I knew I’d be weird this week. I mean, the whole world is weird right now, so our collective baseline for weird is completely jacked even to begin, right? Even mid-pandemic, I’d venture to guess that my weird stands on its own. I wish I wasn’t one of those people who formalize anniversary dates, but you don’t get to pick your quirks, do you? Sumus quid sumus says my dad: we are what we are.
It’s totally cool if you stop reading right here. I won’t know you left, and my feelings won’t be hurt or anything. . . There’s nothing fun or funny whatsoever to be found in Volume 335 of my goof of a writing experiment here. 335?? Wow. Proceed with caution is all I’m sayin’.
The skies last May 7 may have been clear and sunny, but that Tuesday was the darkest day I’ve known. My husband and I woke up, probably just like we did any other day. We got ourselves and our kids up and out the door probably like we did any other school and work day. My Hamilton crazy was nearing frenzy-level because we (finally!) had tickets for Chicago’s Friday evening show, and I do obsess over music/artists/albums like few others I know. Friday, the 10th was our wedding anniversary and we’d both taken off work to spend the day in Chicago, so everything on my phone was Chicago/Lin-Manuel Miranda/Hamilton Twitter notifications and Hamilton soundtrack. I remember arriving at one of my schools for an IEP meeting, checking and then screen-shotting my notifications screen thinking, “Well, I guess my phone belongs to Lin-Manuel now,” and I was happy to hand it over to him.
This was the last picture I took before everything crashed. Figuratively and literally.
I departed that school for another, ready for my afternoon of therapy. It’s chronologically inaccurate, but my mind tells me I received the call from my supervisor around 2:45 PM. My classroom phone never rings because I’m at this school only one half-day per week, and my student kinda laughed, saying something like, “Well you better answer that because no one ever calls you!” I picked up to my department supervisor’s voice relaying the message that her supervisor contacted her in an effort to locate me because Central Services Human Resources had contacted him. “The City of Milwaukee called and said there’s been an accident. Does that mean anything to you?” Uhhhhh, yeah, it does. I escorted Emanuel back to class, then called another supervisor, my husband’s, who informed me that there had been an accident and Tom had been taken by ambulance to the hospital. I was instructed to meet him in the Emergency Department.
My cell phone doesn’t get a signal in my classroom, but as soon as I hit the parking lot, my phone was pinging off the charts. Two hours worth of missed calls and voicemails stacked up, and texts started dumping in. I didn’t recognize any of the numbers, but with the accident intel, I redialed the most recent random number as soon as I caught a signal. My husband’s good friend answered, and I felt relieved, because I figured he’d fill me in, calm me down, you know? I asked him if he knew what happened, and he matter-of-factly (read: possibly in shock?) replied, “Yeah, I ran him over.” He apologized for wrecking our anniversary plans, said that Tom was fine, gonna be fine, that they’d taken him to the hospital, and then I heard someone in the background kinda tell him to shut up, which was OK I guess, because at that moment, I received a call from a number that looked business-y, lots of zeroes in the caller ID.
This random caller identified herself as Stacy from Froedtert Hospital, calling she said, at my husband’s request, telling me I needed to get to Froedtert’s Emergency Department as soon as possible. Park in red-painted spots in Structure 3, they’re reserved for Emergency Department patients, she said, in the structure nearest the Emergency Department. Your husband knew your phone number, and that’s a really good sign she said. It was probably that statement–that he remembered my number and what a good sign it was–and that she repeated it three or four times, that first cued me into just how bad this might be.
Or maybe it was being met by hospital security, officers from the Milwaukee Police Department, the City safety supervisor, and a chaplain that finally punched me in the face. And friends, let me tell you that you NEVER want to be greeted by cops and a representative of god after being told “There’s been an accident.” I swear on the stars that I found a shiny penny just outside the doors, and pocketed it–the finding spare change in the street bit is a running “contest” between Tom and me.
It was hours before I was able to see him, or maybe not. I know it felt like hours. I’d been fed the “He knew your phone number and that’s a good sign” mantra so many times by then, I thought I’d snap. But I wasn’t snappy. I was pretty flat affect as I recall, kind of out-of-body-ish, aware I was part of this emergency room waiting area tableau, thinking this couldn’t possibly be ME living this version of real life. Finally I said to the City guy, “You keep telling me this one thing is a good sign. What aren’t you telling me? How bad is he really?”
