The Big Roundtable

Pedestrian Struck: A bad accident opens old wounds

January 23, 2014


When a man is struck on a highway in Maryland, his wife is thrown into her past.
***

State of Maryland Motor Vehicle Accident Report
Local Case Number: 9580910:
All witnesses stated ped. walked out into the roadway to retrieve some type of debris after doing so he stepped into Lane #4 & was struck by Veh #2. Veh #2 was traveling S on Rt. 32 headed toward Rt. 108.

On the morning of Wednesday, October 25, 1995, a Ford Explorer hurled my husband’s fifty-two-year-old, 230-pound body onto the hood of the decelerating automobile. Bo tumbled over the roof, fell to the pavement, and landed on his left side, skidding across the blacktop. His wrists, arms, and face were lacerated. His pelvis cracked. The hip socket broke in two. The femoral head snapped off the femur.

Just before it happened, Bo had been in a minor accident with a woman in a sedan. She’d tapped his van from behind as they both slowed for the traffic light, the fender doing its job, cushioning the impact. He’d walked onto the off ramp to retrieve his mangled bumper.

Christopher, the thirty-two-year-old driver of the Ford, lived only a few miles from us across Route 32 in the rural suburbs of Maryland. He could have slipped his SUV into the stream of rush-hour traffic at any one of numerous side streets, but the country road changed to a limited-access highway before the intersection of 32 and 108. Christopher would travel behind Bo in the single, southbound lane for several minutes, long enough for Bo to be involved in the fender bender, pull his van to the shoulder, get out, ask the woman if she was all right, observe the damage, and dash into the roadway.

In a deposition two years later, Christopher would answer to lawyers for the plaintiffs that the dawning, autumn sun had momentarily blinded him. But, he said under oath, his sun visor had been down, he’d worn his sunglasses, he’d braked as he approached the crossroads, he’d acted responsibly. I liked Christopher when I met him at the lawyer’s office. His eyes exuded compassion, his chin integrity.

And I believed him. I’d already stood on the spot on the first anniversary of the accident to see from his perspective. The dazzling shards of sunlight crested the distant horizon and intersected with the slight rise in the landscape at the moment Christopher’s vehicle traveled through the cosmic convergence to slow for the signal as my husband stepped onto the road.

 

The surgical waiting room seemed like an architectural afterthought. It was not a space with four walls and a door for privacy but a large cubbyhole off a deserted hallway. Cheap prints of a sunrise and a spring meadow decorated graying walls and industrial upholstery covered hard-bottomed chairs. A television looped game-show reruns. It was night, hushed, and the florescent lights were dimmed. A wall clock ticked off the hours. Bo’s surgery would last until daybreak exposed downtown Baltimore, with its tattoo parlors and office buildings empty of commerce, its homeless and its lapping inner harbor. I waited alone.

Bo’s children were scattered across the country. Anne, his younger daughter, was holed up in an apartment in North Carolina, 350 miles away, with her law-school books and her yellow tabby, Cecil. Florence, the older child, was in Arizona, raising her son, Wilson, making a married life for herself near their mother.

A phone sat on a corner table to connect family members to the operating room and updates. I timed my calls. I didn’t want to annoy anyone, but when a surgical nurse picked up I felt connected to my husband. How is he? He’s holding his own. He’s tough. When we hung up I felt destitute, cut off. I watched the clock until I could reasonably call again. How is he now? Still holding his own. I didn’t know it at the time, but Anne was calling, too.

“Mrs. Stukes?” A surgeon stood in the shadowed hallway.

Tired, softspoken, scientific, he explained Bo’s twelve-hour surgery to me. He and his colleagues had clamped together the broken socket of Bo’s left hip. They bolted the ball and socket onto the femur, calculating he’d not lost too much blood, chancing that the femoral head would live. All of the blood supply comes into the ball through the neck of the femur bone, the doctor explained. If this blood supply is damaged, no other blood vessels provide backup. “It can lead to osteonecrosis,” he said, meaning bone death. He chose his words: “The bone, which makes up the femur ball, can actually die.” They also stabilized the longest of the three pelvic fissures with a pin, which on X-rays later would look formidable enough to secure a broken tractor fender.

