One year ago, a second of tragedy revealed a lifetime of lessons.
“You’ll have to stay here until someone can come get you. They have to assess her first. But someone will come find you, alright?”
The paramedic on the ambulance crew was a young woman who delivered this simple instruction with a quick smile and a nod before she and her partner pushed the stretcher carrying my wife, Patty, down the hallway to the Trauma Resuscitation Unit at the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center.
From my vantage point, I could see a team of doctors and nurses, all wearing light pink scrubs, surround her. There was fast chatter but they were moving too far away for me to make out the words. They were all over her, evaluating and assessing, touching and talking. They reminded me of bees; this trauma center, their hive. The stretcher turned. The swarm and my wife disappeared behind a curtain.
I stood in the empty hallway, cold and lost. Holding a blanket and crying like a child.
Please come back to me. Please come back to me.
Time crawled under the fluorescent overhead lights. Never had I felt more alone and helpless.
Please come back.
August 27, 2016. We were struck in a crosswalk in Ocean City by a man who ran a red light. That day changed almost everything for us.
It happened so fast, that old cliche of a life changing in the blink of an eye. One minute we were laughing and happy; the next minute I was moving through the air, in slow motion and sideways. The impact began to register in my mind first, then in my body.
I hit the ground and immediately thought of Patty. Oh god. No.
I screamed her name and her eyes opened, her beautiful brown eyes, the color of toffee and caramel. That instant of relief was replaced by terror: when she gazed at me, those eyes held nothing. It was a blank stare, void of any recognition or understanding.
A woman rushed forward and asked if she should call 911 and I heard myself screaming “Yes! She’s hurt!”
As the sound of sirens approached us, I began to feel the aches in my body, but one look at her told me she had taken the worst of the hit. When the ambulance pulled up, the paramedics began to tend to Patty who was beginning to be able to communicate. One of the medics put me in the passenger seat of the ambulance and I watched from the window as they manuevered her into a collar and then onto a backboard.
Just then, I made eye contact with the man who hit us. He was standing on the sidewalk, talking to a cop. His eyes were wide and he looked almost as stunned as we did. We stared at each other. He mouthed the words, “Is she OK?”
I shook my head and began to cry.
The diagnosis at the local trauma center was multiple facial fractures and concern about her optic nerves. She had significant double vision and her face was beginning to swell and turn blue. Internally, there were no signs of bleeding, luckily, but the concussion was so severe that the doctors would later use the term “traumatic brain injury” to define her condition. Her jaw was broken in two places and her body was covered in red oozing lacerations and welts tinged with varying shades of purple, magenta, and green. Because of the head trauma and concern for her vision, the hospital staff arranged for an Advanced Life Support ambulance to transport her to University of Maryland Shock Trauma.
During the ambulance ride, the paramedic pushed morphine through one her IV sites. She lay quiet on the stretcher and I sat across from her on a long bench seat. This wasn’t how our day was supposed to go. We had a lovely breakfast at one of our favorite dives and were on our way to see a sea glass exhibit. This wasn’t part of the plan.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
In the back of the ambulance, under the hazy influence of morphine and pain and confusion, Patty called my name. Her speech was slow and slurred.
“Hey, honey, I’m right here.” I bent forward and touched her arm. Skin to skin. I wanted her to feel me and be reassured.
“My dad is here. It’s gonna be OK.”
Patty’s father, Lenny, died when she was 18 years old.
Tears came fast. I knew my voice would break so I inhaled deeply. “That’s real good news, Patty. Real good.”
For the rest of the ambulance ride, I watched as she occasionally stretched her fingers out as though reaching for something just at the end of her grasp. I listened as she mumbled in a hushed conversation with a ghost only she could see. I marveled at her peace and serenity, my heart glad in part that at least one of us could be.
My sister arrived at Shock Trauma before midnight. She held my hand as we both sat next to Patty’s bed. We listened to the beeps and clicks of the machines attached to her. Patty rolled in and out of consciousness, a combination of sedation and sleep working over her. The night was full of more questions than answers, but one plagued me above all: would I get my Patty back?
Just two and half months prior, on June 11, we were married on the beach surrounded by our family and friends under an azure sky. We held bouquets of gerber daisies, succulents, and sunflowers; our sisters stood next to us as bridesmaids; we ate tacos and drank (almost) too much tequila. Our first dance as wife and wife was to Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” There were margarita cupcakes and laughter and more kisses and hugs and love than I can even recall. It was the best night of my life.
During our wedding ceremony, when it was time to read our vows, Patty started hers with a “knock knock” joke, moving everyone to a unexpected burst of laughter. She broke the tension perfectly. That’s how she is. Once we all recovered, she looked at me and promised to always be by my side. For better and for worse.
As I held my sister’s hand at Patty’s bedside, I remembered our wedding. I remembered the woman I married. Patty is more than smart: people regularly and seriously refer to as a genius. She was a National Merit Scholar; her IQ runs north of 135. Calculus is child’s play. Once, as a joke, I asked her explain quantum mechanics and she actually started to break it down for me. I still don’t know what a subatomic particle is, but she does. Patty is the brightest human I know.
