Writing and journals are windows into my life, helping me stay sane and clear during chaos and fear, time and time again.
It’s strange that I’m here on the Gorge waterway in Victoria—where I lived and played as a child—praying that my son will recover from this senseless head injury. It happened Sunday night, I saw him Monday and only got the whole story Tuesday. He seemed okay when he showed up at my door at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, except that he looked tired, his shoes were missing and his jacket was torn. I asked if someone was after him. “No,” he said, “just had a rough night.” I had no idea he had just come from the hospital. I let him sleep on the couch and went to work. It took another day and calls to his friends to piece the story together.
Right now though, at Victoria General Hospital, two days later, his eyes are black and his expression is dull and flat. He’s slurring his words. He’s drooling. I leave the hospital and drive slowly around the city making my way to Gorge Road. I’m alone and I feel sick. I buy a simple, spiral notebook and realize that were I not alone, I probably wouldn’t be writing here in the breeze under the huge willow tree. It’s 32 degrees outside. I breathe a slow breath and try to quiet my deafening thoughts. I press my feet into the thick grass and notice it’s cooler here under the willow’s sweep. The shimmer on the water looks like a thousand tiny jewels. I write for half an hour, questioning. Why did this happen? What am I going to do? How will Joel be after this? What if he’s affected the rest of his life?
He slept most of that first day, after knocking on my door just as I was leaving for work. I checked on him at lunch and he was talkative, saying he’d been out with his friends. When the hospital called me at work later and asked if I’d seen my son that morning, I wondered if he really was alright. The nurse said he’d been brought in by ambulance Sunday night and that he’d had a head injury. He’d been admitted overnight but had discharged himself, telling the staff I lived nearby. He left the local hospital around 3:00 a.m. and arrived at my front door at 8:00 a.m. Monday. I live one block from the hospital.
It’s Wednesday, three days later, and they’re doing another CT scan at Victoria General to see if the bleeding in his brain has stopped. With a closed head injury the brain is bruised and has nowhere to bleed. If the bleeding doesn’t stop, Joel may need surgery to relieve the intracranial pressure. On the Neurosurgery unit I see another head-injured young man about Joel’s age. His eyes register no light, no life. He walks heavily and sways from side to side. My sister is driving from Lake Cowichan to spend the day with me (and bringing my younger son who I left with her on my way down yesterday). My partner (now husband) is driving to Alberta and, while I can appreciate his significant family obligation cannot be changed, it doesn’t make being alone any easier. In my makeshift journal I write: Will Joel recover? Will he need care for a long time? I’m scared. I’m trying to remember all the coping skills I’ve ever learned. Breathe. Breathe. I say a prayer: If god is manifest in all of life, including me and Joel and all the doctors, then this is all part of that intelligence too. So that’s what I’ll meditate and write on-–that this is part of life’s intention and therefore already whole and complete; like the trees, the water and the sky around me. Like my life that I create daily, a minute at a time, needing nothing else. This helps for a while and I keep writing.
Joel’s better today, still Wednesday. Seeing my sister and young son also helps me feel more hopeful. I wouldn’t be eating much if Joanne hadn’t brought huge veggie-and-sprout sandwiches, some fruit, carrots and smoothies. She drove 96 kilometers to be with me and I hope I remembered to tell her how much I appreciate it. Joel’s grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles all send their love and thoughts for recovery. I make a phone relay because I’m tired of repeating all the details of these days on the Neurosurgery unit. I spend one night at a friend’s in Victoria, one night near Lake Cowichan at my sister’s, and one more night in Victoria. I think it’s going to be all right. They’re going to keep Joel another day at least, then transfer him back to our local hospital for more observation.
His friend brought his shoes to our house just when Joel was being transferred to Victoria on Tuesday morning. Finally, I could ask what happened because Joel didn’t remember. They’d been partying at Miracle Beach and Joel rolled off a car. Oh, and the car was moving. He rolled hard about 20 feet. His friends called 911—smart thinking, stupid game. When he discharged himself that first night he didn’t make the one block to my house, sleeping in the bushes instead for a couple of hours. When I got home from work at 4:30 that Monday, Joel had been vomiting all day so I took him to the clinic. With that history—hangovers don’t cause all day vomiting—we were sent to the hospital for a CT scan and the brain hemorrhage was diagnosed. He stayed the night on Monday. The doctor told me it wouldn’t have made a difference if we had come back sooner; later may have been dire since our hospital doesn’t have a neurosurgical ward. Joel had an ambulance transfer to Victoria the next morning, Tuesday. My husband left for Alberta and I drove down-island.
All Joel wants is his cell phone and he’s asking incessant questions. He still hasn’t washed or brushed his teeth. I’ve bought him boxers, T-shirts and socks which feels strange because he hasn’t lived at home for a few years, but it feels good to do this for him again. It’s Friday, day five, and the neurosurgeon continues to monitor Joel, who’s walking and energetic, funny and utterly apologetic.
“I’m sorry mom, really, I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
“It’s okay Joel.” But his gaze holds me and I can’t reassure him.
“No, Mom. You shouldn’t have to deal with this after all the shit you’ve had in your life. He talks about some of my strife. “You don’t need this, mom.”
I turn my eyes away first. And that’s a first.