I asked numbed questions: When will he come home? When will he be able to go back to work? When will the life we have labored so long for be ours again?

“A while,” he replied, cautious. “So much depends on the amount of blood loss, your husband’s general health, if there are complications.” I’m sure I asked what those could be.

A nurse guided me to Bo through silent, antiseptic corridors that took us farther and farther into the inner sanctum of the hospital. She pushed through doors marked “authorized persons only” into the ICU surgical recovery room, empty except for medical machinery to support the living. “Now, he may not know who you are,” she said, her voice low, shushing me. She explained that he was still waking up from the anesthesia and in a great deal of pain. “You can stay for just a few minutes.”

Flat on a stiff, hospital mattress, he lay alone. His sheets bulged from the gauze padding protecting his left hip. Intravenous lines pumped morphine, fluid, and electrolytes into his body. He had a tube inserted into his mouth, which helped him breathe while under anesthesia. The doctors hadn’t removed it yet. His neck was stabilized in a cervical collar. His eyelids were crusty.

I held my breath. I whispered into his ear and smoothed his damp hair from his forehead. Bo couldn’t move his head, but he blinked his eyes to let me know that he knew I was there. I kissed his soft lips.

 

I was born in 1960. While I was toddling up and down the pinewood hallway of my parents’ one-bathroom rancher in the new suburbs of south Charlotte, Bo was in his first year of college at Emory. An ATO man, he enjoyed the fraternity of his house brothers and the foolery of shooting—and having Ernest, the cook, prepare, and Mother Baird, the unsuspecting housemother, eat for Sunday supper—one of the prized fat geese of Emory President Dr. Sanford Atwood. Bo and a fraternity compatriot had awakened in the December predawn to prowl across campus in a borrowed Corvair and lay in wait in the hard frost for first light. On Candler Lake in front of the president’s mansion, Lullwater House, they took a lazy hunter’s shot. Mother Baird pronounced, as she presided over the head table that night:“My goodness, this goose is so tender it almost tastes like it was pen raised.”

There were two automobile accidents in college: Bo rolled a Porsche on a midnight road. Ejected but only bumped and bruised, he hitched a ride into Atlanta. A passenger in the second, his face crashed into the windshield as the car rebounded off a telephone pole. He walked twenty-five yards toan all-night grill. “The fry cook behind the counter looked up,” as Bo tells the story, “saw the blood pouring out of my face, and yelled to someone, ‘Jesus Christ. Sit him down.’ ” The man gave him a towel to hold up to his face, which was cut all to pieces, and called the ambulance.

Bo survived college and married Josie, his first wife who became the mother of their two daughters. Florence was born in 1968. Josie would give birth to Anne a year later in 1969.

I would meet Josie on the phone after the accident. She called the house one morning to check on Anne and Florence, who’d arrived by plane the day after. “Hello,” I said, on the first ring, eager for a doctor’s update from the hospital. We exchanged awkward pleasantries, earnest prayers for Bo’s recovery, and I handed the phone to Florence, who listened, comforted, to a mother’s assurances. “Mom reminded us to be nice to you,” she said to Anne and to me. It was a gesture of kindness—one woman who’d faced lost love to another one who stared into a different abyss. I’ve never forgotten.

Bo was sworn into the Army on his birthday, February 6, 1967, and was married in July of that same year. By December, 1968, with a wife, toddler, and infant on the way to provide for, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and then made a company commander at Fort Gordon, Georgia. He was responsible for 165 soldiers and fourteen sergeants and loved that job. It suited him. He thrived being his own man, and the men under his command respected him.

After the Army he took a job as a district representative for Libbey Glass, a division of Owens-Illinois, a Fortune 500 company. “I had to take the first position that came along. I had a family to support,” he reminded himself over the years when he wondered what else he might have done with his life. And he was loyal. He remained with the same company for his entire working life.

Bo had been transferred from Atlanta to Houston, New Orleans, Des Moines (where his marriage to Josie ended after eleven years), Charlotte (where we met), and finally to Columbia, Maryland—a bedroom community equidistant between Washington and Baltimore—as a district manager. With his last move, he returned to the state he grew up in and where his aging mother, Gertrude, still lived. Born in Georgia, he had been raised in Maryland by Gertrude and her kin. Gertrude was a self-sufficient woman with a teaching degree. She chose divorce in the late forties rather than tolerate the shenanigans of her drinking husband.

