Vigil, p.1Yvonne Sanders
Copyright 2014 Yvonne Sanders
In the time it took Louise to reach the hospital, Justin had already been admitted. She followed the receptionist’s dispassionate instructions and navigated her way through the labyrinth of corridors and elevators before arriving at the allocated ward room in ICU. Intensive Care Unit. The acronym charges her with a dizzying panic. She stands there, at the door, frozen to the spot, composing her frenzied thoughts, working to calm her turbulent breath. Silence the clamorous pounding of her heart crashing against her breast. Stares blankly at the dull grey door.
Then she steps inside.
There lies her son. Still as death. She can hardly take in the scene. There are monitors and wires and trolleys and tubes. Lots of tubes. One connected to a drip, another snaking a course somewhere beneath the sheet that is covering him. A sac is suspended from the bed base, swaying slightly to its own laggard rhythm. Amber fluid. A catheter. Worst of all is the mask fitted across his mouth and nose, secured firmly around the back of his head. From its centre another, more generous tube connects him to yet another machine.
The horror dawns with a silent screaming denial inside. And anger.
This is not what she had expected at all.
“An accident,” Doug had told her, “meet me at the hospital.” She hadn’t hesitated an instant in taking her leave from Miranda’s birthday lunch. She stepped into the baking car. Backed out way too quickly, almost too late. The grey-haired pigtail in the red pick-up behind her wildly waved a fist, angrily flagging his contempt. Only then did her scattered thoughts merge, like jumbled puzzle pieces, finally bringing a new clarity to the urgency of the moment. She braced herself, sitting tall and straight, clutching at the steering wheel, fingers tightly wound and knuckles forming sharp white peaks. Then a deep breath. And now control. She could still drive herself, cautiously and methodically, negotiating the maddening traffic. All the while Justin consumed her imaginings. A broken arm or leg. Perhaps another tooth knocked out. Sixteen year old boys think they’re bulletproof. His carefree nature an endearing trademark. Perhaps a little reckless sometimes. Often his undoing.
But this—not this. She stands there struggling to absorb the spectacle. What it means. Then she steps soundlessly to his side. Instinctively takes his hand, cups it in both of hers. Lays her hand gently across his brow, as she had done so many times when the young man was still a boy. A mother’s knowing assessment, her reassuring touch.
Only then does she look up, her pleading gaze connecting with Doug’s. The shake of his head is barely perceptible. He drops his eyes, then steps around the cold steel frame of the hospital cot and folds himself around her. Tucks his swollen face into the knot of her hair.
The vast silence is broken by a sorrowful bleating. Cam, sitting on the other side of Justin, can no longer hold his pain. Lets it spill over the motionless figure of his younger brother. And Khalid is also there, standing behind Cam. A sombre sentry. Justin’s best friend and constant companion. Head and shoulders dropped in despair. Unable to raise his eyes to meet hers.
Now she understands. She pulls away and rounds on her husband, probes his eyes. Disbelieving.
Doug pulls a chair from its neat alignment against the wall, setting it in place at the bedside. Helps her to sit. Helps her edge more closely to this son.
“He’s drowned, Love,” the words coming meek and broken, contorted. “Justin drowned.”
“What do you mean? How?” Her words a strong and resentful denial, “That can’t be. He’s a strong swimmer.” And she passes her hand over his forehead in gentle caress.
People come and go during the remainder of the afternoon. Friends. Doctors. Louise’s brother. Doug’s sister. His parents. Nurses. Police. Orderlies. They speak in hushed and serious tones. They mill about, some asking questions, some attending to monitors and drips, others consoling one another. All mindful of the family. Of Louise. She hardly acknowledges their presence. Instead her focus is on this son who she is willing, praying, loving back to life.
She watches the nurse play with the drip tube that connects her Justin to a transparent plastic sac half filled with some pale elixir. When she is satisfied she turns her attention to Justin. She observes how this stranger attends to her son. Sweeps his mousey curls aside and lays her hand across his forehead, covering his one eyebrow with her downturned palm, then uses her thumb to gently lever open an eyelid. Directs the beam of a fine pencil torch into the deep verdant whirlpool of his eye.
She repeats this with his other eye.
All the while she is speaking to him. “Justin, I’m just going to check your eyes. Their reflexes, you know. I’m just opening your eye now, and you’ll notice a little beam of light. Won’t hurt a bit, Darl,” she tells him, as though he is listening. As though he is going to answer. Or baulk at the intrusion.
But he doesn’t. There’s no reaction at all.
Then she moves her fingers along the length of his sculpted arm, her keen eyes returning to his often.
