Skip – Part 37
"Aaron—my lover. ... My friend."
"Is it enough?"
I stayed with him until he fell asleep a short while later. I kissed his forehead once more.
"I will love you no matter what."
They were words that I needed to hold dear for a long while.
Skip's life was about to become truly awful.
I awoke with a start, and a pain in my head.
"Skip?" I called out.
"What's wrong, love," said Billy.
"I dunno. My head."
"You called Skip's name."
"I ... sensed him. I'm going to call ICU."
I picked up my cell phone. Aw crap, I did not have the hospital in my contacts list. I went to the den and logged on to the Internet. I got the main number to the hospital and then returned to Billy's room. I dialed carefully, because I had no desire to misdial and wake someone up at ... 3:05 a.m. Jeez.
I asked for ICU nurse's station once I reached the hospital operator.
"Hi Natalie, Aaron calling. Is Skip okay?"
"I should have known you would call. I was going to wait a couple of hours. No, Skip's been taken to surgery again."
"Damn! How much can you tell me?"
She is the nursing supervisor who I talked to recently, so maybe that would buy me more information.
"Less than you want to know, but more than with others. Skip has a hemorrhage above the brain stem. He just went into surgery."
"What do you think is best for us to do? I woke up because I felt pain in my head. It's gone now, but ..."
"It's up to you, but I wouldn't rush out here. I'll have more to tell you in a couple of hours."
"Okay. I'll let Skip's folks know. Thanks for letting me bug you."
"You didn't, and you're welcome. He's in good hands, Aaron."
I did know that.
I explained to Billy what happened. We decided to wake up the folks at 5:00. In the meantime, we held each other and talked softly.
"Will they be upset again?" I asked Billy.
"No. If you don't tell them about the time."
"Okay. Only if asked. I hate lying."
"It's not technically lying," he said. "And why wake them and then do nothing for two hours?"
We got up as 5:00 approached. Billy hobbled downstairs with my help. I knocked lightly on the doorframe.
"Sorry to wake you. I just got off the phone with the hospital. Skip is back in surgery."
"Come in, come in," said Betsy, sitting up.
I flicked the light switch to turn on the lamp beside her. I explained about waking up and calling the hospital.
"I'll wait a while and call back. They should know more soon."
"Please don't ask," I said.
"Fair enough. Besides, I heard you two hours ago."
"Mother's ears. We gotta bottle that," I said, smiling sheepishly.
"Nah. Only mothers know how to use them, and we all have them. I understand you, Aaron."
"Uh, then you can explain me to me someday."
"Gladly. Do you want me to put coffee on?" Betsy asked.
"Nah. Take your time getting up. I'll put it on. You think I should wait. Or is it okay to call back at 5:30?"
"Should be okay either way. Does Natalie have your cell num..."
My cell phone rang. I looked at the display.
"That would be a yes."
"Natalie?" I said, answering. I sat on the edge of the bed. Billy went around to sit near his dad.
"Okay. ... Did he have to relieve any pressure on the brain? ... Bleeding? ... Well, that's good news. Will he have seizures? ... Yeah, I had a series of them, so I figured. ... I think Skip's folks will come in at the usual time. Billy and I came come this evening. ... Yes. Thanks again, Natalie. ... No, we're okay. See you tonight."
I filled in the blanks in the conversation.
"The bleeding was at the brain stem and also up on the left side near the top of his brain. The surgeon got it to stop in short order. Skip was in surgery about 90 minutes. Brain injury, which is a part of Skip's diagnosis does lead to seizures, but they can minimize them. I too had a series of them, mostly minor."
Billy came back around to sit beside me.
"Mostly?" asked Billy.
"Yeah, well ..."
He hugged me. He remembered that I went through that shit alone. I am convinced it just made me more caring toward someone else. No one around me suffers alone, no matter how intense the suffering. If I need help in helping someone, I know whom to call.
I went out to the kitchen to put coffee on. While it brewed, I went upstairs to shower and dress for work. I came back down after twenty minutes. JD put a bagel in the toaster for me and then he poured a cup of coffee for me. I took whipped cream cheese and grape jelly out of the fridge. We did not have much to say while we ate. I told Billy that I would come home for lunch. Betsy said she would make shrimp spring rolls for dinner. I pulled rice paper wrappers off the shelf.
The morning at work was different than I had expected. Brent, my project partner from across the aisle said good morning when he came in a few minutes after me.
"Are you okay, Aaron?"
"I saw the news over the weekend. Is that your Skip?"
"How come you're here?"
"I can't stay with him all day because he's in ICU. Spinal injury patients ..."
"Aww man, spinal?"
"Is he paralyzed?"
I nodded again.
"I'm sorry Aaron. You guys ought to sue the ass off the city."
"Accident," I said.
Was it going to be one of those days? Maybe I really was better off at home with Billy. Brent proved me wrong. He came to sit beside my desk.
"I guess I understand that. Money can't fix him, can it?"
"No. The city is going to pay for his hospitalization and then his rehab. Considering what it will cost, that's more than a generous offer. When he's stable, we're moving him to Atlanta. I'll be going there too. Patricia has a project for me there."
"Well, I know you're not a workaholic. I would guess that Skip wants you to have a normal routine, despite everything."
"I dunno, but I would guess that too. He can't talk much because he's on a respirator. He also had surgery overnight because of bleeding in his head. Ninety minutes of surgery on top of eight hours on Friday for his spine."
"He loves you Aaron, and he's going to fight like hell to prove it. What can I do for you?"
"Nothing yet, thanks. Skip's brother is here for the summer, working with Skip at Yale. He's injured too, since the accident happened in the afternoon. Have you heard yet if the city buses are running in New Haven?"
"They're not. Routes will come back one by one as the buses are inspected. It was faulty brakes?"
"Looks like it but they don't know yet for sure."
"The commuters are a bit pissed, but they should realize the city is being smart about this. Two injuries could have been two deaths."
Patricia came over to join us. She saw the look on my face.
"He had surgery this morning. Bleeding on his brain."
"Not overly surprising, but sad anyway. How is he? And how is Billy?"
"Both are okay. I'll go home for lunch. Billy and I will go after work. His folks will be with him today."
"News is spreading around the office. I'm telling your project mates to give you a break."
"Thanks. We'll talk about it later, maybe over lunch one day. We're family here, so it shouldn't be swept under the rug. I just need quiet time for a while until we know he's stable."
"I'll leave you alone," said Brent, standing.
"Come home with me for lunch? You can meet Billy."
"You too, Patricia?"
"Thank you, but four's a crowd. Maybe tomorrow. You still going to New York on Friday?"
"Have to. Chemo can't take a back seat to this crap."
And so it did not. I got on the Lexington Avenue Local subway on Friday morning and rode it to 68th Street. I walked one more block north than usual, to 69th Street and then east a half block. An oncologist friend of Andrew's was at Cornell University Medical. He wanted to give a new formula for an anti-emetic a trial run. I gave Andrew a resounding yes when he called to ask if I would try it. I was sick of puking.
Andrew and Dr. Seth Hanna met me in the main lobby. Andrew handed over a drink box of apple juice. Sometimes he could be as psychic as Skip is.
