Breath of Heaven – the Turn

This is the third installment of this series. If you’re new here find the first installments here: Breath of Heaven and here: Breath of Heaven – Then. Thank you for your patience as I work through this story. Please share with others.

The blue-black sky holds my broken heart in its grip.  I glance up to see through the car’s sunroof knowing I won’t see the helicopter that carries Greg, but I can’t help myself.

An arbitrary thought wanders to my mind. Travis is a newborn on a dark drive from my mom’s to our home 30-minutes away. Greg seemed to always be working in the early years of our marriage, so I’d visit mom to stave off loneliness, soak in her baby expertise, enjoy her amazing meals and let her love us.

This night baby Travis is inconsolable. Fed, diapered and warm, I guess he is afraid of the darkness, but how can a small baby discern it? I can’t bear for him to be afraid. I place my hand on his little body, his carrier in the front passenger seat (long before the safety of babies placed in the back). He wraps his small fingers around mine, promptly quieting. His tiny touch fills my heart connecting us in the dark.

Travis holds my hand again in the dark as we chase the Life Flight helicopter.

He drives racecar fast. My mother-in-law quietly sobs in the backseat. My heart aches for her but in my selfish fear, I can’t offer consolation.

Listening to the sound of the engine, I strain to remember every second of my life with Greg. Our first conversation as teenagers until this afternoon just before he mowed the lawn. Another silent, pleading prayer to God makes me feel like a jerk for not having the capacity for meaningful words.

My phone vibrates, “Hi this is Michael, your flight paramedic. It’s a beautiful night for a flight!”

He cheerily adds, “Greg is still doing great.”

Michael relays instructions for us once we arrive at the hospital’s ER. I have no capacity to remember any of it. “Thank you for allowing us to take care of Greg. You and your family are in our prayers,” he says before clicking off his phone.

At the ER reception desk, an escort is waiting. He urgently bids us through a maze of dimly lit halls. We ultimately reach what looks like a service elevator. I recall Get Smart, a silly 1970s TV show where Maxwell Smart travels through a series of secret doors, elevators, and alternating dark or glaring passageways at the beginning of each episode. I stifle a manic giggle.

The too slow elevator spews us at the Critical Care Unit. The escort hands us off to Dr. Hahn who greets us with a warm smile and handshake. He immediately introduces us to Shelly, our critical care nurse.

“Greg is stable. All his vitals look good. We’ve started the hypothermic therapy. This minimizes brain damage from cardiac arrest.

“Can you tell me what happened and who was with him? Do you think he was without oxygen for 10 minutes? 5 minutes?” Dr. Hahn questions on cue. I compare him to a soap opera actor in my mind.

Travis and I immediately deny the speculated length Greg was without oxygen. Travis retells his story emphasizing it was seconds – not minutes Greg wasn’t breathing.

Dr. Hahn responds with a mix of relief and skepticism, “It’s a blessing you were there Travis that you didn’t panic. You’re a hero.” Travis nods in appreciation.

Dr. Hahn turns to Shelly. Upbeat and direct, she exudes assured intelligence signaling she is as skilled as Dr. Hahn. Her confidence calms me.

Shelly leads the way to the Critical Care stalls brightly conversing with us as we walk.

I hesitate just outside the entrance to Greg’s alcove causing a traffic jam of family behind me. Travis gently tugs my hand. Shelly invites us in not missing a beat explaining hypothermic therapy. Travis, Patricia, my mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law, Kimberly and Kristin gather around the bed as Shelly talks. “This yellow line is his brain activity. It’s in the normal range. That’s good.”

The rhythmic whooshing of Greg’s respirator steals my concentration. I hear Shelly detail ‘temperature,’ ‘three days,’ ‘no guarantees.’ I want to crawl in bed next to Greg. Ironically, I’d love to hear him snoring. “God, I’m sorry for teasing him about his snoring!” Wow! There’s a prayer.

“You can hold his hand,” Shelly invites. Travis and I split, moving to either side of Greg. She continues with the hypothermic stuff.

“Talk to Greg. Let him know you’re here,” Shelly offers.

I pause in the awkward silence as the group nods at me. My face flushes as I lean in standing on my tiptoes to get close to his ear. “Hey, baby! We made it! You got here first because you flew but we were right behind you because Travis flew, too.”

“Yes – that is the fastest I’ve ever gotten to Rockford,” Patricia says with a tight laugh causing a ripple of quiet chuckling among us.

Shelly exclaims, “Look! He can hear you. The yellow line just increased dramatically! Mary, he’s responding to your voice!”

I swallow a sob, not able to answer her. Travis, holding Greg’s left-hand whispers, “Mom, I need to pray.“

“Travis, do whatever you need to do,” I respond dabbing tears from my face.

