I’m going to give you a peek into a little portion of my life today. Stick with me through the old stuff and trust me when I tell you there’s a purpose.
Like lots of people, I had a less than perfect childhood. I’ll skip the sordid details in the spirit of brevity and pick up when I was 14 and living with my father and brother. My mother was out of the picture for two years until I started sneaking around to call her and we started up a relationship.
At the age of 14 I made a decision that changed the path of my life. My father was abusive to me so I moved in with my mother who I hadn’t been around regularly for four years and barely knew anymore. I knew this decision would have consequences, I just didn’t know what they would be. When all the dust settled, I lost my father’s side of my family. My father, grandmother, aunt, cousins, and most importantly, my brother who continued to live with his father. (For the record, our father and mother are the same.) All communication was cut off to me.
I have never questioned whether I made the right decision or not. I know I did. While the new situation with my mother wasn’t great, it was better than what I had at my father’s house. Sometimes choices are like that. It’s not always good or bad, black and white. Sometimes it’s gray here, and more gray there. Pick the lesser of two evils kind of thing.
But that didn’t make the price I paid any less painful for me. The only thing I have ever regretted is that I lost a relationship with my brother. Something I’ve always prayed about, and always wished were different.
It was about 10 years later when my brother started showing up again but at that point he was angry, his visits were unpredictable and sporadic at best, and it was just impossible to develop any kind of stable relationship with him. I can’t tell you how bittersweet the times were for me when he was around. I would drop any and everything whenever he popped up to be able to spend time with him, knowing that I probably wouldn’t hear from him again for months.
Skipping forward to seven months ago and again in the spirit of brevity, I hadn’t spoken to my father in 20 years. Been around him a few times, never spoken. I had a mostly recovered relationship with my aunt and cousins for about a year or so. My brother came around occasionally and while I loved seeing him, it was difficult. I was aware that he’d been off and on drugs, and of course all the anger he harbored….it just wasn’t easy.
In hindsight, I underestimated the power of drugs. I’ve never had a problem with them myself. Not even with something as seemingly innocuous as cigarettes. I only saw James sporadically like I’ve said, and it turns out that was only when he was clean. I didn’t see him high. I didn’t see him hallucinate, or jumpy and fidgety; I didn’t see the mood swings. So I underestimated. If you get nothing else from this, hear me when I tell you….do NOT underestimate.
I thought drugs were something he’d defeated. I only saw James high one time and it was during a break-up with his girlfriend. I thought he’d had a hard time coping and had turned back to drugs for a little bit then cleaned up again. I didn’t know it was an ongoing fight for him.
So in January when I got a call at work from my aunt that my brother was sick and being taken to the hospital with a high fever, I thought flu. When I heard ’emergency room’, I thought meningitis. Because the relationship with my father was non-existent and ‘strained’ would be a nice way of putting it on a good day, getting information was like pulling teeth.
I found out later that evening my 30 year old brother had a stroke. A massive stroke. He was in ICU at our local hospital with 103.7 fever and they were giving him a 50/50 chance of surviving the next 30 days.
I went out to the hospital that night. I didn’t care about my father who puffed up like a bloated bullfrog anytime he saw me. I didn’t care about the family drama and whose feet would get stepped on or who would get offended or anything else that might come from it (and believe me when I tell you, as sad as it is, that stuff was going on while my brother lay in that ICU hospital bed).
James was completely paralyzed on his right (dominant) side. His face was turned to the left, his eyes looked left, and when he tried to talk it was incoherent. My heart broke right there in ICU that night.
Things didn’t look good for a few weeks. He had a blood infection that kept his fever in the 103 range. We were desperate to get it down and the nurses were pumping all kinds of antibiotics into him trying to find some combination that worked and even had him sleeping on a cold air mattress until they found it. His brain continued to swell for the first two CAT scans they did, putting his life in jeopardy.
While all that was going on, James was combative (drug withdrawls) and there was nothing we could do to calm him down. He didn’t realize he was paralyzed and would continuously try to get out of the bed and “go home”. After trying to hit the nurses once or twice he was strapped to the bed. When they finally trusted him not to do that anymore , he tried to pull out his IVs and wires so many times they finally put white padded gloves on his hands so he couldn’t use them. When the withdrawls had passed he was still irritated because of his inability to communicate, and of course he hated the mittens.
