unit. Maybe it was because he waited to be told he could enter and I was long past that. I just swiped my hand to open the automatic doors and walked in like I owned the whole wing. That’s exactly what I did at that moment.

I walked in just as the nurse was saying something that ended in “cool, calm, and collected.” His shift was done. Thank God.

Mike’s parents and I sat there mostly talking over him, trying to keep the banter light. A joke here, some trivial, everyday chit chat here. Hours went by like that. The new nurse came and then left us alone. Doctors came in every now and again and made Mike do things like wiggle his toes and squeeze their hands and answer questions like “where are you?” and “what day is it?” I would get frustrated when it took him too long to answer. Then he’d go back to sleep. We’d sit in silence. I’d try and text some updates to people.

At some point, Mike’s parents left to try and get some sleep. Mike and I were alone.

“Mike?” I asked, hoping he was awake. He opened one eye slowly at me. I smiled at him. “Do you hate me?” I asked him. I needed to know. Did he hate me? Was he angry at me? I didn’t know. He shook his head no.

“I could never hate you. I never will hate you. You’re so good. I know.” Each word came out quietly and slowly. He smiled and then closed his open eye. “I love you.”

I started to cry, and I cried for a long time while he fell back to sleep and stayed sleeping. Or maybe he wasn’t. I could never tell when he was awake. He held onto my hand the whole time. Relief cocooned me for all the progress of the day. It was a good day.

I made my way out to use the restroom and I overheard two nurses bitching about me still being in the room with him. In the exact same manner that I would bitch about a table still sitting and talking well after close at the restaurant I worked in. My initial reaction was to get pissed. This wasn’t a restaurant. I wasn’t just sitting, sipping water, holding up the whole staff. I tried not to get angry and tried to understand and I was able to do so, which was surprising. They had shit to do. They were tired, too. I went back into the room, kissed Mike on the forehead, said goodnight, and made my way out, waving with a smile at the two frustrated nurses as I did so.

As I made my way into the waiting room once again, to try and find a place to sleep, there was one recliner empty and I was washed over with abatement of exhaustion just knowing that I had a place to sleep, regardless if my body was heavy enough to keep it down in a laying position. I grabbed a blanket and pillow and made my way to hopeful rest.

The recliner was loud. Every time I moved to try and get comfortable it squeaked and creaked. I tried to avoid moving as to not wake anyone else up. Then it would pop me back up to a seated position. The person in the chair next to me stirred.

“I’m so sorry.” I whispered.

“Please don’t be sorry,” it was the man with the poodle curls. “You’re fine. Try and get some rest. It’s important.” He smiled and pulled the white hospital blanket up closer to his chin.

“I’ll try. You, too.”

We all slept. We all dreamt. We all rested.

But not really.

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