My strong, brave son doesn’t hesitate to drop to his knees next to the bed. Holding his Dad’s hand, head bowed, Travis prays silently. Calm surrounds us. Kimberly places her hand on Travis’ shoulder. The respirator’s whirring is the only sound. I close my eyes, too. God is here. God is here.

God is here. God is here.

Shelly gently suggests we settle in the waiting room to continue our vigil.  She smiles, “Greg needs to rest, too. His brain activity increases every time he hears Mary’s voice.”

I get some good-natured ribbing from my family as Travis and I turn to leave. Patricia, Kimberly, and Kristin stay to spend an extra minute with Greg. We link arms as we walk the darkened corridor. Speculating on Greg’s condition, I admit with an exhausted laugh that I didn’t listen to most of what Shelly had said.

Reaching the dimly lit waiting area, we sit on a stiff couch. Travis reveals, “Mom, I don’t think Dad is going to die. I asked God to protect him. Then, I felt a peacefulness spread over me. I’ve never felt that before. I know God is here – right here.”

“I trust him, too, Travis. It’s the waiting that’s so hard for me,” I admit.

“I can’t see beyond this minute. I think God has done that on purpose. He is making me wait. Making me cherish or hate each minute of this.”

Travis nods, tears rolling down his cheeks, “I know it’s gonna be okay, Mom. God told me. I’m not scared.”

Shelly pops around the corner. Toting piles of blankets, pillows and offering tea or coffee. We take over a back corner; push furniture together creating makeshift beds. It doesn’t matter how many stiff pillows or scratchy blankets Shelly supplies, we’re in a hospital waiting area. It’s not plush.

Patricia and I collapse in a fit of laughter watching Travis getting comfortable on a tiny loveseat. At 6’ 5” nothing in this room will accommodate him. He opts for the floor after a few silly maneuvers. When in need of levity Travis delivers.

At Kimberly’s urging, I eat a bite of sandwich. I dutifully drink a sip of water. It’s hard to swallow. I cover myself with stiff blankets and put two extra firm pillows behind my back, propping my head and shoulders. I’ve taken over the loveseat that can’t hold Travis.

Kristin is methodical in reviewing the details relayed by Dr. Hahn and Shelly. It surprises me the details she can remember. I’m grasping at fragments. I can’t tell her how much I appreciate her keeping track of all the information.

‘I’ve got to get back to Greg!’ my head screams. My well-meaning family wants to join me each time I mention him. I’m not selfish I convince myself. I need us.  Just us. Me and Greg alone.

Shutting my eyes doesn’t bring sleep. I feel adrenalin still pulsing through my body.

Shutting my eyes doesn’t bring sleep. I feel adrenalin still pulsing through my body. I feign sleep to entice them to sleep, too. I hear them whisper their fears. They prop each other up with encouragement.

I silently repeat, ‘He’s fine. He’s resting. He’s FINE!’

‘But he’s not fine. This is so bad!’ I feel the assault. I recognize Satan is trying to steal my peace. I tamp my panicked thoughts. ‘God be with us,’ I simply ask.

The quiet breathing of my family signals I can slip back to Greg. The corridor yawns before me causing a chill of a horror movie scene. The eerieness motivates me to walk faster. Alone, the walk feels so much longer. I doubt myself when I turn right at the second corridor. Pausing, I look behind me. What do I expect to see?

Trying to get my bearings, I search the beige walls looking for a directional clue. Pictures spaced a couple of yards apart might help. Flowers on a table. Flowers along a walkway. A field of flowers.”‘Well, the interior designer for this floor has done an outstandingly mediocre job of decorating,” I whisper to no one. I make a mental note, three flower pictures then turn right.

As I round the corner, I see the closed doors of the Critical Care unit. Success! My pace quickens.

Due to his precarious situation, Greg is Shelly’s only patient for the night. Shelly invites me in as I hesitate at the threshold.

“Have you eaten?” she asks. I nod slightly.

She takes my hand. I appreciate her warmth. “We are cooling him. This takes about 24 hours for his core temperature to reach 90 degrees. Once he reaches the low temp then we reverse the process.  That may be another 12-24 hours for him to return to 98.6.

“He is on two meds, propofol to keep his body sedated, you know, the Michael Jackson drug,” she says with a sly smile.

“Another a drug keeps his mind sedated. We don’t want him to wake up and thrash about so we have his body sedated a bit longer than his mind – it’s for his safety. It also stops his body from shivering. We don’t want his body fighting the coolness.”

I know she is repeating this information for my benefit. She knows I wasn’t taking it in earlier.

“Once he is at normal temp we slowly take the sedatives away,” she continues.