I met Bo in 1984 when I was twenty-four, he forty-one, and his job had brought him to Charlotte, my hometown. Sober for five years when he arrived, he unpacked some of his life in a scrubby apartment, scrimping on frivolities, assuring himself he would live securely in his next permanent home. He attended a twelve-step meeting that first Friday night. There, he found me.

I’d been sober for two years. I worked to present a mature face to the world. I lived in a little attic apartment I dusted and vacuumed every week. I held a little job as a secretary for a non-profit, and I paid my little bills. I’d begun college when I was twenty-three, after a year of sobriety, studying late into the night before work the next day.

Wishful alcoholics have a theory: In the first half-dozen years of sober purgatory, the sober person gains a year of maturity for every year of sobriety. But as the continuous, abstaining years stack up, the hypothesis promises exponential emotional strides, like dog years for drunks. I was twelve years old when I began to drink. After I quit, at the age of twenty-two, I waited, cigarette in hand in greasy cafes, for a growth spurt.

When Bo and I married, in 1988, Florence was twenty, Anne going on nineteen, and I was twenty-eight going on eighteen. I still hadn’t bloomed, and my six years of sobriety hadn’t gained me any psychological advantage. Childhood had raised me to be a mistrustful, defensive, paranoid woman.

 

A memory resurrects itself. I stand in the doorway of my parent’s bedroom, the short hallway stretching behind me, my mother emotionally somewhere else in the house. I can feel the unyielding woody hardness of the doorframe that I clutch in my child hands. My older sister, my only sibling, is being beaten with a belt by our drunken father. If I am five, she is nine.

He unloops his belt from his pants and seems to grin in this image. His arm flies up behind him, the belt landing on her backside, she kneeling beside our parents’ bed, her tears hidden in the morning’s ruffled sheets. The captured moment turns to ash. The center disintegrates. I can’t hear the leathery crack of the belt. I can’t hear her pleas, begging him to stop.

I know that I could not have come to her aid, but I can’t hear myself crying for her. I learned that day, watching: Daddy does not love her; he loves only me. I can’t remember loving her, or her loving me. I can’t remember when my sister and I, as we became women, did not compete for the love of a father who did not love us. I can’t remember when we were sisters.

 

Anne and Florence hover near one another in our wedding snapshots, the photographer repeatedly framing archetypal sister fidelity. Florence was a sophomore, a religion major, and newly married. She’d flown from Germany, where her husband was stationed in the Air Force, to be with Bo and me for our day. Anne was in college, too, studying history, like her father.

One portrait has the happily married couple with the new family—Bo and me, my divorced parents, his mother, and his children, all of us wondering, I imagine, how we ended up in a photograph together.

My father grins. (Bo had watched him pop the trunk on his car after the ceremony. What else could my alcoholic father have been doing but taking a sip to steady his nerves, rushing us down the aisle to get relief?) My mother looks as if she is way, way inside of herself. Bo’s mother Gertrude stands proper, Victorian, like her own mother would have, her hand clasping her only child’s. Anne’s arm encircles my father’s. I wonder what she must have been thinking, but she presents a respectable, quiet demeanor for the camera. Florence stands beside my mother. I imagine her leaning into my mother’s ear and whispering something kind and sociable to ease the tension.

In another still life, Anne and Florence pose, smiling (“say ‘wedding’ on three”) with their grandmother, punch cups in their hands. Someone had pinned corsages to their dresses. The photographer also captured our friends as we drove away from the reception, smiling openly and waving goodbye. But Anne had already begun to turn away after the rice ritual, our car not yet out of view, her face void of outward expression as her father drives away with his new wife, only ten years her senior. I look for Florence, but she is not in the frame, on the margin, perhaps, of the emptied parking lot.