"I knew you'd need a stiff one," he joked. "How is Skip?"
"Struggling badly. He had yet another seizure overnight. He's had eight over the past week."
"Those will ease up as the swelling on his brain goes down."
"I'm sorry to hear such news about your partner, Aaron. Yale-New Haven is not a backwater hospital, so he really is in good hands. So are you, by the way. I would want Andrew as my doc if I had cancer. I hope the anti-emetic works better than the older formula. Thanks for offering to test it."
"Thanks for offering it to me first. Andrew will tell you that I have a selfish streak sometimes. A small one, but it's there nonetheless. As long as it doesn't make me puke more, I'm all for it."
"Well let's go give it a try."
Dr. Hanna led the way to the fifth floor and to his office, beside his lab. He showed me the inner office where Andrew could inject the tumors first. I was alone this time, except for Andrew. No Skip to come with me, and no Billy. Billy was not yet mobile enough to get around Manhattan. I did not want to take JD or Betsy away from Skip.
"I'll be back in a while," said Dr. Hanna.
"Come on in," said Andrew, leading me to the office.
Claire smiled at me, and then came over to give me a hug.
"I figured that you would want company for this," she said. "I suspect you've been too busy to recruit one of the other boys from school to be here."
"Yeah. Thanks for being with me. I should probably work up a schedule. It's a lot of effort that I don't have much time for yet."
"If the boys won't mind, give us a list of their phone numbers. Andrew and I can try to make a plan with the boys."
"I'll send a list to you over the weekend. I know they won't mind if you call. The boys on Long Island are the best bet."
I took off my polo shirt and t-shirt.
"Don't worry about me," Claire said, knowing what I was about to say.
Medically trained or not, this was very hard to experience. She sat on a stool beside the low table. I lay down and she automatically took my hands. She looked into my eyes so I would not watch Andrew. I did not need to. If asked, I could describe in detail what he was doing, including the expression on his face. It was professional but also a bit sad. How barbaric to stick three long thin needles into a living body.
I closed my eyes and tried hard to escape. I fell into a half darkness. When I opened my eyes, I was sitting beside Skip in ICU. His head was bandaged more than the last time I saw him. His heart monitor gave a steady beat. I looked around at the various readings, understanding them all. Clinically he was okay. I touched his cheek, lightly brushing my fingers across his skin. He did not feel the touch. I stood to kiss his lips so he knew I was here. Did he smile just now? No, I guess not. His nurse, Natalie, came in and walked through me, bending down to kiss his cheek. I had not known that she did that. Aaron? ...
"Aaron? Come back to us, love," Claire said.
I was immediately swept away from Skip, back to the current reality some 80 miles away.
"Sorry. I was with Skip, or in my thoughts anyway."
"Was he okay?"
"What about his long-term care?"
"He'll be airlifted from New Haven to Atlanta. There's a spinal injury center there. I'm going with him. Andrew knows about that part already. I can do chemo there too."
Andrew was adding the new anti-emetic to my chemo IV pouch. Dr. Hanna also filled syringes. Bless him. Claire went to the cabinet to get the blanket. June in New York was hot, but I was about to feel like I was in a deep freeze. She covered me and sat beside me while Andrew attached my PICC line. He started the flow. I waited for it to burn like mad, but it did not.
"How come it's not as hot? It doesn't burn like usual."
"Because we are geniuses," said Andrew, taking young Dr. Hanna by the shoulder.
"No doubt," I said, obviously happy with both of them.
I closed my eyes again. I wanted to go back to Skip any way that I could. I could think about him, or fall asleep and dream about him, or I could try hard to put myself with him. I tried hard.
Billy walked into ICU and stood beside his brother, watching him sleep. He ran his fingertips over Skip's cheek a couple of times. He was torn about wanting Skip to wake. It seemed to take a few minutes but Skip did wake. His eyes lit up. Skip truly loved Billy, and not just because he was there at this moment. The love is from a lifetime, and most especially for the past seven years. Brother and lover, but oh so much more than either. Billy touched Skip's chest as he leaned down to kiss his lips. He held Skip's head behind his right ear with his left hand, looking deeply into his brother's eyes. Billy told Skip how much he loved him, not just that he did. A tear ran from Billy's eye, down his cheek, dropping onto Skip's cheek. Skip wanted to wipe away Billy's tears with his thumb, but he could not. Skip told Billy not to cry. He said that he knew the journey will be long and hard, but he will put his heart into his recovery. Billy dried his eyes, believing Skip will do that and more. Skip said that he misses me. I wish I could call out to him to tell him I was with them, in spirit. I finally know for sure what `in spirit' means. Billy told him that I will be home on Saturday and that I will be there with him as soon as I can be.
I slipped back to New York. Dr. Hanna was watching me.
"Sorry. I was with Skip."
"Sounds like a good place to be."
"You know about us."
"Andrew said that you are exceptional, and why."
"Yeah well, Andrew lies."
"Not even a little."
"Dr Hanna ..."
"Seth. I'm tired of this cancer. Over five years and I've almost lost my life twice. Andrew has a theory ..."
"... about gross trauma and cancer."
"It's a sound theory. I've seen his research notes. A colleague in Chicago got funding recently based only on those notes."
"Why can't we kill it?"
"We can and have, but not completely. We will, Aaron. You're a tumor manufacturer. Anything we find out about you will help someone else, no matter what type of cancer. You're the pioneer for us, alongside us. I have faith in you and Andrew."
"Me too, of course. Andrew has brought me this far. I have no thought that I'll die from cancer. But ..."
"I do understand the drain on you, Aaron. People like you are why I became an oncologist. There are no magic bullets or instant answers. We research and we study. We try to hold you on this side of life and want nothing more than to cure you."
I nodded. I did understand.
I stepped off the train in Fairfield. JD met me at the station. He was surprised at the spring in my step.
"Did you actually have chemo yesterday?"
"Nope. Andrew and a colleague, Dr. Seth Hanna at Cornell, got the formula right. I'm hungry."
"Uh, who are you, and where is our Aaron?"
"I am and always will be your Aaron."
"Thank God," he said, giving me a warm hug. "My boy, one of three, and you mean everything to me."
"Can I buy you lunch?" I asked.
In the car, JD kissed my forehead.
"That's from Skip. He made me promise."
"Are the seizures under control yet?"
"No. A specialist came in today. Skip needs an MRI but they are antsy about doing it. The neurologist and the radiologist need to make a plan. That's in the works today."
"He'll need yet another surgery, won't he?"
"Shit. Can he survive another one?"
"I guess it's not our decision. And we don't know Skip's wishes."
"Skip wishes to walk again, whatever it takes."
"I stand corrected. I know that, of course. I had the same wish, eventually. But it took a long time to get there. All I knew was PT and pain."
"Skip is going to have all the advantages that you did not, except one."
"Your love for him."
"It's profound, but he can't live on love."
"I doubt you believe that, even a little. Billy brought Skip life after his surgery, when Skip worried about everything, including living. His depression was profound. The more he told Billy to go away, the more Billy clung to him. He would physically put Skip on the floor of our home and hold him until he stopped struggling with all the wrong things and started struggling with all the right things."
