Learning to Walk Again
Before Blake was released from the hospital, it was decided he would be treated at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital. Dr. Evra came out from the hospital to evaluate him, and I remember the conversation with him was the first time since the ordeal began that I felt hope I would someday get my son back.
You see, Blake’s injury was to his frontal lobe, where personality is stored. Blake, who had always had more personality than any one person can contain, had been restored to us as a virtual zombie. He had no facial expressions. His voice was soft. Interacting with others, even watching television, exhausted him.
After he graduated from ICU, he’d been transferred to a different floor and initial rehab began. The hospital’s PTs and OTs were amazing, one PT in particular stands out in my memory. Those sessions were darn near unbearable for me, to watch my emotionless little boy struggle to do things he’d been able to do with ease since toddlerhood. During one particular session, I think the PT could tell by the look on my face I was at my breaking point. She pulled me aside to promise me it would get better. Our son was still in there; it would just take time to find him again. I wept.
But once Dr. Evra came into the picture, I latched on to hope again. There was something reassuring in his presence. He was honest but hopeful and had a way of communicating that infused me with strength.
Blake was sent home from the hospital a mere 10 days after the accident. We’d set up a recliner in the living room for him, where he slept with his dog on his lap. His first night home, one of the teachers from the boys’ school brought us fast food. It wasn’t how we’d planned, but we finally tried the new Culvers in town.
I began writing this story in the fall, and now it’s nearly spring. As I sit here trying to remember exactly what happened when to lay it out coherently, I realize that some of my procrastination stems from just that—it’s almost physically painful to sort through the memories, to turn them into something someone else could understand or follow. So I will do my best to summon them in order, to catch and categorize the butterflies of thought.
I remember the thought of all-day rehab was a scary one, for both Blake and myself. With every doctor agreeing that if Blake ever fully recovered, it would be years of hard work, I left my corporate job without a backward glance. Adam and I knew that decision would most likely cost us our home. When the market tanked in 2008, we’d found ourselves instantly upside down, which raised the escrow portion of our payment. Somehow, between 2008 and 2011, our payment had doubled. My job at Scottrade was over half of our family’s income. We could not survive without it. But we also couldn’t fathom sending our tiny, broken son to all-day rehab at a place for the sickest of the sick all by himself.
Some decisions, we look back on and bicker about who’s idea it really was and if it was for the best. Not that one. If you would ask either of us to this day—even knowing the great price we would eventually pay for that decision—we both stand solidly by it.
Ranken Jordan turned out to be a happy place, as happy as a place like that can be, anyway. The walls were brightly painted and I think there was a fish tank. I know there was an air hockey table and basketball hoops. Blake and I played countless hours of air hockey there. His therapy could almost be measured by air hockey. The first tentative games were played from his wheelchair, his face expressionless while he tapped the puck so gently it couldn’t make its way back to my side of the table without me coming around to give it a nudge. Over the next few months, he morphed into a normal-looking boy who would grin wickedly at me as he zinged one my way.
Dr. Evra warned us that Blake’s taste buds would be altered by the accident, and that they would change over time, as his brain and the impacts of the injury changed. He told me not to worry about typical picky-eater type fights, to just let Blake eat whatever sounded good. Two things that have sounded good to Blake since those early days of rehab that he continues to eat in mind-boggling quantities are chicken fingers with ketchup and pizza—only now the pizza has hot sauce on it and the amount of ketchup has lessened a bit.
When he first started learning to feed himself again, it was a messy process, made messier by the fact that he wanted the plate to be a pool of ketchup. I mean it. We’re talking obscene amounts of ketchup. Horror flicks could be filmed with less. It would get on his face, his clothes. One day, a little girl sitting at the table with him commented on it. His expression still held no emotion, but he admitted to me later that he was embarrassed by how he ate. That, like so many of the other effects of the accident, waned over time. He mastered eating, but he still sometimes asks if I remember how messy he’d been back in those early days, followed by a quiet comment that it was embarrassing.
But then, he re-learned everything. I remember watching him fumble with a vest in OT, buttoning and unbuttoning it over and over again, retraining the muscles in his hands to do something that had once come so naturally. My fingers would itch to help him. I’d sit on my hands, knowing my help would hinder him in the long run.
One of the friends Blake made at Ranken Jordan was a 16-year-old boy who’d been shot in the face during a gang war. They made an unlikely pair playing basketball, the lanky African-American teen and my wobbly 8-year-old. He’d been so good at basketball before the accident. Now he had to throw a foam ball and it seldom made it half the distance to the hoop. But, oh how happy he was when he made that first basket again.
Blake had a birthday during his rehab days. They celebrated with a party. His therapists, his doctor, and all of the staff were amazing; they were angels. I’ll never be able to tell them enough how wonderful they were. It’s funny, how some things about it are such a blur, but if I sit and really think about it, I can remember the smell. I can remember the feel of the place. Sitting quietly in a dark room so Blake could nap—at that time, and for years to come, Blake was unable to sleep without me close by. I remember how desperately he wanted to be able to run again and that his favorite days were swim therapy. And I remember how his PT made climbing stairs an adventure, like we were going to visit a super-secret tower. At the time, the effort it took him to climb stairs was probably equivalent to scaling a tower.