“Okay, Justin. Can you feel this, when I pick up your hand?” She says, again her eyes intently observing his. “Can you feel it when I press here?” She takes turns pressing hard against the nail-beds of his lithe but fragile fingers.
Then the other hand.
She repeats this procedure with his feet. Squeezes the flat of each foot between her palms. Presses hard against the nail-beds of his toes.
“Okay Darl,” she tells him, “we’ll try again later. You just rest yourself now.” She pulls the sheet back over his feet to right it for him. Tucks it in. Then moves back to the monitoring equipment.
When the police sergeant and constable arrive they remove their caps, make their introductions, offer condolences. They too are awkward, uncomfortable, and it seems odd that this should be so. For they seem large and impenetrable, attired in their formal navy-colored gear and steel-capped boots, pistols slung low and intimidating in leather holsters about their waists. Formidable and distant. But there is a vulnerability there too, simmering somewhere below the surface. And it overflows, thick and slow, as lava flowing from a hesitant volcano, when they speak. Words of sorrow. Words that probe. Words that must be spoken. Moments relived.
“Cam, we understand that you were there at the lake with your brother. Is that right?” The senior of the pair focuses his gentle attention on the older boy while the constable flicks a notepad to an empty page and begins to scribble. “Can you tell us what happened?”
Cam struggles to oblige, his story punctuated by pitiful sobs and long pauses, his one hand anxiously clutching and rubbing at the back of his neck, the other mopping at his glistening face. He turns often to Khalid, who weaves the threads that he cannot. Together they unpack the elements of the account, the constable putting them back together again, reformed as flowchart and notelets with his ballpoint.
They had been out on the lake, a group of them. A sunny Saturday morning. Perfect for wake-boarding. Jarrod at the boat’s controls and Justin at the end of the rope with his board. He’d already had a couple of turns. He’d done this a million times before. Without incident. But this time he had somehow tripped up. Boarding single-legged, one foot in the binding and the other secured through the rope.
A trick he’d been trying to perfect.
They hadn’t noticed right away that he had fallen. Jarrod was spinning the boat in a wide sweep, keeping a safe distance from a dead ghost gum still s
“We dragged him back onto the boat. Tried to wake him. But he wouldn’t wake.” The boy falls back into his grief, wiping a sleeve across his face.
“You’re doing fine, son,” the officer consoles, but still, urges him on.
“Then Jarrod called triple-0 and made for shore. Khalid and I tried to revive Justin,” a tearful pause takes hold. “When we got back we kept on with the CPR until the ambulance came.” Then Cam finds his father’s eyes. “I don’t think we could have been doing it right,” and then he sinks, head and shoulders, back into the white sheet shrouding his brother’s unmoving form.
The officers take their leave and are replaced by Dr. Hausmann. She introduces herself to the family. Explains what’s happened to Justin. That the time without oxygen may have caused some neurological damage.
“So we need to watch him closely. Check for reflexes, see that he is reacting to stimuli.” And she steps through the eye exam and the nail-bed test again, mimicking precisely the routine of the nurse.
Mindful of the daunting image construed by the unfamiliar instruments, Dr. Hausmann offers some brief explanation. The heart monitor. The oximeter keeping track of blood oxygen levels. The drip delivering life-giving liquid nutrients, heart-regulating drugs. Anything that Justin can’t take himself just now. And the catheter. Taking care of things he cannot do.
Then she turns to the ventilator.
“Justin isn’t breathing for himself right now,” she gentles, keen eyes trained on the fragile trio of the family stationed around their son and brother. “He’s suffered brain trauma because of a lack of oxygen. That means there’s possible damage to nerves, including the nerves that control his breathing. We need to assess the extent of that damage. That’s why we need to do these reflex tests. And that’s why we’re ventilating his lungs. The ventilator delivers air to his lungs, his blood, his body, that he can’t do for himself at the moment. It’s keeping him alive.”
And that is when the storm cloud of understanding that her son is on life support truly gathers in Louise’s mind.
Dr. Hausmann advises them to go home. “Get some rest. That’s what Justin’s doing right now. And that’s what you need too, if you want to be back here with him again tomorrow. He’s in good hands. We’ll continue to monitor him. Of course, we’ll call you immediately if there is any change.”
Louise cannot be convinced. She is not going to leave her son alone here. What if he wakes and I’m not here for him.
No, she will not go.