"It's a week since the accident. It's been an okay week but it's also been a small drop across a vast ocean. I'm not looking forward any more than a few hours because I'm afraid. The Skip we know now might change very drastically, especially once he begins rehab. Nothing will ever frustrate him more."
JD started the car and we headed for lunch.
"You give yourself so little credit, Aaron. I know that he asked you if you would go to Atlanta with him. He's counting on everything that you are and everything that you know about recovery to help him. You will do so with so little thought. Every intimate thought that you have, and I don't mean sexual, will benefit him. Don't hide any emotion from him either. If you feel tears, let them flow. If he cries, hold him."
I would need those words to get us both through. I filed them away for easy recall.
Skip's seizures were brought under control with minor surgery. Relieving pressure brought about general relief. He scowled a couple of times.
"Headache?" I asked.
He closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them. Affirmative.
"I'll let Natalie know," I said. "Any feeling yet?"
He closed his eyes but did not open them right away. His throat must be raw from the trach tube. His previous ventures at talking must have irritated his vocal cords.
"In time," I said.
Eyes closed and then opened after a moment. Yes.
Three weeks and one day after the accident, Skip was transported to New Haven airport by ambulance. We were departing at 1:00 p.m. Betsy and JD came the day before from New Hampshire. Andrew and Claire came from Maryland. Billy stood between his dad and me, holding us both. David and Sam, who had visited each Saturday and Sunday for two weeks returned, with their mom and dad in tow. They all kissed Skip on his cheek and told him to stay strong. He was not to feel alone at any hour of the day. He understood.
They turned to me as Skip was loaded onto the small plane / air ambulance. Yale-New Haven had arranged for MedFlight to come. The city made sure that Skip's caregivers knew this was also covered, both to and from Atlanta, for when Skip came home. The same went for any DME items that Skip will need, including electric wheelchair and specialized bed at home. Skip's dad and Billy are going to modify our garage and stairwells, but gave us no more clue than that.
I climbed aboard and settled in at the foot of Skip's stretcher. On board was a pilot and co-pilot, paramedic and ICU nurse. I put my seatbelts on, the kind that cross over one's chest like an X. Skip was bound to the stretcher by five belts, two across his chest, one across his stomach, and two across his legs, upper and lower. He was like a rag doll and could flop about otherwise. I looked out of the window to my right, seeing the banner that said `Godspeed Skip!!' in large green and blue letters (his favorite colors). I hoped that someone had taken a picture of all of them and the sign so he could see it later.
We taxied to the departure runway. The engines revved and we glided smoothly into the air. I absolutely hated taking off, but this did not bother me. It was all about angle I guess. On commercial flights, on was thrust into the sky at such a steep angle that it surprised me that anyone could enjoy taking off. One those flights, I was fine once we were in the air and upon landing. I did not worry about that here. The air ambulance was sleek and smooth. I felt safe.
En route, Skip had a seizure. I saw it come on. His eyes opened suddenly and rolled up into his head. I made some noise because I could not speak. The paramedic and nurse both saw it at the same time as I did. They worked on him for a few moments, calmly and professionally, but with caring hearts. I knew intimately that medicine HAS to have heart. The seizure passed. He looked at me with eyes that said profound things.
The seizures had taken away his ability to speak at all. I worried that his medical difficulties would delay his admittance into the spinal clinic. Well, worrying was getting me nowhere, so I sat back a bit more.
I looked out the window immediately to my left. We flew in bright blue skies and brilliant sunshine. The cottony clouds floated below, changing shapes and size. If I had been lying on the ground, as I did as a kid, looking up, I could imagine shapes looking like Snoopy or a car, or just clouds being shaped by the breeze. But from this height, they were mere clouds of cotton or gauze. We glided smoothly over them, southward, on an incredible journey, one that we would not forget for a lifetime.
Just short of two hours later, the pilot informed us that we were about to begin our descent into DeKalb Peachtree airport. I did not know about this airport. I assumed we would fly into Hartsfield. Later I would find that PDK was closer to the spinal center, by some 20 miles, making less stress for Skip's transport.
Skip was offloaded from the plane. The crew laid the stretcher on the ground and then slowly pulled it up until the legs extended and locked. I deplaned, putting our luggage on a cart that airport personnel provided. I looked over at Skip. He will be taken to ICU at the center. It was routine, not just because he had a seizure in-flight. He did indeed still have medical needs. A MedFlight rep guided me to the shuttle bus that will take me to my apartment. GE had made all the arrangements. I had everything on an itinerary in my pocket but I let the famous southern hospitality take its natural course.
My apartment was 3.5 miles from the center, about a six-minute drive. The leasing office manager and my regional manager from GE met me to show me the apartment. We entered a townhouse that was bright, sunny, and fully furnished, amazingly to my contemporary taste. I saw Patricia's hand in this. Rental furniture of all kinds can be leased, maybe even to a corporate customer's request. To our left was a living room with fireplace and two floor-to-ceiling windows, one facing front, one facing a side patio. We continued walking past a half bath, a small laundry room with full-size washer and dryer, and then into a spacious eat-in kitchen. A slider toward the rear of the kitchen opened to a deck. I looked out at a stream flowing past, about 20 feet from the deck stairs.
"Just perfect so far," I said to Karen, the property manager. "I dunno, Mike, I'm going to have to work hard to earn this," I said, holding open my hands.
"Patricia raves about you, and I've seen your internal resume. We promise to keep you happy. I'm sorry about Skip, incidentally. We wanted you to be as close to the Shepherd Center as possible. Please pass on our best wishes to Skip."
I had to wonder how much he knows, but that would be for a later time.
"Would you like to see the upstairs?" asked Karen.
"Yes. After you," I said, motioning to her.
Mike walked upstairs behind me. At the landing, I was surprised to see three bedrooms, not the two that I expected. I said so.
"Three bedrooms. Okay, working harder and a half. This is much more than I expected."
"Not for you to worry about, Aaron," said Mike.
Karen spoke. "We know that you will likely have visitors from New England as Skip can handle them. The two bedrooms here have two twin beds each. They share a Jack and Jill bathroom. The master is this way."
I followed her to the master. It was above the kitchen, with a wonderful view. It too, was bright and sunny. I think it looked west, but I would get oriented later. Mike put my bags down at the foot of the bed.
"En suite here," said Karen, taking me in. There was, like in our condo in Connecticut, a separate shower and tub. First rate. Not elegant or pretentious anywhere in this home. A fine home throughout my stay.
"Thanks to both of you," I said. "It's much more than I expected."
"Our office is about four miles from here," said Mike. "We have a rental car waiting for you in the parking lot, so I'll take you there next."
"Do I need to sign anything?" I asked Karen.
"No, your friend here took care of it all."
We walked back downstairs. Karen handed me the keys. I locked up. We shook hands and she told me to come by the leasing office when I needed anything, or just to say hey. I would do so. I got into Mike's SUV.
"Family man, I see," I said, pointing to the rear seat with my thumb. There were two child seats.
