By: R.E. Hengsterman
Animals howl, humans cry out in pain or hunger. But because of the uniqueness of the boy’s condition, he offered neither. Instead, it was his heart that triggered the high-pitched alarm and the lurid red light that flashed above the door. The shrill, a proxy for the boy’s aphonia, rang unanswered until a pudgy-fingered monitoring nurse, without raising her eyes from her phone, hit silence.
The boy arrived at rehab after his accident without the tangle of tubes, breathing machine or feeding pump common amongst the debilitated patients. Unburdened, with only cardiac leads attached to his immature chest, he lay sallow-skinned. Despite his stillness, something misunderstood, or divine, lingered beneath his flesh. Without an explanation for the cause of his vegetative state, the care team spoke of the bed-bound boy as if his consciousness existed only in his movement. In his chart, a single word to describe the cause of his condition: unknown.
There were thirty rooms in the private rehab facility. The boy’s was at the end of the hall where chlorine from the therapy pool and particulates from the oily treatments, lotions and balms and salves applied throughout the day, joined stale nicotine ferried inside by a side door propped open with a mop.
Across the hall, a family sat vigil, the glitchy passage of time primed to choke out their resolve as the care team explained the gravity of their loved one’s existence. Unheard was the patient who was slow to catabolize himself beneath the well-starched linen.
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The first time the boy’s EKG lost strength his mother—a gutted maternal figure—had left to snort the last of her Oxy and Xanax off the granite countertops of the lobby’s bathroom. By the time she slipped back between the medical personnel who attended to the boy, her consciousness had succumbed to its influences.
A day later the mother crept from the boy’s room to score a handful of Oxy from a friend and in her absence the boy’s heart drifted and again the alarm triggered. Through her nasal tissue the powder rippled into a hallucinogenic high during which the mother foresaw—in the way an animal senses the infrasound that heralds the coming of a massive storm—that the boy needed her at his bedside.
Before his accident, the mother survived on a “Cadillac High” of Oxy and Xanax and a nanny to raise her child. But each day the boy’s fleshy metronome pinned her to the bedside, her withdrawal mushroomed. By day two the loping churns of nausea and the tremors overtook her.
Mid-afternoon on day three, as she watched the staff slow-bend the boy’s limbs to avoid contractures and placed his bony prominences on pillows with a gentle disposition the way one laid a body in a coffin, her body had become a groundswell of sickness. By the fourth day, after a night of crushing insomnia, her muscles cramped beneath her pale skin drenched in sweat, and her bowels let loose on the boy’s bathroom floor.
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Years before, when the mother married, she had left behind the well-worn shrimp boats, salty air and landmark buildings that littered her coastal town for the wealthy enclave later relinquished by her ex in the divorce. From the beginning, her rural archetype—jeans and a t-shirt—had rubbed against the silken social fabric of her married life. Every Friday night, on the deck of one of the enormous homes in her development, her husband mingled as she half-listened to the guests who sipped champagne from long-stemmed Waterford flutes and glossed over the falsity of their lives with wide-toothed smiles. The Dolce zombies, she called them, engaged in a pointless spectacle that fueled her unease.
The mother’s addiction began with a 30mg Blueberry given to her by a friend as muscled men piled her ex’s belongings into a moving truck. That summer she chased that same warm rush, looting the Ferragamo and Gucci bags unattended poolside at the Club. A lifeguard suggested a clinic in town might better meet her needs when he caught her pocketing a guest’s medications. So once a month she congregated with a half dozen skittish strangers in the parking lot of a pill mill that masqueraded as a wellness center where she feigned back pain for a hundred Oxy tabs.
On day five at the bedside, her untrammeled mind had rebounded. She found comfort and reassurance in the boy’s slow, steady heartbeat and devoted her days thereafter to minor victories: personal hygiene and stomaching her breakfast. In the afternoons, the mother spent hours staring at the boy beneath his halo of blonde hair.
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In the past, the mother avoided withdrawal with a kicker. But with the slow narrowing of her world, yoga and a morning walk for a large coffee kept her upright; past the impaled Nazirite hung over each bed, the mechanical beep and whistle of the entombed long-timers and the occasional newbie who clutched the King James and offered their soul to the luminiferous aether for one last miracle. It was the first time in years that someone else’s pain occupied her marrow.
Before sobriety dissolved the barriers between her past truths, she remembered the unhappiness during her pregnancy and the greyness that languished for months as her newborn thrashed himself blue in the crib. She remembered her miserable marriage as the toddler turned to a boy. But absent from her memories was the 911 call, the red emergency lights that split the panes of glass in her empty living room, the chaos, the silent judgement of EMS, the blanket laid across her shoulders that hid the secret burning beneath her skin. The paramedics who worked as if she didn’t exist, tending to the unmoving boy.
In rehab, the boy’s silence had become his voice. A voice that redefined the dimensions of her mothering and her guilt. Before the mother left the boy, she looked into his eyes and within the blue appeared a tacit understanding of the savior, and the saved.
R.E. Hengsterman is an emergency room nurse who writes. He lives in North Carolina with “the family” and sometimes wears pants.