Sunday, April 24, 2016

The worst thing imaginable

                                        6. Few Things Really Matter
               (From The Far Side of Eden, first post on 4/11)
     Her younger son, Micah, by then eighteen, had gone on a backpacking trip in the Sierras and was sleeping in the car while his friend drove home. His friend dozed at the wheel, crossed the center strip, and collided with an oncoming vehicle. Neither driver was seriously injured, but Micah’s spine was broken.
     For the eight weeks he was in intensive care he could not move or breathe without the aid of a ventilator. Every night someone slept in the room with him, if not Chris or Jack, then one of their friends. Chris was convinced he would die if left alone; she couldn’t spend every night there herself, and she couldn’t stop crying when away from him. The doctors told her Micah might someday be able to use a wheelchair, but only by manipulating a straw with his mouth, and Chris hadn’t even been told before that her son would be paralyzed. She told the doctors, “No way.”
     She didn’t know how she would prevent this severe limitation, only that she would prevent it. She couldn’t talk about her feelings with the social workers or with anybody else. Emotionally exhausted, she had trouble talking at all, but realized that Micah was badly in need not only of love, strength, and technical ability, but also of a strong advocate.
     When he was moved from intensive care to rehabilitation, he couldn’t speak because of the ventilator, which caused him pain, and he couldn’t move his arms because he had injured his rotator cuffs. He communicated by blinking his eyes.
     His mother wrote about that time later, on her computer, in a rush of memories, without regard for punctuation: I would sit and watch from a chair outside in the hall and watch as Micah’s friends would just lean over and just talk to him. He couldn’t respond because he had a tube in his throat. My life was so wrapped around him and I could think of nothing else but to hang on every breath he took hoping there would be a next. I became completely meshed with him and could hardly think of anything else. It was as if I was in bed with him. Sometimes I left paralyzed and unable to talk or breathe . . . It is hard to explain what a mother feels when a child is injured and you want so much to take the suffering away. The feeling of watching them struggle is unbelievably painful and the weight upon your heart is hardly bearable. You wonder how God could let a child suffer . . .
     When the injury had improved, Micah found he could write with a piece of chalk on a board—short, cryptic messages, as in, “I can breathe.” The doctors wanted to do a tracheotomy anyway, and Chris had said no. She and her sister had a plan for training Micah to continue breathing without the ventilator, and she wanted it removed. The doctors insisted that Micah wasn’t strong enough, that the tube was necessary for his survival, but Chris said to herself, “Who are you to say?”
     Micah wrote “Family meeting” on his board. When everyone had gathered at his bedside he wrote “No way operation.”
     He was eighteen years old and legally of age, and the ventilator was removed. He began to breathe on his own with great difficulty, and for two hours they all encouraged him. The nurses clapped, and then the ventilator was reinserted. Each day Micah went a little longer without it. This amazed the doctors, who had not believed it possible.
     Each time machines were brought forward to assist him, and each time Chris fended them off. It took a week and a half to get Micah sitting up in the wheelchair; the big day came when he was able to manipulate the motor with his left arm. Then he tried to feed himself. At first he threw the food over his shoulder, and he laughed, saying, “Feeding my monkey,” but slowly control came.
     The final triumph was going home without a machine, the family having been trained to take care of him. Jack and Chris had to refinance their house to pay for everything: a caregiver, a ramp for the wheelchair, a new addition for Micah. For a long time the house felt incomplete, the living room sparsely furnished, all activity centering on the narrow kitchen and the table, where cups of tea and plates carried from the counter competed with piles of papers, memos, letters, reports, maps, fliers.  Here Chris worked, close to Micah, who sometimes called from his room on the telephone.

     Her son was alive. He could breathe and speak and eat and operate his wheelchair, a small miracle. Somewhere in the experience Chris had reached dead-level bottom; nothing worse could ever happen to her, she thought. She had glimpsed the superficiality of human ambition and understood that few things really matter. These things will not survive without vigilance and uncompromising will, and she reimmersed herself in the Stanley Ranch fight and the flood management proposal.
     As crisis counselor, she worked nights and went to bed midmorning. Some days she stayed up, using the phone, doing paperwork, sending e-mails, and writing on the computer until fatigue settled with the sodden finality of the winter rains: My choice was narrow. Hard work and trying to make a difference . . . I have learned to be patient. Environmental work is unbelievably frustrating. We fight big money, greed, overconsumption and terrible destruction. We are labeled as extremist, radical and difficult. Our rewards are few and the time we must put in to see a small measure of change is profound. We fear that time is short . . .
     All around her lay evidence of a bigger fight, its causes clear to anyone who bothered to look up: the hillside ordinance wasn’t working, obvious but difficult to prove, with little incentive for politicians who might favor stricter regulations but had little political cover. Then, out of the blue, that cover was inadvertently provided by a vintner Chris had never met. His name was Jayson Pahlmeyer.
To order Napa:

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