"Twin boys, almost two years old. You'll meet them and my wife tonight over dinner. I'll go grocery shopping with you tomorrow and help you get used to the area. Saturday is not a great day to grocery shop unless you love very crowded stores. You're not due to come into the office until Wednesday, so you can get oriented and settled.
"Sweet. I really do appreciate what you're doing for me."
"For you and Skip. Patricia talked to me, so I know what he means to you. Bless you both, Aaron. I hope I honor my dear wife as much as you honor each other."
I stared, not knowing what to say. GE preached diversity, but I did not know to what extent that was supported.
"No homophobia with me, Aaron, nor with my family. I have a gay nephew, for one thing, and a small handful of gay friends from my college days. I am loathe to say `gay' as well. Patricia says you do not like being labeled. I understand that. My nephew says he does not belong in a box."
"I don't know what to say, except that I'm pleased. Southern graciousness at its best."
"I'm a damned Yankee, bro," he said. "Upstate New York."
I laughed heartily. I felt at home, even though home was 950 miles northeast.
"You come and go as you please at work, okay? I know that you are primarily here for Skip. If I can help you at the center, please don't be shy. The project is a good one, but there is no strict deadline. Patricia sent me your specification document. It's right on the mark. I understand you're working on the design spec."
"Yeah. I'll have it with me on Wednesday. It's on my laptop. Is it okay if I copy Patricia on it?"
"Certainly. Are you okay that I'll have input into you next review?"
"Only if you write profoundly glowing remarks."
"We'll see how that goes. I'm not as poetic as you are."
"I can teach you," I said. "Seriously, you'll get a quality project when I'm done. Maybe you can twist my arm and force me to come back once a year."
He took one hand off the steering wheel and lightly twisted my left arm.
"Okay okay. I will. I promise! By the way, I was here for two projects back in the mid-80's."
"I do know that. The remarks about you were profoundly glowing. I've requested a copy of the `Manager's Guide to Profoundly Glowing Remarks Made Easy'."
"I have the signed First Edition. I remembered to pack it."
"I won't call your bluff on that one. I'm glad to see your sense of humor is alive and well. Save some for your love, okay?"
"I will. I'm full of it."
"Yeah, I've heard that."
We both laughed aloud. Days to do were rare enough, but precious when they happened. Mike pulled into the parking lot, near the front door. There sat a Mitsubishi Mirage. Patricia had obviously told Mike what I drove. Driving around in a strange city in a strange car was tough. My driving range will be about 8 miles, in a mostly straight path that I sort of had in my mind already. I think I can make it from the office to home. Home to Shepherd needed a test run, so I did that after Mike and I parted company for a while. He gave me directions from my apartment to his home, less than 10 miles. I agreed to come with an appetite.
I drove back to my apartment, unpacked my bags, put clothes in the closets and dresser, and showered. From there I drove to the Shepherd Center to find out where Skip was. The information packet I had with me showed ICU to be on the 4th floor. I checked in at reception, got a visitor's badge, and rode up to four on the elevator. The unit was smaller than Yale-New Haven. Skip was the only one there today. His nurse was sitting beside him.
"Hello Aaron. I'm Kelly. Come, sit with your buddy. He's settling in just fine. We should have his seizures under better control over the coming 24 hours."
She was confident and friendly, neither unexpected. She was young, perhaps late 20's. I had read a few reviews on the Internet regarding the staff at the center. They were top-notch; there was no bad review in the whole site. I was beginning to understand why.
"Thanks so much, Kelly. I can already see that he's in good hands."
I explained that I was here, as Mike had said, primarily for Skip, and that I was a GE employee. I gave her my office number, given to me by Mike, and the number at my apartment. I had my cell phone as well.
"Can I tell Kelly about us?" I asked Skip.
"By the way, closing his eyes for a moment and opening them means yes in "Eyes," capital E, as developed by us. Yes can also be wiggling eyes," I said, giving Skip his moment. He wiggled his eyes.
"Oh yeah, I know that one. Wise guy wiggle. Keep those to a minimum buster," she said to him with a smile.
Affirmative. And a suggestion of a smile.
"First, does his record say what relationship I am to him?"
"Well, in a loose sense of the word. I don't know how you all will feel about that."
"Well Aaron, it's `y'all' and we will have no problem with that. I think as people are around you, they will know. It's not until you two sit together like this, but you're quite stunning."
"We usually hear `beautiful'," I said, a bit shyly.
"Stunning is one level better. And I don't mean by looks, necessarily, though you both are quite handsome. I see one heart between you two. So, how are you handling seeing your love like this?"
"Maybe easier for me, in a twisted sort of way, because I too was injured in a car accident. Drunk driver. It was a three-year rehab. C3 through C5 in my case, but otherwise almost the same as Skip's injuries."
"He's in good hands."
"Tell him," I said.
"You're in good hands, and so is your buddy."
Eyes gave an affirmative.
"We need a `thank you' gesture," I said to both.
"Can you wink?" Kelly asked Skip.
He tried. It was more like a scowl, but incomplete.
"We can work on that with your therapy crew," she said.
"He was talking for a few days until the seizures happened. He would blink when he wanted to keep talking."
"Cool gesture. I'll make a note in his record. Therapists benefit greatly from any information you can give. Skip, you and Aaron should expand your Eyes vocabulary.
"If he scowls, he has a headache. If he closes his eyes, he's saying No."
"Okay." She wrote that down.
"How long will he be in ICU?"
"Three or four days, until we're sure he's seizure-free. Okay Skip?"
"I really do like that. Maybe Eyes should become a universal method of communicating. Do you know you're cute?" she asked Skip.
Skip wiggled his eyes. She laughed aloud and touched his cheek.
"I like you boys. Aaron, give your love a kiss goodnight. He should rest."
I kissed him as instructed. I stroked his cheek gently. "I love you, bro. I'll see you tomorrow."
He wiggled his eyes at me and tried to give me a smile. Kelly laughed. She came over to me when I stood up. She gave me a very nice hug. I hugged her back, grateful. I would not worry at all about Skip when I went to bed.
"Get used to those, Aaron. Hugs are required around here. Skip's graduation pre-requisite will include a C+ at least in giving hugs."
On the way out, I asked about his facial muscles, brought on by his inability to wink.
"Nothing major. They should recover soon. He will be talking again soon too. His throat needs to heal from the trach tube. We'll try to wean him off the ventilator as well."
"I'm patient, and he's even more patient. You'll like him a lot."
"I already like him. He's a fighter. He's not likely to find peers here, at least his age. Our larger care base is adolescents, but he won't be neglected by any means."
"You'll see soon enough why that doesn't matter."
I did not tell her that the larger percentage of our friends were college guys. The boys were already working out, amongst themselves, when they can come to visit Skip. I will let them know that my apartment can handle four at a time, five if anyone will sleep on the sofa. I can imagine a dozen showing up all at once, with sleeping bags. That would not bother me in the least.
I left the center and walked back out to my car. I got my bearings and drove to Mike's place. At 7:00, I pulled into his driveway. He was sitting on the front porch in a very charming neighborhood, twin boys on his lap. He set them down and they toddled to the edge of the porch, but made no effort to climb down the stairs without daddy's hand.