ICU for head trauma patients has certain visitation times – we’re talking 30 minutes every few hours – and they’re fairly strict on it, as they should be. I was at the hospital for every one of those visits I could be. Every time I walked off the elevator my father would blow up and huff loudly so I could hear him, just in case I thought he might be happy to see me that time. In James’ room whenever James was nice to his father, Allan (the father) would look up at me and my mother and smile smugly to rub it in. That was fun.
The poor nurses….On top of my brother’s health and his combative behavior, they also got front row tickets to the circus performance that is my family. ‘The girlfriend isn’t allowed in his room’, ‘The girlfriend IS allowed in his room’, ‘Tell ME what’s going on with him first’, ‘No, tell MEEEE!’….My parents actually had security called on them one night. Seriously.
Slowly – very slowly – James’ health began to improve. For those who have no experience with strokes what happens is that parts of your brain actually die. The process/speed/extent of recovery is solely dependent upon your brain’s ability to “rewire itself” and find a new way to deliver all those brain signals where they need to go.
We began to be able to understand certain words he said. They got the fever under control. We understood a few more words. The swelling in his brain stopped. More words. He became less combative. A few more words. Eventually he was moved into a regular room.
Over the next month and a half or so James was in the regular room and then was sent to a physical rehab facility. His father got mad at him, or at nothing, three separate times and left to pout at home. By the time James made it to rehab he was speaking coherently, and was beginning to learn to walk again. He had a little set back because his fever spiked back up again, but they got it back under control. At this point Allan was out of the picture for his third pouting spell, James was speaking coherently, and learning to walk. His physical therapy but was held back somewhat because of a high heart rate, which at that point was seemingly the only problem.
About a month into rehab James’ breathing had become so shallow and his resting heart rate so high the nurse called the doctor at home and they did a scan of his chest. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and moved into the ICU department of the rehab hospital. Allan comes back into the picture. The next morning they performed an echocardiogram and the results were serious enough that James was transported that same day back to the larger hospital’s heart wing.
Remember that high fever they’d had so much trouble with? It turns out that was caused by a bacteria that was attacking his heart. James had to have his aortic heart valve replaced. Immediately. The doctor never said as much but I could tell by what he didn’t say that if given the choice he would have waited to do the surgery, at this point two months after the massive stroke.
James was in the hospital another two weeks after his heart surgery. He then moved in with our mother. Within another month or two he was moving back in with his father and they’d decided he needed a pacemaker.
I was terrified when James decided to move back in with his father. I thought I would lose my brother again. We got in a bad argument a few days before he moved and I really thought I wouldn’t hear from him again.
I’m telling you all of this because I want you to have a glimpse of how serious James’ condition was, how close he came to dying more than once, and also the condition of the family. Mind you, I’m holding back on a good portion of the drama.
The title of this post is ‘God Is Good’ and right about now you’re probably thinking, ‘Where?!?! When?!?!?’ and at that time I would wholeheartedly second that notion.
Well, that was about two months ago I’m guessing. Let me tell you how things are today. I talk on the phone with James weekly at the very least. I have been down to visit him – at Allan’s house, with him present and accepting – three times now.
As far as James’ health, he is now walking without the use of a walker or cane. He uses a knee brace and he doesn’t walk as well as he once did, but it’s about an 80% recovery. He has recovered about 15% of the control over his right arm so far. His speech is almost normal with a few pauses or lost words here and there. With the new pacemaker his heart rate is normal.
During my first visit with James, Allan spent the majority of the time working in the yard. He didn’t speak to me, and if he spoke about me it was ‘her’ or ‘she’. During my second visit Allan sat with us for a few minutes but again spent most of his time working. We still hadn’t spoken to each other.
Yesterday was my 35th birthday. 20 years since I left my father’s house. It was my third visit. I celebrated it with the entire half of the family I had lost before. Allan was even there and he bought my birthday cake.
Later that afternoon we – the three of us – sat around a kiddie pool watching the dog play in the water and Allan actually spoke directly to me. He used my actual name instead of ‘her’ or ‘she’ when speaking about me earlier that day, but that afternoon he spoke his first words directly to me in 20 years.
The best part of all of it is that I had my brother there. He went to church with me that morning for the first time ever, he gave me a birthday card he wrote on himself with his non-dominant left hand (he was so proud!). My brother who is now off drugs, non-smoking, non-drinking, walking on his own.
Just seven months ago I never would have imagined any of this would ever happen, much less within a year. God has taken what I thought six months ago was possibly going to be the worst thing in my life and turned it into the biggest blessing.
God. Is. Good.