Beyond her intelligence is an incredible capacity for love, for generosity, and for empathy. Underneath her skin and inside her brain resides a soul that shines as brightly as a quasar. I only know what a quasar is because she once put her arm around me and pointed up at the night sky. Despite my insistence, she told me it was not a UFO, just a naturally occurring phenomena. A normal yet wondrous and amazing thing.
Just like her.
Just like the darling brown eyed girl who put a knock knock joke in her wedding vows. Just like the smartest girl I’ve ever met. Just like the North Star who keeps me heading always in the right direction.
I just wanted her back.
In the days following the accident, Patty showed obvious signs of the brain trauma. She had trouble walking, likely due in part to the double-vision and a massive hematoma on her left leg (which I named “the dinosaur egg.”) If I told her something, she wouldn’t recall it even twenty minutes later. She was quiet and spoke little, due mostly to her jaw being wired shut. She slept a lot.
I kept my fears to myself. When she couldn’t remember things, I played it off as though I had forgotten to tell her. I am more than prone to forgetfulness and absent-mindedness. She was always the responsible and levelheaded one. But inside, my heart was breaking. Was she going to come back? Would she remember again?
What would become of us?
I began contemplating selling our business and searching for a job that would provide me with a steady income and health insurance. Only two and a half months into our marriage — our newlywed days — and the for worse part was our reality. I would have been violently angry if I hadn’t been so damn scared.
The fractures required facial reconstructive surgery once the swelling went down. Some of the bone fragments, one doctor explained to me, were telescoping behind other pieces. In order to correct it, two small metal plates were attached to her skull and screwed into place to stabilize the broken sections of her face. The procedure was done at the University of Maryland and took nearly four hours. It took her another two weeks to recover from that.
Then, one day in October, it happened… the first sign of Patty coming back.
We own a small media company and one of the main printers went down. Patty is our work geek, the one in charge of fixing all the machines and keeping the tech components up and running. When I came home from work, she wanted to know how the day went. I explained to her that our Epson was finished. As far as I could tell, it was beyond hope and I’d have to start hunting down a new one. The problem was I had print orders to fulfill and now we were effectively shut down.
“Take me to work. Let me shee what’sh going on wif it,” she pleaded through clenched teeth.
“No, absolutely not. You’re not going in. I’ll figure out who to call in the morning.”
Here’s the thing about my wife: she is the definition of relentless. With eyes full of determination, no longer seeing double and no longer encumbered by broken bones, she told me she was serious. She wanted to get out of the house. These walls were closing in and she just wanted to get out. Please, could I just let her try? At least let her go for a car ride? I didn’t want to, but I gave in.
Under the cover of darkness, we arrived at the office. I helped her inside and sat her down. I flicked on the printer and the computer screen. “You swear you are OK?”
My regret was immediate: She’s supposed to be recovering. Why did I let her talk me into this? The answer should have been a firm no. What am I doing here? She should be home resting, not here working. I’m failing her and —
Sure enough, she had managed to reset the counter code. Something I didn’t know existed or was even possible. The printer was back online and ready for action. Astonishment is an understatement. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My heart lept in my chest. I wanted to grab her up in a bearhug, but I resisted that particular impulse.
“Now, can we go get a milkshake?” One corner of her mouth turned up in a little grin.
And there she was. My Patty. Coming back to me.
Today marks a year. It’s not a pleasant anniversary but an anniversary nonetheless. And as humans are wont to do, we mark time passing with celebrations and homages, however small or personal. Today marks the day I almost lost her. Today marks the day I know for sure that I did not.
She came back, little by little. The road has been long and arduous; there remains a good bit of distance yet to go. The dinosaur egg appears to be a permanent fixture on the outside of her left leg and the dark scar tissue on her arms and ankles will fade in time. The left side of her face is numb. She can’t feel it when her nose runs; sometimes she dribbles when she drinks. There is only a little sliver of a scar above her left eye; the doctor tried to hide it in her eyebrow. If I touch ever so lightly, I can feel the plates and screws just under her soft skin. But I don’t do that. She doesn’t need reminding.
Math is harder now. She fumbles for words when she gets flustered, sometimes stuttering over her words. When I see it, I reach over and remind her it’s ok, remind her to just take her time. Once in a while she gets angry because she feels changed, robbed even. “I wasn’t like this before. He took that away from me and he had no right,” she will say in those moments when she feels less confident and more self-conscious of how her brain functions now. I don’t argue with her about it. Not ever.
Honestly, I’m just grateful she’s here.
We know life isn’t fair. We never imagined how changed our lives would be. We never thought we’d miss our honeymoon or lose the newlywed buzz so quickly. But we learned a far greater lesson: we can make it. Together.
And I learned this:
I thought I loved my wife on our wedding day. I thought it was the pinnacle of my understanding of her. It wasn’t. As I watched her suffer, as I watched her refuse to give into self-pity and pain, as I watched her treat her recovery as a mission, I realized Patty is much more than I ever knew. Her will is iron and her determination is stone. Her heart thrums and pushes like the ocean, never ceasing and never yielding. Patty is some kind of extraordinary phenomenon, rising like the sun each morning and only conceding when the night has come again. In all my life, I have never witnessed tenacity like this.
That I cherish, respect, and love her as I do today is no accident at all.