"Well, Aaron, your navigation skills are obviously good. Any trouble with my directions?"
"None at all. I went from work to home, and then home to the center. The last leg was the center to here. Not bad at all. I doubt I'll drive more than those routes while I'm here. I appreciate the offer to help me get around tomorrow."
"Meet David and Dylan. Boys, this is Aaron."
I bent down a bit and reached my hand to them. Both of them shook it like little gentlemen. "Hi," each one said a bit shyly. That won't last long. I have a natural affinity towards kids. I sat down. Dylan proved that statement by climbing into my lap.
Mike laughed aloud. "Kids know, Aaron. You'll end up having to take them home with you tonight."
"Gladly. Or invite me home every couple of weeks and we'll be just fine."
"Weekly, if you can manage it. I guess it depends on how Skip does."
"I can manage weekly. I have to warn you I can cook, so I'll bring a favorite or two."
"I am mad for lasagna."
"Well, it happens that Skip is Italian and lasagna is my signature dish. I also make a mean raspberry almond torte."
"You'll have to put your money where your mouth is, Aaron," said Mike's wife as she came through the screen door. "I happen to adore tortes as much as Mike loves Italian."
"Oh I'm not a bragger, Mrs., uh?"
"Amanda. It's a pleasure to meet you, Aaron. I'm sorry for the circumstances that brought you to Atlanta."
"No need. I checked in on Skip. He's in ICU for a few days but in very good hands. I have every confidence that we'll be going home much improved. Home seems like a long way away though."
"Come on up and have some iced tea. You too are in good hands," said Amanda.
I knew it to be true. A light breeze brought the scent of flowers to my nose. Honeysuckle or magnolia? Well, I am not exactly sure, but it was sweet and nice. Dylan played with my chin and giggled when I made funny eyes at him. David sat on his mom's lap and clapped for his brother. Mike went around back to check the grill readiness.
"Nothing fancy, Aaron, but we've got hamburgers and hot dogs, grilled corn, and homemade baked beans."
"Fancy enough for my tastes. As you can see, I can't afford to be picky about what I eat."
"Well, we can add to that a bit today and over the coming weeks. I'm a registered dietician. If your doctor can get the tumors under control, I know how to add some pounds in a healthy way."
I gave her a look.
"GE may be a multinational corporation, but it's also a small family. Patricia talked to Mike about your needs. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all. Family does take care of each other. I've tried to eat well, but the weight is a long-standing issue. I do two things very well—grow tumors and puke."
"Puke," said Dylan.
"Oops. Sorry little guy. Bad word."
"Okay," he said. Never underestimate a nearly 2-year old.
"Bad," said David, to enforce the idea.
"Aww, you guys are sweet."
Dylan reached up and touched my cheek. I rubbed my nose against his and he laughed again. Screw once a week for dinner. I wanted to come every day for playtime.
Dylan climbed down off me and went to mom. David got down at the same time and came to me.
"Are they really fully grown men in tiny bodies?" I asked, laughing.
"No, but I'm thoroughly convinced that they are linked psychically. They prove it time and again."
"Now that I understand. Skip does the same to me. After five years, I still have to laugh sometimes."
"My sister and I are like that to a point. I think about her and she'll call within the hour. It seems only one way though. Do you have family?"
Mike came back to the porch. He sat on the step.
"Yes, a brother. Both my folks have passed. Brad and I are ...?"
"I guess that's as good a word as any. He's a good guy but his thoughts are more of our grandparents' generation than our own. We're only a year and a half apart in age. He was not happy to find out about Skip."
"Well, Skip is critically important to you. If your brother cannot see that, it's his problem. He has family?"
"Yes. Wife of 19 years and two fine boys. They get on him sometimes about his attitude. They both send me email and want to know everything."
"Spying for dad, perhaps?"
"I considered that at one time, but they have both proved that they like that I'm in love. I was eight years without it, and they hated that I refused to marry again."
"Good for them. Maybe dad will lighten up."
"I can only hope. He's a good guy overall. We were very close growing up, which makes his attitude hard to take. I have Skip to think about. I told my nephews about the accident, so my brother knows. He's remained silent."
"Well then, take care of Skip, and yourself. You have more than a full plate. I'm sad for that."
"I'm okay. My oncologist is working so hard for me. He'll be coming to Atlanta from DC every Friday. We're trying to break up three tumors from the inside out. It's not easy. It's still less important than Skip. All my energy is for him."
"Save a little for yourself, bro," said Mike. "You can't take care of Skip if you're beat down."
"Agreed. I met his ICU nurse a while ago. Kelly figured us out in no time. She says we're, uh, stunning. Skip and I are teaching her our Eyes language, which is how he communicates."
"He can't talk?" asked Amanda.
"He has a trach tube and he's on a respirator. He had limited ability for a while, but then he had seizures."
I explained how he says yes (two ways, which made them laugh), no, that scowling means he has a headache, and that we needed to work on how to say `thanks'.
"Can he wink?"
"No. Kelly thought of that, too. His therapists will work on his facial muscles. The seizures probably affected them."
"No muscle movements at all, like moving his thumb."
"Nope. He's quadriplegic, 100%."
"That will change in time," Amanda said, positively. "Shepherd is the perfect place for Skip."
"Let's go and have some dinner," Mike said.
I put David on my shoulders and held his hands. He did a giddyap gesture. I trotted and he laughed happily, holding on tightly.
"Oh boy," sighed Mike.
I laughed happily too. "Sorry Dad. Kids gotta be kids, even us almost grown-up kids."
I set David down in his high chair beside his twin. Their mom put skinless hotdog halves in front of each of them. Dylan raised his up like a sword to me while David practically devoured his. I stifled the urge to sword fight with Dylan, so I took a big bite out of my hotdog. He gobbled his up, giving me a smiley face.
"They sure like you," Mike said.
"I'm a kid too. They know that. Right guys?"
"A kid," said David, pointing at me.
We ate a fine meal. I cleaned up David's sloppy face while Amanda did the same for Dylan.
My cell phone rang.
"Uh oh," I said, recognizing the exchange for Shepherd. "The center."
I inadvertently hit the speaker button. "Hello?" I said, and then realized it was in speaker mode. I set it down.
"Hello Aaron, it's Kelly. Your bud wants to say something."
I waited a moment, not sure that I should keep the speaker on.
"Love ... u", came a raspy but heartwarming voice of my Skip.
"Awww, bro. I love you too, a lot. Are you okay?"
"Sleep, love. I'll see you in the morning."
I could picture him closing and then opening his eyes.
"Is it okay that I called you?" asked Kelly.
"Very okay. Thank you so much, Kelly. You're so cool."
"He was getting a bit anxious. He kept flicking his eyes at the door. I pretty much understood right away that he wanted to talk to you."
"Pure genius. We'll work on Eyes a bit tomorrow. I'll think of things tonight to make it easier until he can talk. I can picture him becoming frustrated if he can't communicate."
"Thanks for that, Aaron. See you tomorrow. You rest too, okay?"
I promised that I would and then hung up. I had a big grin on my face. Then I realized where I was.
"Sweet," said Mike.