 

On day five, the hospital called home in the middle of the night. I lay in that tossing plane of hyper-vigilant somnolence in which the mind won’t allow the body to let down its guard. Anne had flown in from Chapel Hill, her schoolwork left behind. Florence had come alone, flying in from Tuscon. Her six-year-old son, Bo’s only grandchild, remained with his father. Though the sisters were in their mid-twenties, they slept together in our queen-sized, guest bed. Anne took the calls, but by law the hospital could only speak with me.

 

The first four years of our marriage, Bo and I lived only three hours from Anne. He visited the apartment she shared with a college friend often, leaving her refrigerator stacked with food, the gas tank filled in her car, the tires rotated. He and Josie both contributed to her college expenses, but Bo could afford it, so he paid the lion’s share. Anne said to me one time, “I hope Dad helping me doesn’t impact your new life with him.” “Oh my, Anne, you are his child,” I said. “I’m happy he is there for you.” And I meant it. Envy of his financial support to his children has not been my particular brand of jealousy.

Bo made these trips alone. I always thought he was unsure how to negotiate the emotional triangle of father, daughter, stepmother. More likely, he wanted to spend time with his daughter, nothing less. I can recall only one time I tagged along. But I talked to Anne on the phone, for hours.

I tested the dog-years-for-drunks premise on her. As I stayed sober, I fancied myself growing psychologically astute and spiritually discerning, becoming maternal and selfless, offering women in recovery (and any other woman I could corner) the wisdom of my misspent youth. The dog-years theory is a pipe dream. I was a sham. I know this now. I masqueraded as female confidant to all women when my own sister and I had long since severed any but the most superficial, and guarded, of relations. The semblance of sophisticated insight protected me from the real knowledge that my center had disintegrated with each lash of my father’s belt on my sister’s heart.

I must have known I couldn’t fool Florence. Florence had finished college after she returned to the states with her husband, toddler in tow. She was also clear across the country. Anne was single, living far from the companionship of her older sister and her mother, and I enjoyed talking with her. Her mind is as keen as her father’s. But she was a sitting duck for my litany of wise bromides. If I can turn an honest gaze on myself now, I have to admit I feared her. She was too close for comfort. It’s ugly, but it needs to be remembered.

Unsolicited guidance can mask oozy condescension, a sugary arrogance that bites with honeyed words. It disguises the desire, no, the gut need to control another human being. It conceals, deep in the folds of the unconscious, the gnawing fear that the next strike will land its leathery rage on you.

Unaware of the motivations that had driven my girl-chats with Anne, I began handing the phone off to Bo when she called, and our calls would slow and stop after we moved to Maryland. My husband and I were far away, in our own cherished world, safe.

 

The first five days of Bo’s accident are mostly lost to me; a membrane of forgetfulness shields me still from too much memory. The C-4 vertebra of your husband’s cervical spine has been damaged. He is having trouble breathing. I remember the staff doctor saying something like this. He may not walk again.

An hour later, the doctor called again. Bo had suffered a stroke. At that, I remember collapsing at the foot of the bed that Anne and Florence shared. I can see my body folding, kneeling. “Oh, my God,” I wailed, dry heaves of despair. Through a gauzy haze, I see Florence. She is quiet, watching. Anne stood near, quiet too, watching. But I think I remember a look on her face—of pity for me, of terror for Bo. Her father may be dying. His wife may be in the midst of a mental breakdown.

I crawled back into bed. A new moon, lightless, hung in the night sky. The yard seemed vast in its blackness, without shadow, and the fence, which kept the dense woods tamed, was now invisible.

Each day, Bo’s surgeons and doctors in residency made rounds through ICU. In a circle with the attending nurses, the physicians flipped through his medical chart. They spoke in hushed tones. Bo’s traumatized body lay drugged behind them as they huddled in the common area outside the patients’ compartments.

I was not handling this well. I felt like I grappled alone, on a precipice. Desperate, I fought anyone who might have some claim on Bo, terrified my husband might be slipping away from me.

I imagined insults.

I read condescending privilege in the tilt of Bo’s mother’s head as Gertrude sat beside her only child’s hospital bed, holding his hand, rubbing the inside of his powdered, thinning arm.

I argued with Anne.

