I worked with a great group of friends at the mental health center, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We worked very hard at our jobs. In 1972, I was a data analyst with a very early computer system. At the same time, I was in graduate school at the University. My friends and coworkers were doctors, nurses, social workers and a mélange of administrative types in finance, accounting and human resources. Every Friday someone would yell out:
“We are going to have happy hour at Jimmies.”
This was not news. They always went out for drinks on Fridays. None-the-less whomever announced this non-news got an enthusiastic:
“I’m in”, I’m In”, “Do you need a ride”, “Meet you there.”, “Be careful it is snowing.”
I was 30 years old and different than most of my co-workers. I was married with two daughters. They were mostly single. So, with family duties, I often did not join these mini-events on Friday. But today, I did.
About 20 of us sat at the long table in the dimly lit bar. The room was smoky. It was a loud scene. I stamped my feet to shake off the snow as I walked in and took off my giant fur hooded blue Air Force parka. I sat down and wedged in between two pretty women.
I don’t know quite how it happened. I’ve replayed this scene many times. In the rhythm of such things, I ordered 1 drink after another. As a parent, I felt a constant pressure to go home to my family, but this was so much fun. We laughed. We argued and gossiped. We flirted.
The pay phone in the corner seemed to be always busy. I watched the phone for a while, but as the evening wore on, I stopped worrying about checking in with my wife, Sarah.
In only an hour or so, I was, by my standards, drunk. It was about 5:00 PM. Normally, by this hour I would be home helping with the kids and dinner. I felt guilty. Finally m I yielded to guilt and abruptly stood up from the table.
“I’ve got to go home. Its late for me.”
“Oh you can stay a bit more, Mike”
Others chorused “Stay” “Sit down”
No, I didn’t responsibly wait around and become less drunk. No, I went straight back to my car.
Once outside, I thought the blast of cold winter air would help me. Now snow was falling giving everything that special white glow. I stood at the edge of my car and scooped up some icy slush and rubbed my face
When I started the car, the radio blasted a cassette tape I already had in the car. It the music was The Dark Side of the Moon.
I rolled down the windows. The evening commute had begun.
“A wet face and the blast of air will work.”, I mumbled to myself.
I edged out of the slippery parking lot and drove to our home on newly plowed streets. Streams of cars crawled along. Headlights glared through the frosty windows. The road showed only by the tire tracks midst white newly fallen snow. I followed the tail lights carefully.
I made it home safely because everyone was driving so slowly.
I didn’t see the note waiting for me, until I pulled open the ice covered storm door.
The note hung on a nail. It flipped frantically in the wind. The hand written note read:
“Call Emma – Sarah has taken Suzanne to the hospital.”
I didn’t go into the house. I jumped back in my car, now pumped with adrenaline. Emma lived a block away and she came to her door quickly and told me to go straight to the emergency room.
She said only: “Your daughter,Suzanne, fell down your stairs. Go to the ER”
I didn’t say more. I turned and returned to my car.
As I headed to the ER, my headlights showed the blackened drifts of snow and the partially blocked residential streets. I kept the windows down and could hear the crunching of car tires around me. It was early evening and everyone was driving home. I turned off the radio.
I talked to myself. I spoke in a loud clear voice.
“OK you have to calm down.”
“You have been drinking and you have to get to the hospital.”
The icy wind burned my face and numbed my hands.
“Calm down. Calm down.”
“You have to get there.”
“I should be there.”
“I should have been home.”
I thought “What has happened? “I knew I had to suppress my fear.
I knew nothing. I only knew that my wife Sarah had taken daughter Suzanne to the hospital.
We had only moved into our house a few weeks ago. As the saying went, “we were still in boxes.” This was our very first real home. We had moved from an apartment to a house with 3 bedrooms. Each of our daughters, Suzanne 4 and Laura 6 were ecstatic to have their own bedroom. We put all of their toys and games in the unfinished but dry basement.
I arrived at the University of Michigan hospital. I parked in an odd way near the Emergency Room entrance. I worried about my parking as I went through the automatic doors.
Still in my parka, I seized the edge of the ER nursing station and asked for Suzanne. I could see her name on the big whiteboard behind the reception desk.
“Your daughter, Suzanne is in pediatric intensive care on the 8th floor.” “Take the blue elevator then follow the red line”
At the intensive care unit, Sarah came to my side and we went to a small waiting area.
This room was crowded with pain and grief. Someone had vainly tried to make the room home like with couches and floor lamps. The light was low. Several people were smoking The smoke made the room seem more oppressive.