"And then some," said Amanda. "You're so blessed."
I could not speak for the lump in my throat. I nodded, a bit teary eyed.
"Will you come tomorrow?" I asked.
"You couldn't keep us away," said Mike.
After a nice evening, Amanda made me a breakfast care package, since I had not shopped yet. I went home around 9:30. Mike will come by early to get groceries. Visiting hours started at 10:00 at the center. I climbed into bed at 10:30, feeling like I was at home, and better, cared about. No `stranger in a strange land' feeling.
Mike came by at 9:00 to show me how to get to the grocery store. Kroger was the closest. I gave Mike half my list, as Skip and I had done at home. I did not want to take up his whole morning. Mostly I wanted to stock the freezer. I told him to substitute as necessary. I went through the produce, meat, and deli sections. We met in the middle. At checkout, I saw that I managed to stay well within my budget. I had a per-diem for eating out but that made us travelers a bit unhealthy. Mike said he or one of the project team would buy me lunch at work. It would be nice not having to file a weekly or bi-weekly expense report.
We went to my place long enough to put groceries away. I was pleased that the freezer was full and had enough fresh ingredients for three days. As we did at home, I would shop twice a week.
We met Amanda in the parking lot at the Shepherd Center at 10:00. We met Lorial, the first shift ICU nurse.
"Good morning, Aaron. Hello folks," she said to us. "Skip had a good first night. I'm about to give him a sponge bath. If you folks could wait for a few minutes, I would like to show Aaron how to do that. We won't be long."
Amanda and Mike were offered tea, which they accepted, and then sat together outside of Skip's room. Lorial drew warm water from the sink next to Skip's room. She used Ivory soap, the same as we used at home. Skip's bandages on his head had been removed earlier that morning. His hair was shorter than usual.
"Hey, nice haircut," I said, smiling at him.
It must have been cut at Yale-New Haven, for his surgery. He rolled his eyes up as if to look. I took a mirror off his side table and showed him.
"Can I wash his hair," I asked.
It was so nice to see him without facial bandages, but the cuts were deep. It made me sad. He would have at least one permanent scar from in front of his ear to his chin, on the left. It was jagged. There were obvious signs that stitches were needed. I touched it lightly with my fingers. I told him about it. Smaller scars were all over his forehead. Scars would not change how I felt about Skip.
Lorial handed me a washcloth. I could not wash his hair as usual, but I cleaned his face, ears, and then wet his hair thoroughly. He had been somewhat sweaty under the bandages. I took a comb and smoothed out the kinks, and then parted his hair on the left. My boy sure is handsome. He made a small smacking sound with his lips so I leaned in. He kissed me as well as he could. I kissed him back.
"Oops," I said to Lorial.
"Now that wasn't nice. Kiss your buddy again, and mean it."
I did. I still blushed, but she was okay.
"Kelly is right. You two are truly stunning. I'm jealous, a little. My boyfriend and I are a bit rocky."
"Easy for me to say, but just talk about stuff. It's give and take on both ends, so get rid of any stupid stuff that goes on and live simply. The worst thing Skip has done is called me a liar. That was a couple of weeks ago, when I asked to kiss him. He asked me if it was fear or love. I half lied, so he was right."
"Hmmm, I like what you said about `stupid stuff'. That's the problem—little nit things that bother us. I see things in you two that I would like to see in us."
"If they're nit things, they aren't important. Take care of each other. That's as good as it gets. Don't live in regret. It sucks. We don't. It's been only 5 years and a bit, but ..."
"He loves you like it's been forever," she said, understanding.
"Yes. Look at Skip."
He closed his eyes for a moment, and then reopened them.
"Yes is right, Skip. It's good advice," she said.
"Do you know our Eyes language?"
"Kelly gave notes to me. We'll make sure all the staff has them."
I rinsed out my washcloth.
"Guide me, if I don't do this right."
She nodded. I washed his neck in back and on the sides, and then around his trach tube. Lorial put clean padding around it so it would not irritate his skin. She took the sheet off Skip. This was my first time seeing him below the shoulders. His left arm was in a cast. I had seen only the top of the cast back in New Haven. His fingers were all that showed. I touched them, and then looked at Skip.
He closed his eyes. No. No feeling there.
His chest was a field of bruises and cuts. I took the freshly rinsed washcloth.
"How?" I asked Lorial.
"Trust your instincts," she said, obviously already doing so.
I washed over and under his right arm from shoulder to fingertips, including his armpit. He had only a light coating of hair there. I washed the side of his chest thoroughly, underarm to waist, including what I could reach behind him. He would not be able to sit up for some time yet. His world included only what he could see lying flat on his back. I washed his chest and then Lorial toweled it dry.
"We don't want him chilled from the A/C."
"Groin?" I asked.
"Yes. I'll get clean boxers for him."
I took off his boxers. His ample cock lay across his leg. I washed his groin thoroughly. I so wanted to do so much more. Would he ever make love to me again? I looked at his eyes.
I was not so sure.
Affirmative, again, a bit harder.
"Okay, love, I believe you."
I took the clean pair of boxers from Lorial and put them on him. Skip will need everything done for him for a long while. I already knew that. I sometimes took care of him, in my mind, just before I went to sleep. I could do so without fear. If this were me in bed, and him taking care of me, he would not have to think twice about my care. My rehab care, including such an intimate thing as a sponge bath, had been done at the hands of strangers.
His left leg was in a hip to toe cast. I knew that there were rods within the bones. I also knew they were brutally bruised. There would have been a lot of blood from the multiple fractures. I continued down his right leg, hip to foot, washing thoroughly and then drying. Lorial took the pan of water to the sink while I covered him again with a clean sheet.
"Ready for company? I asked. "My local manager and his wife."
I opened the door. "Sorry for taking so long, folks. It was my first time giving him a bath of sorts."
"No apologies necessary, Aaron," said Amanda. "Our day is yours, and we know what care is all about."
They came in and stood besides Skip's bed.
Hello, Skip, I'm Mike. My wife, Amanda."
"Hello, Skip. I'm so pleased to meet you." She touched his face, kindly, lovingly. He smiled as best he could. They understood just fine.
We spent an hour letting Skip know what the day-to-day would be like. They asked him questions that he could answer with yes or no. His slight smile was so engaging. I found myself holding his hand, rubbing his knuckles with my thumb again. When it was time to go, I gave him a sweet kiss on his lips. "Tomorrow, love. Will you call me again tonight, like last night?"
Lorial did not understand. I explained. She thought it had been a wonderful gesture on Kelly's part. I saw a sparkle of inspiration in her eye. I quietly said, "If it were me, I would like that." She smiled at me. "He will too," she said. We were talking about a short call to her boyfriend, just a token of appreciation.
It was hard to leave Skip. He was not alone, and he needed the quiet time to heal properly. I had brought Yanni, Enya, and Celine Dion CDs from home. The staff will play music for him through the day and evening. He had been reading a Robert Ludlum novel at the time of the accident. I brought it and the sequel so I could eventually sit and read to him. Reading and turning his own pages was somewhere in the far future. It was a goal to work toward.
"How do you want to spend your day, Aaron," Amanda asked.