When I learned she’d contacted the operating room repeatedly, I was furious. I’d imagined that my precisely timed phone calls had controlled the chaos that threatened to pitch my life off the deep end. I don’t recall confronting her. I maneuvered sideways assaults. I remember Anne pulling her arm back from me when I would reach out to apologize for another verbal attack. “Don’t,” she would say, her head turned away, wary and mistrustful of my calm and clarity because these things never lasted.

“That sounds like a good idea,” she said to me one morning at the kitchen table, Florence in the background, cooking us breakfast. I had some decision I needed to make about Bo’s care that I can no longer remember. Yet I can recall my nasty words as if I spoke them yesterday.

“I don’t care whether you think it’s a good idea or not. Bo is my husband. I’ll decide what is right for him and for us. This is my family.”

“No, no, I didn’t mean it that way,” she assured me, but I didn’t believe her.

I saw evil nurses. One day, I snapped at one of them.

“Don’t you think his dressings need to be changed?”

She replaced the bandages on his seeping wounds without a word. But when she returned to check on him later, she shot me a glance and fluffed his pillows and straightened his bed sheets too expertly, without tenderness.

His compresses were fine. I’d offended her, and Bo paid the price.

“I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t mean to tell you how to do your job. I’m scared.”

From then on, this efficient nurse became my ally.

When the doctors came through the next day, she tugged me by the forearm. I’d been standing within the boundary of Bo’s ICU cubicle, the opened, polyester curtain marking off his space from the sanitized linoleum hallway and the florescent medical station where the doctors conferred.

“Come here. You have the right to be involved in this conversation,” she said.

Taking my place in the circle, I listened as everyone discussed Bo’s psychological state.

“Does your husband drink?” A doctor asked me.

“Oh, God, no. He’s a sober alcoholic. Has been sober a long time, since 1979.”

The doctor pushed: Is it possible he’s been sipping something behind my back?

No, that’s impossible, I told them. And it was.

 

Early morning. The doctor called. The good news: Bo hadn’t had a stroke. His cervical spine had not been damaged. The bad news: He has a short, chubby neck.

When the anesthesiologist had sedated him for surgery, it was explained to me, the doctor needed to maintain Bo’s airway. The procedure is called oral intubation; the endotracheal tube is inserted into the oral cavity, down the pharynx and larynx, and into the trachea. The doctor had to finagle the tube past Bo’s flaccid neck and convulsing tongue, which instinctually worked to expel the foreign object, down his throat and voice box, and into his windpipe. His throat had swollen shut in the first days after surgery. He could barely catch a shallow breath, his body mimicking the symptoms of stroke and cervical spinal damage.

In his ICU compartment, the doctors had intubated Bo again until he could breathe on his own, until his body could begin to take in sufficient oxygen to sustain it. He couldn’t talk, but he could pencil notes. When one of the surgeons had described Bo’s pelvic injuries to him, he took a pad and drew the pelvis and named the three pelvic bones. “The ilium, the ischium, and the pubis,” he wrote. When a psychiatrist asked him to write down the names of animals, he started with the cat family. “Tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard,” he scribbled. Bo had listed, in order, the cats from the Pantherinae subfamily of the biological family Felidae. The doctor nodded, her eyes amused, approving.

Nor, it became clear to the doctors, had he been drinking on the sly. Bo had begun to hallucinate—ICU psychosis, the doctors called it after they determined he wasn’t a drunk having delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal. The twenty-four hour lights, the steady doses of morphine, the intermittent beeps of machines monitoring life and death—these had unmoored him from reality. He saw prehistoric-sized cockroaches crawl up the curtains. He could understand the extent of his injuries intellectually. He could perform the psychological test for the psychiatrist. But his mind sheltered him. It would not let him comprehend the full extent of his injuries. He would try to get me to conspire with him to get him home, “just for the weekend,” he wrote in big letters, pushing the pencil into the paper. “I’ll come back. I promise.”

 

Bo and I like to say we’ve been married before. Ida Alice Bradham, a sister of my maternal great-great grandmother, Mary Morgan Brandon, married J. Carson Stukes, a brother of Bo’s great grandfather, Joseph Taylor Stukes. Buried in the Manning Cemetery, my husband’s kin and mine have been entwined since the Civil War. One hot South Carolina summer day, long after his accident, Bo and I walked among our ancestors’ tombstones, tilting in the sandy low-country soil.