All night she keeps her vigil by his side. Occasionally she falls into a brief and fitful sleep. But mostly she maintains a surreal kind of lucidity, unable to fully comprehend that this son who a few hours earlier was the embodiment of life and laughter, intellect and independence, confidence and agility—could so swiftly be transformed into this lifeless shell of her child. She determines to bring him back to her. A mother’s love can do this. So she speaks to him. Lets him hear her voice. Recalls for him the moments that come to her, the small and the big moments, those that have formed him. She tells him of the joy he gave her when he was a tiny newborn and she could hold him entire in her arms. How wonderfully fresh and new he smelled. She reminds him of his excitement as he joined the ranks of the big kindergarten kids. His first days at school. His successes at football and cricket.
And while she is retelling him these moments, she too duplicates the steps that she has observed the doctor and nurses follow. She too can apply a firm pressure to the nail-beds. Watch out for the return of that pull away reflex. Any reflex.
Firmer each time she tries. Each time a more emphatic effort than the one before.
She has no torch, but brushes her fingertips over the soft curve of his long lashes. Watches for a sign. A flicker.
She sings to him. Brahms Lullaby. “Do you remember that, Justin,” she says, holding his cool, feeble hand between her own warm, strong ones, “it was your favourite. You used to cry when I’d stop singing for you.”
She tells him about his first tooth falling out. A grief-stricken tantrum aimed at keeping at bay those fairies who would spirit his tooth away. She tells him numerous tales of mischief shared with Cam. Reminds him of his first sweetheart. Susan. He was six and he loved her. Devastated when she did not return his affections. She tells him again and again the names of the many friends he has. How he is loved.
She ponders tearfully the irony of the seven year-old who was afraid to join the school swimming program because he was scared to put his head under the water. The concern, dread, that this caused her. Her insistence on the strategy of private lessons to ensure an end to his fear. Her own fear for a child growing up without confidence and skill in the water. All of their excitement at his eventual accomplishment.
When morning comes she is little rested. With the day’s new light spilling into the room come more reflex tests, more checking of monitors, and exchanging of sacs and medicines and bed linen. More chatting directly to Justin. And more of the same.
It is about mid morning when Dr. Hausmann invites Cam to go down to the visitors’ lounge. “Perhaps you’d like to watch some television. Grab a snack.” Really she means she needs to speak to Louise and Doug without him.
Because she doesn’t know what else to do with them in moments like these, she drops her hands into the pockets of her white jacket. Then she snaps her head up, and gets on with it.
She tells them that Justin’s brain injury is serious. That his failure to respond at all to any stimuli indicates significant neurological damage. That the next twelve hours will be critical in identifying the true nature of the injury. That the hospital will conduct a series of more deeply probing diagnostic tests to determine with certainty the extent of the damage. That by day’s end they will be able to say that Justin will make a slow recovery. Or none at all.
Louise and Doug are alone with Justin when Dr. Hausmann advises them that their son has not responded to any of the tests. Not at all. She tells them that the tests the hospital has run during the afternoon are definitive indicators of brain function. That two different specialists have conducted the tests and that they have conducted them independently. She tells them that their son is brain dead. That there is nothing to be done.
She lets them digest this jagged news. Lets them sit with it a few minutes. Then she continues. Must continue with what else is to come. Advises them to prepare to let Justin go. To say goodbye.
That tomorrow morning the life support should be removed.
By the time Louise and Doug and Cam arrive at the hospital all of the monitors and instruments and tubes and wires have gone, save for the heart monitor and the ventilator. Justin is still lying in the same repose. Quiet. Peaceful. Still. Surrounded. Doug takes hold of his son’s hand. Brings it to his cheek. Lets Justin’s hand wipe away the tears. Louise, on the opposite side, takes his other hand. She does not let her eyes stray from their focus on Justin’s. She squeezes his hand. Presses her own nail hard into one of his. But there is no response. Then for the last time she brushes her butterfly touch along the feather ridge of his eyelashes.
Dr. Hausmann advises the family of the procedure. Prepares them for the unpreparable. The ventilator will be switched to off. The rise and fall of Justin’s chest will cease quickly
She tells them they can stay with Justin for just as long as they need to afterwards.
Then she indicates to the nurse to set the ventilator to the off position.
All of their eyes bearing close and sorrowful witness to Justin as she does so.
In the split second afterward, Louise snaps her head upwards, her swollen eyes instantly lock onto the doctor’s, then the nurse’s. Each return her bewildered stare. Then just as quickly all eyes focus back on Justin.
Notes from the author
Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed bringing it to you. Vigil is inspired by the tragedies that are played out in our everyday lives, even in what can seem like the most unlikely activities that are supposed to bring us happiness, joy and connectedness. When that false sense of youth’s invincibility collides with reality, there is a domino effect that shatters more than one life. No-one gets to escape these universal themes of love and loss and sorrow.
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Vigil by Yvonne Sanders / History & Fiction have rating 2.3 out of 5 / Based on34 votes