"With you, Mike, and the boys, if...," I said.
"The day is yours. We'd be pleased to have you."
Mike drove home behind Amanda. "How about us giving you run of the kitchen? Would you make a lasagna?"
I smiled widely. I would love that. I would make the shorter version, as opposed to my all day version, which meant simmering the sauce for 12 hours and then curing overnight.
Amanda easily agreed once we joined her at home. She went next door to pick the twins up from her neighbor. The boys came running, obviously seeing that I had come back.
"Hi Dylan!" I said, scooping him into a hug. "Come a runnin' David, if you want a hug too."
He came a runnin'. I scooped him up as well, holding both. They each kissed me cheeks.
"Awww, sweet. Thanks guys, I love kisses." I nuzzled their noses and then put them down. They took my hands as we walked up the steps and into the house.
"Uh, how do you tell them apart? Half the time, I can't," said Mike. "Amanda can, of course."
"Dylan has a tiny brown mark under his left ear," I said, pointing it out to Mike.
Amanda was impressed.
"Two of Billy's classmates at BC are twins as well. I'm one of few who can tell them apart. Their eye color is a bit different. I couldn't do that with these guys those. The only difference I see at all is the mark."
"You're right, Aaron," said Amanda. "Very observant."
"Well, that attention to details is why your wonderful spouse is going to have an easy time writing part of my review for next year."
"Hey, anything that makes my job easier, bro. I'm all for it."
They led me to the kitchen. Amanda pulled out ground beef, ground turkey, and ground pork from the fridge. She took my favorite brand of canned tomatoes out of the pantry, and olive oil. Mike brought me garlic, onions, and sweet peppers. He went into an under-shelf cabinet to bring me out a large pot. I briefly cooked the garlic in the oil. I started browning the ground pork first, and then the turkey, and then the beef. Next came the onions and the tomatoes, which Mike had run through the food processor. I put a lid on it.
"It needs to simmer for two hours untouched," I said.
It was a nice day, so Amanda took the boys out to the pool. I had not thought about bringing swim trunks.
"I have an extra pair of swim trunks for you, if you care to join us in the pool," said Mike.
We went upstairs. I changed in the bathroom and met Mike back downstairs. Amanda then came in and changed while we watched the boys. I took David and put him in his floating duck. Mike put Dylan into a floating dragon. He handed me sun screen.
"Okay, so two more items I will need to buy this week," I said. "I didn't expect ..." I said, a bit sadly.
"To have a normal life while you are here?" he finished for me.
"Your development has two pools, by the way. One indoors and one outdoors, both at the club house."
"I really need to walk around the neighborhood to see all that's there. Thanks for picking out such a nice place for me. I slept well last night, quite at home."
"Excellent. When you don't want to be home alone, come here."
I nodded. Of course, it all depended on how Skip did. He and Amanda knew that, but did not want me sitting at home, moping about lack of progress or slow progress with Skip. The potential for that happening was great.
We swam for a while. Amanda took the boys out of the sun after a half hour. Mike and I played volleyball in the pool, him at the deep end. He is a better swimmer than I am. Amanda sat under an umbrella after swimming the length of the pool a couple of times. The boys were now in their kiddie pool.
"If you guys will keep an eye on the boys, I'll go and make a cold fruit plate for lunch."
"Yes and yum!" I said. I was ready to get out of the sun. My freckles were beginning to show on my shoulders and nose.
A while later, Amanda came out with a large platter filled with fruit. It had sliced peaches and pares, melon balls from honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon, blueberries, blackberries, seedless red and green grapes, and strawberries. In the center of the platter were two kinds of dip.
"Ranch dressing with a bit of yogurt here. Honey and yogurt here," she said, pointing out each one.
"Nice. What are y'all gonna have for lunch?" I asked, pulling the platter to me.
"Bad," said Dylan, looking up at me, smiling.
I laughed aloud.
"Okay okay, I'll share," I told him. "Want a strawberry, guys?"
The both came over to me, climbing into my lap.
I took a knife and sliced up a large strawberry for the boys. They shared without fighting over anything.
"Apple," said Dylan.
"Oops, mom forgot little man. I'll be right back."
She came back out a few minutes later with peeled apple slices. The boys each took two, one for each hand. David gave his second one to me. I bit off half. Dylan gave me his as well, and I did the same thing. They giggled and looked up at me. Amanda took a small plate and put their favorites in front of them.
"I skipped the cheese this time, since it'll be in the lasagna," she said.
We spent the afternoon at the pool. I went to stir the sauce once at the two-hour mark, turned it down a notch, and put the lid back on. Amanda came in and got apple juice for the twins and lemonade for us three.
"Wow, that smells so good. Will you write your recipe out for me, both versions?"
"Sure. This shorter recipe goes back to my college days, to the late 70's."
We went back outside. Dylan climbed into my lap and David climbed into Mike's lap. They were both asleep in short order. I wrote, one-handed, in a notebook for Amanda.
"The boys went down really easily into their naps. I'm surprised. I hated them when I was a kid."
"As long as we hold them, they will sleep for a couple of hours."
"Sounds like me. Holding on to me gets a good three hours in the middle of winter or on a rainy day."
I blushed after I realized what I had said. I knew they did not think anything of it.
When Dylan woke up, fully, I went back to the kitchen to stir the sauce.
"In another hour, we can start to put it together," I said.
"What do you need for cheese?" asked Mike.
"Ricotta, shredded parmesan, and mozzarella."
"Fresh parm is in the freezer. Do you put an egg in the ricotta?"
"Just an egg white, to hold it together. A bit of dill or parsley."
"We have all you need then," said Mike. "We can make sloppy joe's for each of the boys."
I showed Amanda and Mike how to layer together the lasagna, Aaron-style. They were surprised that this did not include boiling the noodles. The sauce was hot, so it would soften the noodles. They would be a bit firmer when baked, not a sloppy mess. I was the dinner hero of the week. Even the twins wanted a taste.
"Mmmm," they said, smiling at me.
We ate outside on the screened-in porch. We needed nothing besides the lasagna, not even bread or salad. We had dessert later, a homemade raspberry sorbet made by Amanda while the lasagna baked for an hour.
It was almost as hard leaving the folks and twins as it was leaving Skip, but Amanda assured me that I was welcome any time. We did settle on Friday night as a regular dinner event, each of us splitting the cooking duty. I had a large repertoire to draw from, and she would show me fine Southern cooking. Each twin hugged me goodnight. Amanda did, followed by Mike.
"Thanks for making my first weekend here way better than I expected."
I woke up each morning at 7:00. I showered, shaved, dressed, ate breakfast, and drove to spend the morning with Skip. Lorial let me wash Skip each morning.
"When will Skip start therapy?" I asked. "Will his bones have to be healed?"
"We're going to aim for next Monday. His hips were reset after being dislocated in the accident. The osteo therapists will work with him first. They will work on his skeletal structure before the regular therapists work on his muscles. It's a bit of a blessing that he won't feel much of that."
"Yeah, I remember. I had feeling early on in my left leg. Working on my hip was agony. Nobody believed in `no pain, no gain' though. If it hurt, they stopped for a while. Persistence counted, not some artificial goal of progress."