In the absence of information, the deep and illogical fears in my imagination coalesced into their own version of just-how-bad-is-it hell. Convinced he was paralyzed, I couldn’t not ask if that was the result no one wanted to be the one to tell me. I knew the City supervisor had seen him with his own eyes. Eventually, and with something like an “I’m not a doctor, but. . .” caveat, he relented, relaying that Tom’s head had been bashed in pretty good, he had a pretty long cut (“cut” apparently is code for 9″ skull fracture covering eyebrow to temporal lobe), and he’d lost a lot of blood. It was taking so long because they were doing lots of tests to make sure he would be OK. Lots of tests. “Lots of tests” is code for emergency facial trauma surgery to reattach the ear and surrounding flesh that had been torn from his head and stapling his skull along that enormous fault line. To be fair, OK sure, there were lots of actual tests too; I saw his chart.
When I did finally see Tom, he was covered in blood. Though conscious, he lay completely still. “There is so much pain” were the first words he spoke, and that was the longest utterance he strung together over the next several days. Like an idiot, I mentioned I’d found a penny outside the ER–like THAT was gonna lighten the mood or fix anything. . . I stood there over him, “lucky” penny in my pocket, watching for movement, any movement that would contradict the paralysis I’d come to believe was our now-reality. I vividly recall my internal race-monologue, “I need to ask I need to ask I need to ask I need to ask I don’t want to ask I don’t want to ask I do NOT want to ask this is the last minute of my life I don’t know he’s paralyzed and as soon as I ask I will have to know that he is paralyzed and I don’t want to know and right now I still don’t know so I can’t ask but I have to ask.” I stood over him, looking with unseeing eyes for even the slightest movement in his legs. I took a deep breath, steeled myself, and asked Jodi, the ED nurse, if he was paralyzed. Her chirpy “Oh, no” perhaps elicited more tears than if her response had been the opposite.
I was booted from the ED after that brief reunion, then escorted to the family waiting area of the main hospital. Being a guest of the City, I had a tour guide of sorts, and I did have an entourage. I knew that my husband’s supervisors were handling me; I was aware even then that I was being “handled,” but I didn’t mind being handled. Quite possibly I’d still be wandering the hospital if I hadn’t been directed and small-talked along that route. All his supervisors, called by duty and I’d like to think a bit of compassion and human decency, along with a handful of his coworkers–really good guys, called by their professional respect for my husband, met in my private waiting area. Needless to say, I wasn’t great company. I had to get out of there, breathe, by myself, for a second. I had to call my kids! At some point I announced that I felt like the really bad host of a super shitty party. Even on the worst day of my life, I made them laugh. I’m sure it was their duty to laugh at the guy who’s probably gonna die’s wife’s pitiful wisecrack, but I appreciated one brief moment of something other than internal chaos.
Can you imagine what it’s like to call your children, telling them that their dad had been horrifically injured, and that they’re being picked up and delivered to the hospital? Because, just in case he dies, kids, you’re gonna want to have seen him “one last time,” even if he is bathed in blood and swaddled in bandages. Oh, and don’t watch the news tonight and don’t talk to reporters if anyone knocks on the door, OK? Don’t imagine it. Just don’t. Imagine not taking them home yourself, promising them you’ll be home by 9. 9:30. Hopefully 10.
Can you imagine having to search for your husband’s set of work keys, sifting through bags of the scissor-cut clothes he’d worn to work that day, all having been removed and bagged as “patient belongings,” still wet with his blood? Don’t do that either.
This wasn’t even near the end of that first day. The conversations I had with my people who showed up those first 24 hours are both crystalline and a blur. I couldn’t sleep that night, and writing tells me how I feel, so I wrote a narrative I will never share.
I don’t know why I can’t stop reliving this hell on earth, or why I’m taking you down this macabre path with me. I do know that my head’s gonna explode if I don’t write it down and try to unload it somewhere though.
One full year plus one extra leap year day post-May 7, I am not the same person I was before. I miss my husband, my before husband. I miss before me.
If you remind me that it could have been worse? Thanks, but I don’t need the reminder. I know. I do. But it doesn’t mean that grief occurs only when you experience that total loss. And it doesn’t mean that sadness doesn’t beat you upside the head when you least expect it. Or even when you do. Grief and sadness paralyze too, in unmeasured ways and along timelines for which you’re unprepared.
Maybe that lucky penny was good for something. All the good, all the miracles, all the unimaginable generosity and kindness the world has shown my husband, my children, and me that terrible first day and then the 365 that followed? Beyond any words I could string together. Sharing all of it though would amount to some type of betrayal to myself and to my people. My people. You showed up. You did everything I asked. I will never be able to repay you for that. And I know you’ll never ask.