“We watch his brain function and if he wakes up we see how he’s doing. But with this strong medicine, it can take up to 72 hours for him to wake up.”

“Ok,” I manage.

“Do you want me to go on?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Cardiac arrest isn’t the same thing as a heart attack. During cardiac arrest, blood doesn’t flow to the organs of the body. The brain may also not get enough blood. That’s why many people don’t recover after cardiac arrest. The lack of blood flow can cause lasting damage to the brain. Greg may be unable to regain consciousness. Lowering the body temperature right away after cardiac arrest can reduce damage to his brain. That raises the chances he will recover.”

Fear rises in my chest, but I’m relieved at the information. Information always helps me feel in control. What a silly word, control. I cling to it knowing it’s a deception.

“Go on,” I beckon.

“Experts are not sure why lowering the body’s temperature reduces brain damage. The chemical reactions of the body slow down. The lowered temperature may also lessen inflammation in the brain. Both of these factors may help reduce injury,” she explains, then pauses.

I listen intently.

“Typically, this entire process takes three to five days with five more often than three. Don’t expect anything to change in terms of talking with Greg until at least Wednesday.”

I struggle to wrap my mind around the time frame. Glancing at the clock behind Greg’s bed, it’s Saturday morning 2:17 a.m. ‘God, you’ve convinced me I need to live in each moment. How am I going to do one second at a time until Wednesday?’ I question.

Shelly invites me to sit with Greg.

She cautions that when I touch Greg, he’ll feel cold. I gingerly take his hand not wanting to disturb the IVs. I place my left hand on his head. He isn’t cool – he’s cold. It startles me. I don’t know what I thought cool and cold meant. I imagine his cold feet on mine when he jumps into bed at night, or his cold hands when he teasingly slips them under my shirt to touch my back after he’s shoveled snow. Or his cool lips as he plants a kiss after a swig of his iced Mountain Dew. Just not this lifeless cold.

“Feel free to talk to Greg. He needs to hear your voice,” Shelly adds.

I look at her skeptically.

“It’s okay,” Shelly assures me.

“I just try to keep his stimulation from too many people to a minimum. You two obviously have a very deep connection. I can tell by his brain response when you’re in the room.”

I say I love you in his ear more times than I can count. I relay a few stories about the ordeal trying to get him to St. Anthony Hospital. I tell him of my relief now that he is here.

I sit in a plastic chair, exhausted. I pray a bit – mostly still just more begging God to guide me, my guardian angel, to join me.

I recall that we can ask our guardian angel to summon someone else’s guardian angel on their behalf. I imagine Greg’s guardian angel watching a late-season St. Louis Cardinal game. My guardian angel taps him on the shoulder, pointing to us. He jumps up with a sheepish grin saying, “I’ve got this!”

Because of the exhaustion, I don’t have the strength to bargain with God like I usually do. I simply ask for protection. I vow to do whatever it takes. Whatever that means. If Greg is impaired I’ll help him. I try to imagine what impaired might look like. I can’t see it – not my healthy guy. I visualize he has brain damage. I imagine pushing him in a wheelchair. I picture him using a walker. None of these scenarios make sense.

I examine his long fingers, muscular forearms. I lean in and gingerly turn his hand, opening his fingers. I place my forehead there.

God is urging me to imagine him gone. I’m frightened. Desperate to avoid the thought. It can’t be. God is pushing me to give up control. God is pushing hard. It’s as painful as tearing my heart out. I plead. I refuse to let go. I stand at the edge of every fear I’ve ever had. I stand at a height I’ve avoided all our lives. We’re young, we’re vibrant. We’re living forever. I fight against what I know has to happen.

Finally, my will breaks. I can’t help but surrender. I understand each of us must surrender to God, but arrogantly I’ve always been confident God and I are a team. I believe we are in this together. Now surrender comes as easy as a breath. I sob. I let it all go. Tears streaming, snot flowing, Greg not moving. It’s a place I don’t want to look at.

If God decides to take Greg – he’ll still be with me. There’s no escaping those big blue eyes, the horrible dad jokes. His arms encircling me each night as we fall sleep – we’ve never been able to sleep without an arm or leg draped over each other. Our private jokes. How he loves to tickle me until I pee my pants. He’ll never be gone, even if God decides.

No one will replace Greg. There won’t be any late in life dating or finding the next one. He’s my only. Now, I tremble in the silence. I understand. I understand. God’s will be done. Whether by choice or circumstance, God showed me to be receptive to what he is doing for us. Where he leads.

Shelly places her hand on my shoulder and offers a tissue. I kiss Greg. As I turn to leave prayer comes easily. “Father, forgive me for I cannot see through my doubt.”

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