When we became engaged, some of my friends worried for me because he was seventeen years older than I was. “He is old enough to be your father,” one said, and she did not attend our wedding. At seventeen, Bo was interested in politics, getting into college, having coffee with his friends, and the Baltimore Colts, not girls. One of our first dates was in a duck roost. We hiked for a couple of miles through a marshy understory of pines until we reached a copse of bare timber flooded by ambitious beavers. Bo pointed me towards a stand of trees and propped me against a rough trunk. “Be still,” he whispered. “Be quiet.” Every time I shifted my sweaty feet too much in my new duck waders, moved my hands to adjust the camouflage baseball cap he’d loaned me, or moaned in boredom, he cautioned, “Shush. Don’t move.”

And then they came. As the violet light of dusk broke through winter trees, I heard the rush of duck wings and saw the silhouettes as the ducks flew sideways to slide down among the trunks. With a caressing splash, they laid themselves in the water, the trees at watch with us in the gloaming.

We married because Bo loved my tenacity, and I loved the protective arc of his body around mine and his soft lips. In 1995, the year of the accident, we’d been married for seven years, our relationship “passionate,” I would say to friends. We learned well from our alcoholic fathers to rage. Bo barked sometimes when I did something he couldn’t control. I tossed the word “divorce” in the air like confetti. I might throw my clothes in the car in a huff and stomp my foot all the way to the four-lane on the way back home to North Carolina. I’d always turn around, though. We’d apologize and whisper for hours about childhoods, which had taught us not to trust love.

Early on the morning of Bo’s accident, I watched him move around, dressing. He pulled on crisp, sage-green trousers and tucked a triple-starched, blue-cotton dress shirt into his waistband. He snapped his elbows to break the stiff starch after he’d pushed his arms through the long sleeves. I looked at him and thought: My husband knows how to wear clothes. Middle age had grayed and thinned his hair and filled out his body. To me, his three fading scars—between his eyebrows, down his left check, and over his upper lip, which he covered with a mustache—accentuated his raw handsomeness.

As Bo pushed his socked feet into shiny Cordovan leather loafers, I stared out our upstairs bedroom window. I could just make out the fence, which separated the October woods from the browning lawn and, in the morning light, seemed to materialize from nothingness.

“I am grateful for our life together,” I said.

He told me not to “get all philosophical,” and pulled on a herringbone blazer of muted-gold, silk threads. He said he loved me but he was late, and deflected my musing with a wave of a hand, a gesture he’d learned from his mother.

Bo left for work, and I began my own day, complacency sliding over like fog. I was a second-year doctoral fellow at a college in Washington, D.C. I took courses and worked as a writing tutor. An uneventful rush-hour commute into the city from the suburbs could take two hours, so that day I must have passed through the doorway of the writing lab in late morning because I remember that I’d stopped by a professor’s office to talk about my ideas for a paper. My supervisor, Susan, walked toward me, her eyebrows pinched. I was late, so I looked around to see if a student waited for me. “You need to call the hospital,” she said.

A nurse told me my husband had been in an automobile accident. She put Bo on the line, and he gave me instructions, his mind still alert even though he has never remembered his body being thrown through the air: Honey, listen to me. Be careful driving up here. Put your lights on. The traffic will be terrible, even at this time of day. I imagined him laying on a gurney, the nurse holding the phone to his ear, the handset pressed to his sweet mouth.

Susan volunteered to ride with me, and I chattered nonsensically all the way. About traffic. About taking next Friday off. Of course you can, Susan said, “but don’t worry about that now.”

My husband was struck at 7:57 a.m., two miles from our house. It is possible the Maryland State Police helicopter, which transported him to the hospital in Baltimore, passed overhead while I showered for school.

 

Don’t we repeat our sorrows to change their ending?

When Bo and I married, I didn’t notice I’d wedded myself to a man with two daughters, echoing the family structure of my own past. I didn’t notice I’d placed us—and his children—into my myth about girls who grow up to be women because of father-love. In this particular fairy tale, girls may become compassionate and self-sufficient women in the sheltered space of protecting love.

