Sunday, July 20, 2014

This Day, Nine Years Ago

Today is the anniversary of my brother's accident. When Joe was 14, he got hit by a car (while walking) and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. He was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center where he underwent multiple surgeries, then was transferred to Children's Hospital where he spent nearly a month in a coma. A couple years back I wrote about the accident and the aftermath. He has come so far over these years, thanks to his hard work, my parents' dedication, and good doctors.
Joe at Harborview, July 2005
But today I'm thinking about that day, exactly nine years ago. In June 2005, I had just returned from five months studying abroad and traveling in Mexico. I hadn't seen Joe in nearly half a year, and he seemed dramatically taller, bigger, and older than I remembered.

I was about to leave for Alaska to work in the egg house of a cannery for a few weeks for the height of sockeye season. My last interaction with Joe was him wandering into my room and saying, "I know you haven't ridden your bike for awhile since you were in Mexico. I lubed the chain and put air in the tires in case you wanted to ride it while you're home. And I'm making quesadillas. Want one?" We ate quesadillas and the next day I left.

I flew to Naknek, Alaska, for the long days and smell of salmon roe. The egg house was far more pleasant than the actual cannery, which is incredibly loud with all the machinery. But the egg house is still a huge, cold, sterile, fluorescent-lit, damp processing facility. Let me tell you what I wore there: bandana, hairnet, long-sleeve shirt, plastic sleeves from wrist to shoulder, latex gloves, rubber bib overalls, pants, long johns, 2 pairs of socks, and insulated rubber Xtra Tuff boots.

So when I saw a woman from the office walk in wearing her clean sweater, pencil skirt, and heels, I knew something was out of the ordinary. Across the room, I could see her talking to my boss, who then pointed in my direction. They told me I was excused from work because I needed to call home immediately. I had no idea what to expect. I followed the clicking of her heels across the grounds to the office, and asked her if she knew what it was about. She shook her head,"Something about your brother."

I talked to my younger sister, sobbing into the phone as I heard words like "hit-and-run"; "15 feet before his head hit the pavement"; "severe brain swelling"; "coma"; "spleen lacerated"; "bloody and bruised brain tissue". Things were looking really bad. It was late morning, and they weren't sure if he would make it until the next day. My family was going to get a doctor's note to the airline for me to get a flight as soon as possible.

The office told me to pack my stuff, and whenever I was ready, some one could drive me the half hour to King Salmon, the tiny town with a tiny airport. I walked back to the dorms just as the lunch break started. I saw my friends, and told them I was leaving. It was so rushed, and surreal- one minute packing and salting salmon eggs; the next leaving in a flurry to travel thousands of miles to try to see my brother alive.

The van dropped me off at the airport, where I was supposed to check in at the counter before the next flight. That was still several hours away. I walked around the town in a daze, the mosquitoes relentless. I found a patch of grass and collapsed, crying so hard I could barely think.

"You okay Miss?" came a concerned voice.

I looked up to see an elderly gentleman looking down at me.

"It's just- he's- a car- my brother-" I could hardly get words out.

He nodded slowly. "I'm going to grab some coffee there," pointing across the street. "Let me buy you a hot chocolate or a coffee or something."

And so I followed this stranger into the diner. He announced he was getting fish n' chips and certainly I must be hungry too. It was true- It was mid-afternoon and I hadn't eaten since breakfast at 6am. We proceeded to share a lovely meal, sip coffee, and talk like old friends. He asked me about my family and my time in Mexico. He told me stories of fishing and the Alaska wilderness, and adventures with his wife, who he spoke very fondly of. He thanked me sincerely for keeping him company before saying goodbye. Those hours would have been miserable sitting in the crowded one-room airport shack, and I am so grateful for that man's kindness.

I made it to Seattle around midnight, as July 20th drew to a close.

1 comment:

Heidi said...

What a startling and beautiful reflection, Amber. I love reading your writing. Joe has come so far; the brain is an amazing organ, even more so when nurtured by a wonderful family.