"I like you more and more each day, Aaron. I'm so sorry you suffered."
"Nah. We all do in some form, no matter who we are. We have to know bad ..."
"...before we can know good," she quoted.
"Are you inside my head?"
"Nope. Guy's heads are dark and scary places. I read that in a novel once."
"Me too, back in high school. I do have an original quote though, one that I wrote when I was sixteen. `The future isn't where my life is; it's in the moments I'm in.' Maybe that will help you out a little."
"More than a little. That's a wonderful thought."
She wrote it in her notebook and put my AJL initials beside it, with a smiley face.
I stayed with Skip from 8:00 until noon, went home to eat, called Mike at work, sent email to all the guys at home, and took a short nap. I went back to the center at 3:00 and stayed until 7:00. That first Monday and Tuesday was pretty good. In the evenings, I walked around the development, smelling the pine trees and sweet flowers (still unknown) on the breeze. I sat on the back deck steps and listened to the stream as it rolled gently over the rocks, flowing to meet up with a larger stream. I watched, staying very still, as a raccoon came out to forage.
Each night I went to bed by 10:30, reading for a while. I brought the first three Harry Potter hardcovers from home, having recently started the collection. I settled in to find out how Harry came to Hogwarts. When I turned the light off an hour later, I snuggled into my pillows and thought about Skip.
My first workday, on Wednesday, was as good. I drove to the office in light traffic. Mike showed me around, introduced me to my project team, allowed me to present the design spec to the team, and then took me to my work area. It, like my area at headquarters, was open. Good because I hated cubicles. Putting employees in walled mazes was just so bizarre. The office was also business casual, which was good, because I forgot to ask and I had not brought ties and suits.
I worked from 8:00 to 4:00 each day. The Southern hospitality extended to work, so I settled in and felt comfortable that first day. I went home, changed into a polo shirt and shorts, crew socks and sneakers, and then drove to the center.
Kelly greeted me when I walked into ICU. Skip opened his eyes immediately when he heard my voice. I went over to him, bent down a bit, and gave him a sweet kiss.
"We saved his afternoon bath for you. He wants you to wash him. Is that okay?"
"You bet. Lorial showed me how to take care of him on Sunday. I've been doing it each day."
Kelly got the water and then I went to work. I washed his hair first so it had time to try while I washed the rest of him. Forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks, chin, and neck. When I was done with his face, I kissed him again.
"Aaron, it's so sweet to see you two. My husband and I have a great relationship, but you're teaching me things that everyone should know."
"And you're teaching me that it's okay to love my buddy. Is anyone, therapists maybe, not going to be accepting?"
"Maybe, but doubtful. You are the first couple here, at least in the eight years I've been here. I don't know yet who Skip's therapists will be, but the managers know about you. That should head off any worries."
I understood. I did dread that Skip would be treated differently. It was a thought that woke me up last night for a half hour, until I worked it out in my mind. People will not hate Skip. Well, the theory was sound at least. His ICU nurses cared, which is more than I expected anyway.
I washed his chest and abs, sides and some of his back, and then dried him off. Kelly got him a fresh pair of boxers while I washed his groin. I put the boxers on him.
"I did not know about his cancer. Testicular, huh?"
"Yeah. He's beyond the 5-year mark, so it's likely gone for good. Even that was enough to deal with, without this accident."
"I agree. I think Skip is going to be a great inspiration around here. You are going to be, right?" she asked Skip.
Affirmative, with seemingly no thought beforehand. He knew he already was an inspiration to many. He could be to a few more.
I washed his right leg and foot. I tickled the bottom of his foot, a known sensitivity to him. He lay looking at the ceiling, feeling nothing. I made eye contact.
"You're being tickled. Normally I could almost make you pee your pants."
He looked at the ceiling again. He did not acknowledge that at all.
"Uh oh," is all I said.
Kelly looked at me. She looked back at Skip, quite concerned.
"Skip?" I said.
He closed his eyes. His mood had changed as quickly as one snuffs a candle.
Kelly looked over at me as a tear ran down my cheek. I lowered my head. I gave her the washcloth and towel. She stood and kissed Skip's forehead, and then mine.
"It's overwhelming sometimes, huh Skip?" she said to him.
He kept his eyes closed. She touched his cheek with her fingertips. She left us.
I sat with him a long while that night, hoping he would `talk' to me. He did not. He opened his eyes after a couple of hours; perhaps after a nap. I finally stood and kissed his lips. He could not move his head away from me, but if he could, he would have done so. He did not make even the slight movement to kiss me. I looked at him. He stared at nothing. He looked away, wanting Kelly.
"Okay. I'll go get her. I'm sorry, Skip. So sorry."
He looked at the ceiling. His eyes did not follow me out of the door as they have done for weeks. I fucked up. I had reminded him of his normal life. A simple statement was as bad as a hard slap across the face.
"He needs you," I said to Kelly as she sat at her desk."
"He needs you, too, Aaron."
I shrugged and walked to the elevator. I did not look back until the doors closed. I cried softly alone. I cried in the car on the way home.
It was 10:30 when I got home. I cried myself to sleep on the sofa.
When I woke up at 1:30, I called Mike's voicemail at work. I told him that I needed to check in with Skip first thing, early, before coming to the office. I would not be that late, but later than usual. I stripped to my boxer briefs and got into bed. I did not fall asleep for a while. How was I going to make it right with Skip? I thought about it until I fell asleep. My alarm woke me at 6:30. I was exhausted. I stood under the hot shower for a few minutes before I started to wash. A more concrete plan formed in my mind as I washed my hair and then shaved.
I drove to the center. I asked to speak to Lorial, for permission to come up early to see Skip. She granted it quickly.
I stood beside Skip. He looked at me. I wondered if he would let me kiss him. I did so anyway, but on his forehead. I pulled back to see what he would do. He stared at the ceiling.
"I would be mad at me, too, bro. I spoke without thinking last night. I know you don't want to be reminded of what was. I ..."
He continued to look at the ceiling.
"Please know that I will do anything to help you move forward. I would like you to forget what I did. I'm not asking to be forgiven, because it was cruel and thoughtless. Can I come after work? Or should I stay with you now? Mike would understand. I already told him I would be late."
Nothing. No further acknowledgement that I was even there. I sat down anyway. Lorial left us alone, for now. I touched his hand. I put my head on my left fist. I put my right thumb against his, and then took his hand in mine. I squeezed carefully so I would not hurt him.
He squeezed my hand back ever so slightly. I had to look at him in surprise. He was looking at me sideways with his eyes.
Note: Back to May 2010—For those that I have not told yet, there is an amazing beautiful young man near Boston who struggles, as Skip did, but due to a hockey injury vs. car crash. It happened in January. He is now home but has a very long road ahead.
Read about 16-year-old Matt Brown here:
Especially read the "Matt's Progress" and the "Press" sections, including the videos. Reading from earliest to latest gives you a define timeline. He *will* bring tears to your eyes. If you cannot picture what Skip was like through this time of his life, this goes a long way to explain what I simply cannot.
Comments: ajlangille [at] gmail [dot] com