Blake worked incredibly hard during his time at Ranken, but he found a lot of smiles there, too. And while he’s not the kind of person to talk about it, I think he found a strength there that most people will never understand.
Happy-go-lucky, slightly spacey, sometimes spastic Blake is the strongest person I know. By September of that year, just six months after being admitted to the rehab facility, he was released. Dr. Evra couldn’t explain it, but Blake had yet again defied all expectations and was pronounced healed.
That pronouncement would come after a bit of debate, though. Just before it, Blake had returned to the hospital for yet another scan, followed by a visit with his neurologist. She’d said he was nothing short of a miracle, but there was a small, unidentified spot at the center of his brain. Because of that, she didn’t think he should ever ride a horse, ride a bike, play sports… as she rattled off a list of things he could never do again, I watched my son who had fought so hard and come so far shrink under the weight of her words.
After that appointment, I took him to Steak n’ Shake on the way home. We sat in a booth, our ice cream untouched, and we cried. Eventually, we pulled ourselves together. I gave him a pep talk. I don’t remember much about what I said, but I do remember my heart absolutely breaking for him. I knew we should be grateful he was even alive, but it seemed so cruel to be deprived of so many of the things he’d loved so dearly.
Dr. Evra, however, had been of a different mindset. He’d been adamant that Blake’s life be as normal as possible, lest he sink into a depression that would ultimately hamper his healing. I will always be grateful to that man for fighting for the light in Blake’s eyes.
So a compromise was worked out. Blake could ride a bike and play some sports, just no football. He not only approved Blake riding a horse, he encouraged it—only it would have to be a gentle, older horse. The finely tuned cutting horses of Blake’s past must stay there, in his past. At the time, he’d been upset. He had dearly loved the thrill of riding a horse on the flag, the way they danced underneath him. But it was a compromise he could live with, literally, so he agreed.
Oddly, Blake wasn’t afraid of horses after the accident. In fact, he would be the first of us to return to riding. My beloved mare had already been sold, not out of anger, but to pay medical bills. We visited her a couple of times, to say goodbye. She wanted nothing to do with me the first visit. The second, I had Blake with me. When she saw him, she walked right up to him, placed her head on his chest, and sighed. You could see the weight of it all lift from her and I realized in that moment how deeply the accident had impacted her, too. The last time I saw Sassy, I expected to say my last goodbye from a distance. I’d given up on her wanting to see me. But she surprised me by walking up to me, placing her head on my chest as she’d done with Blake, and sighing. I hugged her and cried. She’d wrapped her head around me and we stood that way in the field for I don’t know how long. Then she’d walked off without a backward glance and I knew I’d seen her for the last time.
We tried to hang on to Samson, Dylan’s colt. We moved him to another barn because things had gotten awkward and downright miserable at Jack’s. I suspect he was worried about a lawsuit, but the thought hadn’t crossed our minds. Yes, we’d been on his property, but we’d been on our own horse. Or maybe it was the pain of nearly losing Blake that caused Jack to shut us all out. Whatever the reason, the relationship had gotten so tense and awful we’d moved the colt.
Only Dylan and I were both suddenly nervous around horses, and a nervous person around a horse—especially a young horse—isn’t a safe combination. We knew this, which made us all the more nervous. Even though we were destitute and losing our home, we tried desperately to hang on to that colt. Even so, there came a time when we had to admit the truth: we had no business owning a horse of Sam’s caliber in our current state, and we couldn’t afford to keep him any longer.
By that time, our relationship with Jack was on the mend. So when he mentioned that he knew someone who wanted the colt, we took him up on it. The horse that had been the light of Dylan’s world was sold. Of all the things we lost because of that fateful night, I regret that one the most. Dylan is too kind and gentle to say it, but I know he was devastated by it. He was changed by it.
And that’s the thing that so often gets lost in the shuffle when telling Blake’s story: I had two other children that night. They watched their brother die. They heard their mother’s screams. They saw him whisked away in an ambulance, airlifted to another hospital. They said goodbye to his broken, bruised body more than once with machines beeping in the background and tubes sticking out everywhere. They got bits and pieces of news. They lost their mother for days and only had a very small piece of her for months. Their happiest childhood memories up to that point had been centered on the barn family we’d lost. Their horses were gone. Their trot races were gone. Their family forever changed. And suddenly, they had a new status in life. Whatever they may do or accomplish, they weren’t the miracle child.
To me, they were each a miracle. I remind them of that, but I can only imagine what it’s like to live in the shadow of someone who is so charming with such a captivating story to tell. But it’s their story, too. I can only hope they see that. I hope they understand that I mean it when I say they are every bit as amazing as their brother.
To be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.