He’s chain-smoking and asking the same insistent questions over and over—side effects of brain injury. At the nursing station I look through pamphlets on brain injury and read about slurred speech, profound confusion, agitation, convulsions or seizures, severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, intense remorse. When he’s on his cell phone, Joel’s facial quiver makes me nervous. I’m not sure the doctor has seen this and I’ll mention it. I push Joel outside in a wheelchair so he can have another cigarette. He lays down sprawled on the grass in front of the hospital, gown up around his knees. I feel embarrassed and don’t know what to do. Later in the morning the doctor says, “How would you like to go home today Joel?”
That’s all he’s been asking for—all morning non-stop. If I had known what was ahead, I would have insisted on the ambulance transfer back to our local hospital that the doctor mentioned yesterday.
It’s the middle of summer with temperatures in the low 30’s and I leave Victoria General around noon with my two kids. My sister has again come down with food and to say goodbye. I’m glad to see her but anxious about the three-hour drive ahead. I have no air conditioning and by the time we get over the Malahat the car is stifling. Joel’s face is quivering a lot, every few minutes. We need water and something cool to eat so I stop for these. I can tell Joel is nervous too. He’s drooling a lot and can’t control it. I tell him to get napkins from the glove box and he uses a stack of them. My fear rises, the temperature rises, and panic sits unmoving in my gut. I remind myself there are hospitals along the way and make a mental note of where each one is. The drooling is so bad that Calvin has to close his window in the back seat. I breathe slowly, talk calmly and pray that we’ll be home soon because that’s all I can do.
In Campbell River Joel’s face shakes every minute. He’s so insistent that he will try to sleep but I take him to Emergency where he flops himself onto a stretcher. They remember us from early in the week the doctor says he was expecting an ambulance transfer. He now makes a diagnosis of focal seizures. Joel gets a dose of Dilantin for the seizure activity and a mild sedative and then is admitted to Intensive Care. I feel guarded relief and go home, but get a call that Joel is agitated and the nurses ask me to come back. At the hospital I try to calm him, tell him to stay put and that he can come home in the morning. I go home, and again, am called back. Now it’s 11:00 p.m. and Joel doesn’t want to stay in the hospital. I try to convince him it’s the best place for him but he’s adamant and he gets angry, hitting the Plexiglas wall in the ICU. I’m alone at home with my young son and don’t feel able to handle Joel. I call someone to come spend the night but they’re not home. The doctor assures me that the seizures are under control and Joel comes home with me. He can’t take any more sedatives because of the brain trauma. I put Joel to bed on a soft foamy in the living room and rub his back for awhile. His head hurts badly and it’s still stifling hot.
In my room I try to stay calm. I hear Joel walking around downstairs and I’m so afraid he’ll walk out the door. I talk to myself all night. Please stay in the house Joel. I’ve had these dark nights before. Things will be better in the morning. Breathe. Breathe. What if he goes outside? What if he gets belligerent? What if he hits his head? At 6:00 a.m. I know Joel hasn’t slept much and I haven’t slept at all. I phone my sister to see if she can come up. I feel like I’m edging on hysteria but really only need someone here with me. She’ll leave as soon as she can and I count down the three hours it will take. My husband phones then too and is just beginning his return trip. Then I turn off the downstairs ringer so Joel won’t be startled if it rings again.
My sister’s gone now, two days later and a week since the accident. Has it only been a week? She left the morning my husband got home. I’m at the Foreshore Park in Campbell River, writing in my journal. My pen has a funny bend in the tip and it makes me laugh because I was going to write about being mad at God and at Joel and about the grey ocean not seeming to care. The little herring gull I just saw seems to have lost its balance and keeps veering into the water. What terrible plight happened to unbalance him? Maybe God is being funny and the ocean is being caring. So what now? Joel’s at home, not able to handle much stimulation and he’s easily frustrated and impatient. I know he feels bad, probably a lot worse than I feel. I’m angry that I hadn’t seen him for months and here he is, wanting and needing my care after a head injury. I’m mad that my husband wasn’t here and I’m mad that Joel was released too early from Victoria. But I also know there’s no point in asking why. It just is, so I’d better accept it. And I can. I know there is some greater picture evolving regardless of what I think or do. My crooked pen still writes. I turn to my left watching the lop-sided gull do its funny dip-and-dance in the water and I smile. Then I laugh out loud that fate can be so funny.
While the effects of acute brain injury last on average about six months, some effects linger and can include: headaches, dizziness, nausea, ringing in the ears, sensitivity to noise and light, vision problems, sleep disorders, fatigue, irritability, personality changes, apathy, depression, confusion, difficulty concentrating, impaired attention, memory problems, slowed mental processing, difficulty with abstract thinking. Joel wound up in a bad scene right after his ordeal. When my sister intervened—by phone call, what a trooper—to the defense Council that Joel had had a head injury possibly keeping him out of jail, Joel got angry. But he found his way through it all and changed his crowd after that. It’s been seven years since his injury and Joel is well. He sometimes has a few of the above symptoms. He may not be telling me all of it. I still worry sometimes. Dealing with a child’s trauma injury is hard but I know that worry and fear do nothing for healing. I wonder, in my role as a parent, what it is I’m supposed to do. What influence have I had on my now-grown children? I’ve done what I’ve done and haven’t done what I haven’t. The key, I believe, is accepting, accepting, accepting. Then letting it go.
Christine Goyer-Swift finds expression through writing and dance, and inspiration through long walks and solitude. “Writing is a window into my life, recording, witnessing and continually emerging.”