Everyone in the room was waiting for the next word about their ill or injured children. Over the course of several days, I would hear each story. Some of the children would die.
Sarah and I sat on a vinyl couch together. It hissed and sagged as we were tumbled into the middle. We could whisper. Sarah began the retelling:
“I was reading in the living room while Suzanne played on the floor”.
“I noticed Suzanne was not within sight and called out.”
“Suzanne, where are you?” “Where are you, baby.”
“Suzanne, come here!”
The house was silent except for the thumping of the dryer in the basement.
I ran upstairs to check Suzanne’s room.” I called:
Sarah paused her narration and began to sob quietly. Despite our whispers, others in the room were listening to her every word.
“Finally I went to the basement stairs. I didn’t see her from the top of the stairs.” There was no light in the stairwell. I yelled,
“Suzanna Bannana, you come here. Don’t hide from me.!”
“I went down the stairs steadying myself on the stair-well wall. When I was about ½ way down the stairs, I looked over the edge and could see Suzanne curled up on the cement floor.”
“I picked her up and could feel something soft on the side of her head. She was unconscious.”
“She was limp and like a doll.”
Sarah ran barefoot as she carried Suzanne along the icy streets to the home of our friend Emma. Her husband, Ernesto was a physician. By good fortune, Ernesto was at home at 4 in the afternoon.
He came to the door. He very briefly looked at Suzanne on the porch. He touched the soft spot on her head.: Ernesto spoke to his wife Emma:
“Here are the keys, drive Sarah and Suzanne to the Emergency room right now.”
He grabbed a blanket from inside the house urging Emma and Sarah towards the car.
Sarah spoke with that strange politeness we all have drilled into our heads: “Oh, I can drive myself over.” “I hate to bother you”
“NO!” Ernesto said loudly. Sarah understood. As Emma drove, she agreed to pick up our other daughter Laura and to put a note for me on our front door.
I was somewhere but no one knew where I was. There was no way to reach me.
In the ICU, Sarah explained to me that she had not been there long before I arrived and she (now We) waited to hear from the Suzanne’s physician.
A nurse appeared with the doctor. They had some paperwork. The doctor told us that Suzanne had a fractured skull and that they might need to do surgery. We had to sign authorizations and we did.
I said to Sarah: “We have to sign it.”
I later learned from friends that this physician was in the last week of a 3 year neurosurgery residency. He had learned a lot. We were fortunate.
The doctor told us Suzanne had had a major seizure and that the trauma caused her brain to swell. He explained that surgery might be needed, but he wanted to wait to see if they could reduce the swelling with only medications.
Over the next few days, we waited. Our daughter, Laura went to stay with good friends and Sarah and I stood vigil in the hospital. For the next 7 days, we joined the parents of the Pediatric ICU. We drank coffee. We shared food brought by friends. We overhead each other’s news. Sometimes parents disappeared without explanation. Other times, folks made joyous farewells as they took their child home.
In a few days, as the swelling in her brain subsided, we tried to talk with Suzanne. Whenever we approached her, she would begin to scream and have what might be called, a fit.
In any other setting, a 4 year old having fit meant very little.
“I want the yellow cup.”
“I want a hot dog not grilled cheese”
“I want candy.”
But Suzanne screamed at the sight of us, Sarah and Mike, her parents.
Was this some kind of brain damage? We could barely voice our fears to each other.
A nurse approached us:
“You may want to just let us care for Suzanne for a few days.”
“Do you see that she is calm until you come near her?”
She continued to explain:
“Remember, she was home and happy and then suddenly woke up in this scary place. She has pain. In her world, you two are responsible for everything. She is angry at you! This will pass. We see it all the time. It is going to be ok.”
We were both reassured by the nurse. Indeed we saw that the nursing staff could pick up Suzanne, play with her and care for her without incident. For the moment, we were triggering the “fits”.
While the hospital days continued, I went home to look at the scene of the accident.
It was a gray two story home with drifts of snow piled near the temporarily abandoned front steps. Inside, the stairs to the basement were dark and there was no handrail. Worse still, about half-way down, lacking a railing, you could fall over the side. This is exactly what Suzanne had done. She fell about 10 feet down to an uncarpeted cement floor.
I was not a skilled builder but I determined that Suzanne would not return home to this dangerous place.
I bought timber, wallboard, stair treads, a railing system, lights and began fanatically working late into the night. In only a day, I was done. Although I was forever afraid of those stairs, they were now more safe.
Suzanne came home after a week. Immediately, she wanted to go downstairs where her piles of stuffed animals lived. We both went with her.