Unlike my primary childhood scene of abuse and sister-sorrow, in this new narrative, Bo is sober, stable, sane, if not also a little hotheaded. He loves his girls (this seems silly to point out), never, ever harmed them, and found sobriety early enough in their childhood to offer them his sturdy presence and provide for their futures. Anne and Florence had always been close, Bo says. His divorce from Josie only bonded them tighter, suturing them in mutual care and safety. In my own foundational story, father abandonment had destroyed any real connection between my sister and me, who surely loved one another once.

After another day in the ICU, Anne and Florence would make their way to the parking deck. Sometimes they would be greeted by a man singing opera. He was a nurse, Anne recalled. He told them that the concrete walls created perfect acoustics.

They would sneak down to the entrance of the hospital to smoke cigarettes several times a visit. Under the overhang, the inner city of Baltimore looming, they watched people come and go. They chatted with gunshot and heart attack victims, recovering in wheelchairs, and parents of sick children.

Several days in, they got lost on their way to their grandmother’s apartment. For three hours, I imagined them laughing and playing songs on the radio as they drove around Anne Arundel County, cocooned for a brief moment from the uncertainty that waited for them inside the hospital doors. I can’t recall if my sister and I ever spoke during this ordeal.

 

Bo had five surgeries over fourteen months, and eventually had a total hip replacement because the ball of the femur died. He would be in ICU for almost three weeks, supine. He couldn’t get out of bed and walk because his physicians wanted the two smaller fissures of his pelvis, which they hadn’t bolted together, to heal naturally. As his condition improved, he was moved to a different floor of the hospital, to a rehab facility, then to another hospital. Bo wouldn’t come home for forty-two days.

His children left during the second week. After that, Anne made the eight-hour drive up the East Coast on Interstate 95 more than once. Florence’s calls from Arizona kept her connected to her father and their almost-severed lives. I cared for Bo every day but one, pushing him on his rolling bed through the halls of ICU, massaging his atrophying muscles to keep his blood from clotting. I prepared bowl after bowl of milk and Jell-O, the only food his queasy stomach could handle, even on Thanksgiving, when Gertrude, Anne, and I encircled Bo’s hospital bed, watching him eat. I advocated for him at the inpatient rehab when he was left unattended too long.

In early December, an ambulance drove him down our wooded lane. By the time the big January storm of 1996 dumped three feet, Bo could shuffle about with the aid of a walker and watch me push snow with our Allis-Chalmers tractor from the safety of the kitchen door. He could enjoy a proper shower, the warm water soothing the foot-long scar that snaked down his left hip, buttock, and thigh.

Anne visited us that Christmas.

Fraught with too many words said, we did the only thing two grown women could do. We put the chains on the Allis, Bo instructing us from his wheelchair.

“Now, you see, they are called ladder chains. Lay them out flat and straight, like the rungs of ladder. You can’t have any ripples or kinks or you won’t be able to tighten them up.”

We glared at him, our breath visible in the frozen air.

I didn’t realize for many years that I competed with Anne, another younger daughter, for the love of a father. I failed to stand in her spot, to see from her perspective, scarred as I was by a childhood of untended wounds. When she made those calls to the surgical nurse in the middle of that lonely night, she and I were two women bereft, frantic for news of the most important man in our lives.

In unison we said to Bo, We understand. We can figure this out.

And we did. I started the tractor, the engine moaning in the cold, and drove it over the chains, the tires perfectly aligned atop the steel. Then Anne and I together hoisted the fifty-pound chains up and around the tires. Our fingers numb, we fastened them snug to the rubber.

Help this journalist report another story:

$

With your support, this journalist will be able
to keep reporting stories you love to read.

All donations, minus a 10% commission to The Big Roundtable and PayPal's nominal fee, go to the author. Please donate.


Sign up for our newsletter



Support this writer's work

With your support, this journalist will be able
to keep reporting stories you love to read.

Everything you donate—minus a 10% commission to The Big Roundtable and PayPal's nominal fee—go to the author. Please support this journalist.


$
If you'd prefer to pay after you read the piece, you can also check out at the bottom of the story page.